by Oscar Valdes (3/17/2019)
He awakened early in the morning and the news was that the national blackout was still going. He had hoped that, overnight, by some stroke of good luck, the power would be restored. But things had not been going well lately, so he knew it was too much to ask. Even though he had personally spoken to the head electrical engineers and made it clear that the nation would be forever grateful for their extra effort. Special honors would be coming to them to be awarded in a public ceremony broadcast nationwide. Venezuelans would revere them as national heroes.
He didn’t tell his engineers that he had already called Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and asked them for emergency technical assistance, just in case. The technicians were in flight. He had thought of calling Diaz Canel, also, the new Cuban president, but he reasoned that the problem at hand would be beyond Cuba’s capabilities. They were mostly good for intelligence, i.e. spying and sowing intrigue to keep everyone in line. But he appreciated what they did, which was well earned since he kept sending oil to Cuba – at cost. Where could they get a deal like that? But they were his socialist brothers and sisters and he had made a promise to Hugo Chavez, as he lay in his deathbed, that no matter what disagreements he and the Cubans would have he would stick to the agreement.
Maduro went into the bathroom and stood in front of the washbasin but closed his eyes.
He didn’t want to look at himself in the mirror. Not this morning. He took a deep breath. He reached for the hot water tap and opened it. Ah. The water was hot. How fortunate he was. And he thought of the poor people, how they didn’t have the powerful generators that he had in his presidential residence. And he felt sad for them. The whole thing was a conspiracy, of course, the Americans sending in special agents to get the grid to malfunction and destabilize the country. Those Americans, always plotting to take over Latin America. And he wondered how they managed to find special agents that not only spoke perfect Spanish but perfect Venezuelan. You could not tell them apart, and yet they were foreign agents. Amazing.
Maduro cupped his hands under the hot stream of water and splashed it on his face. But he didn’t open his eyes just yet.
The country was falling apart. He knew it. His days were counted. He knew that, too.
He thought of putting on a helmet, like Salvador Allende had done in Chile before the presidential palace was bombed to pieces. But he didn’t want to scare the poor people who still believed in him. And, in truth, he still thought there was some hope left for him. Somewhere.
He now opened his eyes and stared at himself.
Why had Chavez chosen him as his successor? There were obviously other people better prepared to handle the responsibility, so why him?
Chavez had been in a hospital bed in Havana, agonizing from the pain he was in, when he had called him in. The fabled comandante had become so paranoid that he didn’t trust Venezuelan doctors, men and women with a tradition of excellence and an outstanding reputation, and so, against his better judgment he had gone to Cuba so he could be treated by Cuban doctors, and be close to Fidel and Raul, his mentors. Chavez had reasoned that their emotional support was critical.
In spite of all the good efforts to rid him of his ailment, things had gone from bad to worse and so, as he lay in his room at the VIP hospital in Havana, the comandante had called for Maduro. Chavez was staying in the same room where Fidel Castro had stayed when he had his last brush with death.
While in the hospital, other very important people had been called in for secret one on one meetings with Chavez, so Maduro didn’t know exactly why he was being summoned. As he waited he felt apprehensive and his hands had turned sweaty. Maduro had wanted to go in alone but the minute he was called, he had looked at his wife and seen how desperately she wanted to accompany him, for it was such a historic moment and she didn’t want to miss it. So he said okay.
Alone in the room with Chavez, the dying man gestured for Maduro to pull up a chair. The man looked wan and ghostly, like he already had a foot on the other side. Maduro had remained standing. With great effort, and barely a whisper, Chavez again motioned to Maduro, “Sit, Nicolas.”
“It’s okay, comandante, this is a historic moment, so I want to be on my feet,” Maduro had finally replied, his words filled with emotion and the love he had for Chavez. His wife stood right next to him as she held his hand, and both saw how Chavez grimaced from the deep pain he was in.
The efforts from the Cuban surgeons had been in vain. The surgeons had opened and closed him, the rumor went, and nothing had changed inside Chavez’s belly.
Chavez reached over, slowly, and took Maduro’s hand in his. Pausing dramatically, he then looked up at him and said, “Nicolas… I want you to succeed me.”
