WASHINGTON -- In the five disastrous years he has been president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro has been the greatest mystery among all the leaders in the world. And he remains a mystery after Sunday's election, which of course he won, but which revealed few clues to the reasons for his cruelty.
In interviews I've conducted as a foreign correspondent, I've seen terrible cases of ego, aggression and self-gratification in the characters of men, but I've never seen any of the dictators of our era starve their own supporters as Maduro has.
Stalin instigated the Great Famine in Ukraine in the early '30s, killing 3 million people, but at least he saw them as his enemies. Hitler, Saddam and Mao invented gruesome tortures, also for their perceived political enemies.
But Nicolas Maduro? While his people were starving, this fat, silly man theatrically ate a big sandwich and danced on Venezuelan TV, shouting, "It's time for salsaaaaa! Pay attention -- this is the force of happiness!" This man has brought malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria back to what was, only 15 years ago, the most advanced democracy in Latin America. This man is deep into drug-trafficking, yet is always identified as a simple "bus driver."
Let's look more deeply into his character and his psychology, for in an era when more nations are run by (the nice name) "authoritarians," perhaps such knowledge will help us understand not only them, but also ourselves better.
Here's your first clue: Maduro was never simply that "bus driver." The son of a leftist labor organizer, young Nicolas was sent to Cuba in 1986 to study Fidelista-style communist revolution under one of Castro's most favored comandantes, Pedro Miret. Then Maduro was sent home as a "mole" to infiltrate Venezuelan society. The bus driver schtick was to put him in a place to organize the bus drivers' union.
The second clue: Maduro brought with him from Cuba some of that romantic and destructive utopianism that starts with impossible dreams and ends with all-too-possible nightmares.
Just listen to his language. At one point, Maduro declared he would create a "vice presidency for supreme happiness." (Maybe happiness is why he also went to India to study with a famous guru, Sai Baba.) He actually had the nerve to form a "Safe Homeland" program while Venezuelans were being murdered nightly at a historic rate. And he oversaw the infamous CLAP distribution system, by which food is purchased by the government through a Maduro-owned company and boxes are given to the hungry -- but only if they vote correctly, as they did with angry obedience last weekend.
A third clue: Fidel had effectively moved the upper and middle classes out of Cuba by 1962, largely by taking their property. Maduro just drove an estimated 1 to 3 million of 30 million Venezuelans out of the country through hunger and desperation. Today you can find the poorest Venezuelans fleeing to even the most remote Amazonian borders of Brazil. Even the cynical Castros didn't do that.
I knew the founder of this "great socialist adventure," former President Hugo Chavez, a far more charming man than Maduro, but one who handed the country to his friend when he died in 2013.
"Models?" I asked Chavez in 1998, the day he was first elected president, in his beautiful apartment above Caracas.
"We don't copy other models; we invent them," he told me, as he spoke -- quietly, that day -- about the traditional upper-class politicians who had robbed the country for 30 years. And he surely did!
Venezuela's vast oil wealth has been destroyed by the lack of investment and management; its inflation rate is expected to be 13,000 percent annually; 40 percent of employees either quit their jobs or skip work; 75 percent of the population has experienced average personal weight loss of nearly 20 pounds in the last year; and boys scour garbage pails for something to eat and toxic open sewers for scraps of metal to sell.
You have to understand that Hugo Chavez was politically "in love" with Fidel Castro and "la revolucion Cubana." So Fidel, who was smarter, simply bought a country from him, sending thousands of Cuban teachers, doctors and (above all) intelligence agents who to this day run Venezuela from within.
Latin America has always had, in its magnificent literature, a rich vein of "magic realism," which incorporates mythology and fantasy into normal reality. But this Venezuela of Nicolas Maduro is different. This is surreal, with, as one writer put it, "touches of Nero and Fellini." And that is where Maduro's search for "supreme happiness" is ending in disaster.