Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro took his first of what may well be several tilts at President Barack Obama recently, reportedly describing the US President as the “grand chief of devils” after Washington had declined to recognise the outcome of the poll that won him the presidency. In style as much as in substance the remark bore a striking resemblance to the swipes which Hugo Chávez took at the US leadership. Some years ago, Chávez had chosen the platform of the United Nations General Assembly to describe the former US President George Bush as the “devil.”
By opting for the same style of reprimand that had gotten Hugo Chávez global media attention, Mr Maduro, perhaps, was seeking to send a message to both domestic and international watchers of his administration that in key respects it would resemble the Chávez regime. That, after all, had been the platform on which Mr Maduro had campaigned for the presidency. Revered as he might have been by Maduro, however, Chávez is dead, and experienced politician that he has become, President Maduro would be only too aware that his presidency cannot hope to sustain itself solely on the credential of being a political clone of its predecessor.
As it happens, Mr Maduro may already be coming under pressure to begin to be his own man. That, however, could have its own implications for his long-term political fortunes.
The dust having hardly settled on Mr Maduro’s April election victory ‒ and with the controversy over the outcome still manifesting itself in opposition demonstrations – President Maduro took aim at Venezuelan billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of the beer and food giant Empresas Polar, accusing him of hoarding consumer goods as part of an economic war against the socialist administration. Mendoza is one of Venezuela’s private sector’s genuine heavyweights, his company employing upwards of 30,000 people and accounting for around three per cent of the country’s non-oil economy. His assertive response to Mr Maduro – he would probably not have risked such a robust response with Chávez – elicited an immediate fence-mending meeting between the two men, the reportedly amicable outcome of which may have provided the earliest indication that Maduro may not be as comfortable taking on the powerful Venezuelan business class as was his predecessor. Put differently, by quickly mending fences with Mendoza, President Maduro may be sending a signal that he seeks to govern with a healthy dose of realism.
Since assuming office the Maduro administration has also unveiled a package of economic measures that target increases in the production of food and other basic consumer goods. Those measures include tax exemptions for primary producers, state investments in greenhouse vegetable production, a subsidy for sugar production, price increases for sunflower producers and an overhauling of the state-run and reportedly inefficient agri-business sector. Interestingly, the Maduro administration has also agreed to increases in controlled prices on basic food items (price controls had been one of Hugo Chávez’s widely popular economic measures) including chicken, beef and milk, a concession to private producers who had been brooding over declining profits.
No less than the private sector the longevity of Mr Maduro’s presidency will depend on how the one-time trade unionist is perceived by the military. Even before his election to the presidency political analysts had been making the point that Maduro, despite being personally anointed by a dying Chávez, can hardly hope to extract the level of loyalty which his predecessor extracted from the military.
Prior to last month’s presidential poll a Reuters report had quoted retired General Antonio Rivero (who left the military in 2010 in protest over Caracas’ close ties with Havana) as saying that the military perceived Maduro as “the complete opposite to Chávez. The former army Colonel may eventually have been elected a civilian president, though that does not erase the fact that his 14-year rule had been buttressed heavily by a military that he had been a part of and whose power and influence grew enormously under him.
President Maduro will not, for example, be unaware that his own successor civilian administration includes at least half of the state governorships held by Mr Chávez’s United Socialist Party and that military officers account for probably a quarter of his inherited cabinet that includes powerful figures like Defence Minister, Admiral Diego Molero Bellavia.
For the time being at least, Maduro also enjoys the support of other important figures close to the military, including, crucially, Diosdado Cabello, the head of the country’s National Assembly who participated alongside Chávez in the 1992 coup attempt and had been regarded as Maduro’s strongest rival to succeed Chávez when it appeared that the former President’s cancer was terminal.
Down the road President Maduro may have to make key decisions as to how to treat with a military that had been pampered under Chávez. One such decision may have to do with whether or not to rein in a group of high-flying military officers reportedly involved in trafficking cocaine to the US and Europe. Senior Venezuelan military officials, including former Defence Minister and serving Governor of the State of Trujillo Henry Rangel Silva and former Interior Minister and retired Naval Officer Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, the serving Governor of Guárico state have been named by Washington as collaborators with the Colombian rebel group FARC in the exchange of weapons for drugs, charges which the Venezuelan government has denied. The military has also become entangled in accusations of illegal gold mining and petrol smuggling.
Last week the Venezuelan government dispatched contingents of soldiers to the streets to help respond to the crime situation, a sign that President Maduro and the military may currently be singing from the same hymn sheet, at least as far as curbing crime is concerned. That having been said his full endorsement by the military as Chávez’s ‘chosen one’ is likely to be determined by whether, in the longer term, he is seen as supportive of the military or as a threat to the vaunted position of influence which it enjoyed under Chávez.
Setting aside the attempts at public protest arising out of the failed Capriles election bid, Mr Maduro appears firmly installed as Chávez’s heir though he has shown early signs of an awareness that he is no Chávez. If so, that makes him a pragmatist who is acutely aware that a political party that labels itself socialist cannot be unmindful of the realities of a strong private sector with uncompromising capitalist leanings, and a powerful military which, according to Venezuelan historian Domingo Irwin, has not allowed five years to go by in the last century “without groups of officers being involved in conspiratorial activities.” President Maduro is unlikely to forget that Hugo Chávez was one of them.