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Cilia Flores de Maduro, How Venezuela's First Lady Wields A Corrupt "Flower Shop" Of Power

Venezuela's first lady, Cilia Flores, is one of the country's chief power brokers and a consummate wheeler-dealer who, with the help of relatives, runs a voracious enterprise dubbed the Flower Shop.


One of the clearest signs of tyranny in Venezuela has to be the pervasive nepotism and behind-the-scenes power enjoyed by President Nicolás Maduro's wife, Cilia Flores de Maduro.

In Venezuela, it's said that Flores works in the shadows but is somehow "always in the right place," with one commentator observing that she is constantly "surrounded by an extensive web of collaborators" — including relatives, with whom she has forged a clique often dubbed the floristería, or the "Flower Shop," which is thought to control every facet of Venezuelan politics.

She is certainly Venezuela's most powerful woman.

From modest origins, Flores is 68 years old and a lawyer by training. She began her ascent as defense attorney for the then lieutenant-colonel Hugo Chávez, who was jailed after his failed attempt at a coup d'état in 1992. She offered him her services and obtained his release, which won her his unstinting support for the rest of his life.

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Adiós Castillo: Why Latin America Is Ready To Close The Era Of "Cheap Populism"

The impeachment and arrest of Peru's Leftist president can be taken as perhaps a conclusive signal to the region that populism — from the Left and Right — may have run out of gas.

Modern populism, or "neo-populism," began in Peru with the election in 1990 of President Alberto Fujimori. The notorious arch-conservative leader, who smashed a Maoist rebellion, was a pioneer of the pseudo-arguments one hears to this day within the anti-political circles of populism. He wanted to forge a direct link with "the people" by simplified policy proposals, whipping up emotions and sidelining public institutions. He promised firm government and an end to corruption, only to turn into another violent and corrupt strongman.

Others of his type — in Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador — sought to keep power with the help of favorable economic winds, but eventually (virtually) all fell in the same way, like dominos. And now, we've seen it again in Peru, with the ouster and arrest of former President Pedro Castillo.

It's worth recalling that in the first decade of this century, all South American countries of the Andean region were dominated by the populist phenomenon, whether from the Left or Right. Peru and Venezuela succumbed to blatant authoritarianism though Venezuela's Hugo Chávez was the only one to entirely subdue the country's institutions.

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This Happened—December 6: A Venezuela Military Man Is The New Face Of Latin America's Left

Founder of the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200 (MBR-200) in the early 1980s, Hugo Chavez went on to be elected president of Venezuela in late 1998, serving until his death in 2013.

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The Latin American Left Is Back, But More Fractured Than Ever

The Left is constantly being hailed as the resurgent power in Latin America. But there is no unified Left in the region. The "movement" is diverse — and its divisions are growing.


LIMA — Lula da Silva's reelection to the presidency in Brazil is the 25th consecutive democratic election in Latin America in which the ruling party has lost power. There appears to be general discontent with ruling parties, caused partly by external factors: the world's worst pandemic in a century, the worst recession since the 1990s, and sharpest inflation rate in 40 years.

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Mauricio Rubio

How Cuban Intelligence Helped Secure Maduro's Grip On Power In Venezuela

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has managed to cling to power after an allegedly rigged 2018 presidential election. He did so with the help of Cuba, having enjoyed "working relations" with Cuban intelligence for decades.

BOGOTÁ — In the late 1980s, Venezuela's Socialist President Nicolás Maduro was a student in Havana, where Cuban intelligence tried to recruit him to promote revolution in Latin America.

Maduro has been president of Venezuela since 2013, following the death of Hugo Chavez. Since taking office, the authoritarian leader has been accused of crimes against humanity and managed to cling to power after attempts to oust him over an allegedly rigged 2018 election.

New evidence has shown how Maduro's formative years in Cuba have helped him cement his grip on power.

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Julio Borges

1970s China Revisited? Venezuela's "Special Economic Zones" Are A Desperate Scam

Venezuela is to create free economic zones to attract foreign capital into the Venezuelan economy, but who would take "clean" money to a lawless land run by rapacious revolutionaries?


