Since the death of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s political leadership has moved from charisma to authoritarianism. Support for Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution has fallen from 65% when the populist leader died to 22% today.
The revolution’s erstwhile steward is Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s current president and Chávez’s hand-picked successor. Maduro lacks his mentor’s extraordinary charm and intelligence – and to compensate, he is resorting to the iron fist.
Who is Nicolás Maduro?
As a teenager, Maduro aspired to have his own rock band, and was a fan of Led Zeppelin. In an interview with the Guardian, he referred to himself as a “a little bohemian”. Although he never finished high school, Maduro was able to build a successful political career. A robust man of 6'4", he spent the 1980s working as a bus driver in the capital’s public transport system, where he founded and led an informal trade union.
Although he did not participate in Chávez’s failed coup d’état in 1992, Maduro campaigned hard for the leader’s subsequent release from prison and was a founding member of the socialist party.
During Chávez’s presidency, Maduro served as deputy of the National Assembly and later became its president. He also served as minister of foreign affairs, strengthening ties with Cuba and echoing Chávez’s anti-American rhetoric. Before Chávez died, Maduro became vice president and then interim president.
Maduro’s political career has been built in the shadow of Chávez’s success. His time as interim president did little to help his political image, since supporters simply saw him as the president’s understudy, and inevitably as second best. For them, his presence at the helm was little more than a painful reminder that Chávez was gone.
To the opposition, meanwhile, Maduro was a usurper. Under the Venezuelan Constitution, the president of the National Assembly (not the vice president) was supposed to act as president when Chávez was incapacitated.
In April 2013, Maduro was elected president with a margin of less than 1.6%. The opposition, led by Henrique Capriles Radonski, called Maduro “The Illegitimate.” They argued that his election was illegal given that more than 3,000 electoral irregularities were reported, but never investigated.
On the edge
During Maduro’s two years as president, Venezuela has fallen into an unprecedented social and economic crisis. Today the country has an annual inflation rate of 68%, the highest in the world, and this disproportionately harms the poor, whom Chávez’s revolution had pledged to protect.
A major decline in oil prices has deepened problems for Venezuela, which is dependent on oil exports. State takeovers of companies, coupled with opaque foreign exchange controls, have benefited government cronies while creating massive consumer shortages.
According to some reports, one-third of basic goods have been missing from the shelves, and six out of every ten medicines (including cancer and HIV drugs) are no longer available. Venezuelans now spend hours queueing in front of supermarkets and pharmacies in search of basic goods, and have been banned from doing so at night in several states.
Meanwhile, in 2014, the annual homicide rate continued to outstrip Iraq’s: Venezuela’s nearly 25,000 murders make it second only to Honduras in the murder stakes. More than 90% of homicides have gone unpunished.
Maduro has responded to the crisis with force.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have expressed serious concerns about the growing human rights crisis in Venezuela. After days of massive demonstrations against his government in 2014, Maduro authorised lethal force against the assembled protesters. Arrested students faced torture in custody, more than 3,000 people were wounded, and 43 were killed.
Then, in February 2015, a 14-year-old schoolboy was shot dead by police during a demonstration in San Cristobal.
Arbitrary detentions have also surged sevenfold since Chávez’s time, and opposition leaders have faced levels of persecution unseen in Venezuela since the military dictatorship of the 1950s.
Leopoldo Lopez, leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, was accused of masterminding the recent student protests. He has now been in prison for over a year, mainly in solitary confinement.
In December 2014 María Corina Machado, one of the most vocal opponents of the government, was formally investigated for a supposed plot to assassinate Maduro. That same year she was stripped of her National Assembly seat and parliamentary immunity, and has faced legal harassment ever since. She is barred from leaving the country.
And in February 2015, Antonio Ledezma, elected mayor of metropolitan Caracas, was arbitrarily arrested without warrant, seized in his office in a commando-style operation by Sebin, the state security service.
According to Maduro, the mayor was arrested because of a one-page statement that López, Machado and Ledezma had published in the newspaper El Nacional, which called for the creation of a transitional government. Maduro claims that their statement amounted to an attempted coup d’état.
With his crackdown on the top opposition leaders, and brutal repression of protesters in the streets, Maduro appears to be setting the stage for a state of emergency of the type once threatened by Chávez.
This would mean the cancellation of the 2015 parliamentary election – an election which, if it took place today, would see Maduro lose his majority in the house. That in turn would probably lead to a recall referendum on Maduro’s unpopular presidency in 2016.
Avoiding that scenario may be Maduro’s only hope for holding on to power – and he has made it all too clear that he is prepared to do whatever it takes.