One afternoon this August, at the Venezuelan Presidential palace of Miraflores, a crowd waited for President Nicolás Maduro to set out the country’s political future. The palace is in downtown Caracas, where it is overlooked by slum-covered hills and by the Cuartel de la Montaña, a former fortress where Hugo Chávez, Maduro’s mentor and predecessor, is buried. The speech was taking place in the Salón Ayacucho, a beige-walled room enlivened by a huge expanse of red carpet and, on this day, by clusters of people wearing red. During Chávez’s tenure, his partisans—the chavistas—had adopted red as their preferred color, and so red T-shirts and baseball caps (Venezuela is obsessed with baseball) are as common at chavista gatherings as cowboy boots are at the Austin statehouse.
Maduro favors flowing red guayaberas, but he entered the room wearing a collarless black suit, in the style of Nehru or Mao. He is a bear of a man, standing some six feet five inches and weighing perhaps two hundred and seventy pounds, with dark hair, a mustache, and a swath of scar tissue on the left side of his face, from a motorcycle accident. Looking over the heads of security guards, he spotted a group of excited supporters, who had been invited to the palace from the countryside, and crossed the room to greet them. For several minutes, Maduro kissed the women, embraced the men, and posed for selfies. At last, he sat down at a desk facing the audience, flanked by a Venezuelan flag and a large portrait of Simón Bolívar, the nineteenth-century freedom fighter, for whom the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is named.
Maduro’s speeches are blunt and provocative, animated by a bumptious sense of humor and a voice that suggests someone who has spent a great deal of time rallying crowds without a microphone. As cameras rolled, he delivered an hour-long soliloquy—a mixture of folksy homilies, socialist slogans, jokes, and bluster, centered on his victory over his political opponents.
Since 2013, when Maduro took over the Presidency from Chávez, he has overseen a country in tumult. The economy is collapsing, and many citizens have endured devastating shortages of food and medicine; one study found that three-quarters of Venezuelans had involuntarily lost more than nineteen pounds in the past year. Maduro’s opponents have portrayed him as indecisive and weak, or as malevolent and corrupt. The National Assembly, where the opposition holds a majority, has censured him for “abandoning the Presidency” and consistently foiled his initiatives. Maduro, frustrated, decided to simply create his own legislature—a replacement body, filled with loyalists, that was empowered to rewrite the country’s constitution. Throughout the spring, his struggle with the opposition inspired a four-month confrontation between the government and protesters in which scores of people died and hundreds were injured. Finally, in July, Maduro successfully held elections for the new body, which he called the constituent assembly. The protests died out, and, for the first time since becoming President, he seemed firmly in control.
Still, Maduro’s international image had suffered. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, charged him with running a “dictatorship,” the European Union announced that it would not recognize the new assembly, and the South American trading bloc, Mercosur, suspended Venezuela from membership indefinitely. Donald Trump, characteristically, went a step further than everyone else. On August 11th, at his New Jersey golf course, he told reporters, “We have troops all over the world, in places that are very, very far away. Venezuela is not very far away. And the people are suffering, and they are dying. We have many options for Venezuela, including a possible military option.”
The U.S. announced sanctions against Maduro, putting him in what the national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, called a “very exclusive club” of tyrants, along with Bashar al-Assad, Kim Jong Un, and Robert Mugabe. Maduro professed not to care. “The threats and sanctions of the empire don’t intimidate me,” he said in a speech. “Bring on more sanctions, Donald Trump.” Maduro’s Vice-President, Tareck El Aissami, had also been sanctioned; last February, the U.S. Treasury Department claimed that he “oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of over 1,000 kilograms from Venezuela on multiple occasions.” He sat in the audience at the Salón Ayacucho, a tall, sandy-haired man with the look of a prosperous investment banker.
Maduro’s speech came thirty days after the elections for the constituent assembly, and he retained a triumphal tone. “The assembly must be the center of a popular constitutional process of refoundation, of regeneration, of pacification, of construction,” he said. Many international observers had described the elections as rigged, but Maduro insisted that the outcome reflected the will of the people. “If the assembly was a farce, as the world media is saying . . . then we would not have what happened—peace,” he said. “The assembly is peace.”
Maduro spoke of a gruesome incident that had been videotaped and circulated online: during the demonstrations, antigovernment activists had doused a chavista youth in gasoline and set him on fire. In the city of Maracaibo, he added, a chavista family’s home had been torched. “Everything in it was burned except for a little piece of wall with a picture of Chávez on it,” he said. He looked around: “A miracle.”
Although his own forces had been far more violent than the protesters, Maduro argued that the “burning of chavistas” recalled the Ku Klux Klan’s lynching of African-Americans. For several minutes, he digressed into colonial history, speaking about the conquest of the Americas and the slaughter of the native peoples. Adán Chávez, the late President’s brother, was in the audience. Turning to him, Maduro said, “Adán, what do we call what was done to our grandparents? Genocide.” As Chávez nodded, Maduro spoke of the Africans who were shipped to the Americas during the slave trade. Pointing to the skin of his arm, he said, “We feel proud to be the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Africans.” Looking out at the audience, he asked, “Who killed them all, the blacks and the Indians? Europe—the same European élites who are attacking Venezuela. And they’re doing it because we’re Indians, because we’re blacks, because we’re mestizos, because we’re Bolivarian. That’s what they have against Nicolás Maduro, humble President of Venezuela.” He smiled derisively. “They want to burn me on the pyre for being a dictator.”
