Real or Barcelona? Venezuela president's economy speech seen as own goal

| Feb. 18, 2016 | Caracas, Venezuela

Published by Reuters

Alexandra Ulmer and Girish Gupta

In the middle of announcing new measures to tackle Venezuela's economic crisis, President Nicolas Maduro stopped to sound out government officials on whether they support Real Madrid or Barcelona, the two giants of Spanish soccer.

"Who is with Real Madrid? Raise your hand!" Maduro asked the officials assembled to hear a near five-hour televised broadcast on Wednesday night, prompting a jocular soccer debate that then shifted to baseball.

In his speech, Maduro increased prices of the world's cheapest oil and announced changes to a system of multiple exchange rates that lie at the heart of distortions and rampant smuggling in the Venezuelan economy.

But at a time when Venezuelans face chronic product shortages and triple-digit inflation, and the country is seen at risk of defaulting on its debt, Maduro's rambling and expletive-laden late-night speech may have amounted to an own goal.

"Instead of sports, he should be talking about everything this government has caused. Look at the lines and crime!" said security guard Jhonny Blanco, 67, as he read a newspaper next to a queue outside a supermarket on Thursday morning.

Far from eliminating stifling currency controls or bringing inflation under control, Maduro has stuck to his socialist policies and claims right-wing businesses in cahoots with the United States are sabotaging the economy to spark a coup like the brief 2002 putsch against his predecessor, the late Hugo Chavez.

He has also spent hours speaking on state television, at times complaining he has not had time for lunch because of work or recounting trips abroad with his wife. That irks some Venezuelans who struggle to find food and barely have enough money to get by.

"It's a lack of respect towards all of us," said Sobeyda Espinoza, 61, queuing up in front of a supermarket because there were rumors cooking oil and margarine would be delivered.

"He's not hungry, he's not struggling."

To be sure, Maduro remains popular among core Socialist Party supporters, who praise him and the charismatic Chavez for social programs like housing for the poor and health outposts in the slums.

But the economic crisis has hit that base of support and the Socialists were soundly beaten in legislative elections in December.


During his 14-year rule, the larger-than-life Chavez delighted supporters by cracking sometimes crude jokes, singing, and dancing.

Maduro, a burly former bus driver and union leader who was elected after Chavez's death in 2013, has tried to emulate his theatrical speeches but he lacks his spark and often ends up recycling puns or committing verbal gaffes.

The deepening economic woes also mean many Venezuelans have lost their patience and want more action and less talk from their president.

The measures announced on Wednesday had expected but delayed for so long that a running joke in Venezuela is: "Maduro announces he will announce that he announces something."

Maduro's reluctance to overhaul the economy means reforms he does implement are insufficient, economists say.

Since taking office, Maduro has created three exchange rate systems but none have been able to stop the fall of the bolivar currency, which has lost 98 percent of its value on the black market.

The OPEC country's economic deterioration has been aggravated by the tumble in oil prices, raising questions about how the government will pay some $10 billion in bond payments this year.

"I just see the bizarre antics as the death throes of the Chavista model and Maduro's inability to cope with what is happening," said a U.S.-based fund manager who tried to follow Maduro's lengthy speech on Wednesday but eventually gave up.

"I don't think this stuff says much about their willingness (to pay debt), but that doesn't matter because it is all about their ability now. They simply don't have the money."

Opposition leaders in the opposition-controlled National Assembly are vowing to try to democratically remove him this year, either through a constitutional reform to reduce his presidential term or a recall referendum.

They say Maduro is so pampered and isolated he does not understand how the crisis is hurting Venezuelans.

"When you don't know how much a soft drink or a soda costs, it's easy to ask others to keep sacrificing themselves," said opposition leader and two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. "We need a constitutional amendment or a recall referendum to remove Maduro."