Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela's Cornered Robin

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent leaders in business, sports, politics and other fields.

If all had gone according to plan, Nicolás Maduro would be the superhero at the helm of an autonomous Latin America, rolling in oil cash, lording over the success of a mighty political project that let his people flourish. But instead of orgullo (pride), Venezuela got a diaper shortage … and impending hyperinflation.

Blame, for a start, one of the great ironies of Venezuela: This is perhaps the only country on Earth where cheap oil is bad news, and in fact sends the economy up in flames. The pennies-per-gallon prices here are a sign of the country’s dependence on the fossil fuel. And Maduro, the man with serious superpowers — who is currently enjoying the power to legislate by decree for the rest of 2015 — doesn’t seem to have a save-the-day plan during an election year.

The tall, dark-haired, mustachioed leader (the latter which appears, stooge-ishly, like it’s been glued on, a la John Oates) was expected to be the bright new face of Chavismo, the iconic leftist Latin American political movement of the past 16 years — his predecessor Hugo Chávez’s personal political project. But though Chávez passed the cape to him, Maduro has struggled to don it. Perhaps because of how he came to power: under contestation — winning by just a 1.5 percent margin. And the other trouble … charisma, or lack thereof. While Chávez held sway with a personality and charm that roped supporters in, 52-year-old Maduro’s stiff, bureaucratic manner doesn’t quite fly. All of which drives observers like NYU professor of Latin American history Alejandro Velasco to label the Roman Catholic former bus driver “weak” and “cornered.” While Chávez’s approval reached nearly 70 percent, Maduro’s has dropped to almost 20 percent in this country of some 30 million. So … maybe forget the Chávez comparison, as he may have “squandered that legacy,” says David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.

Top 5 Questions Facing Venezuela Today

  1. With hyperinflation looming and a currency valued at just a thousandth of what it was in 1999, just how low will the Venezuelan bolívar go?

  2. Will Maduro’s government somehow find a way to overcome recent polling and win the December elections?

  3. If the government loses, how will it respond?

  4. Will Maduro eventually face a recall referendum?

  5. Given a recent spate of arrests and imprisonments of opposition figures, who will emerge as Venezuela’s leading opposition figure?

To be fair, the country that cancer-ridden Chávez bequeathed to Maduro was already sinking: shortages, inflation, unemployment, an oil crash. Venezuela sits atop the global misery index, hemorrhaging citizens to Uruguay in search of a better life. Indeed, trouble might be in the country’s DNA: Scholars like Velasco say that Maduro is “the embodiment of the failure of the petrostate” and its troubles amid a fracking boom and a stubborn OPEC.

But Maduro might have one advantage: Serving as the country’s foreign minister, he swept through Latin America for almost seven years, during a Bolivian revolution and a rising leftist sentiment on the continent. And the guy from a somewhat parochial background is surprisingly global: Raised Catholic, he hails from Sephardic Jewish stock and, apparently, according to The New York Times, is a big fan of the Hindu guru Sai Baba.

Which may be why he has looked abroad to explain Venezuela’s current problems, blaming nefarious international economic interests and labeling them villains. George W. Bush: “Mr. Danger.” Panama: a “lackey” for the United States. The Organization of American States: “useless.” He told the U.N. that “forces of the empire” had plotted against Venezuela. And in March, hours after the U.S. declared Venezuela a security threat, Maduro angrily responded in a televised speech full of eyebrow-wiggles and wild hand-waving that Obama will be remembered for his act of aggression against the “noble” and “peaceful” people of Venezuela. He countered: “You are the threat to the people of the United States.”

Given all the travails of the failed next-gen Chavista, how could it be that his party might be the best option that Venezuelans have?

All this might cause us to forget the once-colorful Batman-Robin rapport between Chávez and his young protégé, the working-class boy born into a heavily union-friendly family on the outskirts of Caracas who never got a high school diploma. Maduro spent his 20s as a bus union leader and even a bodyguard for another leftist political candidate, before turning his energy to fighting for the release of one Hugo Chávez, imprisoned for a 1992 failed coup attempt. After his hero’s release in 1994, Maduro began his rise out of obscurity to power, helping to found a new political party with Chávez, and in the same year his counterpart was elected president, Maduro was elected to the legislature. There he would help write a new constitution and would briefly become the president of the National Assembly, before Chávez swept him into the post of foreign minister in 2006 and, eventually, vice president. Maduro’s wife, herself a lawyer, took over his position as legislative president, becoming the first woman to serve in that post.

Nicolas Maduro
Nicolas Maduro

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro during a visit to Panama City.

Source: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty

But given all the travails of the failed next-gen Chavista, how could it be that his party might be the best option that Venezuelans have when they head to the polls on Dec. 6 to vote in their country’s legislative election? Simple: “a lack of any credible alternative,” Velasco says. Voters see a mess of polar alternatives: Henrique Capriles Radonski has focused on a social mission to raise up the poor, for example, while hard-line opposition leader María Corina Machado calls for a sturdy work ethic over a dole. Experts like Velasco believe “that creates a sense of fear” and a conservative default to the status quo. Today, more than a third of Venezuelans are ni-nis: They support neither Chavismo nor the opposition. In other words, like Gotham, the country may not deserve a hero … but they sure do need one.

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