After Venezuela’s mid-April presidential elections, a halo of uncertainty hovers around Nicolás Maduro, the man to whom the late Hugo Chávez bestowed the leadership of the Bolivarian Revolution. Maduro’s slim victory—50.66 percent versus 49.07 for opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski— not only signaled a bad omen for the chavismo movement, but it has also put Maduro’s ability to lead both Venezuela and the Leftist movement in Latin America to test. In his first 100 days as president, the Maduro administration shows no signs of improvement, and its political future looks bleak.
Maduro attempts to become a brand new leader of Bolivarianism while at the same keeping alive the image of Chávez, whom he calls a “father” – he recently celebrated what could have been Chávez’s 59th birthday amid pompous festivities. To bolster his image among Venezuelans, Maduro visited Pope Francis in Rome in June and appeared to receive an award by the Food and Agriculture Organization for “reducing hunger by half over the past 20 years.” In the same vein as Chávez, Maduro seeks to revive feuds with old rivals like former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe who, according to Maduro, created a plot to kill him. This way Maduro intends to ensure that Venezuelans hold him in high esteem.
Most recently, the opposition and prominent figures such as former Organization of American States (OAS) Ambassador to Panama Guillermo Cochez alleged that Maduro may have been born in Colombia, putting into question whether he should rule a country that is not his own. In the end, the so-called birth certificate from the Colombian city of Cúcuta proved to be a counterfeit.
Nevertheless, Maduro has been against the ropes ever since his election victory. His popularity, in particular, has plummeted. According to Venezuelan poll company Datanalisis, five days after he was sworn in as Chávez’s successor, he had a 41.6 percent approval, whereas 58.4 percent of Venezuelans had an unfavorable opinion of him.
This week, new surveys from five data analysis companies—Varianzas, IVAD, Consultores 21, Hernández Hercon and Datanalisis—indicated that, if taken together, the polls show an average 51.3 percent of Venezuelans blaming Maduro for their country’s dire situation. More importantly, they all suggest loyalty to Maduro by the chavistas—or Chávez followers – is deteriorating.
According to pollster Hernández Hercon, 58 percent of Venezuelans believe Maduro is taking the country in the wrong direction and that Caracas’s economic measures will not resolve Venezuela’s crisis. In addition to crime and rampant inflation, a lack of goods and infrastructure setbacks have deepened the crisis and disapproval of Maduro in the last couple of months. Two of the most resounding cases of economic stagnation are the housing shortage and the recent scarcity of toilet paper in May, to which Maduro ludicrously responded, “Venezuelans were eating too much, hence the scarcity of toilet paper.” Maduro had to import 50 million rolls to meet the demand of paper products. The housing shortage has led to an increase in squatting of abandoned buildings, racetracks, or motels, as in the case of the Tower of David, considered the world’s tallest slum. The reality is that Maduro’s inherited economic policies pose tighter control over currency exchange, which disables local producers and builders to import raw materials.
Though Maduro clinched the presidency, runner-up Radonski has yet to concede Maduro’s victory, leading to an ongoing legal dispute and tug of war with Maduro. In the ensuing days of Maduro’s victory, Radonski rallied across the country to demand a recount of all votes, claiming there were untapped ballot boxes. Radonski’s fight was not just against Maduro, he also had to grapple with the National Electoral Council (CNE), of which four of the five members belong to the chavismo movement. According to the aforementioned surveys, Radonski would have won by 50.5 percent, against 41 percent for Maduro, had re-elections taken place in July.
In early May, Radonski took his political agenda beyond Venezuelan borders in order to denounce what he considers a rigged election, thus alarming Maduro. Radonski’s meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in late May sparked criticism from Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who both claimed this could have brought negative repercussions to an already amended bilateral relationship. Though Chilean President Sebastián Piñera and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto did not welcome Radonski in their respective palaces to avoid diplomatic tensions with Venezuela, it did not deter the Venezuelan opposition leader to meet with local leaders from these countries.
At the regional scope, Maduro has lost his role as figurehead of the Latin American Left to Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa – the first to offer asylum to Edward Snowden. When the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna, it was Correa who spearheaded efforts to solve the diplomatic impasse.
Several scandals have highlighted the mounting pressure on Maduro and his party, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV). In early May, a fistfight broke out in the Venezuelan assembly between chavistas and opposition members, the latter claiming they weren’t granted a chance to speak before parliament. A YouTube video shows Housing Minister Ricardo Molina threatening to fire employees who do not show loyalty to Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution. On May 21, Journalist Mario Silva, one of the most emblematic figures of the chavismo movement, saw his TV show La Hojilla (“The Blade” in Spanish) taken off broadcast of the state-owned channel Venezolana de Televisión, when an audio tape revealed Silva’s corruption accusations against Cabello. In his 100-day speech, Maduro has also addressed power struggles within the PSUV and called on the population to say no to the revolution’s traitors.
A presidential honeymoon is said to last the first 100 days, but for Maduro this period has turned sour. If he doesn’t take immediate action to alleviate Venezuela’s problems, the outlook for his term is grim. Maduro must adopt pro-business policies, encourage investments in infrastructure, make the country’s foreign exchange regime more flexible to facilitate the import of production materials and give Venezuelans access to dollars or euros outside the black market, combat corruption within his own ranks, and restore the autonomy of judicial and electoral systems to ensure fair governance. In addition, he may have to recognize that the opposition is gaining steam, so eventually he will have to reach across the aisle to find common solutions to Venezuela’s woes. These measures may create more friction among the many different groups the chavismo encompasses, from the so-called boliburgueses (or capitalist-driven chavistas) to the moderate ones to the most radical. If Maduro wants to consolidate his political future and leave a positive legacy, he may have to face his own demons.
Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.
[Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil]