CARACAS, Venezuela — As Venezuela tumbled deeper into economic crisis in 2017 and its people searched for a way out, one name kept coming up: Lorenzo Mendoza.
The family name is universally known in Venezuela. Empresas Polar, the food conglomerate started by Mr. Mendoza’s grandfather, had grown into the country’s largest private company. Its corn meal, used to make the national dish, was in every pantry, and its beer a welcome part of social gatherings.
As President Nicolás Maduro’s disastrous economic policies set off food shortages and a refugee crisis, Mr. Mendoza emerged as an outspoken critic of his administration and its persecution of the private sector.
Polished and eloquent, Mr. Mendoza also offered a stark contrast to the gruff president. His popularity was such that pollsters measured him against Mr. Maduro in mock presidential matchups.
thief,” a “parasite” and a “traitor.” The government quit harassing Polar with disruptive raids and began, in time, to adopt the economic changes Mr. Mendoza had proposed, like ending crippling price controls.
The story behind Mr. Mendoza and Mr. Maduro’s truce, sealed in a previously unreported meeting in mid-2018, describes the rapprochement between Venezuela’s self-styled revolutionary government and the business class it waged war against for nearly two decades.
The unlikely thaw has been the cornerstone of Venezuela’s recent transformation from a country where the government closely controlled the economy — and derived its legitimacy from the benefits it was able to offer its people — to a place ruled by an autocrat willing to allow de facto capitalism in order to stave off collapse and assure his continued grip on power.
stringent labor laws that had barred companies from firing anyone without government approval are now disregarded as the administration turns a blind eye to dismissals and dismantles unions. Byzantine trade restrictions were replaced with tax holidays and export incentives.