Maduro the hero, or a tyrant in the making?

Venezuela’s president has been granted new powers – can he use them for good, or are they destined for abuse?

They came to Bolivar Square in their hundreds, dressed in the bright red of the Chavista revolution.

Many carried drums and flags with the ubiquitous image of Hugo Chavez, ready to celebrate a monumental victory.

It was all to celebrate the granting of extraordinary powers to Chavez’ss hand-picked presidential successor, Nicolas Maduro.

Among their number was Lisset Ariel, an ardent supporter of Maduro excited about his sweeping new powers under the Enabling Act.

“He needs to continue the revolutionary process,” she told me. “The opposition is always trying to sabotage that process, first with Chavez and now with Maduro.”

As the decree was finally passed a great cheer went up across the square, an us-against-them moment for Venezuela’s poor and a triumph for Maduro.

For the next 12 months he will be able to bypass parliament and ratchet up his so-called war on the economy.

Since coming to office in April Nicolas Maduro has always blamed the ills of Venezuela’s ailing economy on what he calls “parasitic capitalists” bent on destroying the economy. It is now expected that Maduro will force business owners to lower their prices and he claims to have already jailed 100 shopkeepers for charging too much for their goods.

It is the president’s boldest move yet and one that has angered the opposition.

Maria Corina Machado is perhaps one of the most recognisable faces of the opposition and she, like many in her party, is outraged.

“This is a government willing to do anything to hold onto power,” she told me.

Many in her party now fear that Maduro will use his new power to silence critics and win the municipal elections due to take place here in three weeks time.

But Machado is not giving up hope. She has faith that the majority of voters will cast their ballots for opposition party candidates and send a clear message to Maduro, a man she calls a puppet of the military.

But on the streets of Caracas, the prospect of being able to buy hugely discounted goods is being greeted enthusiastically.

Military guards are standing outside most electronic goods shops controlling crowds of excited consumers and they have a powerful political voice here.

But even with his new-found power and strong base, Maduro has to tackle an economy in freefall. Inflation is spiraling, there is still a chronic shortage of basic goods and the black market in US dollars is rife. Blaming outside forces may be a mantra with a limited shelf life.

Follow Andy Gallacher on Twitter at @andygaje

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