The day after the speech, Maduro received me in his Presidential office, clapping me on the shoulder and laughing—a characteristic greeting, delivered with an easy physicality that is reminiscent of Hugo Chávez. The office was ornately decorated, with red carpets, delicately painted wall panels, and imposing portraits of Bolívar. Maduro led me to a glass cabinet and produced a sword. Holding it aloft, he said, “This sword was used by the Liberator himself in the Battle of Carabobo.” The battle, fought by Bolívar’s partisans and Spanish royalists in June, 1821, was the crucial victory in the Venezuelan war of independence.
Across the room was a polished wooden desk with three plush white chairs, each with a card pinned to its cushioned headrest. The one in the center had Chávez’s name on it, the one on the left had Maduro’s, and the one on the right had the name of Diosdado Cabello, an Army officer who had been his rival for Chávez’s approval. These were the chairs, Maduro told me, that Chávez used during his “last address to the fatherland,” on December 8, 2012. Standing behind the chairs, with his hand resting on the one Chávez had used, Maduro said that he had kept them exactly as they were, to preserve “the moment of history.”
At the time of the address, Chávez was battling cancer, and, although he had pronounced himself “cured” after receiving medical treatment in Cuba, his illness had returned. In a televised broadcast, Chávez declared that he had chosen Maduro, a fervent disciple, as his successor. Maduro sat at his side, looking overwhelmed by grief. Afterward, Chávez flew back to Cuba, and was never seen in public again; his death was announced four months later.
Maduro was not a natural leader, but he had been steeped in the ideas of the revolution since childhood. He was born in a working-class neighborhood of Caracas in 1962, a time when the Venezuelan left was entwined with the counterculture. Maduro has said that he was “a little bit hippie.” He rode (and crashed) motorcycles, played in a band inspired by Led Zeppelin and John Lennon, and studied the teachings of the Indian mystic Sai Baba, who exhorted his followers to “let love flow, so that it cleanses the world.” In politics, Maduro was more hard-nosed. His father had been a leftist trade unionist, and, at the age of twelve, Maduro joined the student union, where he became known as an outspoken partisan. He dropped out of school soon afterward, and later joined the leftist group the Socialist League, whose slogan was “Socialism is won by fighting.” In the seventies and eighties, the group committed various acts of guerrilla warfare, including, in 1976, the kidnapping of an American businessman named William Niehous, who was held in a jungle hut for more than three years before he was rescued by rural police.
At twenty-three, Maduro went to Havana, to attend the Julio Antonio Mella school, a political-training program run by the Cuban Communist Youth Union. Back in Caracas, he spent seven years as a bus driver for the city’s Metro system and became the leader of its drivers’ union. In his spare time, he worked with the Socialist League, and was increasingly devoted to Chávez, whom he saw as a new incarnation of Simón Bolívar’s revolutionary ideals. “The Venezuelan revolution isn’t imported from somewhere else,” he told me. “It has its roots in our own history.” He explained that governments in the twentieth century had mostly lived off the country’s proceeds from oil and had failed to invest in their people. “Venezuela established itself as the most unjust of all countries,” he said. “Chávez, without a doubt, was the country’s greatest leader since the time of the liberators. He brought back Bolívar’s concepts of liberty and equality.”
In February, 1992, Chávez launched a coup attempt, which failed at the entrance to Miraflores, when a team sent to kill the President was captured by loyal military forces. Chávez was imprisoned, and Maduro devoted himself to trying to free him. (He also began a romance with Cilia Flores, one of Chávez’s lawyers, whom he later married.) In December, 1993, Maduro went with a group of young comrades to visit Chávez in prison, a few hours south of Caracas. He recalled in an interview with state television that Chávez’s cell was at the end of a long hallway, and that as he approached he heard a single voice: that of the comandante, talking and laughing. Chávez invited his young acolytes to come in, offered them food, and talked for hours about the future of the movement. Maduro remembered asking what strategy to pursue. “He started talking, fifty minutes without stopping,” he said. “About the forces gathering on the street, the popular forces gathering, the construction of . . . everything.” Chávez spoke of the possibility of transformative action, Maduro recalled: “He said, ‘A new popular military insurrection.’ And all of our hearts were beating faster.” Before the visitors left, Chávez appointed Maduro the leader of his group, and gave him a code name: Verde. By the time Chávez was released, in 1994, Maduro had become one of his most trusted aides.
Chávez’s associates were distinguished mostly by their loyalty, and Maduro was perhaps the most loyal of them all. After he was elected President, in 1998, Maduro served as foreign minister and then as Vice-President, working with Chávez as he defined his political philosophy. In those days, Chávez was ideologically flexible, interested in leftist ideas but also in the “third way” espoused by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. In time, he grew closer to Fidel Castro, whom he considered a father figure, and settled on a program that he called “socialism for the twenty-first century.” He brought Venezuela into Cuba’s orbit, exchanging cash and subsidized oil for tens of thousands of Cuban doctors, teachers, and advisers.
In 2002, a military coup backed by the U.S. briefly displaced Chávez, and a businessman named Pedro Carmona held a press conference in the Salón Ayacucho to proclaim himself the country’s new leader. Three days later, Chávez resumed power, and gave his own speech there to announce his return. For more than a decade thereafter, his United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or P.S.U.V., dominated the country’s politics. During those years, the oil market was booming, and Venezuela’s reserves—the largest in the world—provided Chávez’s regime with as much as a trillion dollars in foreign-exchange money. With this bonanza, he supported a regional alliance of sympathetic governments—a “pink tide” of leftist Latin-American nations. Chávez flew around the world on his Presidential jet, giving speeches, dispensing largesse, funding political campaigns, and promoting the idea of a multipolar world in which the United States was no longer the single hegemon. He befriended America’s enemies, from Saddam Hussein to Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Muammar Qaddafi, and delighted in taunting George W. Bush, whom he called Mr. Danger on his weekly television broadcasts.
