The Nowhere Heir

Nicolás Maduro has risen to No. 2 in Venezuela by trying to stay invisible. If Hugo Chávez dies, will this former bus driver take the country off the cliff?

CARACAS, Venezuela — Nicolás Maduro is an unlikely leading man in Venezuela's unfolding soap opera. The country's vice president -- appointed to his post in October and officially tapped as successor by President Hugo Chávez on Oct. 10 -- is in the unfamiliar position of being center stage, trying to fill the void left by the ailing Chávez and to keep their supporters united before this Sunday's gubernatorial elections. At times, it seems the task is too overwhelming for him.

Maduro has often teared up in public, while stressing the importance of Chávez to the country in often reverential and near-religious fervor. "Chávez is love; Chávez is the fatherland," he told supporters during a rally Tuesday night just minutes after he said the president had successfully undergone a six-hour operation in Cuba, his fourth in an 18-month battle with cancer. The announcement came just five days before Venezuelans go to the polls to elect 23 state governors and 237 members of state legislatures, in what is being seen as a test of the opposition's staying power after losing the Oct. 7 presidential vote. The vote is also crucial for the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the opposition leader who lost to Chávez and is now trying to win reelection. A defeat would almost certainly end his presidential hopes in the short term, and throw the opposition into disarray.

Analysts say the task facing Maduro is a difficult one. He needs to keep the various Chávista factions in line, while waiting to see what happens with the president. And as heir apparent, he also needs to protect his own position. But he's got big shoes to fill.

"It's impossible to expect Maduro to be another Chávez,'' says Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of Latin American history at Pomona College and the author of The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela. "Instead he represents continuity with the policies and programs that the president has promoted. This is still very much an evolving process with much still unclear."

Maduro, given his meteoric rise from bus driver to union leader, from president of the national assembly to foreign minister, and now vice president, has long been the poster boy for Chávez's vision of an all-inclusive Venezuela -- one that provides opportunities for the country's traditionally disenfranchised poor and working classes. "Look where he is going, Nicolás the bus driver," Chávez said when he appointed him vice president in October, a few days after winning his fourth presidential election.

Born in Caracas in 1962, Maduro joined a socialist league and studied politics for a year in Cuba. Returning to Caracas, he took a job driving a bus for the Metro de Caracas, where he had a record of frequent accidents and arriving late to work.

Despite this inauspicious start, he has shown a knack for being in the right place at the right time. "Maduro has certainly grown as a politician," says Vanessa Neumann, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "I don't know what he did, or who schooled him, but he has changed for the better." He became involved in the company's union and eventually became leader. He backed Chávez during the latter's two abortive coup attempts in 1992 and worked to have him freed from prison. Former President Rafael Caldera pardoned Chávez in 1994. Three years later, El Comandante launched his bid for the presidency.

When Chávez eventually won the presidency in 1998, Maduro was elected to an assembly tasked with rewriting the country's constitution and was later elected as a deputy to the new National Assembly created after 1999, where he rose to president. In 2006, Chávez tapped Maduro as the country's foreign minister -- to the consternation of many. At the time, he had no diplomatic experience. His wife succeeded him as assembly president, leading to carping among the president's supporters about a family dynasty.

As foreign minister, however, Maduro carried out Chávez's policy initiatives in a competent manner -- if not always diplomatically. In 2008, he called U.S. Undersecretary of State for Latin America John Negroponte "a little bureaucrat" as relations between the two countries cooled. In a 2007 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, delivered in Chávez's place, Maduro decried the "total madness" of U.S. leaders and accused them of plotting war against Iran. It's not the only time Maduro has had trouble controlling his temper. During the presidential campaign, Maduro called Capriles, Chávez's opposition challenger and a 40-year-old bachelor, a "faggot," provoking an uproar among gay Chávistas, several of whom are in the cabinet.

