Too Toxic for Pablo Iglesias?

Even Pablo Iglesias, whose political party, Podemos, appears to have risen out of irrelevance on the back of chavista payments, is backing away from Maduro. That tells you something, doesn't it?

Has Pablo Iglesias, the charismatic leader of Spain’s far-leftwing party, Podemos, finally seen the light? After years of unflinching support, Iglesias has been drastically distancing his party from Maduro and the PSUV in the last few days. Last week, Iglesias condemned the existence of political prisoners in Venezuela – finally – saying “very clearly, and with no space for ambiguity, we do not accept that there should be political prisoners anywhere…the situation in that country…is terrible.” Back in March, a leaked strategic memo from Podemos suggested that their public relationship with Chavismo had been a terrible idea and they needed to rebrand.  

Iglesias is just the latest leftwing figure to begin voicing discomfort with Maduro’s regime. Luis Almagro, fresh from calling Maduro a dictadorzuelo, was Foreign Minister for Pepe Mujica’s government in Uruguay, which received significant funding from Chavez’s government in the 2000s. Last week, Mujica himself said Maduro is loco como una cabra. With Dilma and Kirchner out of the game, only the few remaining usual suspects continue to voice their support for Maduro’s failed revolution: Correa, Morales, and Ortega. The Three Amigos.

What is really unusual here is that Pablo Iglesias and Podemos have been deeply associated with Chavismo since his rise to political relevance as host of La Tuerka in Spain and Fort Apache in the Latin American-oriented channel, HispanTV.

Iglesias’s rhetoric on those shows was closely aligned with Chavismo, buying into the cult of personality that the comandante had created. His continued defense of the ideology on communicational hegemony programming did not help. Heck, the guy taught Chavistas how to build on their ideology in the mid 2000s. Along with Juan Carlos Monedero, who left Podemos in April, Iglesias served as an adviser to president Chavez himself. To this day, Podemos militant Alfredo Serrano Mancilla serves as an economic adviser for Maduro.  

It’s a measure of how completely toxic the Maduro brand has become that even a guy like Iglesias has been slowly distancing himself from them. All the way back in June of 2014, Radio Nacional de Venezuela called him “Judas” after Iglesias denied a funding relationship with the Bolivarian regime. Since then, Podemos’s moderation has been a problem for Chavistas that wanted a populist ally across the Atlantic.

Today, this rift between the PSUV and Podemos seems to be coming to a head. According to the recent CIS poll, Podemos will lose a third of its vote-share in the upcoming legislative elections in June. With corruption being a top voter concern in Spain (and across the globe), Podemos must aim to rid itself of any associations to the corrupt in order to continue to perform at the ballot.

This has perhaps been most apparent as the funding scandal has resurfaced, due to an explosive declaration from Rafael Isea, who was briefly Chavez’s Finance Minister in 2008. Isea claims that Chavez had financed Podemos-affiliated foundation CEPS with 7 million lechugas.  Iglesias’s response? To deny and to continue to differentiate Podemos from the PSUV, by calling out Maduro for keeping political prisoners.

Three years ago, we never could have guessed that the same man that proclaimed Chávez es Invencible, would be advocating for Leopoldo Lopez’s freedom. Even if that would seem totally reasonable in a normal democracy.

If that is not clear enough, you could hear it from the party’s strategists themselves. A few months ago the communications strategy report that emphasized the organization’s need to disassociate from Chavismo was leaked to the Spanish diario El País.

Perhaps Podemos is no Iberian PSUV, and Iglesias no longer bears allegiance to his comandante galáctico. But does that mean he is actually closer to Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn than to Hugo Chavez in terms of political worldview? I don’t think anyone could answer that.

This recent pivot by Podemos shows why we cannot take ideological claims at face value. It seems that, at least for Podemos, ideology is more of a signaling strategy, a way to communicate to define the tribe. We all know that the same could be said about the Chavista credo.

The key difference here is that in a society that respects strong democratic institutions, even populist, ideological leaders have to be sensitive to public opinion. And Maduro is just not the kind of figure you want to affiliate your brand with these days.

For Maduro, this type of moderation is unthinkable. Listening to voters is unthinkable. He is a despot, beholden not to public opinion, but to the incentives created by our country’s systemic corruption. El vil egoísmo, que otra vez triunfó.