Looking for Brutus

Power meets pajarito
Power meets pajarito

George Packer has written a brilliant piece on the rise of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel in the New Yorker. The article has many anecdotes and thought-provoking ideas, but one stuck with me.

When talking about how Merkel decided to cut ties with the legendary Helmut Kohl, her mentor, Packer says:

In November, 1999, the C.D.U. (Merkel’s and Kohl’s party) was engulfed by a campaign-finance scandal, with charges of undisclosed cash donations and secret bank accounts. Kohl and his successor as Party chairman, Wolfgang Schäuble, were both implicated, but Kohl was so revered that nobody in the Party dared to criticize him. Merkel, who had risen to secretary-general after the C.D.U.’s electoral defeat, saw opportunity. She telephoned Karl Feldmeyer. “I would like to give some comments to you in your newspaper,” she said.

“Do you know what you want to say?” Feldmeyer asked.

“I’ve written it down.”

Feldmeyer suggested that, instead of doing an interview, she publish an opinion piece. Five minutes later, a fax came through, and Feldmeyer read it with astonishment. Merkel, a relatively new figure in the C.D.U., was calling for the Party to break with its longtime leader. “The Party must learn to walk now and dare to engage in future battles with its political opponents without its old warhorse, as Kohl has often enjoyed calling himself,” Merkel wrote. “We who now have responsibility for the Party, and not so much Helmut Kohl, will decide how to approach the new era.” She published the piece without warning the tainted Schäuble, the Party chairman. In a gesture that mixed Protestant righteousness with ruthlessness, Kohl’s Mädchen was cutting herself off from her political father and gambling her career in a naked bid to supplant him. She succeeded. Within a few months, Merkel had been elected Party chairman. Kohl receded into history. “She put the knife in his back—and turned it twice,” Feldmeyer said. That was the moment when many Germans first became aware of Angela Merkel.

Years later, Michael Naumann sat next to Kohl at a dinner, and asked him, “Herr Kohl, what exactly does she want?”

“Power,” Kohl said, tersely. He told another friend that championing young Merkel had been the biggest mistake of his life.

That is how political ambition goes. One day you’re on top of the world, the next day you’ve hit turbulence, and in a few minutes, someone has betrayed you. Even a politician as skillful as Helmut Kohl didn’t see this coming.

It must be no fun being Nicolás Maduro. The economy is imploding, and juggling the demands of the different factions within chavismo is very difficult when oil is in the tank. His poll numbers are the pits, and he can’t afford a populist binge.

Someone, somewhere inside the PSUV must be thinking this is their moment. A leader with little legitimacy is driving the country into a ditch, and it’s the perfect time for someone new, someone with weight, to satisfy his or her parricidal urges. I can just hear them saying that they had no choice but to act in defense of the Eternal Commander’s legacy.

Who can it be, though? Some people I’ve spoken to believe the one guy this side of Diosdado Cabello that could challenge Maduro was murdered a few weeks ago. Is there anyone else? Well, that’s the thing about unlikely leaders such as Merkel – you never see them coming.

The PSUV is not short on ambitious politicians, but ambition shouldn’t be their only driver. Their entire political survival depends on righting this ship. As each day passes without Maduro showing any signs that he understands the conundrum, the chances that someone in his inner circle will betray him by calling for his resignation increases exponentially. Call me overly optimistic, but failure to do this could mean the PSUV is headed straight to irrelevance.

I know it’s hard to envision it, but I don’t think we’ve crossed the rubicon. Venezuela is not yet a country where a ruling clique can destroy the economy … and expect to get away with it. Somebody is bound to do something.

Enjoy your weekend, everyone.