Ever since he became Venezuelan president, Nicolás Maduro has gone to ridiculous lengths to eulogise the memory of Hugo Chávez. The burly 53-year-old has claimed to speak with his predecessor’s spirit manifested as a “little bird”. At cabinet meetings he waves a book of his mentor’s sayings as if they are holy script. He has even argued that Chávez should be sanctified: a rare trespass into Christianity by the gaffe-prone Mr Maduro, who once compared Venezuelan socialism to “when Christ multiplied the penises” — a confusion of peces, the Spanish for fish, and penes that must rank as one of the worst malapropisms in history.
Such absurdities would be comic if Mr Maduro’s presidency, and the state of the country he has governed for three years, were not so tragic. Venezuela, with the world’s biggest proven energy reserves, should be a rich, modern nation. Instead, after 17 years of revolutionary rule, it is the most extreme example of the mismanagement that has resulted in other leftist governments in the region, such as in Brazil and Argentina, losing power as the commodities boom has collapsed.
Today, Venezuela is gripped by rolling blackouts, racing inflation, homicide rates that make it the world’s second most murderous country and shortages of basic goods and medicines. Idealistic allies, such as Spain’s Podemos party and Syriza in Greece are now critics. José Mujica, the former Uruguayan president, this week called Mr Maduro “crazy as a goat”. More than two-thirds of Venezuelans believe he should not finish his term. Instead, this Latin American Mugabe has dug in.
Last week, Mr Maduro awarded himself emergency powers to crush dissent. This week he claimed the Opec country was suffering a “brutal media and political offensive” from the “Washington-Miami-Madrid” axis. “Forward with Love . . . in today’s battles for Independence, Peace and Happiness,” he tweeted. Although he has a 26 per cent approval rating, such exhortations draw only faint cheers from the red-clad supporters bussed in to hear him rant against figures such as Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister he deems “a racist, corrupt piece of colonial garbage”.
Mr Maduro’s rise was as unlikely as Venezuela’s descent into chaos was predictable. Born into a working-class Caracas family, one of four children, he became a militant rather than graduating from high school. After a year’s socialist education in Havana, he returned to his home city to become a bus driver and union leader of the metro system. Elected to Congress in 1998 after Chávez won the presidency, this follower of Sai Baba — an Indian guru known for producing gold jewellery from thin air — became speaker of the National Assembly, then foreign minister in 2006.
The rapid ascent was explained by his easy-going manner and revolutionary fealty. If Chávez asked him to break with Bogotá, fix ties with Bogotá, insult Washington, nurture Tehran or schmooze Beijing, he complied. In 2012, Chávez, gripped by terminal cancer, anointed him as successor; the following year Mr Maduro narrowly won presidential elections.
Diplomats suggested Mr Maduro was Chávez’s most competent minister but hopes of moderation soon evaporated. Chávez controlled the vipers’ nest of Chavista politics with charisma; the leaden Mr Maduro had to use patronage. Corruption flourished in Venezuela, a narcocracy and petro-state in one. In 2015 a video circulated showing Mr Maduro’s son showered in dollar bills at a wedding, despite a shortage of foreign currency that has slashed imports. In November, two nephews of Mr Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores — a lawyer and politician — appeared in a New York court on drug smuggling charges.
It may seem mad that Mr Maduro and Chavismo have endured amid so many failings. But it is not illogical. Mr Maduro has wrapped himself in the sainted memory of Chávez — a gifted politician who, however wasteful, empowered the poor, chastised the rich and celebrated indigenous history. Mr Maduro’s control of the state oil company and import system gave him economic control; subordination of the courts ensured legal domination. At least until now.
Token support from Cuba aside, Venezuela is isolated. China, which has loaned Caracas $65bn against future oil deliveries, is unlikely to extend fresh credit. A nation that failed to balance its books when oil sold for $100 a barrel now has run out of money.
Internally, the opposition won control of the national congress in last year’s midterm elections and has called for a “no confidence” referendum that could mean Mr Maduro is replaced. Mr Maduro, who calls the opposition “faggots”, swears he will block this constitutionally allowed process. The Vatican is trying to broker dialogue. But hopes of a coalition government are slim.
What next? The role of the army as arbiter is crucial. There is a high chance Venezuela could default on its $127bn of international debt — in which case, oil cargoes could be seized, collapsing internal systems of patronage as dollar revenues dry up. There is persistent speculation of a military-backed palace coup, especially if current sporadic looting spreads. There is a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis.
Nonetheless, Mr Maduro may cling on. Luis Almagro, head of the Organisation of American States, on Wednesday called him “a petty dictator”, while Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader, fears Venezuela is “a time bomb”. Both charges appear to be all too true.
The writer is the FT’s Latin America editor
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