The Naked Dictator Cries Wolf—and This Time, He’s Really Afraid

María Corina Machado’s strong principles and her persistence to fight for the values of the Venezuelan Revolution of 1958 are breaking down the myths of Chavismo and showing how weak and hollow the regime is nowadays

I’m ashamed to think that Maria Corina Machado (MCM) only came onto my radar in late April 2013 when she and other members of the National Assembly were attacked in full session and brutally beaten by chavistas, as Diosdado Cabello looked on, smiling. The cameras that broadcast live the National Assembly on ANTV (National Assembly TV) cut its signal as the chavista parliamentarians kicked and beat MCM and others, sending her to the hospital. It’s worth mentioning that the ANTV, founded in 2005, stopped broadcasting in December 2015 after the last free and almost fair elections gave the opposition a 2/3 majority in the Assembly with a historic 74% voter turnout. The opposition won that election despite the Chavista ballot-stuffing, massive government funding of its own candidates, and the censorship of the opposition campaigns in government and pro-Chavista media. ANTV came back after Chavismo “retook” the Assembly in 2020 through sham elections. 

But MCM didn’t retreat. She didn’t give up. She continued to organize peacefully and gradually won the trust of a majority of Venezuelans. While other politicians went to prison or into exile, Maria Corina Machado stayed on course, determined to reinstate free and fair elections, free speech, good governance, a market-based economic system that would enable the country to not only to return to the abundance it enjoyed before Chavismo, but also to advance and grow. In other words, she apparently aimed to continue the Venezuelan Revolution of 1958 which, in fact, was arguably the only real revolution Venezuela has experienced in the past century. 

The so-called “Bolivarian Revolution,” by contrast, was, as Marx might consider it, both a tragedy and a farce of the original. It was all smoke and mirrors and lots and lots of flashy revolutionary imagery, but it was never anything but the populist project of a man who turned out to be a tyrant, as all populists turn out to be in the end. Chávez blew through billions of dollars during an oil boom and bankrupted the country with his “Missions” and other boondoggles.  Like the ANTV station, they all were mere Potemkin set pieces for his “Alo Presidente” variety show (where, of course, he was the main star) and then the projects were either abandoned or given over to fake “cooperatives” to be dismantled and sold off in lavish acts of clientelism, often under the rubric of “worker control.” 

But isn’t that the essence of populism, after all? Go to the academics and they can’t seem to settle on a definition of the term. Two of the more prominent writers on the subject, Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, acknowledge as much by saying “no wonder some authors have called for the abandonment of the use of the allegedly meaningless term.”  But they go on to describe it as vacuous, in their words, a “thin-centered ideology,”  that “can be attached to other ideologies, be they thick (e.g. liberalism, socialism) or thin (e.g. ecologism, nationalism).” 

This vacuity explains the demagoguery that seems always to be a major feature of the populist: they flash symbols and throw out empty terms; they lie, manipulate and deceive because ultimately, they have nothing to offer and nothing to say. Populists are the very image of nothingness; they are empty, devoid of anything but symbols without reference. As Maggie Haberman, the biographer of Donald Trump, puts it, the American populist is characterized primarily as “nihilist.” Populists dress up any number of ways, but they are nothing beneath the dressing as they represent nothing but themselves as empty persons. 

We can leave aside the theoretical debate over whether or not “left” and “right” any longer has meaning in the age of populism, but we should also be clear that what have become empty signifiers mask an urgent distinction, that is, between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Cuba and China may be communist, Venezuela may be socialist, Orban, Modi, Erdogan, Trump and Putin may be fascists or nationalists, but they’re all in alliance in a war on the liberal democratic order. 

He knows they would handily defeat him in a free election because they have a program, a “thick” program, a substantial program, to rebuild the country and call the exiles home. It’s a measure of Maduro’s absolute absence of human compassion that this program terrifies him.

Populist leaders, as Timothy Snyder and many others have demonstrated, all work from the same playbook. They  seem incapable of telling the truth about anything. When Trump, for instance, accuses his opponent of crimes, of lies, of corruption, and even of weak-minded dementia, he offers the purest example of shadow projection. Likewise, when Maduro accuses the opposition of planning assassinations, committing terrorism, violating the Constitution, hating the country and creating conditions to destroy the government, it’s quite obvious to any objective observer that he’s describing himself and his own policies. Just read the news about Ronald Ojeda and all the others (detailed in this UN Human Rights Report), and consider the charges pending against the Maduro government in the ICC. 

Here we return to Maria Corina Machado. Maduro’s accusations against her are so ludicrous that even the most gullible Chavista would have to give an involuntary peal of laughter, or sob with repentance if confronted with the facts. But the Chavistas who are still supporting Maduro are not only as gullible as the MAGA crowd in the US, but equally ignorant of the facts. The facts don’t matter to them. They are concerned with more sublimely vile concerns, such as the destruction of their invented enemies.

In the end, these strongmen are actually very weak cowards who, in the case of Maduro, tremble before 80-year-old ladies who teach philosophy and a woman who could very well get the role of an average housewife in a telenovela. That’s not to put either Corina down, because they have proven themselves to be far more powerful than their physical appearance or the stereotypes of our impoverished cultural prejudices. 

Maduro is frightened of them because they represent not themselves, but the whole of the Venezuelan population. He knows they would handily defeat him in a free election because they have a program, a “thick” program, a substantial program, to rebuild the country and call the exiles home. It’s a measure of Maduro’s absolute absence of human compassion that this program terrifies him.

And really, that’s the point. Chávez appropriated the myth of the Liberator, and Maduro appropriated the myth of Chávez. They manipulated their followers like Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz who uses all sorts of deception to boom his voice from behind the curtain and make everyone tremble. But now the Corinas have pulled the curtain back, and the wizard has no clothes. Maduro has been exposed as the empty man he is.

But Machado comes onto the political stage fully clothed. She advocates for an open society that respects human and individual rights, rule of law, separation of powers, consent of the governed, political and legal equality. She is a liberal democrat, and as the woman leading the struggle against the dictatorship, she follows in the footsteps of the great Venezuelan political thinker, statesman and first president to lead the country after the real revolution, Rómulo Betancourt. And Machado relies on straightforward honesty to convince, as should any liberal democratic leader or movement, even though this is unfortunately not always the case.

After her beating in the National Assembly she returned, as she has since from many similar beatings, insults, and attack of every kind, and so my respect for Maria Corina Machado has only grown. Her courage, persistence, and moral commitment will inspire people around the world who confront dictators and tyrants in their own lands. Unlike Chávez and Maduro, she needs no myth to hide behind because she speaks out front, on behalf of the people. Her voice is the people. She has no need to appropriate a myth because she incarnates one. And perhaps that’s what really makes Maduro tremble in his boots as he stares down the living incarnation of Maria Lionza, the warrior woman who came forth to offer her life to save her people.

Clifton Ross

Clifton Ross recently published his political memoir documenting his conversion from Chavismo to the opposition. He lives in Berkeley, California with his wife and co-editor, Marcy Rein, and their two cats.