Venezuela’s former spy chief who defected late last month in the midst of a failed rebellion to oust Nicolas Maduro, is in Colombia and is cooperating with efforts to bring about regime change in the politically-divided South American country, several sources familiar with his wherabouts told Univision.
Known as pro-Cuban and a die-hard loyalist of Venezuela’s socialist revolution, Gen Manuel Cristopher Figuera, is the highest level active-duty military official to abandon Maduro, giving hope to opponents of the regime, including the Trump administration, who had hoped for a better outcome form the April 30 Caracas rebellion which fizzled out after only a few hours.
Cristopher, 55, fled the country in the hours after the rebellion and issued a letter in which he blamed rampant corruption and disloyalty for perverting the government's socialist ideals. However, he sounded ambiguous about his future intentions and notably failed to swear allegiance to interim president Juan Guaido, the leader of efforts to unseat Maduro with the backing of more than 50 countries, including most of Latin America, Europe and the United States.
In a follow up video message late last week, the former chief of the country’s intelligence service said he was in communication with President Donald Trump and had asked for the lifting of U.S. sanctions. He said Trump “responded that he would but when there was another administration in our country because the current one will continue to steal our resources and continue the suffering to our society.”
A muscular man, he appeared wearing an orange polo shirt and standing in front of a bare wall, Cristopher did not give away his location nor any details of his collaboration with U.S. authorities.
The Trump administration wasted no time rewarding Cristopher last week by removing Treasury Department sanctions against him to show "the good faith of the United States that removal of sanctions may be available for designated persons who ... speak out against abuses committed by the illegitimate Maduro regime, or combat corruption in Venezuela,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
Cristopher was placed on the list of US-sanctioned Venezuelans on February 15. Opposition groups had singled him out to U.S. officials as very close to Cuba’s intelligence operatives in Venezuela, and involved in political persecution, torture of military officers in detention, as well as other human rights abuses.
"Cristopher ain't no angel, but there are no angels in this at all," said John Feeley, a Univision political analyst and former U.S. ambassador to Panama.
The U.S. has sanctioned more than 150 government officials and state-owned businesses in Venezuela, but says it will consider lifting them for anyone in the Maduro regime who steps forward and swears allegiance to Guaido.
The Washington Post on Tuesday reported that Cristopher was one of the main conspirators in the April 30 plot against Maduro, including secret conversations with the head of the Supreme Court, Maikel Moreno, to recognize Guaido and the legitimacy of the National Assembly. Moreno eventually backed out and declared his loyalty to Maduro. The article said the plot was brought forward one day in part because Cristopher learned that Maduro planned to fire him on May 1.
His role in the April 30 events as head of the SEBIN was crucial. The day began with a pre-dawn video showing Guaido in a Caracas street next to Leopoldo Lopez, another senior opposition leader, who had been jailed since 2014, latterly under SEBIN supervised house arrest. Lopez’s appearance as a free man on the streets sparked brief hopes that the uprising might succeed, though he later was forced to seek refuge in the Spanish embassy where he remains.
"General Cristopher had full access to Leopoldo. He was his keeper," said Pedro Burelli, a former member of the board of PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company now exiled in Washington DC. "It seems he didn't like what was going and he was showing evidence of corruption to Maduro, who wouldn't listen," he added.
Maduro has also accused Cristopher of being the mastermind behind what he called a “coup” attempt, also claiming that he was a “traitor” who had been recruited by the CIA. Maduro revealed that Cristopher’s "strange behavior" was reported to him by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Supreme Court chief Maikel Moreno, and the head of military Counter-Intelligence, Iván Hernández Dala.
Maduro said Cristopher was going to be fired and arrested at 9:00am on April 30.
"A positive sign"
A source close to Guaido’s team told Univision that Cristopher’s emergence as one of the conspirators came as a surprise given his reputation as a Cuban-trained, ideological hardliner. “A month ago, if I would have told you that this was happening, few would have believed,” he said, adding that defectors like Cristopher as a positive sign that the efforts to unseat Maduro have not lost steam. “The notion that this has stalled is wrong. This is a process,” he added.
According to reports by news website Infobae, Christopher was an aide de camp to late President Hugo Chavez for 12 years, and in 2017 he was named deputy head of the Military Counter-Intelligence (DGCIM) and head of the nation’s homeland security agency CESPPA, which moniotors cyberspace.
In October 2018, Cristopher was named by Maduro to head the SEBIN after a scandal involving the death of an opposition legislator Fernando Alban at the SEBIN headquarters helped force the previous director out.
In his April 30 letter, Cristopher laid out his differences with the Maduro regime, while underlining his loyalty to Maduro’s predecessor, late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the father of Venezuela’s 'Bolivarian' socialist revolution, who died in 2013. “Let us stop using the name of Chavez in vain or for juicy business deals," he said. "For all of us, the time of the homeland, which has been bled dry, has arrived. No more treason,” he added.
At one point he also addressed Maduro directly, offering this dire warning: “many people you trust were negotiating behind your back."