Foreign and Defense Policy, Latin America

Chavista candidate in Venezuela: Quirky populism or sobering incompetence?

Yesterday, we saw new evidence of the potential disaster that awaits the Venezuelan people if acting President Nicolas Maduro wins a full term in the April 14 special election. Maduro’s campaign speeches consist of goofy gestures, lame jokes, and trivial anecdotes – mixed in with macabre accusations about plots to murder his opponent – that may be desperate attempts to mask his incompetence but only serve to demonstrate his ineptitude and inability to lead.

In this video from Tuesday, Maduro is seated among his closest associates telling a story bordering on lunacy. Maduro says that Chavez appeared to him in the form of a bird flittering above his head that “informed” him of his desire to continue the “revolution.” Far from coming off as charming or whimsical, Maduro leaves his audience waiting for a punch line that never comes. Maduro does not say why his hero Hugo Chávez – whom Maduro has described as a Latin American messiah – would take the shape of a “little bird.” Does he really think so little of Venezuelan voters that he thinks they want a man with Dr. Doolittle delusions as their president?

The fact that Maduro is stumbling through a four-week campaign would not be a problem were it not for the rigged chavista electoral apparatus that guarantees him a victory. In virtually any other serious country, such a bumbling candidate would be dispatched at the ballot box. But in Venezuela, this silly character will take power by hook or by crook.

No one can forget the eccentricities of Chávez – his nationally-televised speeches filled with folkloric buffoonery, senseless streams of consciousness, and populist demagoguery. However, we came to realize that these performances masked a relentless, malicious agenda. Whether Maduro’s silliness is masking a hard-edged agenda or his sheer incompetence is a matter being debated in Venezuela today.

Everything seems to indicate that Maduro’s true personality is being revealed in these televised speeches: a clumsy overcompensation for a lack of charisma, a pathetic and pale imitation of his predecessor, and a candidate who knows he is seeking a job that he cannot do.

None of these explanations can be reassuring to his closest collaborators who are terrified of losing power. Members of Venezuela’s Armed Forces are probably vexed by the idea of taking orders from a man who claims to receive instructions from the dead through the chirps and tweets of tiny birds. And, as silly as all of this sounds, what does it say about an electoral process where such a man is guaranteed to win?

The Cuban puppeteers who are managing Maduro’s succession are in no position to know how to communicate with an intelligent electorate about a vision for the future in one of the most important countries in South America. The Cubans do know that Maduro is the de facto president of Venezuela because he claimed the office, and no one resisted. The Cubans know that when Maduro describes his encounter with Hugo Chávez, in the form of a little bird, the stooges at his side and in the audience try to look amused rather than terrified. After all, if an inept candidate like Nicolas Maduro can be president of Venezuela, Chávez can be a bird – and vice versa.

On April 14, when Venezuelans go to the polls, fierce revolutionaries will forget Maduro’s ineptitude and vote for him to advance their political cause. Some will forget his lack of charisma, and vote for him because he was named by their fallen leader, Chávez. But will a majority of Venezuelans vote for a man who is so desperately aware of his own incompetence that he has nothing more intelligent to say to them than that he was endorsed by a bird?

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