Venezuela is sinking with Maduro standing stiffly on deck.
I was privileged to observe the president up close while attending the summit of Latin-American heads of state in Havana in January of 2014. It was an eventful and successful year for Cuban diplomacy. It opened with the entire continent coming together in Havana and the presidents subscribing to Cuba’s vision of its identity. The year closed with the reconciliation with the United States in mid-December. It’s hard to believe that both events are only five years behind us, so much have Latin America and the world changed.
Being invited to the inner cenacles where the presidents interacted personally was fascinating. I really felt like the fly on the wall. The days were long, extending late into the night: Fidel had retired but he was watching discreetly– and his nocturnal habits were still observed. So there was ample time to observe the presidents. What kind of figure did Maduro cut among his assembled colleagues?
It was an interesting crowd. There were leftist old-timers like Nicaragua’s Ortega, trying rather unsuccessfully to play the elder statesman; stars like Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner and Ecuador’s Correa; the telenovela-like first couple of Mexico, the plastic Peña Nieto’s. The very authentic Evo Morales of Bolivia. But there was the real star, a shabby old man, president Mujica of Uruguay who had survived torture and ten years of solitary confinement at the hands of his enemies of the Right. He came out an undaunted humanist, ending his short intervention in the formal debate with the unforgettable sentence La vida humana es un milagro en el inmenso silencio mineral del universo — ‘Human life is a miracle in the immense mineral silence of the universe’.
Oh yes- let’s not forget Maduro… In the informal gatherings he was as stiff as when he spoke in the debate, working himself up to a forced rhetorical climax. At their best moments, the presidents came together like a real family, friendships and rivalries and all. But Maduro did not fit in well. Both in words and body language, between shyness and grandstanding, he missed the timing and the talent of Hugo Chavez. Strong leaders seldom choose substantial deputies.
Granted, Maduro was new to the job. Chavez had passed in 2013, after shuttling back and forth between Caracas and Havana for his cancer treatment. He had been a ghostly presence– we saw his motorcade speeding up and down Quinta Avenida between meetings with Raúl Castro and the discreet clinics in Siboney. The Cuban hosts obviously treated Maduro as the rightful heir to Chavez their great benefactor, but became aware of his erratic personality. He created difficulties for his security detail, including when he kicked the driver out of his limousine and sped off driving himself, much to the horror of the ever stylish Cuban protocol officials.Trying to play a character, he only managed to be reckless. An omen of things to come, perhaps?
When most of Venezuela was plunged in the dark last week, I was of course reminded of the epic power cuts we lived in Havana in the mid-1990s. But Cuba, embattled and embargoed for half a century, had good reasons to explain its crumbling infrastructure. Venezuela has not. Invoking US intervention with an’ electricity war’ is unnecessary: homegrown incompetence and neglect did the job. The tragedy of Venezuela at present is that Maduro, stiff as ever, is unable to let go– but his opponent Juan Guaidó is young and inexperienced. Can he be a figure of national reconciliation? His making common cause with Trump and Pence, even seeming to invite US intervention at times, deeply troubles me, as it should anyone who remembers past US policy in the region– and I was a close witness to the invasion of Grenada, interventions in Haiti and the civil war in Nicaragua.
When Latin America came together in Havana in 2014, the common vision was on Maduro’s- or rather the late Chavez’– side. The tide has turned dramatically. Without ignoring the faults of the Left, I very much doubt that fascisto-populists like Brazil’s Bolsonaro ( whose middle name is Messias…) are the solution for the continent.
Maduro may want to go down with the ship. But he himself has scuttled it. Cuba, a very poor country next to Venezuela, has learned the hard way that one does not manage a society with slogans alone. Cuban survival skills have been and are admirable. They are sorely lacking in Caracas, as the wooden figure of a sinking Maduro all too well illustrates.