To Maduro, Gonzalez looks like a big problem.

Photographer: Alfonso Jimenez Valero/Getty Images

Spain Brings Pain to Venezuela's Leftists

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
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Until recently, Venezuela seemed to be working some magic on Spain.

Spain's far left, led by the socialist Podemos party, fell hard for the lingering charms of the late Hugo Chavez's revolution.

But beyond the radical fringe, the Spanish take on the Bolivarian experiment was less flattering.

Venezuela

King Juan Carlos led the way at an Ibero-American summit in 2007, when he famously told the carping Chavez, "Why don't you shut up," creating an instant Internet meme and a popular cell phone ringtone.

Now, former Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez is taking his turn in exerting some influence on Venezuela.

This week, Gonzalez cut short his trip to Venezuela, after he was barred from visiting jailed opposition firebrand Leopoldo Lopez and another high-profile political prisoner whom he had agreed to defend.

By simply showing up and speaking for dissidents in dungeons, the quiet Spanish statesman created a world-class political stink for President Nicolas Maduro that promises to linger.

In thwarting Gonzalez, Maduro gave the opposition narrative a free sympathy bump on the eve of vital midterm elections and drew even more attention to the failing Andean autocracy. Not bad for a flyby pro bono gig by a retired Eurocrat.

The 73-year-old Spanish socialist is not just piling on with the 25 former heads of state who recently called upon Maduro to release political prisoners. He is a gray-headed icon of the resurgent Iberian economy, which has helped transform the European Union into Latin America's biggest foreign investor.  Spain is now looking to reassert its influence in the Americas.

The longtime padrino of the quarrelsome Latin left, Gonzalez already occupies a special place in Spain's rediscovery of the Americas.

He nurtured cordial relations with Chavez and, in 2006, made a much-publicized visit to Caracas, capped by a five-hour meeting and sunny photo-op with the Venezuelan strongman.

Last month he crossed the barricades, accepting the coveted Ortega y Gasset journalism prize in the name of Teodoro Petkoff, a former guerilla and fierce critic of Chavismo, whom Maduro barred from traveling to Madrid for the awards ceremony.

"This isn't your regular right-winger," said Alejandro Velasco, a Venezuelan historian at New York University. "With his bona fides among all political factions, Gonzalez is a much harder figure for Chavismo to demonize."

That didn't stop Maduro from trying.

No sooner had Gonzalez landed than Maduro stirred up a media storm against the revolution's  latest persona non grata  and exhorted  loyalists to take to the streets.

The Palacio Miraflores also was quick to exploit the fact that Gonzalez "fled" aboard a Colombian air force jet, so feeding Maduro's conspiracy narrative of a "Madrid-Bogota axis." No mention was made of the fact that Maduro reguarly flies, courtesy of Cuban supremo Raul Castro, on Cubana de Aviacion flights, as he did in March for a summit in Moscow. Yet standing up to Maduro was only the noisiest part of Gonzalez's agenda. Respected  as a dealmaker, Gonzalez spent long hours in Caracas trying to convince the government's myriad sniping foes -- each faction with its alpha egos and competing electoral ambitions -- just to talk to one another. Last month, the Roundtable for Unity bloc and Lopez's Voluntad Popular party fell out over a national call for a street protest.

And while just one in four Venezuelans approves of Maduro's government, his challengers have no consensus on a post-Chavismo endgame, never mind a vision of how to fix the country's junked economy. NYU's Velasco writes this off to the opposition's penchant for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

With legislative elections due this year, the stakes are high. Venezuela's discontents have never been better placed to beat the Bolivarians at the ballot box. Beating their own demons is another story. Cue Gonzalez.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net