At Chávez’s funeral, his body lay in an open coffin, and thousands of Venezuelans gathered to mourn. Ahmadinejad came from Iran and tearfully kissed the coffin. Castro had grown too frail to travel, but, as he spoke of his dear friend and protégé at an event in Havana, he broke into tears—a show of undisguised emotion that few Cubans had witnessed. Along with Chávez, clearly, something else was dying. The pink tide began to recede, as leftist leaders were swept from power in Brazil and Argentina.
A month after the funeral, Maduro ran for President, against the opposition politician Henrique Capriles. He won, but by barely one per cent of the vote; in the previous election, in 2012, Chávez had beaten Capriles by eleven points. In office, Maduro was clumsy and apologetic, compensating for his weak mandate by constantly invoking Chávez, whom he referred to as his “father.” At one point, he told a crowd that Chávez had come to him as a spirit, in the form of “a little bird.” He was widely ridiculed, and his critics began to call him Maburro, combining his surname with the Spanish word for donkey.
Maduro lacked his predecessor’s charisma, and, worse, he lacked his money. Shortly after he took office, the price of oil—which provides Venezuela’s government with ninety-five per cent of its foreign-exchange revenue—began to plummet. The economy went out of control, with a sharp rise in inflation and deepening food shortages; as Venezuelans began dying for lack of food and medicine, public unrest increased. The high levels of criminal violence grew even worse, and last year the murder rate was among the highest in the world. In legislative elections in December, 2015, the opposition trounced the P.S.U.V., placing the chavistas in the minority for the first time in sixteen years. Its first act was to ostentatiously remove portraits of Chávez and Bolívar from the walls of the National Assembly.
Maduro began imprisoning his political opponents, and committed himself to defeating his enemies by any means available. In his office, he told me that his intransigence was a matter of historical necessity. The revolution had so far been lenient, he said, but it was time that “counter-revolutionaries” be handled “with justice and firmness.” He acknowledged that it was not easy for outsiders to understand what was going on in Venezuela. “This is a revolution,” he said. “And we’re in the midst of an acceleration of the revolutionary process.”
Two generations ago, Venezuela was one of the developing world’s success stories, an oil-rich democracy that was seen as a model for economic growth and political stability in the region. Caracas, set on a verdant plateau twelve miles from the Caribbean coastline, was an enclave of American-style modernity, where slums coexisted with a growing sector of high-end retail and middle-class homes. To connect the city with the coast, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, a military dictator who ran the country from 1952 until his overthrow, in 1958, completed the construction of a steep highway. It remains the principal point of entry to the capital, though it is now in severe disrepair. Visitors pass beneath a sign bearing a Chávez quotation: “The best way to end poverty is by giving power to the poor.”
Within Caracas, the main roadway follows the Río Guaire, a sewer of a river that runs through the Caracas Valley, both connecting and dividing the city’s three and a half million people—the caraqueños, as they are called. To the west, shantytowns cover the hilltops like grimy mosaics, looking down on the city center, a welter of unpainted concrete apartment towers and distressed public buildings. Wealthier caraqueños live mostly in the east, in walled compounds topped with electrified razor wire, or in apartment buildings guarded by armed men who sit in booths behind smoked glass. There are several large slums in the east, but they are regarded as outposts in enemy territory.
The confrontations of the Maduro years have exacerbated the city’s class divisions, resulting in a disquietingly visible political geography. In the city center and the neighborhoods surrounding the Miraflores palace, billboards and murals with exhortatory slogans depict Maduro and his revolutionary predecessors: Chávez, Castro, and Che Guevara. One ubiquitous sign shows Maduro looking determined and vigorous in sportswear, beneath the words “Unbreakable Venezuela.” In the 23 de Enero housing complex—much of it controlled by leftist groups known as colectivos—graffiti declares “We are pushing the revolution forward.” In the east, where most of the fighting occurred during the demonstrations last spring, walls are painted with the messages “Maduro Murderer” and “Dictatorship Out.”
The conflicts started in the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council, or C.N.E., which are controlled by Maduro loyalists. When, in 2016, opposition legislators organized a petition to force a new election that would remove Maduro from power, the C.N.E. rejected the effort. They marched on the C.N.E. to protest, and clashed with security forces. The following March, the Supreme Court voted to take control of the National Assembly, only to reverse its decision three days later amid widespread outrage.
Protesters began coming to the streets for daily demonstrations. They built barricades out of tires, cardboard boxes, furniture, and torn-down road signs, and sometimes beat on pots and pans—a local form of protest known as the cacerolazo. The government’s reaction was fierce and sustained: whenever the protesters assembled, they were met by squads of National Guardsmen, who fired tear-gas grenades, and then often charged, on foot or on motorbikes. When the Guardsmen caught protesters, they clubbed them or kicked them, and then hauled them away to detention centers. Sometimes they used live ammunition, and as the protests went on they often killed and wounded several people every day. They were aided by civilian loyalists from the city’s poor neighborhoods, who came, riding motorcycles and often wearing masks, to attack demonstrators.
