In the superheated political conversation of Venezuela, smearing the other side is an age-old tradition. So it was hardly unusual to hear the National Assembly howl with invective this week over how political “parasites” are indulging in “speculation, hoarding, smuggling and black marketeering.
What was jarring was the orator in question—President Nicolas Maduro. Ostensibly, the Venezuelan national leader was letting loose against the perils of corruption, which he said threatened to wreck the economy and drive the country “far from socialism.” In practice, he was asking the legislature to grant him extraordinary powers to run the country as he pleases for the next year.
The government’s gambit for superpowers is not a foregone conclusion. To win “enabling powers,” as the handlers in Caracas call them, Maduro needs 99 votes, or three fifths of the 165-seat National Assembly. At present, his ruling coalition is one vote short, and so must convince at least one member from the national opposition front to turn coat.
The political opposition, led by Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles Radonski, is scrambling to block the initiative, and has even called on his supporters to boycott the law should it pass.
Many analysts see desperation at work at the Palacio Miraflores. “The country is in such a dire state of political and social unraveling, the regime has few options to survive,” says Diego Arria, a former diplomat who backs the Venezuelan opposition. “These enabling powers have little to do with a campaign to fight corruption. This is to put a nail in the coffin of the few freedoms we still have left.”
Venezuelans have seen this script before. In his 14-year rule, Hugo Chávez issued 200 separate decrees, each crafted to allow him to bypass the legislature, the courts, public dissent and all the other impedimenta to a normal constitutional democracy.
From Bolivia’s Evo Morales to Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Chavez’s compañeros in the so-called Bolivarian alliance for 21st-century socialism have done much of the same, leveraging victories at the ballot box and the national purse strings to turn the screws on political and economic liberties.
But when an elected leader moves, as Maduro is doing, to systematically tighten his chokehold on the country that elected him, it’s a good bet that the ruling caste is losing its grip. In Venezuela, the signs are everywhere. Power failures, crumbling roads and scarcity of store bought goods from butter to toilet paper are rampant.
With prices rising at 45 percent a year, Venezuela has crossed the textbook threshold for hyperinflation, says a Latin American analyst for Goldman Sachs. Crime is no less feverish, turning Caracas, with 119 homicides per 100,000 residents, into one of the world’s most violent capitals.
Though Venezuela still has plenty of oil, the haul of petrodollars can hardly keep pace with capital flight, as middle-class and rich Venezuelans hurry to take their savings abroad ahead of what they assume will be an imminent crash. No wonder the greenback has spiked on the black market, now fetching on the streets a record six times the official exchange rate.
It’s no mystery what Venezuela must do to reverse the crisis. Economists say the government must devalue the enfeebled currency— ironically called the bolivar fuerte (the strong bolivar)—and lift the Soviet-style market controls that are emptying supermarket shelves and chasing away investors. Without predictable rules for doing business, there will be even fewer takers for Venezuela’s high-risk government bonds.
“It’s going to take a policy shock to stabilize the economy, but that requires a degree of consensus and with a bitter and polarized political environment, frankly we don’t if that exists,” says Ramos. Failing that, he adds, “We are on the brink of an emerging market crisis, with a run on currency, a banking crisis, and an imploding economy.”
Compounding the economic debacle is a political one. “If Chavez were around and told people that things would be fine, things would probably fine,” says Riordan Roett, a Latin America expert at Johns Hopkins University. “But this is Maduro, and even though he keeps trying to draw the Chavez cape around him, he doesn’t have the charisma or the backing to pull this off.”