Maduro trades old guard for cunning technocrats to keep power

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Maduro trades old guard for cunning technocrats to keep power

PUERTO CABELLO, VENEZUELA – Her morning walk attracts fans to take selfies. His Dracula-themed social media stunts have garnered nearly a million followers. And when he ran for re-election as governor of his state in Venezuela in November, he won a landslide victory.

The governor, Rafael Lacava, is a new breed in Venezuela’s governing Socialist Party: younger, more cosmopolitan and more willing to abandon ideology for practical measures that improve people’s lives.

Their approach has stagnated the economy and returned food to shelves after a devastating depression, gaining them popular support, or at least serious acceptance – and tightening the grip on the power of the person they serve. Authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro.

“Maduro has reached his objective of hegemony,” said Yvan Serra, a political scientist at the University of Carabobo in Venezuela. “Now, he is trying to rebuild from the economic ruins.”

The rise of more pragmatic, market-oriented policymakers like Mr. Lacava is in some ways surprising in a country that has become increasingly oppressive, poor and isolated from the West under Mr. Maduro. They have crushed opposition and internal discontent, causing millions to flee and the United States imposing crippling economic sanctions to try to topple its government.

Luis Vicente León, director of Venezuela’s largest polling company, Dataanalysis, said the change in style presented by Mr Lacava stemmed from a need to avoid these restrictions, rather than Mr Maduro’s political restraint and genuine belief in a market economy.

The success of this new party could help the Maduro government raise its dismal ratings ahead of the 2024 presidential election, or at least continue the Socialist Party’s 23-year hold on power with a rapidly resigning population. to make his rule tolerable. Political analysts say a victory without outright fraud by Mr. Maduro or his chosen candidate could return some legitimacy to his Pariah government, which will reduce the need to maintain sanctions.

Young politicians were elevated by Mr Maduro, 59, when he sidelined the septuagenarian peers of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez.

Mr. Lakawa, 53, is a rising star in this generation. He won re-election by removing the party’s anti-imperialist slogans and its general attacks on the wealthy elite. Instead, he bet on his reputation for managerial ability and support of free enterprise – and for the creation of colorful public works around his dilapidated state of Carabobo, depicting dinosaurs, fictional creatures, sports legends and even that was decorated with life-size statues of himself.

The amount of crowd he draws during his morning walk is extraordinary in a country where just 16 percent say they support the ruling party, and where the president has made extensive public appearances. , pelted stones with a mango and targeted several murder conspiracies.

Young politicians compete fiercely for Mr. Maduro’s attention and a share of power. But together, they have been instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s economy since US sanctions pushed the government to the brink of collapse in early 2019.

Mr. Maduro needs these party members to succeed, but he is also wary of allowing them to overtake them, Mr. Serra said.

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Mr Chávez’s chief lieutenants came from mostly humble provincial backgrounds and studied primarily at the Venezuelan Military Academy. Mr. Maduro is a former bus driver who has risen through the ranks of a transport union. In contrast, most members of his economic and political strategy team had a comfortable upbringing and a privileged education.

Mr. LaKava comes from a wealthy business family; He once lived in Manhattan and attended Rutgers University in New Jersey. Economic tsarina Delcy Rodriguez, 52, lived in France and the United States, and Hector Rodriguez, 39, the governor of the important Miranda state, grew up in Sweden. Foreign Minister Felix Placencia has a master’s degree from Oxford University, while Central Bank chief Calixto Ortega, 38, has a degree from Rice University in Houston.

“I’m a Westerner,” Mr. LaCava said in an interview in late 2020, adding that he wanted to go to Silicon Valley and meet with Apple CEO Tim Cook to talk about investing in Venezuela. Were.

Like most of Mr. Maduro’s top officials, Mr. LaCava cannot travel. He was cleared of corruption in 2019, a charge he claims is politically motivated.

“We have to rebuild that relationship,” he said in fluent English at the time, referring to the United States. “We can discuss many things apart from one thing that separates us: the President of Venezuela is Nicolas Maduro.”

