Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro recently asked the national legislature to grant him extraordinary “enabling powers” to run the country. Why he bothered with the request is a mystery. Since he was elected in April to succeed the late Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan subway conductor-turned-national leader has been busy showing off the extraordinary skill set he brings to the country’s top job.
Shortly after formally taking office in April, Maduro claimed to have seen the late Venezuelan “Comandante” in the form of a bird flitting around the Miraflores Palace. A few weeks ago he reported seeing Chavez’s visage on the excavation site of the Caracas subway. Last week he created a Ministry of Supreme Social Happiness, perhaps hoping that true contentment in the crumbling Bolivarian republic could be conjured with a pen stroke. And now Maduro’s latest move has been to declare an early Christmas.
As exotic as it sounds, getting the jump on Father Christmas has its logic. In a land where prices are rising at a blistering 50 percent per year, street crime is raging, and blackouts are commonplace, Venezuelans could use some holiday cheer. The fact that the season’s greetings come with an advance bonus on government paychecks only sweetens the pot.
And Maduro’s hoping it will help the government, as well. On December 8, Venezuelans will go to the polls yet again to vote in municipal elections. With the gathering economic mess, which has depleted supermarkets of household goods and sent the price of the dollar skyrocketing to six times the official rate, government approval ratings have sagged. By fattening paychecks before the polls, Maduro clearly is hoping to heal the country’s wounds and buoy the fortunes of Chavista candidates, many of whom are trailing rising challengers.
An early Christmas is just one in a series of officials flourishes meant to buy good will and keep rivals—those political Scrooges who grouse about every government giveaway—off balance. A few months ago, Caracas announced an anti-corruption drive, ostensibly to target thieving among higher-ups that Maduro claims is pushing Venezuela “away from the path of socialism.” The Orwellian-sounding Supreme Happiness Ministry, launched late last month, is an attempt to rein in waste and inefficiency at the spendthrift missions, the 30 or so Cuban-inspired social programs that are meant to fight poverty, illiteracy and childhood mortality in the slums.
Then there’s Presidential Decree 541, written into law Nov. 5, which declared a new holiday in honor of Chavez. In the argot of Chavez’s “21s-century socialism,” it will be known as “The Day of Loyalty and Love for the Supreme Commander Hugo Chavez and the Fatherland.” It’s unclear just what will take place on this addition to the Bolivarian calendar—look for long-winded speeches and lots of red berets—but the keepers of Chavez’s legacy are confident that any bow to the beloved leader—aka “the giant of the Americas who did nothing if not profess and practice his most genuine and non-exclusionary love”—is likely to play well in the Bolivarian bleachers. Especially if the homage falls on election day.
Whether the Venezuelans will be swayed by such maneuvers is another matter. Shortages, blackouts and crime are not new to this nation of 28 million. Chavez’s gift was his ability to spin such woes as the necessary sacrifice of building true socialism and blame the excesses on political saboteurs and foreigners. Maduro has sought to do the same, but he lacks the charisma and the aura of his political godfather.
If Chavez was known for his jesting and his jaunty beret, his hapless successor runs the risk of making his government’s most enduring symbol a roll of toilet paper, the scarcity of which has sent Venezuelan consumers on epic goose chases.
Hence the repeated invocations and “sightings” of the fallen leader in Maduro’s speeches and policy initiatives. It also explains the embattled leader’s bid to ask congress for enabling powers, just in case the official bromides are not enough.
To opponents of the government, the apparitions and exotic-sounding rhetoric is anything but comic. “The government is seeking decree powers on the excuse of fighting an economic war contrived to hide incompetence and rapaciousness,” says Diego Arria, a former ambassador to the United Nations and outspoken opponent of Maduro. “This is a death sentence for Venezuelan democracy.”
That’s a serious charge that the government flatly denies. “It’s been a year of combat, and we have faced difficulties, none larger than the loss of Commander Chavez,” Maduro said in a nationwide broadcast Thursday. Whether that appeal is enough to win the government a Christmas bump, the Venezuelan voting booths will tell soon enough.