A tremor shot down from Maduro’s head to his feet. He felt his knees almost buckle under him and he thought how lucky he was that his wife was there to prop him up. Still, he could not manage to reply, even as the comandante kept staring at him and waiting. Maduro knew what the comandante wanted from him, but what he really wanted to say to Chavez was, “Me? Me, succeed you? But why? I don’t understand, comandante, just what is it you see in me?”
And he was about to say those words in that great historic moment when his wife pinched him in the butt and Maduro had blurted out, “Si!”.
Oh how that pinch in the butt had changed history.
The day before that fateful moment, with Chavez lying in his bed and nearly delirious, Fidel and Raul Castro had approached him and, in the strictest confidence, had said to him that in order to maintain the extraordinary bond of brotherhood between Cuba and Venezuela, and the steady supply of cheap oil, selecting Maduro as his heir would be the most appropriate choice. In the midst of his agony Chavez, whose love for Venezuela was unquestioned, had replied that he worried that Maduro was simply too loyal. Chavez didn’t remember a time when Maduro had disagreed with him on anything, and it concerned Chavez that, given that circumstances on the ground were ever changing, a better choice would be a man with a more independent bent that could deviate from the rule book. Fidel and Raul had listened solemnly to his argument, then replied, “We can work with Nicolas, and we’ll help him.”
Chavez still had doubts, and he asked Fidel and Raul to step out and let him consult with Simon Bolivar before making a final decision. Chavez and the long dead Bolivar had a history of chatting but, of late, the comandante had not been able to make contact. It may have been interference from the weather, as stormy clouds had gathered over Cuba. Chavez was very open about his special relationship with Bolivar and just the day before, both Fidel and Raul had been invited to listen in on the comandante’s earnest attempt to reach the Venezuelan hero.
Seeing that Chavez was determined to try again, both Fidel and Raul bowed respectfully and left the room.
Chavez was a stubborn man and he was confident that in that hour of great need, Bolivar would not fail him.
Being all alone in his ample suite, he touched his fingers to his temples and focused his concentration.
“Simon…?” began Chavez, “are you there?”.
There was complete silence for a moment. “Simon…?” again intoned Chavez with what little strength he had left. “Do not fail me in this historic moment…”. And then, miraculously, and with a clarity that Chavez had never heard, a voice from who knows where came to him. “Yes, Hugo?” It was soft but so clear, the clearest he’d ever heard Bolivar speak to him, and he had spoken to Bolivar a lot. And not only was the voice clear but it was filled with compassion and understanding. So this was unprecedented.
The pain in his abdomen shot through once again and the comandante almost cried out, but he pressed his lips together in one valiant effort and retained his composure. He did not want to complain while speaking to Bolivar.
What clarity, though, the comandante reflected. He did think that the voice had a very slight Cuban accent, but he also knew that Bolivar had been a multitalented and well traveled man and was able to adapt to his environment. So he dismissed it.
“Simon… I’m dying,” said the comandante. Bolivar did not reply. “Fidel… and Raul… want me to choose…” And the pain shot through again, only harder, and Chavez gasped as his eyes filled with tears. After a moment to recover, he continued, “Simon… I love my Venezuela… I love my country… is Maduro the right choice?” And Bolivar had replied, “Si.”
Chavez closed his eyes slowly and let out a long breath, the final approval from Bolivar bringing him a sense of peace. “Gracias, Simon… I will soon be with you… at your side.” And Bolivar had answered, “Si.”
Chavez turned his head in the pillow and tried to get a little rest from the pain.
Meanwhile, Fidel and Raul had stood in the hallway outside, drinking a little Cuban coffee. They both had been up since before dawn to make sure they didn’t miss the historic moment. Just then, a middle aged man emerged from a room next to where Chavez lay. The man approached Fidel and Raul and, stopping a few feet before them, he bowed deeply. “As per your instructions,” the man said.
And Fidel had opened his arms and gestured for the man to come closer. “Gracias,” he had said to him softly as he shook his hand and held him by the shoulder. “I will be sure not to miss your next performance at the National Theatre.”
