Six months into his presidential term, President Nicholas Maduro has faced down striking steel workers and sent the army into the slums as part of an anti-crime campaign, but some Venezuelans are growing disenchanted with the former bus driver as inflation, blackouts and food shortages continue unabated.
In what he says is a move to combat corruption and economic problems, Maduro has asked the National Assembly to grant him special legislative powers in order to “deepen, bolster and fight the battle for … a new society” in the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves.
“This is a crucial, transcendent issue – a matter of life or death for the Bolivarian Republic,” Maduro said in a major policy speech earlier this month. “If corruption continues breeding and perpetuating the capitalist logic of destruction, there will be no socialism here.”
In its corruption perceptions index, Transparency International places Venezuela as one of the most corrupt countries in the western hemisphere (it ranks 165 out of 176 states surveyed globally), although graft has been a persistent problem under various governments in the oil-rich country’s history.
Seeking new powers
Security officials claim to be stepping up their campaign against political sleaze, arresting Edgardo Parra, the pro-government mayor of Venezuela’s third-largest city on October 14. They seized some of his property as part of the corruption investigation.
Maduro’s request for special powers to pass laws without parliament’s consent, a move regularly employed by former President Hugo Chavez, is widely expected to pass as the president’s allies hold the majority of seats in the National Assembly.
Maduro is under increasing pressure from his own constituents to solve the problem of shortages.
“I don’t think this law will bring any economic or social benefits to Venezuelans,” opposition leader Henrique Capriles said last week. He accused Maduro’s administration of “bankrupting one of the richest nations in the region during an oil bonanza”.
The government has blamed recent economic problems, including shortages of chicken, cooking oil and toilet paper, on private companies who they accuse of hoarding products in order to “sabotage” the socialist-inspired Bolivarian Revolution.
“Give us tools to cope together and win this economic war,” Alexander Fleming, the minister of popular power, urged Venezuelans in October as part of the government’s push for new presidential powers. “We are fighting an unannounced battle.”
Inflation topped 49 percent in September, one of the highest rates in the world and a four percent increase over August. Foreign exchange controls mean that Venezuela’s currency officially trades at 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar, but black-market merchants are willing to pay four times the legal rate.
This has led to all sorts of bizarre economic activities; some hustlers will travel to the US to access dollars with their credit cards and then return home to sell the cash on the black market. With such a large spread between the official and black-market rate, many Venezuelans suspect that senior government officials or “red bureaucrats” who have access to dollars are making a fortune through corrupt currency manipulation.
Venezuela plans to auction $900m to ease the currency crisis for local importers, who can’t currently access enough dollars to buy products from abroad, in a bid to combat shortages.
“Maduro is under increasing pressure from his own constituents to solve the problem of shortages,” Diana Negroponte, a Venezuela expert at the Brookings Institute, told Al Jazeera.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom on the economic front. Inbound foreign direct investment in Venezuela increased 44 percent during the first half of 2013, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, meaning many business leaders continue to see the country as reasonably stable.
The Caracas stock market has continued to perform strongly, surging by more than 200 percent in 2012 and another 30 percent by March 2013.
Elected in April following the death of Chavez, Maduro continues to bask in the shadow of the departed icon, although grumblings within the governing Socialist Party (PSUV) about his leadership appear to be intensifying.
If there is a silver lining for Maduro, it is that Venezuela’s opposition, led by twice-defeated presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, is also increasingly fragmented.
“There are divides within the Chavista camp and within the opposition, but for different reasons,” Negroponte said. “Some members of the PSUV are concerned their man is incompetent, as presidential approval ratings and consumer confidence have fallen.”
Maduro won the election this spring by less than 2 percent of the vote, the closest margin for a presidential contest since the Bolivarian Revolution began in 1998.
Capriles continues to insist those elections were fraudulent. Some analysts, including Negroponte, say continuing to harp on the last election isn’t a wise political move for the opposition state governor ahead of municipal elections on December 8.
“The opposition’s main liability [in the upcoming contests] could be abstention, especially since Capriles and other opposition leaders have strongly pushed the idea that Maduro won the April election through electoral fraud,” wrote professors David Smilde and Hugo Pérez Hernaíz.
The December polls are seen by many analysts as a referendum on Maduro’s performance, as he seeks to create a form of “Chavismo without Chavez”.
“The Maduro government’s candidates will surely win most municipalities,” wrote Hernaiz and Smilde. “But if it loses the national popular vote it will effectively have lost its first ‘plebiscite.’ This would leave the opposition strengthened and in good position to seek a recall referendum on Maduro in two years.”
Despite ongoing economic problems, the government seems set to retain its support. A survey carried out in September by International Consulting Services, and released on October 14 by Ciudad CCS – a pro-government newspaper – indicates that Maduro’s party has the backing of 43.3 percent of the electorate, while Capriles’ Democratic Unity Table commands 30.3 percent.
More than 14 percent of respondents remain undecided nationwide.