TIME Cuba

How Venezuela’s Collapse Helped Thaw Cuban-American Relations

Cuba's President Raul Castro shakes hands with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during the opening session of the 10th ALBA alliance summit in Havana
From Left: Cuba's President Raul Castro shakes hands with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro during the opening session of the 10th ALBA alliance summit in Havana on Dec. 14, 2014. © Enrique de la Osa / Reuters—REUTERS

The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez helped keep the Cuban regime propped up, but that's not possible in an era of low oil prices

“We have two presidents: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez,” declared Cuba’s then Vice President Carlos Lage in a visit to Caracas just under a decade ago. A couple of years later, in Havana, then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez added, “At heart, we are just one government.”

It is likely not a coincidence that talks between the United States and Cuba—which culminated yesterday in an announcement that the two countries would begin to resume full diplomatic relations—began just after the death the former Venezuelan president who had bankrolled Cuba’s Revolution.

Today a beleaguered Venezuela no longer has the spare cash to fund the island’s beleaguered economy. The Castros likely realized this as Chávez’s presidency was coming to an end and were not keen for a return to the scarcity of the euphemistically titled Special Period of the 1990s, after the collapse of Cuba’s first patron, the Soviet Union. “We had nothing, no food and no money,” one elderly man told me in Havana not long ago. The Cuban economy contracted 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, and oil imports decreased 90 percent. Cuba was in desperate need of money.

Chávez, then a nascent politician on the make in Venezuela, saw Castro as a political mentor, a simpatico ally against the elites and imperialists who he blamed for the world’s ills. Chávez also oversaw some of the world’s largest oil reserves. Venezuela currently sends almost 100,000 barrels per day of oil to the island—more than half of Cuba’s consumption—as well as aid thought to be worth in total between $5 billion and $15 billion a year, or some 15% of Cuba’s GDP. (More precise figures are hard to come by given the opacity of both governments.)

But Chávez is dead, and today Venezuela’s economy is in tatters, exacerbated by a fall in the price of oil, which provides 96% of Venezuela’s foreign revenue. The country’s local currency on the black market has fallen 35% in the last month; annual inflation is at more than 60% and there is serious talk of default on Wall Street. Many economists are talking of a “perfect storm” brewing for current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose approval ratings have fallen to the mid-twenties.

The lack of guaranteed support from Caracas would have made Cuban President Raúl Castro “much more eager to negotiate and given the U.S. leverage,” said Ted Henken, President of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy and author of several books on Cuba.

As Havana makes peace with Washington, Venezuelan authorities are left increasingly isolated. While Cuba and Venezuela held onto leftist principles, other countries in the region have in recent years taken more pragmatic policy decisions. “Obama has pulled the rug out from under Maduro,” said Christopher Sabatini, Senior Director of Policy at the Council of the Americas. “It’s going to be a lot easier for other U.S. allies in the region to swing away from Venezuela.”

In the last couple of weeks, in response to sanctions by Washington on top Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights abuses, Maduro has rallied against the U.S. “It shows a lack of respect!” boomed the mustachioed president to a few thousand supporters in Caracas on Dec. 15. “They can shove their US visas.” On Wednesday, though, Maduro praised Obama’s “gesture” towards Cuba. “How sad it is to have a government who 72 hours ago launched an anti-imperialist diatribe against Obama and now describes him as ‘courageous,’” said Jesús Torrealba, head of Venezuela’s opposition coalition.

Cuba learned its lessons from the Special Period and in recent years began to diversify. On the ground, rules have been loosened on private restaurants, guesthouses and the buying and selling of property. Cubans are even allowed Internet access, though only about 5 percent of the country can reach the Web. On a more global scale, international investors have come in; the Scarabeo 9 oil rig sailed into the Florida Straits in January 2012. It was Chinese-built, Italian-owned, and was to be used by Spanish, Norwegian and Indian firms, among others.

Cuba was likely well aware those small reforms would not be enough in the long run. There are a mixture of elements that have come together to allow this historic moment: from Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro themselves to mediators in the Vatican and Canada. Yet, the unwitting spur for the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba may be Hugo Chávez himself, and the inability of his successors to manage Venezuela’s economy.

