A Tale of Three Presidents
Speaking to reporters at the United Nations last month, President Trump said he would be willing to meet with Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, if he were here. Despite Mr. Maduro’s constant diatribes against the American Empire, even a tenuous offer to meet with an autocrat-friendly American president was one Mr. Maduro couldn’t refuse.
Just moments before he extended this unexpected olive branch to the embattled Mr. Maduro, Mr. Trump said once again that he was considering a “military option” against Venezuela. Declaring you might invade a country to oust its leader and then in the same breath saying you’d be happy to meet with that leader could seem illogical. But impulsiveness is Mr. Trump’s brand, lack of foresight his guiding light. He has met his dysfunctional match in Mr. Maduro.
Venezuela is living through its worst political and economic crisis in history. The International Monetary Fund has predicted that Venezuela's inflation will top one million percent by the end of this year, a concept unimaginable from afar, but very real to Venezuelans. Picture this: The price I paid in 2006 for a three-bedroom apartment in a middle-class area of Caracas would today be equivalent to less than a dollar and couldn’t even buy a single roll of toilet paper in Venezuela, if you could find one.
Recent reports from the United Nations show that Venezuelans are suffering — even dying — from lack of access to essential medicines and health supplies. More than two million Venezuelans have fled the country in search of food, medical treatment and economic opportunity in the last three years. The huge migration of Venezuelans has so overwhelmed the region that neighboring countries like Ecuador, Colombia and Panama have put tighter border controls in place.
Though Mr. Maduro had said he was hesitant to visit the United Nations because of security concerns, he jumped on his presidential aircraft after Mr. Trump made his comments, landing a few hours later in New York. In his haste, he had failed to set something up with the president. Of course, Mr. Trump was not going to meet with his Venezuelan counterpart; it was just an off-the-cuff remark. But to Mr. Maduro, it was his big opportunity. If Kim Jong-un could meet with Donald Trump, so could he.
Like Kim Jong-un, Mr. Maduro is one of a handful of heads of state under United States government sanctions. Right before his arrival in New York, the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Mr. Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, Vice President Delcy Rodríguez and others in his inner circle. The walls were closing in on the Venezuelan president, and he saw Mr. Trump as his way out. “If we met face to face, I’m sure good things would come of it,” he said during his surprise appearance at the United Nations.
While some believe that Mr. Maduro inherited a tyrannical government from his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, I beg to differ. I was a close confidante of Mr. Chávez and was there for his rise and fall.
The Hugo Chávez I knew believed in social justice, equality and fundamental freedoms. He won landslide majorities in multiple elections. He was even re-elected when he was dying of cancer — that’s how popular he was in Venezuela. Mr. Chávez pardoned many of his adversaries, even those who attempted to overthrow him in a violent coup.
Did he have authoritarian tendencies? His military background left him with a firm belief in hierarchy. The longer he remained in power, the more entrenched he became, which is why term limits and checks and balances are essential to a healthy democracy.
But Mr. Chávez had enormous empathy for the poor and the marginalized. He made great strides during his presidency, helping millions of people.
True, he made many mistakes. Mr. Chávez aspired to make his model sustainable, but died without achieving that goal. His habit of choosing loyalty over competence was a fatal mistake. So was entrusting multiple responsibilities to a closed circle of people who were unprepared and unwilling to make hard choices. It nurtures a climate of secrecy and unaccountability, which can be a danger to democracy.
I’ve seen that same behavior in Donald Trump, who has surrounded himself with family members, giving them jobs for which they have no experience or knowledge. It’s a standard autocratic tactic in order to keep a tight grip on power, stemming from the paranoia that power addiction creates, and the narcissistic belief that no one can do things better.
Nicolás Maduro is no Hugo Chávez. He is an unpopular president with questionable legitimacy, accused of widespread violations of human rights, corruption and elections fraud. Though he tries to emulate Mr. Chávez, he is more similar to his northern counterpart, Donald Trump.
Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Maduro thrives on deception, exaggeration and lies. He denies a humanitarian crisis exists in Venezuela and blames the United States for his own mess. Should he be ousted in a coup, crippled by economic sanctions or overthrown in a foreign invasion? No. Venezuela’s problems must be resolved by Venezuelans. Instead of entertaining the possibility of a military intervention to remove Mr. Maduro, Washington should focus on circumventing our own budding kleptocracy led by another aspiring autocrat.
No president should ever rule unchecked. No person should ever be given free rein to disregard the basic tenets of society, law and order, freedom and respect. It is the people who must hold their leaders to account through active, conscientious participation and oversight, always keeping a watchful eye on the dangers and temptations of pervasive corruption and power addiction.
Mr. Maduro returned to Venezuela empty-handed. No meeting with Mr. Trump, no easing of sanctions, no lessening of tensions. But, in perfect Trumpian fashion, he went on state TV to grandstand about his trip, making outlandish remarks.
“When I was out walking around New York, I could have paid for the hot dog I ate on Fifth Avenue in Petros,” he said, referring to the dubious Venezuelan cryptocurrency he created to decrease dependence on the United States dollar. It is largely considered a swindle by financial experts.
Just like Mr. Trump, Mr. Maduro thrives in a parallel world of lies and fantastical chicanery. Unlike Venezuela, the United States still has time to reverse the slippery slope to authoritarianism.