With full pomp and surrounded by flatterers and opportunists purporting to be Venezuela's new breed of businessmen, President Nicolás Maduro recently announced the promulgation of a law to create Special Economic Zones (SEZs). The concept is from communist China, which began implementing it in 1970 as part of the economic modernization plans associated with its late leader, Deng Xiaoping — a response to the hardships and shortages suffered earlier under Chairman Mao.

SEZs differed from the rest of China's territory for enjoying more liberal norms and fewer restrictions on production or the arrival of direct foreign investment.

That is what Maduro's regime claims it wants to do: attract foreign capital. He expects to succeed even after wasting over a trillion U.S. dollars' worth of oil revenues, shrinking the economy 90% and confiscating thousands of businesses. They declare that Venezuela needs investments, as if this were a revelation and shortages were a new problem, somehow unrelated to 20 years of misrule by himself and his ally and predecessor Hugo Chavez.

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Julio Borges

Saddam, Putin, Maduro: How Dictators See Their Oil Differently

The West is paying the price for buying oil from one tyrant in Russia, and must think carefully before rushing to Venezuela to do the same with another dictatorship. Business is not always business.


CARACAS — The geopolitical conflicts that have erupted in the world since 1988 have had a direct impact on oil prices. The Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the West's massive operations in Iraq, and now Russia's barbaric invasion of Ukraine confirm this. Prices began to rise as soon as President Vladimir Putin began bombing the Ukrainians, going from $83 a barrel to over $100 and considerably further at points of maximum global commotion.

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In this new energy context, as Russia faces sanctions and with sharply rising crude prices, Venezuela has recovered a measure of public relevance as some argue it could become a reliable hydrocarbons supplier able to compensate for the energy shortfall resulting from the war. It is a reasonable idea considering Venezuela has the world's largest crude reserves.

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Héctor Abad Faciolince

Like EU For LatAm: Why And How To Build A Latin American Union

Most Latin American countries fear civil conflicts more than international invasion. A regional union is the best way to assure stability and lawfulness in a troubled but culturally cohesive continent. The EU shows us what that would look like and how to make it happen.


BOGOTÁ — As Europe once more feels the winds of war with the threat of a Russian invasion of the Ukraine, we in Latin America might take this as an opportunity to reconsider ourselves. We should not do this from a nationalistic point of view, as we usually do. Instead, it should come from the perspective of global power blocks. If the European Union could come about after centuries of destructive wars on the continent, then the same can be done in Latin America, given its singular level of linguistic and cultural unity.

All of us, Peruvians, Guatemalans, Argentines or Colombians, have been unable to forge an economic and political union that would have a far bigger vote and voice on the global stage. This has been for a number of reasons: chauvinistic clumsiness, the presence of the natural barriers of forests and mountain ranges, or the mutual envy of greedy elites guarding local markets as they would a private estate.

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Farid Kahhat

Maduro's Crimes Don't Make Juan Guaido President Of Venezuela

More than two years after the opposition leader proclaimed himself the country's 'legitimate' leader, the man he was hoping to oust — President Nicolas Maduro — is still very much in charge.


It's reasonable, here in Latin America, that left-wing politicians — as a way to establish their democratic credibility — would be asked to distance themselves from Venezuela's dictatorial regime. It's notable, here in Peru, both those who have and have not done so.

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Gabriel C. Salvia*

How Biden Could Help Solve The Venezuela Conundrum

Unlike his populist predecessor, the U.S. president-elect has an opportunity to engage with the leftist forces within Latin America that can then bring pressure to bear on the Maduro regime.


BUENOS AIRES — The Venezuelan crisis will be U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's big Latin American challenge. The next four years are more than enough time to push Venezuela toward democratic normalization by involving political actors with whom the regime of President Nicolás Maduro is prepared to talk.

