By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) - A recording released by Venezuela's opposition purportedly revealing graft and conspiracy in the ruling Socialist Party has stirred a new political storm in the OPEC nation's already traumatic transition after the death of Hugo Chavez.
Opposition leaders on Monday played an hourlong, expletive-laced diatribe in which a man identified as powerful state TV commentator Mario Silva lambastes party heavyweight Diosdado Cabello.
They said Silva was talking to a Cuban intelligence officer.
Silva, whose close links to the late Chavez have led many to see him as more powerful than some cabinet ministers, did not deny it was his voice but said the recording had been manipulated by Israeli intelligence and the CIA.
"I categorically reject this set-up," he said.
Cabello, who heads Congress and is seen by many Venezuelans as a possible rival to recently-elected President Nicolas Maduro, called the recording a "media show" and urged unity within government ranks.
The comments have fed into months of opposition theories of a furious power struggle within the disparate "Chavismo" coalition that the late Chavez controlled with an iron grip during his 14-year-rule.
"The only way to get rid of Diosdado is to demonstrate that he is corrupt and is corrupting everyone else, and to show proof that (Chavez) knew about it," said the man on the recording, which sounded like Silva's familiar, gruff voice.
He said Cabello controls intelligence agencies and was using the tax agency and the currency control board to acquire "financing."
"He wants to take control of the Armed Forces and force Maduro to do what they want or they will stage a coup," said the man in the recording. He was speaking with a person named Palacios, whom the opposition identified as a Cuban intelligence officer.
FRIEND OF CHAVEZ
Silva, a friend of the late Chavez, runs a late-night talk-show that has a near-cult following among government supporters.
In a statement, he said foreign intelligence services had fabricated the tape by editing actual conversations obtained through recordings made by aircraft being flown over his office. He said he was temporarily suspending his program for health reasons.
Cabello is a key power broker, with strong ties to the military. "No matter what they do, they will never be able to divide those are who truly dedicated to 'Chavismo,'" he said as Venezuelans picked over the recording.
The legislators who presented the recording said it was destined for Cuban President Raul Castro, whose government receives generous assistance in the form of subsidized oil.
"It's evident who Maduro answers to ... the Castros!" tweeted opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro in April presidential elections, referring to the Cuban president and his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro.
The late Chavez was adored by millions of poor Venezuelans for his social spending programs and bombastic nationalism that vowed to battle U.S. intervention in Latin America.
He named Maduro as successor in December, just before he underwent a fourth and final cancer operation following a two-year battle with the disease.
He died on March 5, triggering a new vote in April that Maduro won by just 1.5 percentage points - a weak showing compared to Chavez's double-digit ballot-box victories.
The man in the recording appeared to suggest that computer hackers had taken over the elections council systems to lower the margin of Maduro's victory.
"We need to control (Cabello's) sources of financing," he told Palacios, adding that if Cabello takes control of state oil giant PDVSA "we're screwed."
In his alleged comments, Silva attacked a range of top government figures including the first lady, Cilia Flores, whom he accused of putting a group of "vampires" in charge of state TV and letting them "steal all the cash they could."
Silva's show features vitriolic attacks on opposition figures and has at times broadcast wire-tapped phone conversations that reveal embarrassing information about government critics.
Chavez supporters have for years faithfully watched the program, which is broadcast at 11 p.m. in part because of Silva's notoriously crude vocabulary.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Hay)