At government functions and on state television, this new generation of edgy designer suits and trendy streetwear has replaced paramilitary clothing and windbreakers in the colors of the Venezuelan flag favored by Mr Chávez’s loyalists. The sudden seizure of companies has been replaced by meetings with business leaders, and calls for eternal revolution by clever social media campaigns aimed at the middle class.

The old guard has been almost completely thrown out of power.

Mr Chávez’s brother, Argenis Chávez, suffered a humiliating defeat by the opposition while running for governor in the late president’s home state of Barinas. The few remaining governors who were close to Mr Chavez also did not attend the ballot.

The former vice president, Diosdado Cabello, once seen as Mr. Maduro’s main internal rival, has been largely reduced to taking a dig at the regime’s enemies on his television program, “Hitting with a Mess”. Maduro was retired from senior positions in the armed forces in 2020 by his comrade from the military academy, destroying the last major stronghold of support for Mr Cabello.

After the sanctions were imposed, the economic team led by Ms. Rodriguez reversed Mr. Chávez’s economic staple: he abandoned price and currency controls, allowed the use of the US dollar, and cut regulations on the private sector.

Economic liberalization has borne fruit, filling Venezuela’s once-empty shelves with goods and bringing a modest sense of well-being to the one in two Venezuelans who have access to the dollar. According to the US government and opposition, the economic opportunities Mr Maduro’s economic team has created have enriched some of them in the process.

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The country’s economy grew for the first time in eight years in 2021, according to the Venezuela Finance Observatory, a non-profit run by two former opposition lawmakers, which is projected to increase GDP by 8 percent this year. Hyperinflation has subsided, and oil production has improved marginally as the government has given more control over oil fields to private partners.

To be sure, Venezuela’s economy remains a shadow of the time Mr Maduro took power in 2013. It would need to rise 20 percent every year for a decade to regain the standard of living introduced in 2014, said ngel Alvarado from the Finance Observatory.

But stabilization has returned a cautious optimism to the streets, denting the opposition’s efforts to curb protests and mobilize supporters.

In Carabobo State, Mr. Lacawa has reduced crime, repaired roads and painted once-abandoned public spaces in bright colors, usually adding the BAT logo representing Dracula, his alter ego. . The state’s public services and public spaces have names such as Polly Dracula, GasDracula, TransDracula, Draku Cafe, Drakufest and Dracula Plaza.

The new outdoor sports complex in his native city, Puerto Cabello, is dominated by a giant statue of Diego Maradona, a friend of the late Argentine football player, Mr. Maduro, and features replicas of famous Venezuelan athletes. Among the sculptures are figures of Mr. Lakawa and his son, a relatively unknown professional football player.

Unlike the Chávez era, there are no government logos or the colors of the governing party in the public spaces decorated by Mr. Lacava.

Recovery seems superficial at times. Some visitors to Mr. LaKawa’s theme park and sports complex can spend freebies at food stalls and attractions, which are priced in dollars. Brightly painted façades hide the crumbling interiors of buildings in Puerto Cabello’s colonial center.

Still, after years of seemingly endless collapse, most residents welcome the dogma-free optimism offered by Mr. Lakawa. He had trounced his rival by 30 percentage points in November. The opposition did not poll the tally.

“To me, he is the best politician in the country,” said Kienan Massoud, a 35-year-old Puerto Cabello businessman who helped build the sports complex. “Do you know that one child was delighted to see a politician in the street, and wanted to take a photo with him?”

Mr. Maduro acknowledged Mr. Lacawa’s success by making a rare trip to the provinces to attend his inauguration in December.

Yet, as the president has given more leeway in economic policy to his top ministers and governors, he has consistently monopolized power, preventing anyone else from asserting national leadership and challenging his rule, Mr. Leon, Pollster said.

“Maduro doesn’t care about the opposition,” he said. “What really gives him nightmares is someone inside.”

isain herrera And mariana martínez Contributed reporting from Caracas.

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