During an address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2006, the then-President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, scuppered his country’s bid for a seat on the Security Council by referring to George W Bush as “El Diablo” (the Devil). Eight years later, and 18 months after Mr Chavez’s death, Venezuela is finally set to secure a place at the UN’s top table for the first time in over two decades. Among its delegation’s members will be one of Mr Chavez’s own daughters.
María Gabriela Chavez, 33, the second of El Comandante’s five children, was last month appointed Venezuela’s ‘alternate ambassador’ to the UN alongside the nation’s current ambassador Jorge Valero and diplomat Samuel Moncada.
Described as a “socialist socialite”, Ms Chavez is every bit as controversial as her father. Accused of corruption, and enjoying the high life while the Venezuelan people suffer soaring inflation and widespread food shortages, she still occupies the presidential palace in place of the current president, Nicolas Maduro.
Now, despite an apparent glaring lack of suitable qualifications, Ms Chavez will have the power to speak and vote on Venezuela’s behalf at the UN in New York – and, given the alphabetical organisation of the chamber, she will likely be seated alongside the US on the Security Council.
Previously Mr Chavez’s Vice-President, Mr Maduro is a dour former bus driver who conspicuously lacks his mentor’s charisma and relies instead on his legacy, describing himself as “Chavez’s son” and claiming to have encountered the late leader’s spirit in the form of a bird.
Posters bearing Mr Chavez’s face are still plastered across Caracas, while his real family members are regularly called upon to endorse his successor’s socialist policies. “Since Hugo’s death, the Chavez family has had an implicit veto over a lot of the things Maduro does,” said Dr Frank Mora, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Centre at Florida International University. “They have a symbolic, almost religious aura that makes them untouchable.”
Chief among the Chavez family is María Gabriela who, after her father’s second divorce in 2004, acted as Venezuela’s de facto first lady. Following his death from cancer in March 2013, she has maintained a public profile by meeting with other Latin American leaders such as Raul and Fidel Castro, and by tweeting about politics and her Pomeranian dogs to almost a million followers.
Meanwhile, Ms Chavez and her sister Rosa continue to live in La Casona, the presidential palace, reportedly clashing with Mr Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores, who have been forced to remain at the vice-presidential residence. Ms Chavez’s refusal to find a new home is “disrespectful to the nation and its citizens,” wrote Soledad Belloso, a columnist for the newspaper El Universal, one of the few Venezuelan media outlets critical of the Maduro administration. Ms Belloso added: “Every day I receive reports from locals of annoying noises, feasting and revelry.”
Earlier this year, the regime’s crackdown on anti-government protests claimed more than 40 lives. Yet even as basic supplies such as eggs and toilet paper dwindle, the Chavez family’s lavish lifestyle costs Venezuelan taxpayers an estimated $300,000 (£185,000) per month, according to opposition politician Carlos Berrizbeitia, who told Fox News Latino: “La Casona has a swimming pool, a gym, a movie theatre, a bowling alley, a dance hall; and it is being used as a private club by the family of former president Chavez.”
Such behaviour is considered typical of the so-called “Boliburguesía”, the governing class made wealthy under Mr Chavez’s rule. Despite their socialist rhetoric, Dr Mora said, “their lifestyle is no different to those who used to govern Venezuela for decades beforehand”. Ms Chavez probably leapt at the chance to relocate to New York, he added. “Venezuelans love to come to Miami or New York to live the life of those who live in those cities. She’s going to have quite a bit of money associated with being an ambassador. It’s a pretty good gig for someone who’s not qualified.”
Ms Chavez never completed her degree in international affairs at Central University in Caracas, nor has she made use of the degree in journalism she received from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela. Her unexpected elevation to the top ranks of the country’s diplomatic corps has shocked even some staunch Chavistas, and there is fevered speculation both at home and abroad as to the reasons behind her appointment.
Some suggest the UN role provides Ms Chavez with diplomatic immunity from possible corruption charges, after she organised a deal to import almost 40,000 tons of rice from Argentina – and allegedly trousered some of the proceeds. Mr Maduro’s administration has declined to investigate the accusations, while Ms Chavez herself responded by posting an image of her father to Instagram, with the caption: “They talk about millions, about inheritance, about wealth... and think that they can offend with insults... They still fear you. And that still fills me every day with more love, strength and pride for you. Thanks for so much, Giant.”
Diego Arria, a Venezuelan diplomat who was the country’s ambassador to the UN during its last term on the Security Council from 1992 to 1993, suggests Ms Chavez’s rise has been manipulated by Venezuela’s Cuban allies, who wish to use her celebrity to bolster their own influence at the UN. “The Cubans will become her mentors, her speechwriters. They will conduct her. She doesn’t need to learn anything,” said Mr Arria, who lives in New York. And if Ms Chavez succeeds at the UN, the experience may prepare her for even higher office in future.
“The Cubans have realised that Maduro is not only incompetent but also unpopular,” Mr Arria continued. “They need a real Chavez relative to ensure that the Chavez legacy lives on, so they will bring her to the UN as a way to promote her before Maduro falls from the tree. After all, she is closer to Chavez than Maduro will ever be.”Reuse content