Leaving behind food shortages and a tanking economy, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has spent the past two weeks trotting around the far reaches of the globe to seek financing, investment and aid for his cash-strapped government.
The image of the Venezuelan president, traveling about hat-in-hand with beseeching eyes, is a far cry from the old days when President Hugo Chávez went on gift-giving tours throughout the region, spreading his seemingly endless petro-dollars generously among foreign friends. Now, with oil prices plummeting, it's the Venezuelan leader who's looking for help.
And he's not having much luck. From China to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Algeria and now Russia, Maduro's tour has come up empty. The president has made vague allusions to agreements hatched in various countries, but the lack of specifics has critics saying Maduro is as ineffective on the road as he is at home.
Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Maduro critic, says the world tour included a "desperate attempt" to sell state assets to the Chinese, who were not interested "given the crazy exchange rate regime and other crazy price and labor policies."
The rest of his trip was similarly unproductive. Instead of raising oil prices, the markets responded with an 8 percent fall in the price of oil, "indicating that nobody is taking him seriously," Hausmann said. "The failure abroad is the consequence of his misunderstanding of the global situation and the shared perception that he is way out of his depth."
Gonzalo Escribano, an international relations professor in Spain, mocked Maduro's “Midas touch.”
But the trip wasn’t entirely uneventful. A curious picture of the president posing on a cliff top in Algeria was turned into unexpected fodder on social media for those who support the president and those who think he's a bum.
The picture was taken by government communications minister Jacqueline Faria, who tweeted it with the caption "@NicolasMaduro at the edge of the sea in Algeria reflects on how empires have fallen throughout history…We will overcome!"
Venezuelans jumped all over it, quickly taking the silly to the absurd with a flurry of memes.
Like this one, which pictures Maduro looking at the breadlines in Venezuela:
Or this, showing Venezuelans drowning under his watch:
Or this, showing Maduro participating in state repression of protesters:
Or this, which wonders if Maduro was pondering, something else: “Sometimes I think about returning to Venezuela, but then I realize how tough things are there, and I don’t feel like going back anymore.”
This Twitter user in Venezuela couldn’t help but notice the differences between Maduro’s comfortable life, traveling aboard his own plane, and the hardships faced by regular Venezuelans who queue for hours to get basic products.
Diego Arria, a former government minister, noted that none of the “supposed” investors Maduro claims he met with in China and Qatar actually talked to the media about their plans.
In comments to reporters in Moscow, Maduro talked vaguely about how Russia had committed to “expanding” its investments in Venezuela.
Online, some Venezuelans decided to forget about the country’s political and economic crisis and jokingly wished Maduro a happy time during his tour of OPEC nations and Eurasian dictatorships.
Kidding aside, Maduro is heading back into the maw when he returns to Venezuela empty-handed. Economists are predicting a difficult year ahead.
"I would not be surprised if Maduro is removed from power, but this may lead to a either an improvement or a worsening of political stability," Hausmann told Fusion. "We are in a very dangerous bind.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.