A guest post from Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez:
Nicolás Maduro is many things to many people: a tyrant, a hero, a president, a fake president, an awkward public speaker, and so the list goes. But while we may not agree on the man, there is one thing about this controversial figure that neither his supporters nor his detractors can deny: the man has some serious mustache.
Of course, mustaches are not unusual in Latin America, particularly on the leftern-most side of the political spectrum. Zapata had one, and so did Frida Kahlo (to say nothing of her browstache!). Daniel Ortega allegedly takes a great deal of pride in his (it is rumored to smell like caña), and so too would Evo Morales, if only he could get it to grow….
That’s never been a problem for Leonel Fernández, however, who perhaps fittingly for a centrist, uses his ‘stache to add an air of pensive dignity to the center of his own face.
Latin America is not alone in the ruling-by-facial-hair department. A fine mustache has long been all the rage among the sheiks, kings, and dictators of Asia and Africa.
Assad in Syria has one, as did both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi, although they lost them (and much else) during the protracted demise periods immediately preceding their respective deaths. Former Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf has retained his mustache through his downfall, and while he currently stares at a lengthy prison sentence in the face, should that sentence stare back at him, it can’t miss the mustache.
Luckily Azerbaijani dictator Ilham Aliyev has managed to keep an iron grip upon both his country and his mustache. Good on him. Mazel tov!
It must be noted however, that mustaches unfortunately did fall somewhat out of favor among European dictators however, following the destalinization of the Eastern Bloc in the late 1950s.
As concerns Venezuela specifically, Maduro is actually the first president to sport a ‘stache in nearly thirty years, the last having been Luis Herrera Campins (1979-1984). Prior to Herrera Campins, there was yet another multi-decade facial hair dry spell going back to Eleazar Lopez Contreras (1935-1941), CAP’s mutton chops notwithstanding.
We can be thankful for the dry spells, since prior to the Second World War, the halls of power in Miraflores where essentially an all-you-can-mustache buffet. And some of these were simply AMAZING.
Truly, Maduro can never hope to match the mustaches displayed above in terms of furry gravitas. And yet by better acquainting ourselves with these ghosts of mustaches past, it soon becomes abundantly clear that history can and does repeat itself. It turns out that Nicolás Maduro has a good deal more in common with some of his predecessors as “mustached mandatario” than might otherwise meet the eye.
Luis Herrera Campins, a copeyano educated as a lawyer, might at first blush seem very different from today’s former-bus-driving turned unpopular-populist counterpart. Ironically, they share an important feature in common.
Herrera Campins was a free-spending president who succeeded another free-spending president, and he was the patsy left holding the bag when the system collapsed around him. He is today perhaps best remembered for the so-called Black Friday of 1983, when the Venezuelan nation came dramatically to terms with the hard realities of their fiscally irresponsible ways.
Does this sound familiar? If it doesn’t yet, believe me it will.
The last mustachoed President before Herrera Campins was Eleazar Lopez Contreras, a man who — like Maduro — took over following the death from illness of an iconic predecessor: Juan Vicente Gómez.
Gómez had been a near-omnipotent leader, with a near-omnipotent mustache, and much like Hugo Chávez in our own time, he bound national institutions entirely to his iron will while tolerating little dissent from his countrymen. Upon his death from illness, Lopez Contreras – a far less imposing man with equally underwhelming facial hair – nonetheless moved decisively to free the political prisoners held captive under Gómez and loosen draconian controls over freedom of speech and expression.
Our current guy? Not so much.
Thus, while Lopez Contreras may not have had as impressive, manly, or bushy a mustache as does our Maduro, in the Presidential department – and indeed the human being department – he wins. Hands down.
Meanwhile Victorino Márquez Bustillo represents the last figure of the Gómez-era mustache triumvirate. His trajectory has likewise paralleled that of Maduro in notable ways. Márquez Bustillo became acting president after having been personally picked to do so by the big boss Gómez. Yet for the duration of his presidency, at no point was he truly the man making decisions. Gómez, although packed away in an army barracks outside the capital, had to approve or disapprove every decision Marquez Bustillo made, and there were effectively two presidents of the republic.
Now, in the modern case, the identity of this alleged other president might vary depending on your political perspective.
Is Maduro’s co-president “legitimate winner” Henrique Capriles? Is it some shadowy secretive overlord like Diosdado Cabello or even Raúl Castro (another mustache!)? Or could it be the benevolent shade of Hugo Chávez, ruling alongside him with fatherly care and ample birdsong?
Who knows? But, much like with Márquez Bustillo, nobody thinks Maduro himself is the man calling the shots.
Which brings us to the last mustache on our list: Cipriano Castro – a man overthrown from within his own clique when ambitious men surrounding him decided that he had become a liability… and that the time was right to knock him out…
By looking at these mustached trailblazers who predated Maduro, we find illuminating shadows of the past, present, and likely future of what historians will hopefully refer to as the “mercifully short presidency of Nicolás Maduro.” When we read it, we may find the story of a man chosen for power at the whim of a giant, one who comes into that power unprepared at the moment of that giant’s death. Overwhelmed, and untested, he attempts to rule by fear but is unable to exercise much power independently, eventually losing everything at the hands of his supposed allies.
With luck, Maduro will be an historical footnote, perhaps at the terminus of the Hugo Chávez saga. Noteworthy, if for nothing else, on account of the mustache.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.