Not that that's a problem for the often voluble Chávez. "He is a complete revolutionary, a man of great experience despite his youth, with great dedication and capacity for work," Chávez said when naming Maduro his heir apparent on Dec. 8, before departing for treatment.

Maduro's appointment was greeted with polite enthusiasm by Chávez's supporters and criticism by the country's opposition about the country's political processes. "This isn't Cuba where the leaders anoint their successors," said Capriles during a campaign stop. "Here, the people decide."

Maduro's appointment did resolve one issue that has vexed Chávez's supporters, especially given the threat of a long battle between various party factions. But the news was also somber, a very clear reminder that Chávez is fighting for his life. Canal 8, the state television station, stoked those fears by running a constant stream of laudatory pieces about the president and his life. The coverage had the feeling of a memorial and heightened suspicion that Chávez's condition is far graver than has been announced.

For many, Maduro -- who shows little of his mentor's charisma and touch with voters -- seems an unlikely choice to be Chávez's heir. But then again, El Comandante has always been reluctant to share the limelight with anyone. In his 14 years in power, Chávez has cycled through eight vice presidents, always replacing them as soon as they get too powerful or wealthy.

"Maduro was chosen as he is completely loyal to Chávez and has the blessings of the Cubans to boot," says Neumann. "Maduro's greatest strength is ironically his weakness. He was chosen as he is the most palatable option. And all of the various factions in Chávismo think they can have a piece of him."

Maduro has had another advantage in his rapid rise to the top -- he is one half of the Bolivarian revolution's foremost power couple. His wife, Cilia Flores, is currently attorney general and previously served as the first female president of Venezuela's National Assembly. The two met while she was leading Chávez's defense team after his 1992 coup arrest. According to one member of Chávez's United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) who didn't want to be named, "Cilia is the brains of the operation. Nicolas has the presence."

Physically towering over many of his compatriots, Maduro is a member of the PSUV's more ideological clique, comprised of former Vice President Elías Jaua, Oil Minister Rafael Ramírez, and former Vice President José Vicente Rangel. He also has the symbolically important Cuban connection. While accompanying Chávez to Havana during the early stages of his treatment, the Cuban-educated Maduro reportedly became close to the Castro brothers.

As he has become indispensible to Chávez and his family as the president's health has worsened, he has also somehow kept a low profile, usually appearing in the background of photos and rarely speaking in public. That may have served him well in the past, but it now has the unfortunate result that many Venezuelans have no idea who he is or what he stands for, which could hurt his ability to prevent the party from falling apart in Chávez's absence.

According to Venezuela's constitution, if Chávez were to die or be unable to serve as president, fresh elections would have to be held within 30 days. Both the Chávistas and their opponents are anxious to avoid early elections. The opposition, which spent millions of dollars on Capriles's unsuccessful run, needs time to regroup and fund a war chest, says Neumann. Maduro, for his part, would want to avoid running at a time of mounting economic distress.

Venezuela's international reserves have fallen precipitously and the country's foreign exchange board has, for all intents and purposes, stopped selling dollars, which has hurt imports. The black market rate for the dollar has soared to about 16 bolivars, versus an official exchange rate of 4.3. Oil production remains steady at about 2.4 million billion barrels per day, yet roughly 25 percent lower than when Chávez took office in 1999.

Chávez was scheduled to present his government's plans for the next six years on Jan. 10, when he was to be sworn in for another term of office. Many had been expecting the president to announce a devaluation that would close the country's fiscal gap. Now, it's not even certain that event will happen and few expect any big changes for the present.

Die-hard Chávez supporters will likely fall into place behind Maduro, if only for lack of another option. "If El Comandante trusts him to take over, then so do I," says Elena Rodriguez, a 45-year-old housewife in La Victoria in the central state of Aragua, who voted for Chávez in October. "I want Chávez to come back and be president again. But if he can't, then I support Maduro." When asked who Maduro was, however, she said she wasn't sure.