One prominent youth leader, Roberto Patiño, who runs a nonprofit group encouraging peaceful political solutions, acknowledged that a few protesters had thrown Molotov cocktails at the Guardsmen, or had hurled rocks. But he said that the government’s reaction was disproportionate, a concerted effort to quash political resistance by “instilling fear.” On April 19th, in one of the first demonstrations, Patiño’s cousin Andrés Guinand was marching with his fiancée and her parents along the highway, near the Río Guaire, when National Guardsmen charged. “It was pandemonium,” Guinand told the Venezuelan Web site Prodavinci. “My fiancée and I threw ourselves from a height of about eight feet down from the road onto the embankment that leads down to the Guaire,” he went on. “They fired tear gas at us from behind and from in front, and we were trapped there together with some other people, some of them unable to breathe, on the ground.”
They decided to escape by fording the river, even though the water is full of refuse. “The only fear I had was that I might step on a piece of metal that would go through my foot,” Guinand said. On the far side was a steep embankment, and his fiancée slipped a couple of times as she tried to scramble up it. At last, they took off their shoes, for better traction, and began to climb. “I felt something, a blow, and then a whistle left me deaf for a few seconds,” he recalled. “Then I fell down the embankment. ‘They got me!’ I managed to shout. They had fired a gas cannister into my head. It bounced off my fiancée’s back and fell into the water.”
Some of his companions propped him up and pleaded with him to move. “I could move my legs in the water, but I couldn’t feel them, and I couldn’t coördinate them. It was impossible to stand.” Paramedics placed him on a stretcher, and then pulled him back onto the road using a rope. At a clinic, he was told that he had a hole in his skull the size of a golf ball, and that his brain was swollen. Half a year later, the swelling has subsided, and doctors plan to close the hole in his head in March. He is walking again, but has lost feeling in his left leg. Guinand’s family continued marching in demonstrations, though they began wearing helmets.
Patiño was at a protest in another neighborhood when he heard about his cousin and raced to the clinic. He was dismayed to see Guinand’s injuries, but he knows that his cousin was lucky; in the coming weeks, Patiño attended four wakes for young protesters who had been killed. In all, a hundred and twenty protesters died in the fighting, and on two occasions National Guardsmen and chavista loyalists stormed the National Assembly to assault opposition legislators. Patiño told me that the Guardsmen, in order to intimidate antigovernment neighborhoods, entered apartment buildings at night and smashed windows and doors; at times, they cut elevator cables, forcing elderly residents to take the stairs.
For Patiño, the greatest frustration is that the government’s tactics worked. In May, overruling the protesters, the C.N.E. approved Maduro’s request to hold elections for a constituent assembly. Once the votes were cast, on July 30th, the protests began to fade; Patiño went to a march on the day of the elections, and there were hardly any people there. By late summer, there was little to show for the months of anger and bloodshed except graffiti and scorch marks on the roads where the barricades had been.
When I visited Caracas, the city looked half abandoned, with few cars on the streets. People said that the confrontations had left them wary of going out in public and fearful about the future. Tens of thousands of despondent Venezuelans were flocking across the border into Colombia, and those who could afford airplane tickets went to the U.S. and to other countries farther afield. The longtime proprietor of a popular café told me that he had sold his business and was moving to Madrid with his wife and children. The pace of inflation made it impossible to remain solvent, even though he changed prices every day—and, he said, there was the “fear of being kidnapped when you’re closing down the business at night.” The anxiety about crime was widespread. One professional couple in their forties told me that thieves had entered their apartment at night, apparently with the collusion of the building’s security guards; they had been asleep in their bedroom, with their young son and daughter just a few feet away. Still, they knew that things could have been worse. Earlier that week, a gang of thieves had broken into the apartment of friends and murdered them.
But some people in Caracas felt that the opposition shared the blame for the country’s problems. Cheo, an easygoing middle-aged man from a working-class neighborhood, told me that he hoped Maduro’s government could turn things around. He suggested that Maduro’s thwarting the National Assembly was inevitable: “What would you do if you gave your son a new car and he turns against you? You take it away from him so that he learns his lesson, right?” Cheo, too, was worried about Venezuela’s future; in the 2015 elections, he had voted for the opposition, but he had become disappointed when it had used the National Assembly to confront the government rather than to improve things. “They squandered their opportunity to participate and also chose not to join in the elections for the constituent assembly,” he said. “And so they are going to be out of politics for a while.”
One afternoon, in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira, I met the opposition politician Henrique Capriles. A slim, fit man of forty-five, Capriles was dressed in green running gear and sneakers, and he wore a baseball cap embossed with a “V,” for Venezuela. He was friendly and hyperkinetic, with a loud, staccato voice.
Capriles had frequently clashed with the chavistas. In 2004, when he was serving as the mayor of one of Caracas’s districts, he was imprisoned for four months, after a state prosecutor accused him of allowing antigovernment mobs to attack the Cuban Embassy. Still, when he ran for President in 2012, he struggled to persuade voters to change the status quo. “2012 was the last year of the craziness made possible by the oil bonanza,” he said. That year, he claimed, Chávez spent sixty billion dollars in public funds, hoping to secure voters’ loyalty. “In my campaign, I was proposing a change of government to people who received me with a glass of Scotch in their hand and asked me, ‘Why do I want a change?’ ”
Capriles said, with a laugh, “Chávez was like Mike Tyson, and I was like a middleweight.” Even so, he had won forty-four per cent of the vote, which he saw as “proof that this is not a chavista country—that the revolution is not irreversible.” Six months later, running against Maduro, he offered a compromise to left-wing voters, promising that he would continue funding social programs and would keep the Cuban doctors in the country. Critics derided his platform as “Chavismo Lite,” but it worked: he came within one percentage point of the Presidency. Indeed, he believes that he actually won, and that the chavistas stole the election. Capriles insisted that Maduro did not have the support of the people: “He’s there only because he has the backing of the military and the courts, but his government is in an absolute minority.”
