In Venezuela, One President Too Many

A body double of Venezuelan president Maduro causes a stir at the Summit of the Americas.

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With their country often in the news for scarcities of medicines and basic foodstuffs, Venezuelans can at least take solace in enjoying an overabundance of Nicolás Maduros. At the Seventh Summit of the Americas, held in Panama last week, the Caracas delegation proudly had at least two presidentes on display.

The international media lying in wait outside the Panama City Sheraton Hotel last Saturday were momentarily misled when a stocky individual, sporting Maduro’s trademark mustache, strode out presidentially. Hand-in-hand with a petite woman somewhat reminiscent of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, the pair seemed headed in the direction of the Atlapa Convention Center, accompanied by a red-bereted honor guard and other sundry officials.

Embarrassingly, the performance proved short-lived. Fuller of figure than his presidential counterpart, with a wider nose and a distinctly rounder hairline, Budget Maduro didn’t fool the paparazzi for long. They wised up in time to film the real Maduro scurrying into a nearby vehicle which promptly took off, tires screeching.

The entire chain of events was captured by multiple television crews filming from different angles (e.g., here, and here) and although Venezuela’s robust pro-government media apparatus has dismissed the video evidence as a misunderstanding, or else a CNN counterfeit, the incident has still become something of a social media sensation, and a source of considerable derision for both Maduros, not just in Venezuela but internationally.

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles chimed in on Twitter: “If this double thing is true, then it is truly an embarrassment. Typical of those who dare not show their face to the people.” Celebrated Venezuelan journalist Nelson Bocaranda voiced more practical concerns about the affordability of such “buffoonery,” criticizing the unusual security measures as paranoid and unnecessary at a time when the national economy is collapsing and there aren’t enough dollars for imports or for Venezuelans to travel abroad.

Surely there must be less flashy ways to duck the media. And if this really was about security, why did none of the other leaders in attendance, including Barack Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro, require such elaborate measures? These leaders would seem, at first blush, to be more likely targets. Then again, Panama does have a large community of Venezuelan expats hostile to the revolution who recently greeted Maduro by organizing welcome mobs and banging pots and pans in protest of his presence. Some commentators have even pointed out that Maduro at times seemed to be wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit during the summit.

Another interpretation would be that such highly visible precautions, rather than stemming from earnest paranoia, were actually more of a cry for attention — a bit of farcical political theater intended to remind Maduro’s wavering leftist compatriots that the U.S. remains a dangerous enemy. Scarcely two months ago, Maduro claimed to have found incontrovertible evidence linking Vice President Joe Biden to a murderous coup attempt against him. While expressing vague solidarity for Maduro’s alleged near-assassination, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, a supposed ally, recently accepted a personal invitation from Biden to visit the White House, and Cuba’s Raul Castro was all smiles at the summit, even participating in historic handshakes with Obama. Not cool, guys.

The summit is an event where the late president Chávez often took center stage, but where Maduro has been wholly overshadowed by the developing rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, the latter in attendance for the first time since 1962. That’s not to say the famously gaffe-prone former bus driver lacked memorable moments: An achingly awkward attempt to sidle up to President Obama was captured on film, and a fiery 40-minute speech addressing the American president was given with the commander in chief absent from the room (à la Clint Eastwood). At one point, Maduro seemed to cite his affinity for British guitar legend Eric Clapton as evidence that he bore the U.S. no ill will.

From a historical standpoint, the list of world leaders who’ve resorted to hiring decoys for themselves reads a bit like a who’s who of mustachioed madmen — Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam and Uday Hussein – individuals with a reasonable expectation of mortal danger at every turn. Not everyone is cut out for such theatrics. The act of picking out one’s own body double must be greatly discomfiting: Every unconscious mannerism, each nagging bodily insecurity must be spotlighted, and considered objectively, if the ruse is to be a success. And while wrestling with one’s own inner demons is one thing, picking out a body double for your wife seems a particularly dangerous game — particularly for a man so clearly concerned with his own mortality.

So what does Maduro himself have to say? He’s spoken of the affair only once since returning, playing it cool on his television program “Contact with Maduro.” Following a heartwarming anecdote about a little boy he met in a Panamanian barrio who also resembled him, Maduro segued to the topic on everyone’s mind: “Apparently I have a double. Did you hear about this? Some folks were just walking down the street, and one of them kind of looked like me, and now people are saying it was my double, they’ve gone crazy on Twitter.” Maduro was probably just being specious, but if not, he should take more care about letting his guards and retainers hang out with random doppelgangers, lest they decide they actually prefer the double to the original.

Photo credit: FEDERICO PARRA/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

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