But Chávez's endorsement is no guarantee that Maduro will actually be able to fill El Comandante's place. "Maduro is no Chávez," says Wilian Bravo, 28, who works in a hardware store and voted for the ailing leader. "He doesn't have the charisma nor charm of Chávez. I don't think Chávismo will last long."

"One nightmare may be ending," says Teolio Ramos, an elementary school teacher who voted for Capriles. "But I sure feel like another one is just beginning."



The Yakuza Lobby

How Japan's murky underworld became the patron and power broker of the ruling party that intended to clean up politics.

TOKYO — Japan's leaders are going on trial this month -- in the court of public opinion, though some of them may be concerned about facing the more traditional kind.  

Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), who has been in power for a bit over a year, dissolved Japan's parliament, the Diet on Nov. 16 after a series of scandals drove his poll numbers to an all-time low. The final straw was his appointment of mob-linked Justice Minister Keishu Tanaka, who resigned on Oct. 23 -- ostensibly for health reasons. A weekly magazine had reported on Oct. 11 that Tanaka had strong ties to the yakuza, Japan's organized crime groups -- which presumably isn't great for one's health.

The irony of the man in charge of the country's criminal justice system being friendly with organized crime was not lost on the Japanese public, especially at a time when there is a movement to crack down even harder on the yakuza. It was also an embarrassment to a political coalition that came to power in 2009 promising that it would bring "clean government." The rival Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had ruled Japan nearly uninterrupted for decades, had long been tied to Japan's underworld and ridden by scandals.

Since the DPJ came to power, organized crime ties have embarrassed several members of the party, including Tanaka. So how did the supposedly squeaky-clean reformers wind up in bed with Japan's answer to the Mafia? To understand this, it helps to look at the unique role the yakuza plays in Japanese politics.

The yakuza has its origins in federations of gamblers and street merchants of the Edo period (from the 17th to the 19th centuries), which evolved over time into the sprawling crime syndicates they are today. Currently, the yakuza comprises roughly 79,000 people, divided among 22 groups. Although referred to by authorities as "anti-social forces," it's actually a semilegal entity with offices, business cards, and fan magazines. The yakuza groups make their money through a combination of legal businesses -- like dispatching day laborers -- and illegal activities such as extortion, racketeering, and financial fraud. The largest yakuza group, the Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi, has 39,000 members. The Inagawa-kai, the group most closely tied to former Justice Minister Tanaka, has 10,000 members and is based in Tokyo. Its offices are across from the Ritz-Carlton.

The Inagawa-kai was established in 1948. The organization's de facto leader, Kazuo Uchibori, was arrested on charges of money laundering in October but was released without being charged. Uchibori is a blood brother to a powerful leader in the Yamaguchi-gumi, Teruaki Takeuchi, essentially putting the Inagawa-kai under the Yamaguchi-gumi umbrella. The yakuza world is constructed like a virtual family, in which ties of brotherhood, often solidified in sake-drinking rituals, are the grounds for allegiances within yakuza groups and sometimes with rival groups as well.

In 2007, two years before it came to power, the DPJ received the coveted endorsement of the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai. It was a relationship that worked out well, until recently. However bizarre it may sound, there's nothing particularly remarkable about an organized crime group supporting a political party in Japan. Robert Whiting's book, Tokyo Underworld, recounts how Yoshio Kodama, a yakuza associate and racketeer, was instrumental in the formation of the LDP. In 1994, LDP Transportation Minister Shizuka Kamei was able to keep his job after having admitted to receiving roughly $6 million, paid into his bank account directly from a Yamaguchi-gumi boss. He claimed he received the money on behalf of his constituents who had lost money investing with a real estate agency that turned out to be a yakuza front company. He stated that he returned the money to his constituents. Crime or not, that should be grounds for political dismissal. Not in Japan. In 2009, the DPJ coalition appointed Kamei as minister of financial services, tasked with overseeing the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission and ensuring that Japan's financial markets stay clean.

