I’m becoming more certain that leftist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro keeps a Ouija board on his desk at Miraflores Palace in Caracas.
Maduro spends a lot of time – and tweets – trying to channel his late predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer last March. Before a special presidential election in April, which he narrowly won, Maduro made the rather goofy claim that Chávez had appeared to him as a bird and gave him advice. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t deify Chávez on Twitter. Thursday, on the six-month anniversary of the socialist comandante’s death, Maduro tweeted: “We forever hold you as inspiration for our daily action in defense of your Beloved Fatherland!”
But as it turns out, Chávez apparently does continue to speak to us through Maduro. How else to explain the uncannily Hugo-esque way in which Maduro finds outlandish scapegoats for the swamp of economic and social problems that Chávez, despite his anti-poverty achievements, left behind in Venezuela – including, as Venezuelans were sorely reminded this week, massive power outages?
The Blame Game
When the latest blackout, on Tuesday, shut down more than two-thirds of Venezuela – the western hemisphere’s most oil-rich nation, mind you – Maduro dismissed suggestions that maybe the problem was a power grid that’s been neglected and mismanaged since Chávez took power 14 years ago. Instead, Maduro blamed “right-wing” opposition sabotage, calling the epic outage “an electricity coup.”
As if that didn’t make him sound nutty enough, Maduro the next day ordered the formation of a special ops force to protect the grid from all those fascist electro-saboteurs. “I have decided,” he tweeted, “to create the Electrical System Security and Intelligence Unit as an organ of special forces that will guarantee its defense.” Most Venezuelans, who are smart enough to know the situation calls for utility experts instead of Navy SEALs, rejected Maduro’s conspiracy theory.
But this was just the more recent example of conspiracy mongering. Like Chávez, Maduro keeps a shelf full of usual suspects, from U.S. mercenaries plotting to assassinate him to opposition homosexuals scheming to “prostitute” Venezuelan youths.
On Planet Chavista, Venezuela’s soaring inflation rate – which hit 42 percent in July – has nothing to do with the government’s currency-control chaos; it is, you guessed it, a conspiracy of right-wing speculators. Its spiraling violent crime – including South America’s worst murder rate – is due not to a dysfunctional police and judicial system but to capitalism. Its chronic shortage of basic goods, from eggs to toilet paper, is the fault of producers, despite the fact that producers have little if any economic incentive in Venezuela today to produce.
Here’s the big difference between Chávez and Maduro, however: Chávez was dealing from a position of economic and political strength; Maduro isn’t. Chávez had charisma; Maduro doesn’t. Which means Maduro, no matter how often his political séances evoke el comandante, is going to have a much harder time holding things together for the rest of his six-year term – especially after incidents like this week’s nationwide blackout. (And especially since he faces growing dissatisfaction from inside his own United Socialist Party.)
And that’s not good news, despite what all the anti-Chavista folks in Venezuelan diaspora enclaves here, like Doral, insist. As ill prepared as most Venezuela-watchers think Maduro was to be president, most of us would rather not see the ugly if not violent unrest that could occur if things really unravel under his rule.
A Descent Into Chaos
Frank Mora, who is the head of Florida International University’s Latin American and Caribbean Center and was until this year Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, is concerned too. As he told me in a recent WLRN interview: “I worry about a trigger that might bring quite a bit of social breakdown. It’s a very delicate environment, and all it needs is just a spark, an assassination of some kind, for the thing to really get out of control.”
Under Venezuela’s constitution, a recall referendum can be called against a president once he’s half way (three years) into his term. There is increasing speculation inside and outside Venezuela that this could happen to Maduro, especially since new polls suggest voters now prefer opposition leader Henrique Capriles, whom Maduro defeated in April, as president.
But a recall too could set off a powderkeg in an environment as polarized as Venezuela’s. So the question is whether it might be better for Venezuela if Maduro finishes his term and lets the country prepare for a more regular, calmer presidential contest in 2018.
In order for Maduro to make it there, however, he’s going to have to summon his own political skills for once instead of the ghost of Chávez.