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To Dim Guaido’s Appeal, Maduro Offers Venezuela His Own Version

To Dim Guaido’s Appeal, Maduro Offers Venezuela His Own Version

Nicolas Maduro stands his wife Cilia Flores on his right and Hector Rodriguez on his left, as they sing the national anthem in 2016. Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg

Hector Rodriguez emerges as the regime’s grinning young face


Juan Guaido, the 35-year-old head of Venezuela’s opposition, arrived this year with Tigger-like energy. He bounced around holding rallies in the poorest neighborhoods, showing up onstage at a relief concert, trying to sway troops to his side outside a military base. The middle-aged regime of Nicolas Maduro, dominated by burly revolutionaries in Castro-chic fatigues and dated facial hair, needed to counter him.

Enter Hector Rodriguez. Increasingly visible in Maduro’s circle of trust, the 37-year-old governor of Miranda state regularly draws crowds at events in Caracas and was sent to Oslo in May to negotiate with the opposition. He shows up in tailored button-down shirts or polos to make soothing statements about dialogue and unity. He has a fashionably shaved pate. He grins.

Venezuela under Maduro has fallen into dysfunction and international condemnation. Hunger is rampant, and the mainstay oil industry continues to devolve. With Maduro deeply unpopular amid the devastation — but with Guaido so far unable to dislodge him — Rodriguez is increasingly visible as the regime retools itself for a long haul. In some Chavista circles, his name is now whispered as the regime’s best chance of holding onto power if an international coalition forces new elections.

“Hector Rodriguez is a liked figure;  he’s seen as a different kind of Chavista, open to dialogue and able to charm the opposition members who were once Chavez  supporters,” said Felix Seijas, head of pollster Delphos. “If handled right, he could be a figure that could give life to Chavismo and make it competitive.”

Maduro’s natural successors would be Diosdado Cabello, who heads the supreme National Constituent Assembly created by  Maduro’s government in 2017  or Industry Minister Tareck El Aissami. But both are unpopular and have been sanctioned by the U.S., which accuses them of money laundering and drug trafficking, among other offenses. This limits their ability to act on a global stage.

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Hector Rodriguez. Photographer: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

“Eighty percent of the people reject Maduro, and nobody likes Cabello or El Aissami. With the emergence of a young leader like Guaido, the only option left is Hector Rodriguez,” said political scientist Luis Salamanca of Venezuela’s public Central University in Caracas.  “If a democratic election is agreed upon, Rodriguez would be the candidate.”

Rodriguez traveled to Oslo with Information Minister Jorge Rodriguez and Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, two close allies of Maduro. After the inconclusive negotiations, Maduro appeared a couple of times with Rodriguez on state television to congratulate him for his effort.

Rodriguez, who rarely speaks to the press and declined requests for an interview, has been conspicuous at key moments. In 2017, when Maduro announced the country’s decision to stop paying its foreign debt, Rodriguez sat by his side on national television. He was also at the presidential palace on Jan. 23, the day Guaido claimed the constitution made him interim president because the regime stole the election.

But Rodriguez has cultivated an image as a domestic powerhouse. Rather than making showy threats against the yanquis, he focuses publicly on fighting crime, cultivating fallow land for cocoa exports and promoting a food program in Miranda schools.

“I like Rodriguez better than Maduro,” said Maria Victoria Ballesteros, a Miranda state school teacher. “Maduro doesn’t do anything right. If Rodriguez orders a highway repair, he actually shows up to supervise the work.”

His image belies his actual accomplishments. Rodriguez equipped Miranda police with dozens of SUVs, bicycles and motorcycles and has increased the number of officers. But Miranda reported the second-highest rate of violent deaths in Venezuela last year, with 124 homicides for every 100,000 people, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. Local cocoa producers fear he will take over production and sell it to allies in China or Turkey.

And despite his promotion of food programs, almost 11% of children in Miranda 5 years old and younger suffer from acute malnutrition, according to the Catholic charity Caritas.

Yet some regime supporters believe Rodriguez — relatively young and unsullied — could one day take the reins of the socialist revolution. “He has all the profile, the commitment, maturity, talent and the trajectory to assume a presidential candidacy,” said Ricardo Sanchez, a Constituent Assembly member who’s known Rodriguez since college.

Born in a modest beach town in northeast Venezuela, Rodriguez has two children with his wife, Dubraska Moreno. He first stood out as a student leader at Central University, where he obtained a law degree. While he hewed to the socialist ideology of the late President Hugo Chavez, he had good relationships with students in the opposition. He’s even admitted to calling opposition lawmakers including Stalin Gonzalez and Miguel Pizarro friends, a bold move in a nation that imprisons dissidents as traitors. Pizarro has since fled the country.

Chavez, who died of cancer in 2013, saw Rodriguez as someone who could perpetuate his program of redistributing Venezuela’s oil-created wealth.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (C) giv

Hector Rodriguez, left, stands with the late Hugo Chavez at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas in 2012. Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP via Getty Images

“Rodriguez emerges the same year as the year the young generation of students like Guaido,” said Nicmer Evans, a Central University political scientist and disaffected regime supporter. “Chavez liked him for his conceptual depth and his oratorical skills. He saw in Rodriguez some kind of relay generation.”

Rodriguez first dazzled Chavez with his fiery speeches during a wave of 2007 protests, where he stood his ground against student activists after the president closed the popular channel RCTV, which took an opposition editorial line. The next year, Chavez named him chief of staff. Since then, he has run ministries devoted to education, youth and sports and led the ruling party in the National Assembly, since bypassed by the Constituent Assembly.

In 2017, Rodriguez became Miranda’s governor by a margin of 6% in an election decried by the opposition as a fraud. The elections agency, which is controlled by the government, moved dozens of voting centers at the last minute, displacing some 225,000 voters. Opposition observers also were forcibly removed from several centers.

Rodriguez “knows how to work in teams,” said Victor Clark, a close friend and governor of Falcon state, who met Rodriguez in college. “He knows how to listen and ask questions. He is analytical and disciplined.”

That might not be enough. Even if Maduro somehow left the scene, Rodriguez would drag the weight of his ruinous economy, one so bad 4 million Venezuelans have left the country. Evans said Rodriguez must know that his window of opportunity to assume real leadership is limited.

“He knows that this is a disaster and he is sinking with the country’s collapse,” Evans said.

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