Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has had quite a run of it lately.
A couple of months ago, his allies in the Supreme Court tried to dissolve the country’s opposition-controlled legislative branch. That prompted a swift backlash, with thousands of Venezuelans participating in regular, sustained protest efforts. Over the past few months, more than 120 people have been killed. And now, Maduro has convened a super-assembly to rewrite the constitution. Opposition leaders worry this body will effectively replace the country’s legislature and allow Maduro to crack down on dissent.
This naked power grab has prompted international condemnation and a threat of massive U.S. sanctions. President Trump said that Maduro has joined an “exclusive club” of dictators. How did this former bus driver and groupie become one of the most reviled leaders in the world?
Maduro began his political life as president of the student union at his local high school. He never graduated, but the son of two leftists left an impression. “He would address us during the assembly to talk about students’ rights and that sort of thing. He didn’t speak much and wasn’t agitating people into action but what he did say was usually poignant,” Grisel Rojas, a former classmate who is now the school’s principal, told the Guardian.
After a brief flirtation with rock music, Maduro became a bus driver in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital. Along with his father, he organized a local union. He was also active in the MBR-200, the civilian wing of Hugo Chávez’s military movement. He campaigned frequently for Chávez’s release from prison.
Once Chávez was released, Maduro joined his political operation, helping to rewrite the 1999 constitution and joining the National Assembly. When Chávez became president, he named Maduro foreign minister. In that role, he famously took on the United States, comparing Guantanamo Bay prison to the Holocaust.
When Chávez was dying of cancer, he urged Venezuela to elect Maduro, a man he described as “a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work, for leading, for handling the most difficult situations.”
Maduro campaigned as Chávez’s protege. On national television, he recounted how the president came to him from the grave in the form of a song bird. “All of a sudden, a little bird circled three times around me, stopped on a wooden beam, and began to sing a pretty song,” Maduro said. “Then I, too, began to whistle,” he said, whistling like a bird as he talked. “The little bird looked at me in a strange way. He sang, circled me once and flew away. And I felt his spirit. I felt him giving us a blessing, saying now the battle begins, go to victory.”
Maduro ran on a socialist platform, saying that it’s him or the oligarchy. He was narrowly elected in April 2013 by a margin of just 1.5 percent.
Since that narrow win, Maduro has been trying to channel his predecessor. As my colleagues reported: “Maduro often dresses like Chávez, talks like Chávez and has even told Venezuelans that he has slept in Chávez’s tomb. Wednesday’s anniversary events will give him the chance to remind ‘Chavista’ loyalists that he’s the late commandante’s chosen one. “Chávez sets the route, Maduro takes the wheel,” was the campaign slogan he ran on, playing up his blue-collar bus-driver background.”
He also mimicked Chávez’s tough talk toward enemies, immediately expelling U.S. diplomats and accusing “historical enemies” of poisoning Chávez.
Maduro, however, lacks Chávez’s chavismo. “While Chavez was a very charismatic leader who was able to maintain cohesion among different groups within the government structure, Maduro doesn’t have that ability, and he also doesn’t have the money that Chavez had because the price of oil has plummeted,” Taraciuk Broner told NBC news. “He doesn’t have the funds to sustain all the social programs that Chavez had.”
Maduro has had to deal with an economic crisis that Chávez did not have to face. The country’s economy, heavily dependent on petroleum production, began to falter, then entered free fall as the price of crude oil plummeted. During Maduro’s four years in office, the country’s economy has shrunk by 23 percent. People are starving, and the Venezuelan government cannot get the food or medicine people need. About three-quarters of the country’s citizens have lost weight in the past year. And with growing levels of desperation, crime has spiked.
The economic crisis has turned into protests and a political crisis that has been exacerbated by Maduro. He has cracked down on his opponents, arresting opposition leaders on “conspiracy” charges. He censored unflattering news coverage and allowed his national guardsmen to club activists in the streets, bloody scenes that are captured on television. He lacks Chávez’s gift for language, instead railing against the “fascists” in the street in near nightly speeches. Even his propaganda suffers — Maduro was roundly mocked after he went on a television program and performed a song for Venezuelan unity.
As a result, the country’s opposition, long derided as weak and disorganized, has grown much stronger. Even members of Maduro’s working-class base have begun to question the leader’s fitness for office. Last year, a poll showed his approval rating in the low 20s. Time magazine called him the “world’s most embattled political leader.”