But times have changed. The Japanese public is no longer so tolerant of politicians or companies with yakuza ties. In a 2007 white paper on crime, Japan's National Police Agency issued a warning that "the yakuza have made such incursions into the financial markets that they threaten the very basis of the Japanese economy." In that same year, a yakuza boss assassinated Nagasaki Mayor Iccho Ito after he attempted to cut the gangs out of public works projects. Japanese voters might have looked the other way at graft or low-level corruption, but political terrorism is another story. The yakuza had become an international embarrassment, as well. In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama recognized them as a threat to the United States, issuing an executive order that led to the U.S. Treasury Department's passing economic sanctions against the Yamaguchi-gumi and two of its leaders this year. They have simply become too big a liability and embarrassment for the world's third-largest economy to ignore.

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If you're a criminal, it always helps to have an ally in the Justice Ministry, and for some yakuza, Tanaka's appointment was seen as a match made in heaven -- especially for the head of the Inagawa-kai, Uchibori, who had been evading arrest on money-laundering charges since Aug. 22. Tanaka didn't have the power to stop the investigation of Uchibori, but his position could have enabled him to exert favorable influence. The Tokyo prosecutor's office is under the supervision of the Justice Ministry. Theoretically, Tanaka could have possibly recommended Japan's chief prosecutor to drop the Uchibori case; Uchibori was arrested on Oct. 9 but had not been formally charged for money laundering or other offenses while Tanaka was in power. Tanaka, for his part, initially claimed that he had only served as the "the matchmaker" at the wedding of an Inagawa-kai yakuza underboss and attended a yakuza party. A decade ago, that might have sufficed, but in today's political climate, he was forced to resign.

But the DPJ's problems didn't end with Tanaka. The weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun reported on Oct. 18 that Koriki Jojima, the newly appointed finance minister, was backed in his reelection bid by an Inagawa-kai front company. Jojima claims he didn't know whom he was dealing with.

According to LDP Sen. Shoji Nishida, who has written in depth about DPJ ties to organized crime, "Tanaka is the fourth DPJ cabinet member to have been shown to have yakuza ties. Japan has always had a vibrant underworld, and it's always had a normal society. The current ruling government is the underworld and overworld put together. I believe that they've been a conduit for the underworld in the political sphere. The problem has been very underreported here."

For those outside law enforcement or the mob, it's a bit surprising that the scandal is only breaking through now. The police first confirmed that the Yamaguchi-gumi and the Inagawa-kai had ordered their members to support the DPJ in the summer of 2007. According to reports in the daily newspaper Yukan Fuji, over 90 top bosses of the Yamaguchi-gumi were given orders to support the DPJ in upcoming elections. Many had been summoned to the organization's Kobe headquarters and been verbally instructed.

Top police officials said on background that they believe a senior DPJ official promised to keep criminal conspiracy laws off the books in exchange for votes and financial support from the crime group.

This makes sense. Japan does not have an equivalent of the U.S. RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act, which was instrumental in helping U.S. authorities destroy the Italian-American Mafia in the 1970s and 1980s. Japan has most of the elements in place to create the equivalent of such an act and signed the U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime in December 2000 -- but so far the country has failed to fully implement it.

That's largely because the so-called "clean DPJ" has staunchly opposed legislation for a criminal conspiracy act, which would make it easier to prosecute yakuza bosses in criminal courts for the actions of their soldiers and seize their assets. According to the Sankei Shimbun newspaper, the DPJ refused to even discuss the legislation when it was a minority party in 2006.

In the meantime, Japan's law enforcement community has been taking matters into its own hands. In an almost covert rebellion, the National Police Agency (NPA) has quietly worked to circumvent the national government by getting local ordinances in place around the country criminalizing paying off the yakuza or doing business with them.

