Maduro Steps From Chavez’s Shadow and Builds a Family Power Base

Long derided as a bumbling seat-warmer, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is emerging as a ruthless strongman -- deflecting U.S. pressure, purging rivals, empowering his son, wife and trusted aides, and letting dollars flow to keep his battered economy from collapse.

The result is that the man thought to be the wan face of Chavismo -- the movement named for his magnetic predecessor, Hugo Chavez -- is now the robust head of what is increasingly called Madurismo.

“Maduro has been underestimated, including within Chavismo, and has managed to surprise and overcome his enemies inside and out,” Caracas political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas said. “He’s placed trusted people in the most influential positions, replacing those who could challenge his power.”

Barring outside intervention, an increasingly remote possibility, Maduro is likely to remain at the helm in Venezuela for the foreseeable future. As he beds in, the nature of Madurismo is becoming clearer. A United Nations report last September referred to extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions, accusing the regime of “crimes against humanity” -- a charge the government rejected.

Following rigged elections in December, Maduro snatched the nation’s congress --and last democratic body -- from U.S.-backed opposition chief Juan Guaido, naming right-hand man Jorge Rodriguez its new leader. Son, Nicolas Jr., and wife Cilia Flores both secured spots as lawmakers.

As Venezuela’s economy shrank for a seventh straight year in 2020, the socialist leader fostered an unofficial dollarization and loosened his grip over the private sector. He allowed in more than $2 billion, some in the shape of a nascent luxury dollar economy, and others in remittances from the 5 million who have fled the nation, helping him maneuver around a U.S. embargo on his oil and a blockade of his nation’s assets abroad.

Low Approval Ratings

He has done all this with approval ratings below 15%. His opponents are rapidly losing steam, with street demonstrations fading away despite the collapse of basic goods and services in a country that was once among the world’s wealthiest. Oil exports, at all-time lows, are inching up again.

Allies, such as Vice president Delcy Rodriguez, sister to Jorge, are rising while challengers, including Diosdado Cabello, are sidelined.

A retired army lieutenant and former vice president who joined Chavez in a failed coup in 1992, Cabello led the all-powerful constituent assembly until Maduro ordered its dissolution last year. Cabello is now left with the largely symbolic role of second-in-command of the socialist party and its organizer in congress. Cabello didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In the meantime, Nicolas Jr. was awarded control of the party’s junior group, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter. Vice President Rodriguez has also been appointed finance minister, a rare dual role.

Sidelined

Others close to Chavez, such as former Education Minister Elias Jaua, have seen their careers thwarted. Jaua was walled off after proposing more democratic methods for decision making and electing officials withing the party, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. He’s now a university professor. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Maduro is said to have also forcibly displaced Major General Miguel Rodriguez Torres, former justice minister and head of Chavez’s intelligence police. He had him jailed in 2018, charged by a military court with treason and instigation to rebel after he criticized the government and created a rival party with Chavista roots, according to members of his party. He remains in prison in Fuerte Tiuna, the country’s military headquarters.

Ruling party lawmaker Francisco Torrealba, who met Maduro while both worked in public transportation in the early 90s, acknowledges that many were skeptical of Maduro following Chavez’s death eight years ago. “Today,” he said, “No one doubts the great skills and political wisdom that the president has managed to develop.”

Maduro has kept close key military allies, including Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, the longest standing official in his role.

“The military structure will always lean toward whoever controls the majority of the centers of power,” said Javier Biardeau, a sociologist and professor at Venezuela’s Central University.

Under Maduro, military leaders have won sizable government contracts and mining concessions as well as control over ports and the state oil company. Most recently, they’ve taken over gas stations nationwide as U.S. sanctions squeeze the country, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, nearly out of gasoline, leading to endless lines where officers review credentials of drivers at the pumps.

Foreign Backers

Maduro’s foreign backers, including China, Iran and Russia, continue to play a key role: helping sell millions of barrels of doctored Venezuelan heavy crude under disguise, shipping much needed fuel and goods in exchange for gold and even agreeing to send millions of Sputnik-V shots to immunize the nation.

While Guaido retains some global support, the opposition remains divided and bereft of ideas, weakening his stance as the showdown with Maduro drags on and as more opposition politicians are forced into exile, jailed or legally sidelined.

Even though previous attempts to negotiate a political end to the crisis have failed, a segment of the opposition is hoping to restart talks ahead of municipal and state elections this year.

The political change in the U.S. could also help Maduro. Donald Trump singled out Venezuela, and its alliance with Cuba and Nicaragua, for pressure. President Joe Biden is expected to seek some accommodation with Cuba. And while his top aides have made clear they consider Maduro to be a dictator, they have also indicated an interest in modifying some of the sanctions.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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