To many observers, though, Maduro appeared stronger than ever, and his opponents weaker. Some of this was the result of intimidation. In February, 2014, a popular opposition leader, Leopoldo López, was imprisoned after he called for protests in which several people died; Maduro’s opponents maintain that he ordered the arrest. Capriles, too, has been a target. During the demonstrations this spring, he was beaten up, and, he says, his headquarters was attacked by the National Guard.
But, as José (Pepe) Mujica, a left-wing former President of Uruguay, told me, “What helps Maduro most is the nature of his opposition.” The opposition is divided into three major parties and several smaller ones, with little in common other than the desire to resist Maduro. After the elections in 2015, it appeared united by the mandate to recall him but then spent months bickering over the right way to do so. During the protests, as scores of young demonstrators were killed, it was unable to convert widespread outrage into a political program. “The Venezuelan opposition is truly the gang that cannot shoot straight,” an American official who has worked for decades in the region told me. “Over the years, they’ve had every opportunity to kick out Chávez and now Maduro, and they always fuck it up.”
Few people in Venezuela seem to believe that the opposition speaks for the poor, or for the country’s large mixed-race population. When I visited early in Chávez’s Presidency, business executives—who were universally white—referred to him unabashedly as “that ape.” With Maduro, the disdain is subtler, but only a little: they call him “that bus driver.” In response to Maduro, the opposition has tilted even farther to the right, reaching out to conservative allies, including the government of Mariano Rajoy, in Spain. Last February, Lilian Tintori, the wife of Leopoldo López, met with Donald and Melania Trump to talk about human rights in Venezuela. (When Tintori spoke of her husband’s imprisonment, Melania reportedly commiserated that the White House could feel similarly confining.) A photograph of Tintori posing with Trump circulated in Venezuela, where it was widely seen as evidence of crass opportunism.
In any case, many of the opposition’s most popular candidates were unable to run for office. López had been released from prison after three years, but he remained under house arrest. Capriles, too, was blocked. In April, the government had banned him from politics for fifteen years, stemming from allegations, which he denies, that he had misused public funds in a previous political office. His passport had been confiscated.
Capriles shrugged. “I’m an optimist,” he said. The government had had him jailed, he said, and he’d overcome the experience. “Going to jail is like losing your virginity—it happens only once,” he said. “I’m convinced we’re near the end. That’s why the government is being so aggressive. That’s why it’s taking people’s passports. A strong government doesn’t have to do that.” He was encouraged by displays of international support for the opposition. He mentioned Macron, the French President, and also cited a recent Latin-American tour by Vice-President Mike Pence, in which Venezuela had been the priority. “All of this was unthinkable not that long ago!” he said.
The international pressure, and especially the U.S. sanctions, Capriles said, would eventually force Maduro into dialogue with the opposition. “Maduro is afraid of Trump,” he said, looking scornful. “They are not the Cuban revolutionary party. Here, money talks. The generals who support Maduro don’t want to drive Chinese cars. They want the best Toyota. They love to go to Miami. . . . This is not an ideological revolution.” However bad things seemed at the moment, he was sure that he’d manage to run for the Presidency in the 2018 elections. “I’d be stupid not to!” he said. I asked if he would appeal to voters by promising to keep some of Chávez’s policies intact. “No need to,” he said. “It’s over.”
One afternoon, a group of government officials gathered in the courtyard of La Casa Amarilla, a neoclassical building that functions as both the foreign ministry and the headquarters of the constituent assembly, for a television simulcast with Maduro, who was at Miraflores. Delcy Rodríguez, the assembly’s president, led a tour of an exhibition of photographs documenting the President’s life. There were photos showing him as a young union leader, with Chávez, with Fidel Castro; one showed him as a toddler wearing a mariachi’s sombrero. Rodríguez narrated as the group walked: “You’re a good man, Mr. President. Here you are with the Pope.” She came to a black-and-white image of a young Maduro, addressing a crowd with a handheld megaphone. “You’re a man of many facets, which have not been shown, because of the media lynching you’ve been subjected to, Mr. President,” she said. “But here, in the constituent assembly, we want to show you as you really are.”
When the tour was over, Maduro, smiling broadly, thanked Rodríguez, and joked about how he was usually portrayed as a villainous “tropical Stalin.” Turning to the audience, he said, “No one will take the good out of me. In all my humility, here I am.”
One of the photographs that had drawn applause was of Maduro embracing Cilia Flores, his wife, whom he describes not as Venezuela’s First Lady but as its “first combatant.” In the course of nearly two decades, they have established themselves as the country’s preëminent power couple. After Chávez took office, both won seats in the National Assembly, and before long Maduro was elected its president. When he became foreign minister, in 2006, Flores replaced him as president of the assembly, which she ran for four years, as an extension of the family’s influence; she is accused of hiring some forty relatives for political positions. (Legislators joked that if you called the name Flores when the assembly was in session everyone turned around.) Flores went on to become attorney general, and now serves in the constituent assembly; Maduro’s son, Nicolás, who is twenty-seven, has an assembly seat as well.
