Venezuela’s Leader Trades Old Guard for Slick Technocrats to Keep Power

Venezuela’s Leader Trades Old Guard for Slick Technocrats to Keep Power

PUERTO CABELLO, Venezuela — His morning jogs draw fans seeking selfies. His Dracula-themed social media stunts have attracted nearly a million followers. And when he ran for re-election as governor of his state in Venezuela in November, he won in a landslide.

The governor, Rafael Lacava, is a new breed of apparatchik in Venezuela’s governing Socialist Party: younger, more cosmopolitan and more willing to ditch ideology for practical measures that improve people’s lives.

Their approach has stabilized the economy and returned food to shelves after a devastating depression, winning them popular support, or at least grudging acceptance — and strengthening the grip on power of the man they serve: the authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro.

“Maduro has reached his objective of power hegemony,” said Yvan Serra, a political scientist at the University of Carabobo, in Venezuela. “Now, he is trying to rebuild from the economic ruins.”

The rise of more pragmatic, market-oriented policymakers like Mr. Lacava is in some ways surprising in a country that has become increasingly repressive, impoverished and isolated from the West under Mr. Maduro. He has crushed the opposition and internal dissent, leading millions to flee and the United States to impose crippling economic sanctions to try to topple his government.

The change in style represented by Mr. Lacava is born of the necessity to survive these sanctions, rather than Mr. Maduro’s genuine belief in political moderation and a market economy, said Luis Vicente León, director of Venezuela’s largest polling company, Datanálisis.

The success of this newer cohort could help the Maduro government boost its dismal ratings ahead of the 2024 presidential election, or at least make his rule tolerable to a population increasingly resigned to the continuation of the Socialist Party’s 23-year hold on power. A victory without outright fraud by Mr. Maduro or his chosen candidate could return some legitimacy to his pariah government, reducing the need for maintaining the sanctions, political analysts say.

The younger politicians were elevated by Mr. Maduro, 59, after he sidelined the septuagenarian comrades of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.

Among this generation, Mr. Lacava, 53, is a rising star. He won re-election by ditching the party’s anti-imperialist slogans and its usual attacks on the moneyed elites. Instead, he bet on his reputation for managerial competence and support for free enterprise — and for building colorful public works around his dilapidated state of Carabobo, decorated with life-size statues of dinosaurs, fantasy creatures, sports legends and even himself.

The crowds he attracts during his morning jogs are extraordinary in a country where just 16 percent say they support the ruling party, and where the president has largely stopped appearing in public after being booed, pelted with a mango and targeted with several assassination plots.

The younger politicians compete fiercely for Mr. Maduro’s attention and a share of power. But together, they have been instrumental in transforming the Venezuelan economy after American sanctions pushed the government to the brink of collapse in early 2019.

Mr. Maduro needs these party members to succeed, but he is also wary of allowing them to outshine him, said Mr. Serra.

Mr. Chávez’s chief lieutenants mostly came from humble provincial backgrounds and studied primarily in Venezuela’s military academy. Mr. Maduro is a former bus driver who rose through the ranks of a transportation union. In contrast, most members of his economic and political strategy team had a comfortable upbringing and a privileged education.

Mr. Lacava comes from a wealthy business family; he once lived in Manhattan and studied at Rutgers University, in New Jersey. The economic czarina Delcy Rodríguez, 52, lived in France and the United States and Hector Rodríguez, the 39-year-old governor of important Miranda state, grew up in Sweden. The foreign minister, Félix Plasencia, has a master’s degree from Oxford University, while central bank chief Calixto Ortega, 38, has a degree from Rice University, in Houston.

“I’m a Western guy,” Mr. Lacava said in an interview in late 2020, adding that he wanted to go to Silicon Valley and meet with the chief executive of Apple, Tim Cook, to talk about investing in Venezuela.

Like most of Mr. Maduro’s top officials, Mr. Lacava cannot make that trip. He was sanctioned for corruption in 2019, an accusation he claims is politically motivated.

“We have to rebuild that relationship,” he said at the time in fluent English, referring to the United States. “We can discuss a lot of the things that separate us, apart from one thing: the president of Venezuela is Nicolás Maduro.”

