Venezuelans Clamor for Billionaire to Save Nation From Calamity

  • Lorenzo Mendoza, head of Empresas Polar, appearing in polls
  • ‘There’s a political void that could be filled by an outsider’

With Venezuela starving and its opposition in tatters, disenchanted voters are investing their hopes in a billionaire who gained fame putting food on their tables.

Lorenzo Mendoza, head of Empresas Polar, the nation’s largest privately held company, is increasingly mentioned as the person best suited to end almost two decades of socialist rule that is devolving into ruin. The tycoon has long been regarded as a free-market hero within opposition circles for his feuds with the late president Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, his authoritarian successor. Mendoza’s popularity has surged in recent months amid frustration with a feckless political class and voters’ desperation for a fresh face to fix the worst economic crisis in memory.

“There is a huge political void that could be filled by an outsider,” said Carlos Romero, a political analyst at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. “Lorenzo Mendoza is an option that could emerge.”

Hailing from one of the country’s wealthiest families, Mendoza and his company are household names known for supplying flour to make arepas -- corn patties that are the mainstay of the Venezuelan diet. The 52-year-old Caracas native has long downplayed any political ambitions and remains conspicuously silent amid the buzz.

Popular Demand

That’s not blunting backers’ enthusiasm. Open letters calling for the billionaire to run have taken up half-page ads in Venezuelan dailies, while handfuls of fake Twitter accounts have already announced his candidacy. Fans have taking to chanting “presidente!” when Mendoza appears at baseball games.

To be sure, Mendoza himself hasn’t launched any presidential campaign or even spoken in public in some time, so for now the idea that he would run in elections expected for next year is purely speculative. Manuel Larrazabal, executive director of Empresas Polar and a company spokesman, did not respond to emails seeking comment.

While many are quick to dismiss the idea as wishful thinking, pollsters are taking note.

Mendoza leads the opposition field with 23 percent of voters supporting him, according to November a poll by Hinterlaces, a firm owned by a pro-government lawmaker, that was obtained by Bloomberg News. However, none of the above was the choice of 37 percent.

Venebarometro, a Caracas consultancy, found in a poll that same month that Mendoza would place fourth in an opposition primary. The first two finishers, two-time-presidential-candidate Henrique Capriles and jailed activist Leopoldo Lopez, have been banned from politics.

Suspicious Vote

Government foes have been unable to capitalize on outrage over the socialist party’s handling of the economy. While polls overwhelmingly predicted an landslide opposition victory in October governor races, Maduro’s allies nearly swept the vote amid low turnout and accusations of fraud. Major opposition parties sat out this month’s municipal elections to protest, but the boycott failed to garner widespread international condemnation and ceded more territory to the government.

“The political leadership has failed, and in this moment the majority of the population doesn’t believe in them,” said Romero.

Mendoza is the third generation in the family business, taking control of Polar in 1992 following his father’s death. He studied industrial engineering at Fordham University in New York before getting a master’s in business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

He is known for being an avid sports enthusiast and marathon runner; his company sponsors many local baseball and soccer teams and youth training camps. Long-haired and bespectacled, his admirers flock to snap selfies with Mendoza on the rare occasion he’s spotted in public. Critics and socialist-party stalwarts revile him as a blue-blooded bigwig out to disrupt the food supply.

“Mendoza will never care for the people,” said William Figuera, a 45-year-old motorcycle taxi driver. “He sends his products abroad and leaves the worst for us."

Babies Dying

This once-prosperous nation is plagued by chronic shortages that have left the masses shedding weight or literally starving. An investigation by the New York Times found a surge in child malnutrition, with doctors interviewed reporting some 2,800 cases last year, including almost 400 deaths. Desperate Venezuelans root through trash in the capital as they hunt for nutrition.

Polar’s products -- everything from beer and soft drinks to rice and yogurt -- are some of the few brands that regularly show up at store shelves and bodegas. The company owns 18 factories and nearly 200 distribution centers across Venezuela that employ some 20,000 workers, as well as three plants abroad in Colombia and the U.S.

Business leaders say what has staved off the nationalization of Polar is loyalty from its workers. “They realize they’d be in much worse conditions under the state,” says Jorge Roig, the former head of Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s main business chamber.

Maduro, like Chavez before him, often lambastes Mendoza, accusing him of jacking up prices and hoarding products to undermine the government. And in recent years, price controls have been tightened along with surprise factory inspections.

Mendoza denies claims he’s trying to sabotage the economy, placing the blame squarely on government policy. He’s repeatedly offered to buy or rent state-controlled factories to reactivate dormant production lines.

For now, politicians are carefully watching the Mendoza-for-president movement. Capriles, the former candidate, warned the talk may be concocted to further divide an already fractured opposition. “They’re trying to burn him, burn him politically,” he said in an interview.

Others caution that two decades ago Chavez himself rode into office on a wave of populist anger, promising to upend the political system. After years of divisive politics and failed policies, Edgard Gutierrez, director of Venebarometro, said the nation needs a unifier, not an outsider.

“It’s messianism,” Gutierrez said. “The crisis is far greater that it was 20 years ago and one person alone, no matter how charismatic and capable they are simply can’t fix things single-handedly, regardless of how much energy is behind them.”

— With assistance by Noris Soto, and Patricia Laya

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