Maduro trades his old guard for shrewd technocrats to keep power

PUERTO CABELLO, Venezuela — His morning runs attract fans looking for selfies. His Dracula theme social media stunts attracted nearly ...


PUERTO CABELLO, Venezuela — His morning runs attract fans looking for selfies. His Dracula theme social media stunts attracted 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 of apparatchik within Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party: younger, more cosmopolitan and more willing to abandon ideology for practical measures that improve people’s lives.

Their approach stabilized the economy and put food back on the shelves after a devastating depressionwinning them popular support, or at least grudging acceptance – and strengthening the grip on power of the man they serve: authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro.

“Maduro has achieved his goal of hegemony in power,” said Yvan Serra, a political scientist at the University of Carabobo, 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 repressive, impoverished and isolated from the West under Mr. Maduro. He crushed opposition and internal dissent, leading millions to flee and the United States to impose crippling economic sanctions in an attempt to overthrow his government.

The change in style represented by Mr. Lacava was born out of the need to survive these sanctions, rather than Mr. Maduro’s genuine belief in political moderation and a market economy, said Luis Vicente León, director of the Venezuela’s largest polling company, Datanálisis.

The success of this new cohort could help the Maduro government raise its dismal ratings ahead of the 2024 presidential election, or at least make its reign tolerable for a population increasingly resigned to continuing the 23-year stranglehold of the Maduro government. Socialist Party on power. A victory without outright fraud by Mr Maduro or his chosen candidate could restore some legitimacy to his pariah government, reducing the need to maintain sanctions, political analysts say.

The youngest politicians were raised by Mr Maduro, 59, after ousting the septuagenarian comrades of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.

Among this generation, Mr. Lacava, 53, is a rising star. He won re-election abandoning the party’s anti-imperialist slogans and his usual attacks on the wealthy elites. Instead, he’s bet on his reputation for managerial skill and support for free enterprise — and for building colorful public works around his ramshackle state of Carabobo, decorated with life-size statues of dinosaurs, fantastical creatures, legends of the sport and even of himself.

The crowds he draws on his morning jogs are extraordinary in a country where just 16% say they support the ruling party, and where the president has largely stopped appearing in public after to be booed, skinned with a mango and targeted with several assassination plots.

Young politicians are fiercely competing for Mr Maduro’s attention and a share of power. But together they were instrumental in transforming Venezuela’s economy after US sanctions pushed the government to the brink of collapse in early 2019.

Mr Maduro needs those party members to succeed, but he is also wary of allowing them to overshadow him, Mr Serra said.

Mr. Chávez’s chief lieutenants came mostly from lowly provincial backgrounds and studied primarily at Venezuela’s military academy. Mr Maduro is a former bus driver who rose through the ranks of a transport union. By contrast, most of his economic and political strategy team had comfortable upbringings and privileged upbringings.

Mr. Lacava comes from a wealthy business family; he lived in Manhattan and studied at Rutgers University, New Jersey. Economic czarina Delcy Rodríguez, 52, has lived in France and the United States and Hector Rodríguez, 39, governor of the important state of Miranda, grew up in Sweden. Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia holds a master’s degree from Oxford University, while central bank chief Calixto Ortega, 38, is a graduate of Rice University in Houston.

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

Like most of Mr. Maduro’s senior figures, Mr. Lacava cannot make this trip. He was sanctioned for corruption in 2019, a charge he says is politically motivated.

“We have to rebuild this relationship,” he said at the time in fluent English, referring to the United States. “We can discuss a lot of things that separate us, except for one thing: the president of Venezuela is Nicolás Maduro.”

At government receptions and on state television, the sharp designer suits and trendy streetwear of this new generation have replaced the paramilitary fatigues and windbreakers in the colors of the Venezuelan flag favored by Chávez loyalists. Sudden corporate expropriations have been replaced by meetings with business leaders and calls for eternal revolution by shrewd social media campaigns aimed at the middle class.

The old guard was almost entirely driven from power.

Mr. Chávez’s brother, Argenis Chávez, suffered a humiliating defeat in the face of opposition when he ran for governor in the late president’s home state, Barinas. The few remaining governors who had been close to Mr. Chávez did not even go to the polls.

Former Vice President Diosdado Cabello, once seen as Mr Maduro’s main internal rival, was largely reduced to spouting vitriol at the regime’s enemies on his TV show, ‘Hitting With a Mace’. His companions from the military academy were retired by Mr. Maduro from senior positions into the armed forces in 2020, destroying Mr. Cabello’s last major bastion of support.

After the imposition of the sanctions, the economic team led by Ms. Rodríguez reversed the basic economic principles of Mr. Chávez: it abandoned price and currency controls, allowed the use of the US dollar and reduced regulations on the private sector.

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

The country’s economy grew for the first time in eight years in 2021, according to the Venezuelan Finance Observatory, a nonprofit run by two former opposition lawmakers, which forecasts gross domestic product to grow further. 8% this year. Hyperinflation eased and oil production recovered slightly as the government gave private partners more control over oil fields.

To be sure, Venezuela’s economy remains a shadow of what it was when Mr Maduro took power in 2013. It would have to grow 20% every year for a decade just to regain the standard of living that it had. offered in 2014, said Ángel Alvarado of the Finance Observatory.

But the stabilization has brought cautious optimism back to the streets, dampening protests and hampering opposition efforts to mobilize their supporters.

In Carabobo state, Mr. Lacava has reduced crime, repaired roads and painted formerly abandoned public spaces brightly, usually adding the bat logo representing Dracula, his alter ego. Public services and public places in the state have names such as PoliDrácula, GasDrácula, TransDrácula, DracuCafe, DracuFest and Drácula Plaza.

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

Unlike the Chávez era, the public spaces decorated by Mr. Lacava do not feature any government logo or the colors of the ruling party.

The recovery sometimes seems superficial. Few visitors to Mr. Lacava’s theme park and sports complex can freely spend on food stalls and dollar-priced attractions. The brightly painted facades of the colonial center of Puerto Cabello hide the crumbling interiors of the buildings.

Yet after years of seemingly endless collapse, most locals welcome the undogmatic optimism offered by Mr. Lacava. He beat his opponent by 30 percentage points in November. The opposition did not dispute the count.

“For me, he’s the best politician in the country,” said Kinan Masoud, a 35-year-old Puerto Cabello businessman who helped build the sports complex. “Do you know how long a child was happy to see a politician on the street and wanted to take a picture with him?”

Mr Maduro recognized Mr Lacava’s success by taking a rare trip to the provinces to attend his inauguration in December.

Yet while the president has given his key ministers and governors more leeway over economic policy, he has steadily monopolized power, preventing anyone from asserting national leadership and challenging his power, León said. the sounder.

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

Isayen Herrera and Mariana Martinez contributed reporting from Caracas.



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Newsrust - US Top News: Maduro trades his old guard for shrewd technocrats to keep power
Maduro trades his old guard for shrewd technocrats to keep power
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