With Donald Trump at the helm, the United States had considerably less credibility in its bid to find a democratic solution for Venezuela. Working against that effort was Trump's particular brand of populism, as well as his alliances with Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, who openly admires his country's last military dictatorship, and Iván Duque of Colombia, where dozens of rights activists have been murdered just this year.

The Organization of American States (OAS) is another of the actors the Maduro regime won't heed, especially under its present secretary-general, Luis Almagro.

Biden will, however, benefit from the contribution and credibility of former Chilean leader Michelle Bachelet, who has since become the UN's human rights chief. His administration can also work with the European Union, prominent rights organizations, and influential South American political groups such as Brazil's Workers Party (PT), the socialists of Chile, and Uruguay's Broad Front (Frente amplio) — all of them on the left — so that they will intercede and help ease the impasse in Venezuela.

Free elections have become impossible in Venezuela as results cannot be verified.

At the same time, there's one thing to always keep in mind when talking to the Maduro regime: Since 2015, when the Bolivarian movement, founded by the late Hugo Chávez, suffered its first electoral defeat and lost control of parliament, free elections have become impossible in Venezuela as results cannot be verified.

The opposition, as a result, refuses to take part in elections devoid of transparency, which only serve to legitimize a dictatorship. Effectively, free elections, which even the socialist governments of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Argentina's Alberto Fernández seem to back, would very likely have one loser, the Bolivarians clinging to power without democratic legitimacy.

Biden and Maduro in 2015 — Photo: Xinhua/ZUMA

Those who are upset with international pressures on the Venezuelan regime must know they are accomplices to the country's human tragedy. And they are not just the leftist regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Ecuador and Bolivia, under past presidents Rafael Correa and Evo Morales respectively.

Under Chávez and Maduro, democratic institutions and the rule of law were gradually undermined as Venezuela mutated into a military-backed dictatorship. In the meantime, Latin America mostly looked the other way, which makes many of the region's democratic rulers partly responsible for this tragedy. That is especially the case of the PT in Brazil, the two Kirchner presidents and their backers in Argentina, and the Broad Front in Uruguay.

The last report by the UN Human Rights Office in September 2020, headed by Bachelet, is unequivocal. It repeats the charges made in 2011 when the UN Human Rights Council made its first Universal Periodic Review (EPR) for Venezuela. In that year, drawing on information provided by UN agencies, the EPR found a range of abusive practices including illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings and excessive and indiscriminate use of force by police, a partial judiciary or restrictions on the freedom of speech and political and electoral rights.

Those who are upset with international pressures on the Venezuelan regime must know they are accomplices to the country's human tragedy.

Chávez was president in 2011, when Dilma Rousseff was president of Brazil, Cristina Kirchner led Argentina, and José Mújica was president of Uruguay with Luis Almagro as his foreign minister. Chile's Bachelet had recently completed her first term in office. The CELAC regional organization was also formed at this time with the approval of regional states, and used to embolden Venezuelan socialism, which had already been firmly denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

By including these progressive forces, which the Maduro regime is prepared to hear, the Biden administration could, with the EU, open the door to democratization in Venezuela and help end its humanitarian tragedy. In doing so, his administration could also boost the regional left's commitment to democracy.

This commitment is overdue. The left is indebted for its historical support for authoritarian outfits in Cuba and more recently Nicaragua, where the regime of Daniel Ortega is borrowing a page from the worst days of the Southern Cone juntas.

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Venezuela's Maduro Has A Surprising New 'Ally' — Trump

The socialist strongman has plenty of critics. But he also has a remarkable amount of staying power, in part because of the tacit support he receives from certain fellow presidents.


SANTIAGO — Michelle Bachelet, the former president of Chile who now heads the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), recently released a new report that, among other things, implicates the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in the suspected executions of at least 38 young people in the period from May 2019 to May 2020.

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Parsifal D'Sola Alvarado

China, Venezuela And The Limits Of Pandemic Diplomacy

Latin American countries are, for the most part, appreciative of Beijing's donations of much needed medical supplies. But the goodwill isn't guaranteed to last forever.


