Nicolás Maduro cut a lonely figure yesterday standing on a tarima for another rally to protest or commemorate who knows what in Plaza Caracas. Even with the usual coterie of ministers and hanger-ons, he looked irrelevant and isolated.

Official media stuck scrupulously to tight shots around the president. The photos that soon started to make the rounds on twitter made it clear why: the square was bare.

This is a puzzle. Plaza Caracas is not a big space, and it’s the heart of bureaucratic Caracas, with several ministries within walking distance, including the buildings around the square itself. So it was telling that so few people attended the rally during such an important juncture for the government.

Not because one should expect public employees to be excited to see Maduro; they’re living through the same mess we all are. What struck me as odd is that the ministers didn’t force them to go en masse, as they did countless times for Chávez’s rallies, and even for Maduro in less apocalyptic times.

How useless must Maduro be if ministers no longer bother trying to ingratiate themselves with him? How is it that they didn’t think it was in their best interest to jalar bola, like they have done for years? Why stop trying to prop him up now?

The one thing that all strongmen and wannabe dictators seem to have in common is a ready supply of sycophants and good-old brown-nosers. Maduro can’t even manage that. Apart from Cilia, can you think of anyone who’s genuinely devoted to him? Even the most closely associated with him, such as the Rodriguez siblings, seem to support him for purely selfish reasons.

The operative phrase of those around him was written by Venezuelan poets Los Amigos Invisibles several years ago: “Esto es lo que hay”. This is what there is, bro. There’s no point in faking he’s more than that.

What happened yesterday is part of a trend that includes some rather exquisite moments, like when an indoctrinated teenager called him an albatross to the revolution to his face.

And here’s the paradox: even as we slide into ever more open forms of dictatorship, Maduro seems like an afterthought to other chavista leaders. Just some guy who happens to be president. Their argument against the recall referendum is not that Maduro is a good leader, much less that he would win it. They don’t bother to make that argument, it’s too ludicrous to state in public.

The propaganda line is just saying there’s no time to hold the referendum in 2016 again and again, in a loop. The vote must be held in 2017, when the vice-president would take over afterwards. “Sure, you can remove Maduro. By all means: do. Nos resuelven un peo. But forget about getting the chair”.

Maduro and the rest of chavismo’s top dogs do have many common interests, but they’re playing on different time horizons. They can buy time at Maduro’s expense; he can’t at theirs. He’s a sacrificial lamb in waiting.

In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, a group of little boys is left stranded in a deserted island after their airplane crashed there, killing all the adults. They come up with a rule to organize their meetings: they use a large conch to signify whose turn is it to speak. Whoever’s holding the conch, has the floor and everyone’s attention.

Right now, Maduro has the conch. But just like poor little Piggy, he’s learning the conch means nothing if no one respects you. Nothing is more pathetic than the sight of someone yelling indignantly “I got the conch!” to an empty plaza.

12 COMMENTS

  1. 1. Chavez is dead.
    2. WTI is at or below $60/B since December 2014.
    3. People have witnessed 18 years of Venezuela governed by the same group of “leaders”, the consequences of their policies, their unwillingness to change direction, their unwillingness to admit that they are at least part of the problem and their alarmingly totalitarian trend.
    4. Chavismo is going nuts right now, and I think that they are burning the last pieces of goodwill with Venezuelans and the world.

    When your enemy is making a mistake, you should not stop him.

    They are dangerous, anything can happen, they could go crazier and do a lot of damage, but I believe that that damage will be done mostly to themselves.

    I think that even if the MUD fumbles the ball and misses this opportunity, its just a matter of time before the regime crumbles. Chavistas at the top are just unwilling and unable to change. They will keep going full steam ahead towards el precipicio. They are their worst enemy. This guys are done.

  2. Maduro truly is a pathetic figure. He has to know it too, even if he may incapable of understanding or grasping the depth of the disaster facing the country, let alone its real causes (i.e. Chavista policies). I wonder, in modern times has there ever been a head of state so disrespected and disregarded by all parties?

    Regarding public employees, I have a relative who used to be forced to go to various rallies for years, but her Chavista boss no longer requires attendance and presumably just forges roll call lists.

  3. So, which is worse?

    A). The instability following a transition from Chavismo to MUD where every diehard chavista in a position to do so, creates problems from a national to local scale wherever possible.

    B). A power vacuum within chavismo as everyone fights for their own power base a la Diadochi while successfully keeping the MUD from doing much of anything.

    C). The status quo.

    • The most troubling Chavistas will leave Venezuela quickly after a transition. Switzerland is better than any jail in Venezuela. The ordinary Chavista will transition to the new system readily.

      Chavismo has had a power vacuum since Chavez was waxed and preserved. Maduro even shares power now by agreement. However, I don’t see anyone trying hard to take Maduro’s place right now given that Vzla is a failed country.

      • I would say yes to most of this. Most of the original chavista voters are reasonable moderates and have moved away or no longer really identify with its current incarnation. The Diosdados have so much money they can go anywhere and live comfortably. The ordinary rank and file want change at this point as much as anyone in the MUD.

        What is scary is the mid-level folks who ideologically or financially are so invested that they have nothing better to do than stick it out and try and carve out their own fiefdoms. They have little options of going elsewhere. Prans, colectivos, milicos, mayors and governors.

        I think those are the folks that will not go gentle into that good night.

        • Most Chavistas/PSUVistas don’t seem to like Maduro at all. They want him gone as soon as possible. However, many or most of these people would never vote for the opposition. But as sad as it may sound, they still hope for someone from their party to become the next president so there’s a chance for “Chavez’s legacy” to continue.

  4. This reminds me of 1979 in Chicago. The Boss, Richard J. Daley, had died. The alderman from his ward, a second-rater named Bilandic, was selected as interim Mayor. Bilandic sought re-election. He was opposed (in the Democrat primary, the only vote that mattered) by Jane Byrne, who had been Daley’s consumer advocate.

    It snowed hard that winter, and Biliandic fumbled the city’s response, provoking a lot of citizen anger, which turned into support for Byrne. Still no one thought it would really matter. Byrne had no money and no backers, no organization, while Bilandic had “the Machine”.

    But a Federal judge had ruled the city could no longer hire or fire employees on the basis of their political work. That had been Daley’s core method: every city employee had to work precincts – ringing doorbells, cultivating the voters, and supervising the voting (not fraud as much as making certain every supporter voted) – or lose his job. The “Shakman decision” struck off that harness – and they stopped pulling.

    If Bilandic had any leadership ability of his own, he might have rallied the troops anyway. But he didn’t, and they mostly sat out the election. Byrne narrowly won the primary, and the Machine was dead.

    I thnk the parallel is clear.

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