The man smiled appreciatively, bowed to Raul, and left.
Of course, Maduro had not known that any of this had transpired before he had been summoned in a great hurry and had travelled from Caracas to Havana in a middle of the night flight, his airplane flanked by Cuban and Venezuelan fighter jets. He just knew that it was one hell of a responsibility that Chavez was entrusting him with, and he wasn’t sure he could deliver.
He was a socialist to the core, Maduro reminded himself, and he truly loved Venezuela, but he just didn’t think he was presidential material. But if Hugo Chavez, the great comandante, wanted him to step up, he would do it.
Chavez was now drifting as Maduro remained standing in front of him, still holding the comandante’s hand.
“Work with the Cubans…”said Chavez with a barely audible voice, “…no matter what.”
Maduro then reached over and kissed the comandante on the forehead. He stared at him. He was not sure he would see his great mentor again. But how would anyone know of the man’s final wishes, he wondered. He turned to his wife, and they both exited the room.
Just outside, Fidel and Raul stepped up to him and shook his hand. “Congratulations, Nicolas.”
“How did you know?,” he asked, bewildered.
“Due to the extraordinary circumstances,” began Fidel Castro, “we have the room wired.”
Castro removed a small microphone from his ear. “It’s such an historic moment that we wanted to capture every bit of it. For posterity. For those who will continue the heroic socialist fight against imperialism after we’re gone.” Fidel Castro then leaned in a bit and added, “Vladimir, Mugabe, Daniel Ortega, all have asked to please send them a transcript for their personal libraries.”
Maduro did not know what to say, but both Fidel and Raul Castro proceeded to embrace him and his wife. “Congratulations, Mr President,” had said Fidel as Raul smiled.
Back in his presidential residence, six years after that encounter, (Chavez had returned to die in his own country), in a Venezuela that was falling apart, Maduro stared at himself in the mirror as the overhead light flickered. Maybe the generators were about to fail at his presidential residence too.
How had Venezuela become such a mess?
Maduro shook his head slowly, his mood despondent and at a loss for words.
And where were the Cubans, anyway? How had they let this happen? Had they learned anything since they took over in 1959?
Maduro felt a deep bitterness come over him. And the bitterness turned into anger. More than that, the anger became sheer loathing. And he glowered at himself in the mirror as it occurred to him that the Cubans had learned nothing at all about running a country successfully. He had had his doubts all along but had been too afraid to bring it up to Chavez, but now it was coming to him, full blown. Just what kind of expertise in nation building did the Cubans really have? Nothing. Nothing at all. Where did Cuba rank among Latin American nations in productivity? Near the bottom, that’s where, and they had been in power since 1959, that was 60 years! A country as wealthy as Venezuela, how could you trash it? It took some major bungling to accomplish that, and the Cubans had been right there from the start, with their so called ‘seasoned’ advice. Malarkey is what it was. Self serving bunk. The Cuban government didn’t give a damn about Venezuela and never had.
And Maduro stared at himself harder in the mirror and acknowledged that he hadn’t been doing his own thinking and that Hugo Chavez, the great comandante, had been dead wrong about forging an alliance with Cuba. An alliance that, in the name of socialism, had meant shipping lots and lots of oil to Cuba and other countries, while failing to educate and train their own people.
A cold shiver run through him as he dared think his own thoughts.
Maduro felt his heart sink from the crushing shame.
It had taken for Venezuela to come to the edge of the precipice for him to see the light. Damn it! Carajo! Cabrones! He cursed loudly. Having surprised himself with his outburst, he turned to peek into the bedroom to see if his wife was still there. She wasn’t.