TIME Venezuela

Venezuelan President Calls Obama’s Outreach to Cuba ‘Courageous’

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures during the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR) trade bloc annual presidential 47th summit in Parana
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, right, gestures during the Southern Common Market trade bloc's annual presidential 47th summit in Paraná, Argentina, on Dec. 17, 2014 Enrique Marcarian—Reuters

Cuba’s staunch Latin American ally approves of the renewal of diplomatic relations between the old foes

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba was nothing short of “courageous,” according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Following dual announcements in Washington and Havana on Wednesday, the Venezuelan head of state openly lauded the new chapter in American-Cuba relations during a trade summit in Argentina’s southern city of Paraná.

“You have to recognize the gesture of Barack Obama, a gesture that is courageous and necessary,” said Maduro, according to Reuters.

Caracas has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Cuba since late President Hugo Chávez first rose to power in the country during the late 1990s.

[Reuters]

TIME

The Most Powerful Protest Photos of 2014

There wasn't a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson to the student camps of Hong Kong

In 2011, TIME named the Protester as the Person of the Year, in recognition of the twin people-power earthquakes of the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. TIME named the Ebola Fighters as the 2014 Person of the Year, but you could have forgiven if we went back to the Protester. There wasn’t a corner of the planet untouched by protest this year, from the tear-gassed streets of Ferguson, Missouri, to the squares of Mexico City, to the impromptu student camps of Hong Kong. Many of the protests were remarkably peaceful, like Occupy Hong Kong, which was galvanized by public anger over the overreaction of the city’s police. Others turned bloody, like the Euromaidan protests in Kiev, Ukraine, which eventually brought down the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, in turn triggering a war that led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in May and the deaths of thousands of Ukrainians.

Not every protest was as effective as those that began the year in the cold of Kiev. Hong Kongers still don’t have full democratic rights, gay rights are on the retreat in much of east Africa and every day seems to bring news of another questionable police killing in the U.S. But the wave of social action that ended 2014 is unlikely to crest in 2015. The ubiquity of camera phones means no shortage of iconic photographs and videos from any protest, whether in Lima or Los Angeles, and social media gives everyone the means to broadcast. What follows are some of the most powerful images from the global streets in 2014.

TIME North Korea

American in North Korea Said to Denounce U.S.

A man who identifies himself as Arturo Pierre Martine, a 29-year-old American raised in El Paso, Texas speaks at a press conference in North Korea's capital Pyongyang on Dec. 14, 2014.
A man who identifies himself as Arturo Pierre Martine, a 29-year-old American raised in El Paso, Texas speaks at a press conference in North Korea's capital Pyongyang on Dec. 14, 2014. AP/Kyodo

His mother said he's mentally unstable

A Texas man who apparently entered North Korea illegally earlier this year has denounced American foreign policy in a lengthy news conference, according to a report Sunday, and plans to seek asylum in Venezuela.

The man, who identified himself as Arturo Pierre Martinez, 29, claimed he ventured into the reclusive country to provide what he described as “very valuable and disturbing information” regarding the U.S. to authorities in the isolated country, according to Reuters, citing footage of the statement released by North Korea’s state-run news agency. Martinez, who said he has been living in a hotel, thanked authorities for treating him well.

Martinez’s mother, Patricia Eugenia Martinez, told CNN that her son is mentally unstable and had attempted to enter North Korea before.

The State Department acknowledged Sunday that it was aware of the situation and was ready “to provide all possible consular assistance.” A statement from Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf neither confirmed Martinez’s identity, nor noted his comments.

[Reuters]

TIME Venezuela

Falling Oil Prices Turn Up The Heat On Venezuela’s Maduro

President Nicolas Maduro taking part in a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 2, 2014.
President Nicolas Maduro takes part in a press conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 2, 2014. Corbis

Oil and gas accounts for a quarter of Venezuela's economy, which was already struggling when global oil prices turned south, compounding Nicolás Maduro's political woes

On Nov. 27, as the OPEC oil cartel gathered in Vienna to discuss falling oil prices, the front page of Venezuela’s anti-government Tal Cual newspaper ran a cartoon showing President Nicolás Maduro and his former oil and economic tzar Rafael Ramírez praying before a barrel of oil. With the oil and gas sector accounting for a quarter of the Venezuelan economy and oil sales the source for around 95% of export earnings, the country has been hammered by the recent drop in prices. OPEC’s decision last week to hold off on production cuts to arrest the decline promises to sharpen the pain for oil-dependent nations like Venezuela. It is also a political challenge for Maduro who has grown increasingly unpopular since being elected after the death of his political mentor Hugo Chávez last year.