Maduro’s relationship with Delcy Rodríguez is also close enough to be nearly familial. Her brother, Jorge Rodríguez, is an old ally of Maduro’s; he accompanied him to his formative jailhouse meeting with Chávez, and later performed his and Cilia’s wedding service. Delcy and Jorge are the children of one of the Socialist League’s founders, Jorge Antonio Rodríguez. In 1976, when the Rodríguez siblings were in grade school, their father was kidnapped and murdered by Venezuelan security forces; both children went on to assume politically militant views. Jorge, a psychiatrist, is a former Vice-President, and now works as Maduro’s minister of information. Delcy, a lawyer, was the foreign minister before she became president of the new assembly. Both are formidably sharp-witted and mediagenic; they are also capable of extraordinary displays of fealty. When the trade organization Mercosur expelled Venezuela, last December, Delcy showed up at a regional meeting, vowing to “go in through the window.” In the end, she forced her way through the door, but found the room deserted. Afterward, she appeared with a brace on her arm, purportedly to address an injury sustained in the incident.
According to a former senior Venezuelan official who was close to Maduro, the President’s increasingly ideological tone is partly due to their growing influence. “With Maduro, Delcy, and Jorge, there has been a kind of coup by the ultra-left within the Venezuelan government,” he said. Under Chávez, the Bolivarian revolution had accommodated some ideological diversity within its ranks. That has changed under Maduro. To the official, Maduro’s radical stance had an explanation: “He wants to have a role in history, a myth of revolution with his name in it.”
As Maduro has surrounded himself with loyalists, he has also purged rivals. One morning, a senior Maduro adviser met me at the Gran Meliá Caracas hotel, a favorite among supporters of the government, to explain how the President had consolidated his power. Among the opposition, he said, Capriles was Maduro’s “No. 1 threat.” When I noted that Capriles had never been among the more stringent antichavistas, the adviser said that it was his moderation that made him dangerous. The President’s solution, he said, was to imprison the more confrontational Leopoldo López, which had made him an international symbol of the “martyred political prisoner” and, by contrast, made Capriles look like an accommodationist. “The President is astute,” the adviser said, tapping his head.
He reminded me that in 2013, as Maduro was taking office, he seemed weaker than other leading chavistas. The adviser mentioned Rafael Ramírez, an engineer who ran the state oil company. “Ramírez had the money, right?” he said. “Where is Ramírez now? In New York, as U.N. Ambassador, out of the way.” (Last week, news reports suggested that Ramírez had been removed from his post.) Another rival was the Army officer Diosdado Cabello, who serves as the vice-president of the P.S.U.V. and retains deep connections in the armed forces. Some analysts had speculated about the possibility of a military coup. The adviser said, “That’s just silly talk, because, in fact, this is partly a military government. Civilian-led, yes, as per Chávez’s vision, but basically military.” Chávez, a former paratrooper, had defined his government as a “civic-military union,” a concept with a long tradition in Venezuela. Pérez Jiménez had been overthrown in 1958 in a civilian-military pact. The adviser said, “Chávez always said the only way the Bolivarian revolution could succeed would be with a civilian following him.”
The adviser explained that Maduro had begun to strengthen his own authority with the military, pointing out that many of Venezuela’s governors were military men, as were several key cabinet ministers. The commander of the armed forces, Vladimir Padrino López, had proved loyal during the months of violent protest; in November, Maduro named a general to lead the state petroleum company. The adviser tapped his head again. “As I said, the President is astute.”
The former senior official told me that he agreed with this assessment: “Maduro is wily, and he has outsmarted his enemies. His success at crushing the opposition has been his own 26 July”— a reference to Fidel Castro’s assault on a Cuban Army garrison, in 1953, which marked the beginning of his path to power. “This was his trial by fire, out of which he has emerged stronger.”
For years, Maduro has delighted in baiting American leaders. When Barack Obama criticized Venezuela’s human-rights record, he responded by announcing that the priority should instead be to “defend the human rights of the black U.S. citizens being killed in U.S. cities every day, Mr. Obama.” He seems to take special pleasure in taunting Trump, whom he has described as a crook, a thief, and mentally ill; in rallies, he pokes fun at Trump’s hair, calling him “the king of wigs.” When the U.S. imposed new sanctions, this summer, Maduro responded by calling up reservists for two days of national military exercises, in preparation for a possible “imperialist invasion.”
Privately, though, the sanctions are a source of profound concern. The country has begun to default on debts; earlier this year, Goldman Sachs helped bail out the government with a bond purchase of $2.8 billion. On August 25th, Trump signed an executive order barring U.S. financial institutions from buying Venezuelan stocks or bonds or granting loans to its government and its state-owned oil company. “Maduro may no longer take advantage of the American financial system to facilitate the wholesale looting of the Venezuelan economy,” Steven Mnuchin, the U.S. Treasury Secretary, said. “Today’s action is the next step towards freedom for the Venezuelan people.”
For the government, the sanctions raised the dire possibility of further defaults. “They are a real threat,” the senior adviser to Maduro said. The government owes billons of dollars to bondholders, and the adviser thought that there wasn’t enough money on hand to repay them. “The trouble will come when it comes to deciding whether to pay the debt that’s due, or else pay for badly needed shipments of food and medicine,” he said. If Venezuela defaults, it could lose the collateral that it has offered to investors—including its shares of Citgo, the U.S.-based gas-station chain. (The Russian oil company Rosneft would secure a 49.9-per-cent stake.) If the state oil company defaults, creditors could go after its properties abroad, including its fleet of tankers and airplanes. “It would be disastrous,” the adviser said. “The next few months will be crucial in determining a way forward.”
