Nicolás Maduro has often been seen simply as an untalented politician – which he obviously is – but that’s a caricature that misses the point. Quico’s description of this government as the victory of the arbitrageur kleptolobby reminded me of a similar group: the Italian-American mafia. Maduro and the upper echelons of chavismo can be better understood not only as a political movement, but through the lens of the mafia structure. And I happen to know the story of mafia family that, quite weirdly, mirrors what’s going on in the government.

Many years ago, a disgruntled police officer was dishonorably discharged from the force. Undeterred, he founded a gang with other disgraced cops, and added a few honest guys to wash the façade. They took control of a large and decayed swath of territory, and his leader became the all-powerful Boss of a new mafia family, the Chiavetta family.

 
When the founding boss died a few years ago, the Underboss of the family, a guy named Niccolò, took over.

Mafia families have a top-to-bottom power structure, and are comprised of several gangs. They own a few legitimate businesses, but mostly operate criminal schemes and rackets. It’s a sort of kleptolobby, run by a Boss. Below him there’s usually an Underboss, the second in command and successor. After them in the hierarchy are the caporegime, or captains, who run the rackets the Boss assigned them, and lead gangs of several soldiers. Just outside this pyramid is the consigliere, a close advisor that answers only to the Boss.

The Old Boss of the Chiavetta family valued – above all – loyalty and obedience. Captains thrived under him, running lucrative rackets with little oversight. Mistakes were mostly forgiven, while dissent was severely punished. The Old Boss was at times quite popular among the denizens of the territory, and was adored by some as both a Robin Hood and a fatherly figure. Those on his side were showered with gifts and cheap stuff in exchange for indulgence and support. Malcontents were not treated nicely.

When he died a few years ago, the Underboss of the family, a guy named Niccolò, took over as Boss.

But Niccolò is no Machiavelli. He’s a weak leader and an ineffective manager, which is probably why the Old Boss – always distrustful of overtly ambitious captains – chose him as Underboss. Neither revered nor feared by the captains, he has been walking on thin ice since day one.

There were several powerful captains in the family, but none powerful enough to stake a claim to the top job. They supported Niccolò, with conditions. Tired of the old regime – where the Old Boss reigned supreme and his word was the only one that mattered – the captains demanded more power for themselves.

Niccolò had no option but to run the family more as a council than a dictatorship. To the outside world he tries to present himself as decisive and powerful. Inside the family his power has limits. He consults captains on most issues and shares more of the loot.

One of the first moves by Niccolò and the captains was the purge of the consiglieres of the Old Boss. They were close to the dead leader, but never developed their own power base nor had enough soldiers to hold their territory. His death left them orphaned. Once things calmed down after the Old Boss’ death, Giorgio and Ettore were unceremoniously kicked out.

The captains then set their sights on a weaker colleague, the suave bon vivant Raffaello, who ran the richest legitimate business. The company funded the Old Boss’ whims and kept the denizens happy, while Raffaello grew crazy rich. The others saw him as an undeserving outsider who wasn’t around during the hard times, and too ostentatious for his own good. At first Niccolò kept him around, and put him in charge of the family’s finances.

Raffaello’s luck ran out when the finances took a nosedive. Niccolò and the captains pounced, divided his territory among themselves and took out his soldiers. They gave him a small business, a fancy restaurant no one cares about. The family wants to keep an eye on him; he knows too much and they’re afraid he might talk.

 
The Chiavetta family is sinking into a four-sided crisis: money troubles, a direct threat by a rival, acute resentment from the people of the territory and internal conflict.

After these opening moves, Niccolò managed to establish a tense but functional modus vivendi with the emboldened captains. The accommodation was costly, coming at the expense of the long-term future of the family. The Old Boss kept the proceeds of the rackets at sustainable levels: enough to enrich the captains, but not large enough to decimate the pockets of the people they “protected”. Niccolò bought obedience from the captains by allowing their main racket to get out of control, to the point that the denizens have completely turned on the mafiosi.

Any attempt by Niccolò to rein in the captains could result in major internal conflict. They lack self-restraint, can’t stop fighting among themselves, and are reluctant to yield their loot, even if it’s for the long-term benefit of the family.

To make matters worse, the rival Mudacci family took over an important part of their turf. From their new base, they’re preparing to launch a full takeover of the territory.

The Chiavetta family is sinking into a four-sided crisis: money troubles, a direct threat by a rival, acute resentment from the people of the territory and internal conflict. Even the police – who had been largely corrupted and brought into the family – is now reassessing its loyalties. Some fear they will attack and replace the family, or that they’ll pact with the Mudacci.

Niccolò has sought the help of several consiglieri. Three were tasked with solving the money issues, and had to be fired because they seemed mentally unhinged and way out of their depths. An old captain was promoted to Underboss and liaison with the Mudacci, but his attempts to make peace are being torpedoed by the most violent captains. They want war.

Some captains are plotting over the family’s future behind the Boss’ back, and this future doesn’t always include him. Niccolò has learned the hard way that it’s not easy to keep a band of money-hungry captains together when the money runs out.

For all his troubles, Niccolò is not going out without a fight. The family is pushing back on the Mudacci, and they are scraping every last bit of money to pay people off and keep the police in the fold. After years of paralysis, the Boss has finally chosen a path – albeit a risky and dumb one. He’ll double down on the aggressive tactics of the Old Boss, surround himself with the same sycophants, hope the finances sort themselves out and refuse outside help.

It’s quite late in the game, and Niccolò is making his move: he’s digging trenches and crossing his fingers.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.