By Roger F. Noriega, Miami Herald
Imagine if The Godfather character, Don Vito Corleone, died and left his hapless son, Fredo, in charge of the family business. That is essentially what happened in Venezuela when the caudillo Hugo Chávez died last year and Nicolás Maduro took power. As a result, the inevitable economic collapse and raging internal power struggle in that nation will have very grave consequences for the stability and security of the Americas.
Observers snickered last week when Maduro, on his way home from a visit to Beijing, canceled his appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York citing plots that he said were being hatched against him by me. As I have stated categorically in the past, Maduro’s accusation is untrue. So, why would this wannabe caudillo pass up his first chance to strut on the world stage as Hugo Chávez’s successor? Because his hold on power is threatened back home.
Maduro’s original sin is that he has no legitimacy in the eyes of Venezuelans from across the political spectrum. The traditional opposition contends that he stole the election; many even question his citizenship. But, even a former close associate of Chávez has explained that Venezuela no longer has a “chavista” government, because Maduro owes his allegiance to the Castro brothers.
It is hard to argue with the fact that everything Maduro has he owes to Havana.
Cuban intelligence scouts spotted Maduro as a pliable acolyte decades ago. Maduro was a trusted insider who watched as Cuban doctors mishandled Chávez’s cancer treatment and, according to a recent defector, euthanized him in a Cuban hospital. Havana imposed Maduro as president after Chávez’s death, ignoring the constitutional succession. Cuban technicians engineered Maduro’s electoral victory in April. And Cuban henchmen now are helping to lead a purge of regime officials (particularly those with a military background) whose loyalty is suspected.
Maduro has other problems. Venezuela’s economy is collapsing after 15 years of wanton corruption and mismanagement. Prolonged shortages of the basic staples and recurring massive power outages demonstrate the abject failure of the regime. The country’s once powerful oil sector is devastated and debt-ridden, unable to sustain the social spending needed to placate the very poor. The systematic decimation of the rule of law has made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Of course, Maduro is the last person on Earth to know how to manage this mess. His Cuban advisors have decades of experience on how to wreck an economy but have little to offer when it comes to saving one. Instead, according to regime insiders, they have advised Maduro to blame others for his failures and brace for impact.
Early last month, Maduro alleged that meetings were held in the White House to devise a plan to sabotage the delivery of food, electricity and fuel to bring about the “total collapse” of the Venezuelan economy in October. Maduro knows as well as anyone that an economic catastrophe is headed his way. And he has apparently convinced himself that he can survive the calamity that ensues if he can blame pin the blame on Washington. That has a certain Cuban ring to it.
Part of the plan to brace for impact, according to a senior Venezuelan defector, is an aggressive purge now underway to remove from power anyone who may object to increased repressive measures that may be needed to ride out an economic meltdown. According to this account, the radical and ruthless official Tarek El-Aissami has been charged with uprooting anyone whose loyalty is uncertain. In addition, El-Aissami is being groomed by the Cubans to replace Chávez’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, as vice president of the country.
Many inattentive observers dismissed the late Chávez as a clown, because he wore funny hats, sang ranchera songs and sucked up to Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Chinese dictators. However, Chávez knew what he was doing, as he made himself a protagonist on the world stage and a global champion of “anti-imperialism.” He admired Fidel Castro and relied on the old dictator’s advice, but he had the guile and strength to modulate Havana’s dangerous interference. Maduro does not.
Maduro’s rivals within the regime — many of whom were brothers in arms with Chávez — may not wait for the Cubans to kick in their doors. If they act to settle “all the family business,” it is not hard to picture Maduro delivering Fredo Corleone’s desperate protest, “I can handle things! I’m smart! Not like everybody says!”
Roger F. Noriega is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He was assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and ambassador to the Organization of American States in the administration of former President George W. Bush from 2001-2005. His firm, Vision Americas LLC, represents U.S., foreign clients.