Much of the chavistas’ power was economic. Oil money had paid for handouts to the barrios, for subsidized food, for Cuban medical teams. (It had also faciliated corruption; former ministers have spoken of hundreds of billions of dollars skimmed from public coffers.) But, while Chávez’s government spent generously on social programs, it did little to build up infrastructure or to encourage business. Instead, Chávez sextupled Venezuela’s foreign debt, leaving little buffer for economic shocks. Last year, according to a Reuters report based on leaked government documents, inflation hit eight hundred per cent. Ricardo Hausmann, a Venezuelan economist at Harvard, calculated that since 2013 the G.D.P. has declined thirty-five per cent—some seven per cent more than in the United States’ Great Depression. According to estimates, four out of five Venezuelans live in poverty.
Despite the government’s claims, most of the country’s social-welfare projects are nearly out of funds. Food-distribution networks and soup kitchens have closed or are operating at minimal capacity. Health-care clinics struggle to offer basic services. What remains is CLAP, a program that delivers subsidized groceries to poor families—but the deliveries arrive sporadically, sometimes only one week a month. Opposition leaders say that people who were spotted at protests were later denied CLAP shipments.
As Maduro’s government loses its capacity to provide handouts, its popularity wanes, but it has developed few realistic options. One afternoon, in a conference room at the Presidential palace, several dozen officials gathered for the first session of the new assembly’s economic committee. The meeting was led by Delcy Rodríguez; Maduro’s son, Nicolás, was in attendance. Before the session, Nicolás told me that the committee had been tasked with devising a new plan for Venezuela. What kind of economy did he foresee? “A hybrid economy,” he replied—one that would inevitably still be based on oil, but which, the committee hoped, could begin to diversify. He favored the creation of public-private partnerships in agriculture, in order to restore Venezuela’s ability to produce its own food. Communes would also have a role, he added. When I asked what he meant, he thought for a moment and replied, “Like soviets”—a reference to the collective farms of the former Soviet Union.
Pepe Mujica, the former Uruguayan President, suggested that Maduro and his allies would struggle to accommodate a socialist program to market realities. “The most serious problem of the Venezuelan revolution is the economy,” he said. “They haven’t been able to diversify, and have been a complete failure in agriculture and basic things like producing food. It’s not the fault of the revolution—it’s the fault of Venezuela, which has an old, deformed rentier oil economy. They lost the culture of work in the countryside. And that’s very serious. I always remember the advice old Kim Il Sung gave to Fidel: ‘Grow your own rice.’ Your food has to come from somewhere near your kitchen.”
Mujica went on, “There’s a fundamental problem there—you can’t make socialism by decree. We on the left have the tendency of falling in love with whatever it is we dream about, and then we confuse it with reality. It seems to me that Bukharin’s words apply: ‘It’s not about retreating from the revolution. It’s about respecting reality.’ You have to resolve the issue of how people are going to eat, and insure that the economy functions, or else it’s all going to go to shit on you.”
In 2015, according to a case filed in the Southern District of New York, two nephews of Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, reached out to a drug dealer in Honduras, to discuss a collaborative venture. The nephews, Efraín Campos and Francisco Flores, seemed to be neophytes in the drug trade, but they told the dealer that they had an urgent incentive: “We are at war with the United States.” They worked out a plan in which cocaine would be taken to the Simón Bolívar International Airport, in Venezuela, and then sent on through Honduras to the United States. The proceeds, they said, would help them fund a campaign for the forthcoming elections for the National Assembly.
The dealer turned out to be an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, and, that November, the nephews were arrested in Haiti, on charges of conspiring to smuggle seventeen hundred pounds of cocaine into the United States. A judge in New York will decide their sentence in December. The sentencing recommendation was for life imprisonment, but the defense has argued that this is too severe a penalty; they describe the arrest as a sting operation, and point out that no drugs ever reached the U.S.
Maduro’s government has been uncharacteristically quiet about the case. Two months after the arrests, Cilia Flores said that the D.E.A. had “been here, in Venezuelan territory, violating our sovereignty and committing crimes,” such as kidnapping. Since then, she has refused to speak about the case. In November, 2016, Maduro said, “The empire has created a cause that has the sole objective of attacking the First Lady, the first combatant, the wife of the President. You think it’s a coincidence?” He went on, “This is a policy to end one of the stronger spiritual forces of the revolution, which is an awakening of consciousness and of the historical rights of women.”
In Maduro’s view, the episode was another in a long history of American violations of Venezuela’s sovereignty. Sitting at the wooden desk in his office, he told me that even Chávez had been careful to avoid pushing the U.S. too far. “He understood that he needed to have a good relationship with el poder”—the power. He had mostly managed that until the 2002 coup. “After that came a very difficult period,” Maduro said. “The coup was followed by more assaults against Venezuela, until Obama came to office, when it seemed like a door to a new relationship had opened up. Unfortunately, that was closed when President Obama himself, under pressure from the State Department, the Pentagon, and the United States Southern Command, declared Venezuela a threat to the security interests of the United States.” He was alluding to an executive order that Obama had signed in March, 2015, which, he said, “opened the door to a complex and full-fledged assault on the Bolivarian revolution.”
Several Obama Administration officials told me that the White House recognized early in Maduro’s term that he was unable to hold the country together. “It was clear that he was a much weaker leader,” a diplomat who works in the region told me. “Chávez saw a line and stayed just this side of authoritarianism. Maduro didn’t.” The Administration hoped to resolve the situation through negotiations, led by other Latin-American nations. But a bipartisan group of politicians, with Marco Rubio prominent among them, wanted tougher action. Finally, the Administration agreed to sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials, for corruption, human-rights abuses, and other transgressions; at the urging of the Treasury Department, they added language describing Venezuela as a security threat to the United States.