In government receptions and on state television, the sharp designer suits and trendy streetwear of this new generation have replaced the paramilitary fatigues and the windbreakers in the colors of the Venezuelan flag favored by Mr. Chávez’s loyalists. Sudden expropriations of companies have been replaced by meetings with business leaders, and calls for eternal revolution by slick social media campaigns aimed at the middle class.

The old guard has been almost entirely pushed out from power.

Mr. Chávez’s brother, Argenis Chávez, suffered a humiliating defeat by the opposition when running for governor in the late president’s home state of Barinas. The few remaining governors who had been close to Mr. Chávez did not even make it to the ballot.

The former vice president, Diosdado Cabello, once seen as Mr. Maduro’s chief internal rival, has largely been reduced to spouting vitriol at the regime’s enemies on his television program, “Hitting With a Mace.” His companions from the military academy were retired by Mr. Maduro from senior posts in the armed forces in 2020, destroying Mr. Cabello’s last major bastion of support.

After the sanctions were imposed, the economic team lead by Ms. Rodríguez reversed Mr. Chávez’s economic staples: She ditched price and currency controls, allowed the use of the U.S. dollar, and slashed regulations on the private sector.

The economic liberalization has borne fruit, filling Venezuela’s once empty shelves with goods and bringing a modest sense of well-being to about one in two Venezuelans who have access to dollars. The economic opportunities Mr. Maduro’s economic team has created have also enriched some of them in the process, according to the U.S. government and the opposition.

The country’s economy grew for the first time in eight years in 2021, according to the Venezuelan Finance Observatory, a nonprofit run by two former opposition lawmakers, which forecast that the gross domestic product will rise another 8 percent this year. Hyperinflation has subsided, and oil production has modestly recovered as the government gave private partners more control of the oil fields.

To be sure, Venezuela’s economy remains a shadow of what it was when Mr. Maduro took power in 2013. It would need to grow 20 percent every year for a decade just to regain the standard of living it offered in 2014, said Ángel Alvarado of the Finance Observatory.

But the stabilization has returned a cautious optimism to the streets, curbing protests and denting the opposition’s efforts to mobilize supporters.

In the state of Carabobo, Mr. Lacava has reduced crime, repaired roads and painted once abandoned public spaces in bright colors, usually adding the bat logo representing Dracula, his alter ego. The state’s public services and public venues bear names such as PoliDrácula, GasDrácula, TransDrácula, DracuCafe, DracuFest and Drácula Plaza.

The new outdoor sports complex in his native city, Puerto Cabello, is dominated by the giant statue of the late Argentine soccer player, Diego Maradona, a friend of Mr. Maduro’s, and features replicas of famous Venezuelan athletes. Among the statues are the figures of Mr. Lacava and his son, a relatively unknown professional soccer player.

In contrast to the Chávez era, the public spaces decorated by Mr. Lacava feature no government logos or the governing party’s colors.

The recovery seems superficial at times. Few visitors to Mr. Lacava’s theme park and the sports complex can spend freely at food stalls and attractions that are priced in dollars. The brightly painted facades in Puerto Cabello’s colonial center hide the buildings’ crumbling interiors.

Still, after years of seemingly endless collapse, most residents welcome the dogma-free optimism offered by Mr. Lacava. He trounced his opponent by 30 percentage points in November. The opposition did not contest the tally.

“For me, he is the best politician in the country,” said Kinan Masoud, a 35-year-old Puerto Cabello businessman who helped build the sports complex. “Do you know how long it has been since a child was glad to see a politician in the street, and wanted to take a photo with him?”

Mr. Maduro acknowledged Mr. Lacava’s success by making a rare trip to the provinces to attend his inauguration in December.

Yet, as the president has given his top ministers and governors more leeway in economic policy, he has steadily monopolized power, preventing anyone else from asserting national leadership and challenging his rule, said Mr. León, the pollster.

“Maduro doesn’t care about the opposition,” he said. “What really gives him nightmares is someone from the inside.”

Isayen Herrera and Mariana Martínez contributed reporting from Caracas.

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