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Chávez propagandist in leaked recording: 'We are in a sea of shit, my friend'

The Venezuelan opposition on Monday released a recording of what it says is a conversation between Mario Silva, a prominent Venezuelan television host and a favorite of the late Hugo Chávez, and a Cuban intelligence officer, in which Silva details a feud within the government between Chávez loyalists and Diosdado Cabello, the president of the National Assembly.

In the conversation with Aramis Palacios, a lieutenant colonel in the G2, the Cuban intelligence agency, Silva, the host of the state television program "La Hojilla," describes a government deeply divided against itself, with rival factions competing for power amid rampant corruption.

The conversation was allegedly recorded for the benefit of Cuban President Raúl Castro, but its authenticity has not been independently verified. Writing on Twitter, Silva dismissed the recording as a Zionist plot.

Assuming that's not the case, set against the backdrop of the recent highly contested presidential election and Chávez's death, Silva sketches a portrait of a government in turmoil marred by high-level corruption, shares rumors of a coup d'état against President Nicolás Maduro, and says he fears that Maduro is being manipulated by his wife. Additionally, according to Silva, on election day the Venezuelan National Electoral Council was the victim of a cyberattack that brought down its security protocol for at least an hour, an allegation that would seem to further call into question the integrity of the vote.

The full audio (a transcript, in Spanish, is here) is available below:

Prior to being selected by Chávez as his heir apparent, Maduro engaged in a bitter power struggle with Cabello, and if Silva's account is correct, a great deal of tension remains between the two men. At one point, Silva, who might be described as the country's de facto propaganda minister, says that "Maduro is obligated to follow the path of el Comandante and is obligated to put Diosdado Cabello against the wall," a statement that is difficult to read as anything other than a suggestion to put Cabello before a firing squad.

But it's not entirely clear that Silva trusts Maduro either. "I am afraid, Palacios, that Nicolás ... is feeling manipulated by Cilia [his wife]," Silva tells the Cuban officer. "This is a continent of caudillos [strongmen], my friend, and the woman has to stay in the shade." Silva then compares Maduro's tendency to appear in public alongside his wife and to kiss her to the worst tendencies of an American poltician. "This isn't a North American campaign," he says. "This is a Latin American campaign." Elsewhere in the conversation, Silva wonders why Chávez didn't make a tape recording of his decision to anoint Maduro as his successor.

Although Chávez used the armed forces to consolidate his power, according to Silva, the army is now divided, with some factions in favor of staging a coup. According to Silva, Maduro has managed to alienate Diego Molero, the country's defense minister, whom Silva describes as an "operator" and a "commando." The strained relationship resulted in rumors circulating in Caracas that Molero was about to launch a coup attempt, leading Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores, to dispatch Silva via intermediaries to find out if the rumours were true. They were not.

But for the man charged with selling the idea of the Bolivarian Revolution to the Venezuelan people, Silva speaks like a man who has become disillusioned with what has become of the government. He describes rampant corruption and officials dipping into public funds for their personal benefit. "We are in a sea of shit, my friend, and we have not yet realized it, Palacios," Silva says.

Despite the explosive nature of the conversation between Silva and Palacios -- never mind the crazy fact that he is having in-depth conversations with Cuban intelligence agents in the first place -- it is far from clear what repercussions this recording will have on the ground in Venezuela. Writing at Caracas Chronicles, Juan Nagel makes a compelling case that this recording may strip some of the revolutionary veneer off Maduro:

The important thing to keep in mind is that we are not the target audience for this recording.

Yes, we all knew that Cabello was a crook, Maduro a nincompoop, Silva a marxist Cuban mole, Rangel an evil power broker, and Flores a scheming Lady Macbeth. But the important thing is that rank-and-file chavistas … didn’t. Up until now, they have been immune from these facts because of the messenger.

Either way, take a moment to revel in the sweet irony of the fact that Chávez's favorite propagandist is now responsible for providing the most stinging critique to date of the Maduro government.

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Does North Korea have a pirate problem?

At  7 a.m. on May 6, Yu Xuejun received a phone call from the captain of a fishing boat he owns. "I asked him what the problem was," Yu told state broadcaster China Central Television in an interview broadcast Monday, "and he said one of the ships was missing" from off the coast of Liaoning, a Chinese province that borders North Korea.

Thus began the bizarre, opaque, and as-yet unresolved saga of the North Korean kidnapping of 16 Chinese fishermen.

The next day, May 7, Yu received a call on a satellite phone from someone he identified only as "the North Koreans' translator." The mysterious caller asked for $200,000. "Then," Yu told CCTV, "they said we don't want that much, just $130,000." Yu asked, "Why did you take my boat?" He couldn't understand the caller's answer.

"If you pay, we'll release the boat," the translator told Yu. The calls kept coming, from the same number. On the fourth call, Yu says, the captors dropped the number to $100,000 and allowed the captured captain to speak to him. "His voice was trembling. I could feel he was very afraid," Yu wrote on his microblog, where he broke the news of the kidnapping. "I suspected that my crew had been mistreated. I can't imagine what the North Korean side could do."

China remains North Korea's closest ally, yet often gets repaid for its friendship with inexplicable acts of aggression. The kidnapping was probably coordinated by Pyongyang -- as the Chinese newspaper the Global Times wrote on Monday, the kidnappers are "highly likely from the North Korean army." The paper also quoted Jin Qiangyi, director of the Asian Studies Center at northeast China's Yanbian University, speculating that North Korea is "taking revenge on China" for approving the U.N. sanctions that followed its nuclear test in February.

According to Yu, his boat is now by the island of Changyon, which hosts a North Korean military base -- one would guess that the boat would only be allowed to dock at that island with permission from Pyongyang. According to the website for state radio service Chinese Radio International, Kim Jong Un visited Changyon in 2012 and "expressed satisfaction" at the navy's state of readiness.

But if the "pirates" were actually members of the North Korean military acting in concert with Pyongyang, why the laughably small ransom? Yu told a Chinese journalist that he can't pay the "sky-high price" of $100,000 -- that may be true, but the sticker price for international incidents is usually higher than that of a luxury car. (By comparison, in 2010, the average ransom demand from Somali pirates was $5.4 million.)

It's not the first time this has happened. A year ago almost to the day, North Koreans abducted 29 Chinese fishermen; the identity of the North Koreans, or whether they were authorities or autonomous kidnappers, remains unknown. The fishermen were returned and relieved of all their possessions, in some cases even including their clothes and the pencils in their pocket. Is the North Korean army so starved of resources that it would steal writing utensils from Chinese fishermen?

Throughout its  history, North Korea has been more on the receiving end of piracy, as its ships have rarely ventured overseas. In the Historical Dictionary of Democratic People's Republic of Korea, former British diplomat James Hoare writes that Japanese pirate attacks in the 16th century are one reason for North Koreans' historical hatred of Japanese. 

So far, Beijing's public response to this latest hijacking incident has been muted. The Wall Street Journal reports that "Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China is in close communication with Pyongyang, without offering details," while China's Internet universe is understandably angry. ("Americans say, 'I'll attack whoever I want,'" writes Weibo user Christopher-Columbia in a typical post. "Us Chinese, we say, 'whoever attacks us, we'll just insult them in return,'" he adds.) The Journal also quoted retired general Luo Yuan as writing on his microblog, "North Korea has gone too far. Just because you're poor, that doesn't mean you can cross borders and detain people for ransom." Unless China does something, Pyongyang may prove Luo wrong.