How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Gabriela?
Hugo Chávez's daughter is still living in Venezuela's presidential palace more than a year after his death. It may take a UN appointment to get her out.
Picture a splashy political thriller featuring a flamboyant anti-heroine, equal parts Hugo Chávez and Paris Hilton, who somehow infiltrates the United Nations. The premise may sound unrealistic, but it is all too real. And the star is María Gabriela Chávez: socialist socialite, bon vivant, Pomeranian enthusiast, and occasional Instagram troll, who will soon be checking out of the Venezuelan presidential mansion—which she has continued to inhabit illegally since her father’s death in early 2013—and heading to Turtle Bay as Venezuela’s newly appointed alternate ambassador to the United Nations. In this capacity, she will be empowered to attend meetings, speak, and even vote on her country’s behalf, albeit under the nominal supervision of chief representative Jorge Valero. María Gabriela is not easily supervised, however, and the reasons behind her ascension remain murky and contested.
Perhaps it’s fitting that María Gabriela’s international coming-out party will be taking place at the UN, which previously served as a political stage for her dad. In September 2006, during a now-infamous speech before the General Assembly, the Venezuelan president announced to the assembled delegates and worthies that his podium smelled of sulfur—a reference to the fact that “El Diablo” (an ostensibly infernal George W. Bush) had spoken there the previous day. I was living in Venezuela then, and vividly remember coming home from work to a bevy of instant messages—American friends either congratulating me personally for the immensity of El Comandante’s cojones, or else demanding I apologize on his behalf.
Hugo Chávez just had that effect on people. Prior to his death from an unspecified cancer at age 58, he could regularly send his detractors into fits of indignation or mortification. Yet to many defenders he was (and continues to be) a divinity: “the Eternal One,” “the Giant” or, in the words of one Caracas mayor: “the Galactic Commander who is universal, celestial, terrestrial, human and divine, and can be found within the heart of every good man and woman.”
This intense loyalty has been actively promoted by Venezuela’s successor government. Chávez’s signature and face—even his disembodied stare—are ubiquitous around Caracas, appearing far more frequently than images of his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Maduro, for his part, has largely rested his own legitimacy on having been publicly anointed by Chávez as his rightful political heir, claiming to receive visitations from the former leader’s supportive ghost and even styling himself as “Chávez’s son” on occasion.
And yet Maduro is not Chávez’s son. Chávez had no shortage of biological offspring—fathering two daughters and a son from a first marriage, one daughter from a second, and a daughter by a mistress whom he kept hidden from public view until his death. Of these, María Gabriela, 33, the younger daughter by the first marriage, was his favorite and the most like her father—at least according to his ex-wife. While his other children might float in and out of his good graces, for being indiscreet or spendthrift, María Gabriela was his consentida. When Chávez was removed from office for two days following a coup against him in 2002, it was reportedly María Gabriela whom he called first, allowing her to spread the word to allies at home and abroad that he had not willingly resigned. Following the president’s second divorce in 2004, María Gabriela unofficially took on the role of first lady, traveling with Chávez internationally and undertaking minor hosting duties at state affairs.
At times, Chávez seemed to hint at a possible succession by María Gabriela—once expressing, for example, a preference for a female successor despite a noticeable lack of women among his top lieutenants. Yet his unforeseen and rapid physical decline negated any possibility of leaving her in charge.
Following Chávez’s death, the Maduro government sought to co-opt the image of his biological family. María Gabriela has regularly appeared alongside Maduro in state media, and was ostentatiously supportive of his rule in public. In exchange, Maduro relegated himself to less lofty vice-presidential digs, allowing María Gabriela and her older sister Rosa Virginia (who, ironically, is actually married to Venezuela’s current vice president) to remain in the presidential palace with their families, where they continue to be lavishly maintained at public expense.
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.