Weak Venezuelan economy sours support for president
Photo: Girish Gupta

Weak Venezuelan economy sours support for president

| Sept. 13, 2014 | Caracas, Venezuela

Photo: Girish Gupta

Text published by USA Today
Audio featured on RTÉ World Report

Mounting economic problems in this oil-rich country are pummeling President Nicolás Maduro as he struggles to exude the same charisma as his iconic socialist predecessor, Hugo Chávez.

Based on his sinking popularity, he isn't making much headway. Foreign currency controls enacted more than a decade ago have led to severe shortages of the most basic goods. Shoppers line up for hours hoping to find flour, shampoo and toilet paper. On top of that, inflation is rampant—running above 60% so far this year.

Businesses that rely on imports are shut off from foreign markets because they say the government has failed to provide them the hard currency they need. There is even talk by traders and economists, such as Angel Garcia Banchs, director of the think tank Ecoanalitica, that the government may default on bond payments totaling more than $5 billion due in October.

Bond prices fell sharply this past week on fears of a failure to make payments after former planning minister and Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann suggested that Venezuela should default. Maduro responded by saying Venezuela would meet its international obligations "down to the last dollar."

Small opposition protests have broken out in recent weeks over the economic problems, notably a government proposal — soon scrapped — to fingerprint shoppers to prevent hoarding of goods in short supply. The protests could escalate in the coming weeks, as students go back to universities.

Four months before Chávez died, he handpicked Maduro to take over the government and continue along the path that Chávez, known for his anti-American tirades, had blazed during his 14 years as president. But Maduro has proved to be no Chavez.

In February, the country saw the biggest anti-government protests in more than a decade, prompting a crackdown against the political opposition, whose leader, Leopoldo López, remains behind bars on charges of inciting the protests.

Maduro, 51, is even losing support among those who had always stood by Chávez's socialist revolution.

"Chávez was intelligent," said Yoanna Ortiz, a resident in the staunchly pro-government district of 23 de enero. She voted for Chávez as soon as she was old enough to do so. "When doors closed, he would find a way to open them. Maduro, however, just talks about how the opposition is planning a coup and wants to kill him."

Photo: Girish Gupta

Ortiz added that things were "much worse" now than during Chávez's tenure.

Opinion polls — and others in 23 de enero — reflect Ortiz's unease. Maduro's approval ratings are in the mid-thirties, according to Datanálisis, a respected local polling firm. These have dropped considerably since he came to power and are far lower than the numbers enjoyed by Chávez in his prime.

"It's clear that Maduro is not as popular and charismatic as Chávez and we have seen it in the polls," said Luis Vicente León, president of Datanálisis.

For those reasons, the government works hard to maintain the myth of Chávez and the idea that Maduro is continuing to pave his predecessor's path.

"Our Chávez who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name," began a red-clad supporter at a socialist party convention last week. "Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from evil and oligarchy."

Amid the economic hardships, the government raised the prospect earlier this year of pragmatic changes, such as raising heavily subsidized gas prices and uniting the country's numerous exchange rates in an attempt to free up dollars.

Hopes of these changes were dashed last week, however, when Maduro ousted oil and economic czar Rafael Ramírez. He had been a figurehead for the changes.

Some saw him as more powerful than the president himself in a country that boasts the world's biggest oil reserves. He talked openly about reconnecting with investors.

Ramírez's replacements include Chávez's cousin, Asdrúbal Chávez, who will take over the oil ministry, and Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Marco Torres, who participated in the late president's failed 1992 coup attempt and will run the country's economy.

"More than a switch of seats and new names, what the country needs is a new policy direction," said Alberto Ramos, a senior analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York.

Yet, some in 23 de enero remain behind the government, despite admitting problems.

"A shakeup is necessary in revolution," said Zulema Sambrano, 49, walking through the main square here. "Revolutions happen in stages. Things are evolving."