Maduro saw a political opportunity. In a televised speech, he stood before an audience, wearing a sash patterned on the national flag, and said, “The aggression and the threat of the United States government is the greatest threat that the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, our country, has ever received.” As the audience applauded, he urged, “Let’s close ranks like a single fist of men and women.” In the coming weeks, according to the U.S. official, there was a regional surge in sympathy for Venezuela. “Latin solidarity really reared up against us,” he said. In the end, diplomats “had to organize a hallway meeting for Obama with Maduro, painfully scripted, in which he had to say, ‘Of course you’re not a real national-security threat.’ ”
The Trump officials with the most direct responsibility for Venezuela are H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser, and Juan Cruz, a longtime C.I.A. officer, who in May was named the National Security Council’s chief of Western Hemispheric affairs. Maduro complained that the tensions had only escalated under Trump. “The extremists and the lobbyists are now the ones in all the positions of power in the United States,” he said. Without offering evidence, he told me that, during the unrest last spring, members of the opposition had colluded with Trump’s government to overthrow him: “Funds were invested for the purpose of destabilizing Venezuela, so as to justify a U.S. military intervention.” Maduro said that Julio Borges, one of his most vociferous political rivals, had openly called for a U.S. invasion. (In fact, Borges and his allies had urged foreign countries to apply economic pressure on the government. In one statement, they said, “Sanctions against those who are vagrants, human-rights violators, and looters of public resources will always have our support.”) “There’s not a government in the whole world that would find that acceptable, because all states have a right to defend themselves,” Maduro said. “In the United States, they’d have all gone to the electric chair.”
If the U.S. attacked, Maduro warned, his government would “become insurgent,” and fight back. In his speech the day before, he had extolled the recent national military exercises, saying, “Chávez did not till a furrow in vain. He left us with a powerful armed forces—for peace!” But few American officials take Trump’s threat of military action seriously. “My read is, it was a conversational gambit—he wanted to appear tough,” the U.S. official said. “But no one involved in real military planning has ever thought of this as a place we’d put blood and treasure into—because, quite apart from anything else, there’s no national-security threat. I don’t think any President, not even this President, would make that call.”
Maduro seems to recognize that much of his legitimacy rests on opposing the U.S. In our conversation, he predicted that Trump’s Presidency signalled “the end of the American hegemony in the world,” and added, “In this day and age, you can’t conduct international politics coercively with a supremacist agenda.” But, like Chávez, he knows that he cannot provoke the United States too much. In public remarks, and in his office, he argued that the tense situation came about because Trump had been lied to by his advisers. He told me several times that he had “nothing personal” against Trump, and would be happy to speak to him.
Chávez was able to offset the United States’ influence by rallying his fellow-leftists in Latin America. But Venezuela’s power in the region is diminishing, as its government has made deep cuts in handouts to friendly nations. Cuba, which used to receive a hundred thousand barrels of subsidized oil a day, now gets barely half that; Jamaica has gone from twenty-four thousand to thirteen hundred. Venezuela’s neighbors are increasingly willing to criticize Maduro. But U.S. officials in the region see few good options for encouraging change. “The ineptitude of the opposition and the willingness of the Russians and, maybe, the Chinese to keep them afloat means that we don’t have a lot of tools left in the tool chest,” the U.S. official said. Oil sanctions remain possible, but they would likely cause a complete collapse of the Venezuelan economy, and also have an effect in the United States. “They’re going to put a lot of people out of work in the red states where the refineries are,” the official went on. “Trump loves to kick Maduro, but he doesn’t want to get into a pissing match with the Southern states.”
The diplomat in the region offered a stark assessment. “There’s an A scenario and a B scenario. A is a desperate economic crisis leading to a struggle over leadership and then someone within the P.S.U.V. takes over from Maduro. You will end up with a much more lawless environment in Caracas and a gray, stumbling scenario as the P.S.U.V. tries to control the economy and stay in power. The B scenario is an international crisis that lifts the price of crude. It doesn’t solve all their problems, but it gives them breathing room, and Maduro stays in. A and B are both bad. I don’t really have a C. It’s going to get grim.”
Maduro seemed to see no reason to change the course of his movement. In his office, I asked if the revolution had made any mistakes. “Mistakes?” he asked. He thought for a moment, and then named one, which was to “underestimate” its political opponents. I asked again. “Corruption,” he replied. “This palace was liberated from the merchants of power”—the corrupt governments that had preceded Chávez. But the habits of the old regime had persisted. “We have a great challenge before us to get rid of corruption in Venezuela.” He said that at the highest levels of his government there was no corruption, “but from there down”—he made a sweeping motion with his hands, indicating layers of infection. Maduro conceded that “party bureaucracy” was also a problem, and that “the greatest of all our challenges” was to move away from oil. “We need a new model of economic production,” he said. “Speaking about the working class, Marx said that time was needed to change history. Marx was right. It’s a long struggle.”
For the time being, he said, the election of the constituent assembly had brought peace to Venezuela, and he promised, “We’re going to keep making peace.” What would happen next? Would there be a civil war, as some analysts had predicted? He shook his head firmly. More unrest? “Maybe, yes,” he said. Did he wish for a Cuban-style single-party state? “No,” he said. He welcomed the existence of a viable political opposition. “But the opposition has a big problem, which is that all of its decisions are made in Washington, and it doesn’t have any leaders,” he said. “They want me out, but, if I leave this chair, whom shall we put in it? Who can be the President?” ♦