He returned to the mirror. The one theme that ran through the entire Cuban ideology was that it was the Americans keeping them for thriving. Mind you, the Americans were no angels, they were in it for themselves and they had done their own share of meddling too, but no, there had to be more to it. Look at the Chinese, look at the South Koreans, even the Vietnamese. Those people had pulled themselves up or were pulling themselves up and where were the Cubans compared to them? Nowhere. If it weren’t for tourism they’d all be starving to death. If it weren’t for Venezuelan oil they would have nothing to run their meagre industry. Even their sugar production, the Cubans had managed to wreck. The height of incompetence. So no, that system did not work and Chavez had been wrong to ally himself with them. Chavez, his much admired mentor had been dead wrong and he, Nicolas Maduro, had not dared raise his voice to question him. Ever. How can you be the leader of a nation if you don’t dare question the great heroes?
Maduro sighed. He felt defeated.
There was no one to turn to. No one at all, not even his wife. He was on his own.
He had copied Chavez and the Cubans in blaming Americans for all his country’s problems but where had that got them?
He loved his country but there it was, falling apart and he was their leader. The responsibility was ultimately his.
How was he going to lead Venezuela out of the mess it was in?
And now there was this character, Juan Guaido, a nobody who had come from nowhere and was daring to challenge his legitimacy. What audacity.
But just as he thought this, he acknowledged that he felt a twinge of envy.
Yes. He was a little envious of Juan Guaido.
Yes, he was, “admit it”, he told himself. Be honest.
But what did he envy, exactly?
The guts. The courage. And Nicolas Maduro now thought that he would like to start all over again and be more like Juan Guaido.
No, he wanted to start again and be more like whatever Nicolas Maduro had to offer. He wanted to start again and discover who he really was. He loved his country but had allowed another nation to meddle in Venezuela’s battle for its own identity.
And maybe he was a true socialist after all and maybe he was not, but what had now become very clear to him was that he would not stand by as his country self destroyed with him as their leader.
And Nicolas Maduro felt that what was clamoring now in his heart and soul at that very instant was a yearning to be himself, to be a true Venezuelan. And that it should be for Venezuelans themselves to decide what they needed to do with their country.
And as he stared at himself in the mirror he saw his jaw drop, just as a sly smile began to show in his eyes and the corners of his mouth. There was hope, dammit! Yes, there was! He was not defeated! He would make a comeback! He would stand up for Venezuela and for himself!
He would go on national television, while giving no advanced notice at all of what he would say, and declare to the nation that he was ordering all Cuban nationals to leave the country immediately. And that meant everybody! And no, there would be no more oil shipments to Cuba. Work it out on your own, carajo! You’ve had 60 years to figure it out.
Venezuela might be in tatters, but they were a resourceful people, and they would work things out by themselves.
And he, Nicolas Maduro, would go on the history books as the man who dared lead his nation to achieving true sovereignty.
Maduro didn’t even shave. He kept smiling at himself in the mirror as he splashed some cold water on his face, the generator having stopped heating the water. But he felt great. He would have himself driven directly to the government’s main television station and make his announcement.
He stepped out of the bathroom and sent for his driver and his bodyguards. His wife, alarmed at his sudden determination, wanted to know what was up, could he please tell her, but he didn’t say a word to her. It was his move. He was the president. She could sit in the audience while he made his short speech. And it would be short. But it would be a Venezuelan’s speech, proud of his heritage, and finally fully aware that Venezuelans could chart their own course.
His wife, now in a panic that maybe an American agent looking and speaking like a Venezuelan had slipped a drug in her husband’s morning coffee, immediately called the Chief of Staff of the Venezuelan army but the man could not be found on such short notice and instead one of his aides, a high ranking officer, came to the phone to speak with Maduro.
Maduro glared at his wife as she handed him the phone but he took the call anyway. At the other end, the high ranking officer asked Maduro what he would be saying to the nation, that he needed to know because it was his responsibility to have the troops ready, just in case, and anyway, governing Venezuela was a cooperative effort and decisions needed to be made after proper consultation with the socialist brotherhood. Maduro listened, then asked, “General, are you Venezuelan or Cuban?”
The high ranking officer at the other end paused for a second, then said, “I’m a socialist, Mr President.”
And Maduro had smiled and said, “See, that’s the problem right there, we have to be Venezuelans first.”
He hung up, walked out of the presidential residence, boarded the special bullet proof vehicle he travelled in, and went directly to the television station where he was to make his address.
He had never felt better in his life.