The heat was intense as food vendors crowded around the main entrance to the exhibition hall at the 2013 Expo Aragua. It was held at the San Jacinto fairgrounds, in eastern Maracay; a marching band was played a lively rendition of “Patria, Patria Querida” while a group of teenage dancers swayed along the music. Meanwhile, we, the journalists, were trying to figure out the best spot to find someone to interview.

It was my first day on the street as an intern for one of Aragua’s leading newspapers, and also the first time I saw Tareck El-Aissami, who has just been named Vice-president, in person.

I recognized one guy in our crew from university: a die-hard chavista I’d once debated about PSUV’s decision to impose some gocho from Mérida as their candidate for our governorship.

“Why they didn’t go for Pedro Bastidas?” I remember asking him. He grumbled something about him not being ready.

They needed someone they could trust. A loyalist, to protect a key stronghold bordering Caracas and full to the brim with military bases. Gómez knew it and Chávez knew it.

“Are you going to tell me that from over half a million chavista voters in the state not one is good enough to be governor?”

Now, looking back, I see they needed someone they could trust. A loyalist, to protect a key stronghold bordering Caracas and full to the brim with military bases. Gómez knew it and Chávez knew it. I suspect he probably wasn’t too pleased being demoted from the powerful Interior Minister’s office in Caracas to some crappy fief in el interior. But someone had to clean the mess left by Rafael Isea, a shady and corrupt former Finance minister —pardon the redundancy— with very few friends around and fewer by the minute — the DEA being one late exception. Let’s put it this way: Isea is the only aragueño in history who could have managed to make former governor Didalco Bolívar look good.

Walking around Expo Aragua, there was something strange in the relationship between private and public sectors among the exhibitors. You had stalls for public institutions and municipalities sharing space with stalls for pretty much any important private enterprise left in Aragua. From Ron Santa Teresa to artisanal chocolate made by the Aldeas Universitarias. Chavismo, I thought, had always prided itself not needing the private sector!

Tareck is the kind of guy who’d rather quietly get his cronies to buy up dissident TV stations and install his own people in the newsroom than take it over by force or shut it down outright.

Little by little, I grasped my fellow aragüeños see Tareck as neither your red-blooded olive green-clad hijo-de-Bolívar military fanboy nor your head-up-his-ass Marxist-Leninist Patria-o-Muerte apparatchik. In Aragua he pitched himself as a pragmatist, a manager, a broker. He loved to put together events like Expo Aragua to get together for current and future business partners, to move and shake and broker deals.

Tareck is the kind of guy who’d rather quietly get his cronies to buy up dissident TV stations and install his own people in the newsroom than take it over by force or shut it down outright. His idea of socialism includes taking over a profitable professional baseball team on behalf of el pueblo, giving the concession toof a historical hotel to an international enterprise, holding a decadent, tacky memoria y cuenta gala over the usual bureaucratic humdrum in such events. My impression is that he’s a boliburgués at heart, just a shrewd and ambitious one who bends over backwards to be completely faithful of the revolution’s line, whatever that may be.

Despite his best attempt to appeal to your average aragüeño, there’s a certain staginess in gestures like this that screams out “phony!” While I was in line at the bank recently an old man told me a joke: “Tareck goes to the Tigres de Aragua stadium for the season opener and finds the lights are off and nobody is there. He looks around, sees a guachimán and ask him “where is everyone?”, the guachimán rolls his eyes and tells ‘this is the soccer stadium! The baseball stadium is next door!'”.

Nobody around here will deny he’s a capable administrator (compared to Isea, at least) and through it all he’s won over a few hearts.

“At first I didn’t trust him, being from Mérida and all” told me a very rojo rojito construction foreman “but his work speaks for itself.” He says, pointing out the extensive restoration of historical buildings in downtown Maracay and the TransAragua, the new shiny mass transit system made from shiny mass-produced red Chinese buses.

“He only cares about a couple of blocks in Maracay, you don’t see any kind of government here.” a colleague living in Turmero tells me and that’s just down the road from Maracay! Going to the center and south of Aragua, to Tocorón and the former dominions of El Picture shows that Tareck’s red glamour is nothing more than good marketing. The guy had a plan to leverage an image of Aragua as “the model state” for the Bolivarian revolution into a higher position — and that’s now panned out for him, I guess.

There’s long been chatter that some of his money comes from drugs.

When I finally saw him, surrounded by ministers and VP Jorge Arreaza (hey, remember him?) he struck me as…underwhelming. He doesn’t exactly exhude alpha male charisma, you could easily picture him as just another anonymous middle-class Venezuelan of Middle-Eastern heritage.

“He’s a cipher,” one of the journalists from the newsroom told me, in confidence. There was some discontent about him, peddling influence to get unfavorable news hushed up. The owners of the newspaper are in no position to resist a guy like Tareck.

There’s long been chatter that some of his money comes from drugs, that drugs profits are fueling all the construction projects in Maracay and who knows what else across the state, and we know that the DEA has him under investigation. Maybe I’m naïve: when I see a fancy restaurant opening up in Las Delicias I don’t immediately think “money-laundering”, but, amid the financial crisis, it does make you stop for a moment and ask “where does the money comes from?”

Hmmm. Maybe Aragua is the model state of the Bolivarian revolution after all.

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Freelance journalist, speculative fiction writer, college professor, political junkie, lover of books and movies and, semi-professional dilettante. José has written for NPR's Latino USA, Americas Quarterly, Into and ViceVersa Magazine.