Transitions

Venezuela’s presidential campaign is devolving into a spectacle

Nicolás Maduro, the interim president of Venezuela, held a campaign rally the other night, where his supporters held up an oversized check — similar to those used on game shows — symbolically made out to "the people of Venezuela." The check was for 1.8 Billion bolivars, roughly 72 million U.S. dollars at market rates. Maduro ...

LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images
LUIS ACOSTA/AFP/Getty Images

Nicolás Maduro, the interim president of Venezuela, held a campaign rally the other night, where his supporters held up an oversized check -- similar to those used on game shows -- symbolically made out to "the people of Venezuela." The check was for 1.8 Billion bolivars, roughly 72 million U.S. dollars at market rates.

Maduro explained that the money came from dividends paid out by the Venezuelan phone company, CANTV, which Hugo Chávez renationalized in 2007. Curiously, the check was tied to dozens of helium-filled red balloons. Maduro proceeded to say that these "dividends" belonged to the late Hugo Chávez, who, by nationalizing the company, created the economic system that allowed such dividends to materialize. As the people let go of the check and it floated in the air, Maduro hailed it as a thank-you gift to the late president.

The ridiculous gimmick symbolizes the evolution of Venezuelan politics into a sad spectacle. As Maduro gets ready to face opponent Henrique Capriles in a snap presidential election to be held on April 14th, one has to wonder whether the former vice-president has lost his marbles. Given that he is comfortably leading in the polls, one also has to wonder if the Venezuelan electorate has lost theirs as well.

Nicolás Maduro, the interim president of Venezuela, held a campaign rally the other night, where his supporters held up an oversized check — similar to those used on game shows — symbolically made out to "the people of Venezuela." The check was for 1.8 Billion bolivars, roughly 72 million U.S. dollars at market rates.

Maduro explained that the money came from dividends paid out by the Venezuelan phone company, CANTV, which Hugo Chávez renationalized in 2007. Curiously, the check was tied to dozens of helium-filled red balloons. Maduro proceeded to say that these "dividends" belonged to the late Hugo Chávez, who, by nationalizing the company, created the economic system that allowed such dividends to materialize. As the people let go of the check and it floated in the air, Maduro hailed it as a thank-you gift to the late president.

The ridiculous gimmick symbolizes the evolution of Venezuelan politics into a sad spectacle. As Maduro gets ready to face opponent Henrique Capriles in a snap presidential election to be held on April 14th, one has to wonder whether the former vice-president has lost his marbles. Given that he is comfortably leading in the polls, one also has to wonder if the Venezuelan electorate has lost theirs as well.

The erratic behavior of the interim president is the new normal. When Hugo Chávez died, Maduro announced he was sure the late President had been "inoculated" with cancer. Most doctors have quickly clarified that this is impossible (in case you were wondering). Maduro maintained his claim, going on to say that he would hire the best scientists in the world to prove it.

At a recent campaign event, Maduro donned a Venezuelan flag as a cape, the obvious metaphor being that Maduro is a superhero. He also pointed out a man in the crowd dressed as a popular Latin American comic, and distracted the crowd by throwing out tired old one-liners and catch phrases from the comic’s thirty-year-old show. The cape and the comic were the only notable things regarding his speech, which was otherwise uninspiring. Maduro has also taken to mocking Capriles by a strange little dance supposedly depicting him, which his followers then imitated. He has also taunted Capriles by suggesting he is gay.

The spectacle continues. Maduro announced that Hugo Chávez would be embalmed, only to backtrack a few days later. He announced a constitutional amendment to allow Chávez to be buried in the National Pantheon, and then inexplicably shelved it. He has said that Chávez influenced the election of the new Pope. Maduro’s partner, Cilia Flores, recently said that Chávez had "won the battle" because he has now multiplied and become immortalized. Further elevating Chavez’s figure to that of Christ, Maduro recently said that he did everything "for him [Chávez], with him, and in him," and that attacks against himself and his aides were akin to an attack on Chávez, because they were all his "apostles."

Nothing is too over-the-top for this politician.

Maduro’s bizarre view of the world doesn’t only materialize on the campaign trail. This week, Venezuela was the only country on the U.N. Human Rights Council to vote against the extension of a probe into human rights abuses in Syria’s civil war. Mind you, this was not a resolution sanctioning Syria for human rights violations, but merely an extension of a probe, something the Venezuelan government denounced as a "continued and sustained international media campaign destined to demonize the efforts of the Syrian government, based on manipulating the information about what happens in Syria."

Maduro’s support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is legendary. When Maduro was foreign minister, Venezuela shocked the world by sending Assad diesel fuel. At the time, it was thought that Maduro was merely following Hugo Chávez’s orders. Now it seems that Chávez’s outlandish foreign policy is here to stay.

In Comandante, a thorough autopsy of Chávez’s Venezuela, Rory Carroll captures the degeneration of the country’s public sphere into something of a farce, which he sees more as tragic than comic. He writes: "Like wounded beasts, revolutions in decline often lapse into violence, so it was merciful that Venezuelans settled for absurdity. But at what point did a nation’s slide into black comedy stop being funny?"

Chávez said crazy things in his day, but at least he said them with a certain rhetorical flair that almost made you admire them. Maduro, on the other hand, simply comes across as bonkers.

Venezuelans have enormous problems on their backs. Instead of having a serious debate about how to solve them, they are about to elect a man who is not exactly in command of his mind. Hugo Chávez liked to say that only he could guarantee stability in his country. With the Comandante Presidente gone, it seems like Venezuelans are standing on the edge of a cliff, and are about to take a blind step forward.    

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his blog posts here.

Juan Cristóbal Nagel is a professor of economics at the Universidadde los Andes in Santiago, Chile, editor of Caracas Chronicles, and co-author of the book Blogging the Revolution. Twitter: @juannagel

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