Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s president, is seeking special power to rule by decree in order to wage “economic war”, as he battles a litany of problems with a loosening grip on power.
Currency market distortions have fuelled worsening shortages of food and basic goods from milk to toilet paper alongside high and rising inflation, posing a threat to the late Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution. Price controls as well as endless fiddling with strict but ineffective exchange restrictions have generated a scarcity of foreign currency on which the import-dependent economy relies.
Mr Maduro, who served as Mr Chávez’s foreign minister and vice-president, has asked for “special powers” for 12 months from the country’s national assembly, to “fight against corruption and the economic war declared by the bourgeoisie against the people”. The president claims members of the “fascist” opposition, with support from the US, are “sabotaging” the economy in order to bring down the government.
In a recent tit-for-tat exchange, Washington expelled three Venezuelan diplomats in retaliation for Mr Maduro’s expulsion of three US diplomats days earlier.
“Venezuela’s economy is at a critical juncture. The productive apparatus is being acutely hit by a series of distortions such as speculation, hoarding, contraband, and the impact of the illegal currency exchange market,” Mr Maduro told legislators on Tuesday afternoon as he submitted the proposal, adopting a more conciliatory tone than in recent speeches.
To be granted decree powers, the former bus driver and trade unionist needs the votes of 99 lawmakers in the National Assembly. Mr Maduro’s ruling United Socialist party of Venezuela, or PSUV, holds 98 seats, meaning that he needs to lure one independent or opposition legislator.
In the past four decades a number of Venezuelan leaders have asked for fast-track-enabling powers. Mr Chávez, the president’s charismatic mentor, governed several times using decree powers. However, Mr Maduro appears to be struggling with policy paralysis caused by battles within his own party.
On Tuesday, the government announced that Nelson Merentes, its pragmatic finance minister, will be replaced as vice-president responsible for the economy by the more ideologically stalwart oil minister, Rafael Ramírez.
“There is a lot of discontent within the government at all levels, among people who think he does not have the power and vision to make the Chávez project work,” said David Smilde, a Caracas-based Venezuela expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.
Some observers believe Mr Maduro’s bid to bypass the legislature is an effort to solidify his weak grip on power. “Having an enabling law would increase his power within the government,” Mr Smilde added.
Oil-rich Venezuela is gearing up for municipal elections in December that many see as a referendum on Mr Maduro’s mandate and his ability to manage the economy.
At the weekend, thousands of workers, members of the armed forces and militias marched in support of the president, chanting slogans promising to assist the government in fighting corruption.
But opposition leader Henrique Capriles blasted Mr Maduro in a Sunday newspaper column, accusing him of creating “smokescreens” and labelling the government’s “economic war” an “invention”.
“You cannot hide the fact you have bankrupted one of the richest nations in the region, and during an oil bonanza,” wrote Mr Capriles, who narrowly lost the presidential vote in April and still challenges the result. “Every sector of the country is witness to your incompetence.”
Opposition legislator Antonio Barreto Sira said: “The only war that exists in the country is the one that consumers have to wage to get a pack of maize flour or toilet paper.”