How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Gabriela?

Since that time, María Gabriela has kept herself busy as best she can, giving awkward concerts and visiting other regional leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner. Savvy with social media and reluctant to be out of the spotlight, she has remained very active on Twitter, regularly sending off touching anecdotes about her father’s opinions, and dog pictures, to her nearly 1 million followers. 

It’s not clear what to make of her recent appointment to the United Nations, a move that has been roundly condemned by the national opposition—and even some Chavistas—as ludicrous and gallingly nepotistic. Beyond her illustrious surname, she would seem, in the conventional sense, to be highly unqualified for the role. Having failed out of or abandoned (details are disputed) her study of international affairs at Venezuela’s prestigious Central University—where current students of the same program are now publicly protesting her UN appointment—she eventually went on to earn a journalism degree from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela, a state-run school her father founded by decree in 2003. She has never formally practiced this backup profession. Indeed, other than her time as unofficial first lady, she seems to lack work history of any sort.

This may not matter, of course. According to Elías Jaua, the Venezuelan foreign minister, her role moving forward will be to spread Hugo Chávez’s “profound message of solidarity and fraternity.” Yet there are also some darker potential explanations for her promotion. Over the past several months, María Gabriela has been plagued by persistent corruption scandals, accused of pocketing illicit income by overpricing Argentine rice imports at a time when food shortages are rampant in Venezuela. While the ruling party has brushed aside opposition calls for a formal investigation into the alleged corruption, the foreign posting may be a way of getting her out of the public eye, while simultaneously justifying state expenditures for her upkeep and possibly granting her either diplomatic or parliamentary immunity should it ever be required.

Another theory holds that the appointment may be part of a larger conspiracy to help empower the Maduro regime’s close Cuban allies. With a high-profile Venezuelan representative directly taking cues from old Chávez family friends Fidel and Raul Castro, Cuba would be able to wield an outsized influence in the UN, one of the few international organizations to which it belongs—particularly if Venezuela successfully secures a temporary seat on the Security Council this year.  

Still others consider it a first, tentative step on the presidential trajectory María Gabriela’s father once wished for her, equipping Maduro’s government with a Chávez in an official role until she proves ready to relieve the president.

Then again, this may all be just another in a long line of irrelevant controversies—ones deliberately stirred up as a distraction by a regime robbed of its charismatic front man and unable to make headway against the myriad economic, infrastructural, and security calamities actually affecting the daily lives of 26 million exhausted Venezuelans. Short on bread but long on circuses, Maduro likely hopes his countrymen will take in the show instead of raising a fuss. He may be offering them another blockbuster on the marquee, alongside July’s government-sponsored “March Against Israeli Genocide” and the latest purported CIA plot to kill a sitting Venezuelan president. The entertainment may at least help Venezuelans forget their troubles for a while.

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Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez is a geopolitical-risk analyst based in Chicago, where he teaches Latin American business at the Kellogg School of Management. He is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.

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