Although he tried to put a brave face on the OPEC decision—in a nationally televised address the same day, Maduro claimed there was nothing for Venezuelans to worry about—the fact is that the Venezuelan economy is in free-fall. Figures released by the government in September showed annual inflation running at over 60%, while foreign currency reserves have plummeted nearly 30% in the last two years despite being propped up last week by a Chinese loan. Venezuela boasts the world’s largest oil reserves—but years of mismanagement and a lack of investment have the left the country in a fiscally tight spot, without the resources to withstand a prolonged drop in the oil price. And although it is a member of the OPEC cartel, the grouping is dominated by Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest oil producers, which was reported to be the prime mover behind the Nov. 27 decision in a bid to undermine shale oil production in north America.

On the streets in Caracas, with Christmas around the corner, shelves are empty, as importers lack the foreign currency they need to bring the goods in. “The government is not sufficient,” says Eleanor Romero, a 58-year-old coffee vendor, who had to wait in line for two days to buy gifts and a new fridge at a Christmas fair organized by the government last month. “I voted for Chávez and miss him. Maduro isn’t working.”

Her views are reflected in a recent poll that put Maduro’s approval rating at under 25%.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the country’s mismanaged economy is the black market exchange rate for the local bolivar currency, named, like Chávez’s political revolution, for the Latin American independence hero Simón Bolívar. Officially, one U.S. dollar buys 6.3 bolivars, according to the strongest of the three official exchange rates. But thanks to controls enacted by Chávez more than a decade ago that have severely restricted the flow of hard currency, one U.S. dollar on the black market buys more than 150 bolivars. Measured against the greenback, the bolivar has slumped by 30% in the last month alone, as the government fails to provide enough U.S. dollars through official channels, increasing demand on the black market.

“The perfect storm is brewing,” said Diego Moya-Ocampos, a senior political risk analyst at IHS, a economic and political consultancy in London. “A severe economic crisis can be expected if there is no change in economic policy.”

To bring the economy back on its feet, economists recommend a series of reforms, including overhauling the currency controls and ending generous oil and gas subsidies to nearby Caribbean nations, something that cash-strapped Venezuela can ill afford. But the President shows little sign of going down this road. “The enemies of our country are rubbing their hands with glee, thinking this will end the Bolivarian Revolution,” he said in his televised address, striking a note of defiance, even as he put in motion plans to curb the government’s spending.

Part of the government’s fiscal woes stem from the domestic subsidies that for years have kept a lid on gas prices. Long before the recent oil price fall, Venezuela subsided the cost of gas at the pump to a point where it only cost a few cents to fill an entire tank. This was the case through the boom years when Chinese demand drove up global commodities prices. The result was billions of dollars in lost revenues—money that would have helped develop the Venezuelan oil industry and cushion the blow from the weakness in international energy markets today.

The subsidies are such that, even now, as the Venezuelan economy struggles, smugglers reap huge profits by stocking up on gas in the Bolivarian Republic before crossing the border and selling the fuel at market prices in Colombia. “Gas is practically a free gift here,” says Jesús Arias, a 33-year-old who makes more money smuggling gas than working as an engineer in San Cristóbal, a couple of hours from the border. He sells fuel that costs only a couple of cents in Venezuela for more than $10 over the frontier. “Doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers like me, we’re all doing it,” he adds. “On the border, I can earn in three or four days what I earn as a professional in a month.”

The economic dysfunction and falling price of oil leaves Maduro in a tough spot. He lacks both the political will and popularity to push through meaningful reforms to push Venezuela’s economic house in order. At the same time, he is being increasingly squeezed by the weakness in the oil price. Hugo Chávez was luckier. At the height of his powers, he commanded widespread domestic acclaim, and was buoyed by rising oil prices on the world markets (he was also adept at showmanship, hosting, for example, OPEC heads of state in Caracas soon after he first came to power). Maduro faces an altogether more challenging environment.