BOGOTÁ — For some time now, the People's Republic of China has been donating medical supplies to countries all around the world. Analysts call it "facemask diplomacy," and in the United States and Western Europe there are plenty of skeptics.

In Latin America, in contrast, Beijing's efforts have mostly been well received. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the positive feelings last. And that could depend in the coming months on China's posture toward Venezuela.

With the exception of certain Latin American states that have ties with Taiwan, countries all across the region have received some form of aid from China. Little wonder that in late March, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Latin American and Caribbean department organized a videoconference, with some 200 government officials and health experts from China and Latin America exchanging views on the pandemic and responses to it.

China's private sector is also reaching out. In late March, Jack Ma of the Alibaba Group announced that he would make donations to 24 regional countries. Firms like Tencent, Huawei, COFCO, China Communications Construction and the Bank of China are helping as well.

The cooperation is driven, of course, by larger interests. China seeks to promote its geopolitical primacy and political influence, consolidate economic and trade ties, gain access to natural resources, and boost its image abroad. As a new, soft-power tool, facemask diplomacy is means, therefore, for China to increase its presence in the region's socio-political sphere.


People walk near signs depicting bats, a symbol of where the coronavirus is believed to come from, in the streets of Guacara, Venezuela. Photo: Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA

Interestingly, the first Latin American country to receive Chinese medical staff, in late March, was Venezuela, which is also one of the region's most vulnerable when it comes to containing the pandemic. A poll taken by the country's National Assembly showed that 88% of hospitals lack basic medicines and 79% have shortages of surgical equipment. The poll also showed that all laboratories in the country have insufficient reagents needed for their work, 53% of operating rooms are not working, and 79% of hospitals do not have regular water supplies.

A sociologist and food security specialist at Venezuela's Central University, Édison Arciniega, estimates, furthemore, that 8 million Venezuelans are suffering from acute hunger, which affects the immune system. He worries, as a result, that the coronavirus may become five times as infectious there as in countries with stable sanitary conditions, and 10 times as lethal.

"These figures indicate a worsening of the humanitarian crisis that pushed 5 million Venezuelans to leave the country in recent years," he said.

As a new, soft-power tool, facemask diplomacy is means, therefore, for China to increase its presence in the region's socio-political sphere.

China's donations to Venezuela are being made, however, through the government of President Nicolás Maduro, the same administration that caused this crisis. This is the political group that has wasted the biggest oil bonanza of the country's history and mismanaged $65 billion of loans from China.

Just as the country's petrodollars were used to buy political allegiance in the region, the Maduro regime employs the aid it receives from China, or any other, as a political weapon rather than to benefit ordinary Venezuelans. A case in point was Maduro's announcement that Venezuela would send testing kits to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a relatively prosperous country, just two weeks before the UN Security Council was to discuss the state of Venezuela. Along with Russia, Saint Vincent was one of just two states that then emphatically defended the Maduro regime.

The Chinese government hasn't said so publicly, but it has long been aware of the state of Venezuela. In 2016, it sent a delegation to Caracas to convey its concerns over security and the money owed to China. Certain Chinese officials stated that there was consensus in Beijing that no more money should be invested in Venezuela and the regime be abandoned. An increasing number of Chinese analysts have also decried loans to Venezuela as a waste of public money, or just bad debt.

Most Latin American states recognize Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's provisional president and legitimate head of state. Thus the Chinese government's position and actions there will affect how the region perceives China in the short and medium terms, since the Venezuelan crisis has already spread beyond its frontiers.

If Venezuela were to become the pandemic's regional hotspot, it would seriously affect the ability of neighboring countries to contain the virus, with unforeseen consequences. And while Maduro clings to power and Venezuela's situation worsens, any country perceived in the hemisphere as Maduro's friend would be risking its relations with the region.

There are limits, in other words, to just how far facemask diplomacy will go.

*D'Sola Alvarado is head of the Andrés Bello Foundation in Bogotá, a private research group focused on China and Latin America.

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