One can see why the yakuza would back the DPJ, but what were the politicians getting out of it? Well, the yakuza are quite well funded, for one thing. Robert Feldman, an economist for Morgan Stanley Japan, once called the Yamaguchi-gumi Japan's "largest private-equity group." Jeff Kingston at Temple University has speculated in his book Contemporary Japan that if the crime group were listed on the stock exchange, it would rival Toyota.

The yakuza, which specialize in extortion and blackmail in their own business dealings, are also useful in finding dirt on political opponents and squelching criticism of their benefactors. And as one-third of the yakuza are Korean-Japanese, they are also useful in securing the support of ethnic Korean groups in Japan and getting political funding from the lucrative Korean-dominated pachinko (arcade-style gambling games) industry. They are also able to mobilize local community leaders and associates to "get out the vote."

However, following the Nagasaki mayor's assassination, the growing influence of the "yakuza money" became a public concern. On Sept. 29, 2009, Takaharu Ando, the head of the NPA, ordered all police in Japan to focus on dismantling the ruling faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi, the Kodo-kai, stating, "The Yamaguchi-gumi Kodo-kai are threatening police officers, are increasingly uncooperative, and expanding their economic activities into all realms of society." It was the first time the NPA had specifically targeted a single faction of the Yamaguchi-gumi since the so-called "war on the yakuza" was officially launched back in 1965. The police have begun to crack down intensely, after September 2009, on yakuza ties in all aspects of Japanese society, even in the almost-sacred world of sumo. They are also making renewed efforts to turn popular opinion against the yakuza -- who are still viewed as Robin Hood-like folk heroes by much of the population.

The first DPJ politician to really get in trouble for his mob connections was Seiji Maehara, head of the DPJ from 2005 to 2006. In March 2011, he was compelled to step down as foreign minister after it was revealed that he had received donations from Media 21, a production and real estate company that served as a front for the Yamaguchi-gumi and had made donations to several other DPJ members. According to Justice Ministry sources, the Tokyo prosecutor's office is investigating Maehara for falsifying his political donations records to hide his financial connections to Media 21.

Asked for comment for this article, Maehara told me, "First of all, in regard to what the Tokyo prosecutor's office is doing, whether they are investigating -- that is something that I really know nothing about. And also in regard to the alleged relation this company [Media 21] had with organized crime, I don't know anything about that. But I was aware that there were media reports saying such things, and as a result I decided that I would return all the money that was given to me [by Media 21]."

The Tokyo prosecutor's office refused to comment on whether it was still investigating Maehara.

Of course, the issue is bigger than allegations against one official. Some have questioned whether Prime Minister Noda screened his cabinet appointments at all when selecting them for their current positions. Noda staunchly defended Tanaka, the justice minister, even after he admitted past yakuza ties. Noda himself had to return $20,000 in political donations this January after one of his supporters, the president of a discount funeral and wedding service provider, was arrested as a co-conspirator for fraud along with a yakuza member. In the recent book The Taboos of Japan No One Will Write, investigative journalist Hirotoshi Ito noted that Noda and other DPJ members received donations from the same Yamaguchi-gumi benefactor as Maehara, via different front companies. Records obtained by the author back up this claim.

The yakuza themselves may get out of this relatively unscathed. Even after his friend Tanaka's downfall, police sources say that Inagawa-kai crime boss Uchibori was not expecting to be arrested at all in October on the money-laundering charges that had been filed against him. Top members of the Inagawa-kai met covertly with weekly magazine reporters after Oct. 10, allegedly on Uchibori's orders, outing some other politicians connected to them. Police sources think the message was a warning to every politician with yakuza ties: If you fail to live up to your part of the bargain, the relationship is over and we'll make it a very messy breakup.

It was a successful threat -- Uchibori was not prosecuted for money laundering, and the charges were ostensibly dropped; no hard feelings. If one judges from the latest polls, the yakuza's friends in the DPJ probably won't be so lucky.

Frank Zeller/AFP/Getty Images