“Ordinary Venezuelans are starting to get tired of slogans and socialist rhetoric and no concrete actions on any front,” says Moya-Ocampos. “As the economy deteriorates, so will the political situation in Venezuela.”

TIME Venezuela

Now There’s a Ballet About Hugo Chávez

Venezuela Chavez Ballet
John Lobo, 29, performing as Venezuela's late president Hugo Chavez in the star role of the "Ballet of the Spider-Seller to Liberator", at the Teresa Carreno Theater in Caracas, Nov. 27, 2014. Ariana Cubillos—AP

"From Spider-Seller to Liberator" celebrates the life of the late Venezuelan president. Critics call it propaganda

Political biographies just got a little more on pointe.

A state-sponsored ballet in Venezuela on Saturday will celebrate the late Hugo Chavez’s life from infancy to his reign as the country’s president and loudly vocal challenger to the United States.

The piece, From Spider-Seller to Liberator, leads the viewer from Chávez’s humble origins in the state of Barinas to his transformation into “the guide of the fights of the Venezuelan people’s struggles,” the Guardian reports.

Cuban journalists gathered the late president’s personal recollections from his speeches and his weekly television show as a basis for the piece. It begins with a recording of Chávez’s voice saying: “I was like a seed which fell on hard ground.”

Critics say the show is a propaganda piece to sustain the myth of Chavez’s life, who died last year of cancer.

[The Guardian]

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela Shocks Shoppers With Pregnant Schoolgirl Mannequins

A woman reacts in front of a display showing mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls at a shopping mall in Caracas
A woman reacts in front of a display showing mannequins of pregnant schoolgirls at a shopping mall in Caracas November 12, 2014. Carlos Garcia Rawlins—Reuters

The displays are meant to draw attention to the high teen pregnancy rate

Parents shopping for the uniforms that Venezuelan children wear until age 15 were startled to find the clothing advertised on adolescent, pregnant mannequins at a shopping mall in Caracas.

The displays were intended to draw attention to the high teen pregnancy rate in Venezuela, where 23 percent of all babies are born to mothers under the age of 18.

The scandal came only days after the United Nations expressed concern over the country’s high teen pregnancy and maternal mortality rates.

The mannequins will stay in the windows for a month, and may appear in other retail locations around the country.

[Reuters]

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela’s New Opposition Leader Jesús Torrealba Takes on the Chavistas

Venezuelan Opposition Alliance Executive Secretary Jesus Torrealba speaks during a interview at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 7, 2014.
Venezuelan Opposition Alliance Executive Secretary Jesus Torrealba speaks during a interview at his office in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 7, 2014. Fernando Llano—AP

Venezuela's opposition has tried and failed to beat Hugo Chavez's political descendants. Will a new leader make a difference?

In October 1958, the heads of the major political parties in Venezuela met at Punto Fijo, the Caracas home of former president Rafael Caldera. At the summit the political brokers agreed to share power between themselves—no matter who actually won future elections. For the next 40 years, Venezuela was essentially governed by a pair of conservative parties in what became called the puntofijismo. The left was sidelined and the poor largely ignored. The country, though, was prosperous and stable—up to a point.

Hugo Chávez came on the scene soon after the economy fell apart, partly thanks to a prolonged slump in oil prices that took a serious toll on Venezuela, a major crude producer. He campaigned for the presidency in the late 1990s, promising to end the puntofijismo and give a voice to the poor. “I am a product of history,” Chávez liked to say. He tirelessly toured the country’s less wealthy areas and went on to win the 1998 election in a landslide, redefining Venezuelan politics.

A decade and a half later, however, Chávez is dead and his successor Nicolás Maduro’s popularity is waning. One recent poll put Maduro’s approval ratings in the thirties, thanks in part to Venezuela’s annual inflation of more than 60%, shortages of the most basic consumer products and one of the world’s highest murder rates.

