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.

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