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How Venezuela's President Maintains His Grip On Power


An arresting photo from The New York Times went around the world this week. Four children in Venezuela looked down into a tiny coffin at a baby who was starved to death. In a country with the world's largest oil reserves, children are dying of malnutrition. Inflation is colossal. Crime is rampant. Political opponents are squelched, demonstrators killed. And Socialist President Nicolas Maduro retains his grip on power. Reporter Jon Lee Anderson was recently in Venezuela, and he interviewed Maduro for The New Yorker and joins us from New York. Mr. Anderson, thanks so much for being with us.

JON LEE ANDERSON: My pleasure.

SIMON: What is everyday life like in Venezuela?

ANDERSON: Well, it's a state of existential tension, I would say. And, really, the degree of that tension depends on your economic ability and social class. If you are poor - and that is the case of the children and people suffering to that degree in the photo you describe - you know, it's tough. There's soaring degrees of insecurity, as well. You know, it has some of the highest murder rates in the world.

If you are, then, middle class - those who remain - or upper-middle class, you live in either a secure apartment - by which I mean doormen with bulletproof glass who check you out before you go in if you're a visitor - or you live in a neighborhood with high walls, razor wire, storm wire and, in the case of the people who can afford it, an escape hatch on the roof and a helipad (laughter).

SIMON: The opposition won a majority in the National Assembly. But you quoted an unnamed American official who said - refers to the opposition as truly the gang that cannot shoot straight. How so?

ANDERSON: Well, indeed. When they finally did win a majority in December of 2015, the first thing they did was set about in almost an act of kind of juvenile repudiation, removing the portraits that had been hanging there of - first of all, of Chavez and then of Simon Bolivar, you know, the vaunted founding father of Venezuela who - in whose name the revolution - in fact, even the country has been renamed since the Chavez group took power.

SIMON: I have to add there's a statue of Simon Bolivar right outside of our apartment in the United States (laughter).

ANDERSON: There you go.

SIMON: He's that kind of figure, yeah.

ANDERSON: Yes, he's a George Washington figure for - and to an unusual degree, he's cherished in Venezuela because he came from there. So that sort of set the tone for what became an extremely acrimonious relationship between a very weakened President Maduro - weakened economically, weakened politically - and this new legislature, which then tried to impeach him - you know, a whole series of back-and-forths.

Things got to a head this last spring and summer, and they galvanized kids on the street in demonstrations in barricades, you know, hurling invective or Molotov cocktails in a few cases. Maduro responded by sending the National Guards into the street. They fired tear gas. They also fired real bullets. It was excruciating to witness as every day, some new, young kid - usually amongst the opposition - died.

And it was the opposition leaders who pushed them into this. When they were finally outfoxed, and Maduro got his way, what he wanted was to create an election for a constituent assembly that would effectively defang and deplace (ph) the National Assembly - the Congress - the opposition-held Congress. They kind of went home.

SIMON: You spent a lot of time, as these things are measured, with President Maduro. What was your impression?

ANDERSON: Well, Maduro himself is a very affable guy. You know, he's a big guy. I call him a bear of a guy because he is. He's about 6'5", well over 250, 260 pounds, and he is a warm character. He likes to backslap, and kiss, and babies and sing in public and dance. And so he's got that kind of street savvy and instinct that Chavez had. He's not as fully charismatic, but he now seems to be getting over some of his early insecurities, where he seemed a bit of a blunder and clumsy.

So what he wanted to show me when I came through was that he had effectively won. There had been this fight with the opposition. He had beat them. It was kind of like talking with a boxer after, you know, doing a kind of dissection of how it had gone down. So in round three, I hit him in the chin. In round four, yeah, I was against the ropes, but I came back. It was like that, and that's what I tried to portray as the man I see - and his thinking, which is that of a revolutionary. He conceives himself as a socialist revolutionary. This is someone who believes he possesses a revolutionary inheritance and that it is his job to push that forward.

SIMON: Jon Lee Anderson of The New Yorker, thanks so much for being with us.

ANDERSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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