Yet, despite the widespread discontent, the country’s opposition still struggles to gain ground, limited in part by its perceived links to a failed old guard. Enter Jesús Torrealba, affectionately known as Chuo, a new executive-secretary of the Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD, Democratic Unity Roundtable), the umbrella group which represents political parties opposed to the government. Torrealba was chosen in part because he is able to engage with the country’s poor—something the elite members of the anti-Chávez opposition have repeatedly failed to do. “I’m from the barrio,” he told TIME, adding that he has seen the failures of the socialist government first hand. “Those of us who were poor have stayed poor; those in the middle classes have become poor.” His job is to direct the disparate opposition and help pick the eventual presidential candidate that will take on Maduro in the coming years.

Torrealba is a former Communist Party member, community leader and a presenter of the TV show “Radar of the Barrios,” a program where h gave the poor a chance to voice their anger. He is aiming to attract people like bread vendor Ernesto López, who wears a Chávez t-shirt in the Caracas slum of 23 de enero. López demonstrates the long odds Torrealba will face—there is little chance the 60-year-old will vote for the opposition, even though López, like many in his neighborhood, isn’t happy with Maduro’s performance. “At least we don’t have the dictatorship of puntofijismo,” López said. “They wanted to rob Venezuela’s riches for themselves and we don’t want to return to that.”

Torrealba insists he does not want to go back in time to the days of conservative rule. “A return to the past is neither desirable nor possible,” he said. Torrealba is hoping to make electoral headway for the Venezuelan opposition in National Assembly elections late next year. A good showing in that vote would pressure the government and bolster a potential recall referendum against Maduro in 2016. If not, the opposition would have to wait until 2019 for the next presidential election. “It’s embarrassing that in 21st century Venezuela, we’re debating communism versus capitalism, as if the Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen, as if the Soviet Union hadn’t gone through perestroika,” said Torrealba.

Torrealba, 56, was born in Catia, a poor sector in the west of Caracas. He worked as a journalist and teacher as well in activism and, in line with his working class credentials, is more gruff in dress and character than many of his colleagues in the MUD. He wants to take advantage of Venezuela’s natural resources, including the world’s largest oil reserves. Chávez hoped to channel oil wealth to the poor by launching welfare programs—however, critics say much of the money was largely squandered through inefficiency, incompetence and corruption. “We should be looking to construct a Venezuela that has a quality of life similar to the Nordic countries, though with a Caribbean twist,” he said, giving a nod to prosperous Norway, which avoided the “oil curse”—where countries with bountiful natural resources tend to underperform economically—that has befallen so many oil-rich nations.

Henrique Capriles, who twice lost presidential elections against Chávez and Maduro over the last two years, understood that he had to shed his wealthy image in order to attract those who were disaffected by Chávez and Maduro. Despite his family’s wealth, on the campaign trail Capriles would wear a tracksuit, ride into the country’s slums on his motorbike and play basketball with the locals. “I’m not the candidate of the old establishment,” he told TIME in February 2012, before winning opposition primaries. He lost to Maduro by less than a quarter of a million votes in April last year. He still considers himself the opposition’s leader and may well go on to be the MUD’s presidential candidate again.

But Torrealba will have his work cut out. Silvana Lezama, 20 years old and studying communications at the leafy Monteávila University in Caracas, took part in anti-government protests earlier this year, but isn’t impressed by the opposition’s new leader. “We need a leader that motivates us and I don’t feel motivated at all by Torrealba,” she said. Luis Vicente León, a local political analyst, added: “It’s a tough challenge but Torrealba is capable.” Few protesters were interested in the MUD-led opposition that was personified by characters like Capriles and López. They just wanted a change, with little notion of how it would come about. Torrealba must tap into both the energy of protesters and the disaffected poor—and convince them that the days of puntofijismo are long gone.

TIME France

Carlos the Jackal Will Be Put on Trial for a 1974 Grenade Attack in Paris

FRANCE-VENEZUELA-TRIAL-CARLOS
Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, right, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, arrives at the Criminal Court of the Palais de Justice in Paris on Dec. 9, 2013 Bertrand Guay—AFP/Getty Images

The convicted terrorist is already serving two life sentences for a series of killings in France in the 1980s

Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, nicknamed Carlos the Jackal, is to be tried for a 1974 grenade attack in Paris that killed two people and injured 34, the Guardian reports.

