Radicals, former soldiers and Cuban spies jostle for control of the Venezuelan ring
The Economist — Jul 6th 2013 | CARACAS
DURING the presidency of Hugo Chávez, who ruled from 1999 until his death from cancer in March, the domineering personality of the comandante left no doubt as to who was in charge of Venezuela. By contrast Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, a former foreign minister, has yet to convince people that he is the one running the show. His disputed, razor-thin election victory on April 14th undermined his legitimacy (indeed, the supreme court has yet to resolve the opposition’s claim of fraud). Now the president faces problems within the ranks of the ruling coalition, and in particular his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In the absence of Chávez, there are worries that the PSUV will turn out to be held together, as the colourful Venezuelan metaphor has it, “with parrot spit”.
Fourteen years of chavismo have left the country in a mess. Despite the high price of oil, growth this year will be minimal or negative. Thousands of private companies have gone under, dragged down by regulations and threatened with fines, temporary closure or expropriation. Others have switched from production to importing. Even that is losing its appeal, now that foreign-exchange control mechanisms have seized up and dollars are scarce. Mr Maduro has sought to deal with the concerns of ordinary Venezuelans, as well as striking radical poses to please hard-core chavistas. Crime, poor public services, corruption and food-scarcity have been targeted with loudly trumpeted initiatives. But actually solving these problems will mean confronting powerful interests, and here Mr Maduro has little room for manoeuvre.
Moderates were encouraged when early in his presidency Mr Maduro sidelined Jorge Giordani, Chávez’s Marxist finance minister, and brought in Nelson Merentes, a former governor of the Central Bank who is seen as more ideologically flexible. But subsequent appointments seem designed to appease other interests. Amid talks with the private sector on how to get the wheels of commerce turning again, Mr Maduro last month reappointed Eduardo Samán head of the powerful consumer-protection body, a post he held under Chávez. A self-proclaimed “ultra-radical”, Mr Samán believes that inflation (heading for 40% a year) and empty supermarket shelves are caused by private-sector hoarding and speculation. “Humanity”, he has written, “will succeed in solving the food crisis only with the end of capitalism.”
Tentative efforts to tame corruption have also been undermined by a need to stay on friendly terms with the Chávez clan. On June 12th Argenis Chávez, the late president’s crafty youngest brother, was appointed head of the body that controls the administration of the justice system. On his brother’s watch, the younger Chávez had led the electricity ministry as well as Corpoelec, the graft-riddled state-run electricity giant. On becoming president, Mr Maduro quickly booted him out of both jobs. His return to office demonstrates the enduring power of the Chávez clan, as well as Mr Maduro’s willingness to subordinate the justice system to his political requirements.
Managing these rival factions has forced the PSUV to suspend internal party democracy. Grass-roots chavista radicals had backed Mr Samán’s bid to stand for mayor of Caracas. But party leaders, who see Mr Samán as a loose cannon, ruled out holding a primary that he might have won. Now the PSUV has cancelled all the primaries that were to have been held ahead of local elections, which have been postponed until December 8th. It remains to be seen whether choosing candidates by executive fiat will ruffle fewer feathers than the primaries would have done.
Our man in Havana
Rumours swirl that Mr Maduro could face a more immediate challenge to his own leadership. In a recorded conversation that was leaked on May 20th Mario Silva, the presenter of a state-television talk-show called “The Razor Blade”, was heard apparently passing information to a Cuban intelligence officer. In the recording Mr Silva warned the spy that Diosdado Cabello, the speaker of the National Assembly, wanted to overthrow Mr Maduro. It was a matter of urgency, he said, to cut off Mr Cabello’s sources of income, including the tax authority, which is run by his brother, José David Cabello. A few weeks later police arrested members of an alleged gang within the customs agency, which is part of the tax authority.
A former lieutenant who took part in a failed coup by Chávez in 1992, Mr Cabello has powerful friends in the army. The annual round of military promotions, due to be announced as The Economist went to press, may strengthen his hand. Henrique Capriles, the leader of the opposition, jeers that Mr Maduro’s role is confined to signing the promotions list. “Nicolás, you’re a laughing stock in the armed forces,” Mr Capriles tweeted.
During the presidential election campaign, Mr Maduro was seen as the favoured candidate not just of his predecessor but also of Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. A month ago, however, Mr Cabello made a three-day visit to Havana, holding meetings with President Raúl Castro and his brother, Fidel. The trip came shortly after the leaking of the Silva recording. No one knows what sort of deal the Cubans may have struck with Mr Cabello. For the moment, he and Mr Maduro are locked in a macho Latin embrace, of the kind some say was devised as a way for each man to frisk the other for weapons.