Venezuela’s Tone-Deaf President

It was a curious week for President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela to launch a jovial radio show.

Venezuela’s political polarization appeared likely to devolve into widespread street violence this week until divine intervention, in the form of Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition, led everyone to take a step back from the brink. Two nephews of the country’s first lady are scheduled to go on federal trial in Manhattan next week for drug trafficking. Inflation has grown so severe that businesses have begun to weigh, rather than count, stacks of Bolivares, Venezuela’s increasingly worthless currency.

But there was no hint that the roof is caving in at the presidential palace when Mr. Maduro launched “The Hour of Salsa” on Tuesday. The midday radio show hosted by the president airs daily on the government-run station and will pay homage to the country’s cultural heritage and the essence of “a people that the oligarchy will never manage to decode or understand,” Mr. Maduro explained during the inaugural broadcast.

The intent of the show, which the president vowed to host even when he’s on the road in Saudi Arabia, Moscow or Havana, is to “multiply happiness, because our people have the right to be happy.”

El presidente Nicolás Maduro baila durante su programa de salsa. Credit Reuters
El presidente Nicolás Maduro baila durante su programa de salsa. Credit Reuters

History offers a long line of embattled leaders who were slow or unwilling to grasp the severity of their problems as their time in power drew to an end. It’s impossible to say whether Mr. Maduro’s days in power are numbered, but it’s hard to see him holding on much longer as the economic situation deteriorates and opposition leaders argue over how to oust him.

Yet far from receding from view, Mr. Maduro seems to relish the spotlight more than ever. It is bewildering, enthralling even, to watch Venezuela’s socialist president as he livestreams his life on raw, poorly-produced videos shared on government social media accounts. (“The Hour of Salsa” is broadcast on Periscope and Facebook.) Is he in as much denial as his peppy public persona would suggest? Is there a method to this madness?

There were clues, but no definitive answers in Mr. Maduro’s musical selections on Tuesday. Although he said he realized he “had to behave” and embrace the “spirit of national dialogue” with the Vatican representatives in town, the songs he played were far from conciliatory. There was Ray Barretto’s “Indestructible,” a defiant song about beating the odds. To his opponents in the national assembly, which last week considered holding an impeachment-style trial to catalogue the his failings, Mr. Maduro dedicated “Tu Loco Loco y Yo Tranquilo,” — “You’re crazy crazy and I’m chill” — by Roberto Roena. As the song played, Mr. Maduro, clad in a loose-fitting aquamarine shirt, danced with his wife, Cilia Flores, who goes by the title first combatant, rather than first lady.

The president’s social media appearances are a continuation of the communication strategy pioneered by his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. Mr. Chávez hosted “Aló Presidente,” an unscripted variety show that would sometimes drag on for hours. But Mr. Maduro lacks the charisma and acute political instincts of Mr. Chávez, who seemed to understand when it was best to fade from view.

Between songs on Tuesday, Mr. Maduro hailed Venezuela’s human rights record as he gabbed with Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, who phoned in from a diplomatic meeting in Geneva. He railed against the new governments of Brazil, Argentina and Peru and expressed hope that South American and Caribbean nations would one day band together as a politically cohesive bloc. And he reminded listeners that he will turn 54 on November 23.

“I will be accepting gifts until Dec. 31,” Mr. Maduro said, adding that the deadline was flexible. Reflecting on 54 years “well lived,” the president said he remains filled with vitality: “I feel like I was 15.”

Ernesto Londoño es miembro del Comité Editorial de The New York Times.

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