The notorious Marxist terrorist from Venezuela, who was convicted of a series of attacks on French civilians in the 1980s, is already serving two life sentences in a French prison for several high-profile murders. One sentence, handed down in 1997, is for the murder of a civilian and two policemen.

The other, announced in 2011, is for organizing a series of attacks in the 1980s on two French passenger trains, a train station in Marseille, and a Libyan magazine office in Paris. The attacks killed 11 people in total and injured about 150.

Ramírez has denied involvement in the attacks.

On Friday, a source told the Guardian that a French judge was planning to send Ramírez, 64, to a special court in the French capital, where he will get a third trial, this time on charges related to a 1974 grenade attack at a Parisian drugstore.

[Guardian]

TIME Venezuela

Venezuela’s Maduro Courts Chavez Faithful With Government Shake-Up

President Nicolas Maduro talks during a meeting with ministers at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Sept. 3, 2014.
President Nicolás Maduro talks during a meeting with ministers at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Sept. 3, 2014. Reuters

With the opposition posing little threat for now, Nicolás Maduro's real challenge is keeping the left—particularly supporters of the late Hugo Chávez—united behind his leadership

“Our Chávez who art in heaven, the earth, the sea and we delegates,” began María Estrella Uribe, a red-clad supporter of Hugo Chávez at the lectern of a Socialist party convention in Caracas earlier this month.“Hallowed be thy name… Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from evil and oligarchy.”

The latter part of the prayer to the former Venezuelan President was answered just a few days later, when Rafael Ramírez, the country’s oil minister minister and vice president responsible for the economy, was sidelined. A longtime lieutenant of Chávez, Ramírez had lately begun pushing to overhaul the struggling Venezuelan economy. In June, on his way back from an Opec meeting in Vienna, he took a detour to London to meet investors. His aim? To re-establish “communication with financial markets.” He wanted to refinance the country’s debt by tapping the international markets and talked publicly about raising the price of heavily-subsidized gas (the government loses out on some $12.5 billion a year to ensure that Venezuelans pay no more than a couple of cents per liter at the pump).

But he was pushed aside by Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, who, ever since he won a Presidential election last April, has struggled to get a grip on spiraling inflation and shortages of basic goods such as flour and shampoo. The crisis has knocked Maduro’s popularity—his approval ratings languish in the mid-thirties—and even fanned speculation in some quarters about the possibility of a default (the government insists it will honor its obligations down to last dollar).

Maduro announced Ramírez’s departure from the oil portfolio on Sept. 2, moving him to the foreign ministry in a televised speech billed as the great sacudón or shake-up. “We must begin a new stage in the revolution,” Maduro said, naming Chávez’s cousin, Asdrúbal, as the country’s new oil chief. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who participated in Hugo Chávez’s failed 1992 coup attempt against the then government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez, took over as the new vice president for the economy. Ramírez also lost his post as the head of the national oil company.

The reshuffle signaled another lurch to the left for Maduro as the souring economy takes its toll on ordinary Venezuelans. Ramírez’s move out of oil ministry also underscored the President’s main challenge—maintaining the support of the thousands of Venezuelans who backed Chávez. The opposition—divided as it is between a radical flank led by the still-imprisoned Leopoldo López and a more moderate faction spearheaded Henrique Capriles—poses little threat, at least for now. February saw the biggest anti-government protests in Venezuela in over a decade as students took to the streets. But the momentum behind that movement has waned. “The students have other priorities,” says Carlos Romero, a Venezuelan political analyst, “to finish their studies, to look for a job or to go abroad.”

Maduro’s real problem is keeping the left united behind his leadership, a challenge that is apparent in the Caracas slum of 23 de Enero—a well known bastion of the left and the place where Chávez and his co-conspirators planned the 1992 coup attempt. “Things are going from bad to worse,” says Winifer López, 20, a nurse who lives in the slum. “I always supported Chávez. He was wonderful for this country. But what on earth made him leave Maduro in charge?”

For Romero, the government reshuffle is a signal that “Maduro believes that a radical path would mean he will have more support from Chavistas [supporters of the late leader].”

“He does not like to be seen as a reformist, rather as a true believer of socialist ideas, of the legacy of Chávez,” Romero adds. “In order to maintain his popularity he has to be more radical to project him as a strong leader. That is why he moved Ramírez.”

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