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Sunday, 20 May 2018

While Venezuela implodes, Nicolás Maduro is cruising to another implausible election victory

While Venezuela implodes, Nicolás Maduro is cruising to another implausible election victoryNicolás Maduro was always an easy target.  In laid-back, no worries Venezuela where nobody and no subject is off limits, the president’s opponents have long changed the “duro” in “Maduro” to “burro”, which means donkey.  For the staunch anti-government crowd, the moniker was a perfect fit: Mr Maduro was after all a mere bus driver who through a stroke of luck earned the appointment of his far more astute predecessor.  To them the contrast between Hugo Chavez’s charisma and Mr Maduro’s frequent blunders was laughable. But only days away from his first attempt at reelection, Mr Maduro, 55, appears on track to pull off a victory many would consider unachievable even for the shrewdest of politicians. As the country continues to suffer through the worst economic crisis in its history, Mr Maduro has successfully outmanoeuvred his opposition, disqualifying its most popular politicians, defeating a months-long bloody protest movement against him and leveraging food handouts to ensure his supporters show up to vote him back in. He has fomented just enough doubt in the country’s once esteemed electoral process as to cause most of the opposition to boycott the process, yet ensure his traditional allies will fully recognise the vote. The legacy of Hugo Chavez still dominates Venezuela as the country spirals further into economic chaos Credit:  LUIS ROBAYO/ AFP “We’re going to win, but we have to win with 10 million votes,” a confident Mr Maduro said at a recent rally. “We’ll give imperialism and the oligarchy traitors a lesson.” Whatever the result, a win will be a remarkable political accomplishment given the depths of the country’s economic collapse. Inflation has reached nearly 14,000 per cent annually and GDP is expected to fall by double digits for the third straight year.    Although the country’s central bank stopped publishing official data two years ago, economists and the opposition-controlled parliament estimate prices now double roughly every 17 days. In the absence of official figures, some have instead resorted to tracking the price of everyday items, such as Bloomberg’s cafe con leche index, which shows that the price of a cup of coffee has spiked by over 21,000 per cent in 12 months. The cost of coffee has jumped over 16,400 per cent in one year Prices surge so rapidly that even shop owners struggle to keep up; the cost of identical items can fluctuate by 80 per cent or more on the same day. Restaurants must print out new prices to tape on their menus weekly. It marks a downward spiral that several decades ago would have been inconceivable for the region’s most prosperous country. Venezuela sits atop the world’s largest proven oil reserves; living conditions improved to a point in the 1970s that many middle class Venezuelans enjoyed weekend trips to Miami. The country’s currency, the bolivar, became so strong that Venezuelans abroad would notoriously remark: “It’s so cheap, give me two.” But in 2014 oil prices collapsed. The plunge in revenue exposed an eroded national production system, rampant overspending, and a political sphere rife with corruption. Venezuela had come to rely on oil for 95 percent of its export earnings; the country had increasingly turned to imports of basic foods and medicines after systematic nationalisations of farms and factories by the late President Chavez, father of the ‘bolivarian revolution’, mostly flopped.     The drop in oil prices coincided with Venezuela’s recession Mr Maduro’s government struggled to import enough products to cover demand - shortages of food and medicines in traditional supermarkets and pharmacies grew while a black market flourished. A system of currency controls led unscrupulous businesspeople to exchange subsidised dollars meant for imports on the black market for astronomical profits. The shortages of basic medicines has only intensified recently and NGO’s report that hundreds have died.  A local non-profit said that at least 80,000 Venezuelans with HIV have lost access to life saving antiretroviral medication.  Patients living with organ transplants don’t have the immunosuppressant drugs that prevent their body from rejecting the organ. While shortages of food items have eased as Mr Maduro has altered price controls, their prices are out of reach for most Venezuelans. A yearly study by several of the country’s top universities revealed that in 2017, the average Venezuelan lost 11 kilograms and that 90 percent of the country now lives in poverty. Almost nine in 10 Venezuelan's live in poverty Mr Maduro has responded by printing more money, crashing the country’s currency against the dollar. The Venezuelan bolivar has lost 99 percent of its value in three years on the widely used black market. While the government has already raised the minimum wage three times this year, in real terms it equates to a mere $3.13 per month. Whereas Venezuelans used to say “it’s so cheap, give me two” about non-essential items, today the majority can’t afford to buy even half of their basic necessities. Street vendors now sell single eggs and tiny portions of sugar and ground coffee taken out of its original packaging and wrapped in plastic bags so small that they fit in one’s palm.   The crumbling economy has led millions to look for an escape. Neighbouring Colombia estimates that the number of Venezuelan refugees living there doubled in six months, up to 600,000. The number of Venezuelan arrivals has strained resources and relations most severely in Brazilian and Colombian border towns, but also around the region. One US dollar is currently worth over 700,000 Venezuelan bolívars On Sunday Mr Maduro will face two main rivals: Henri Falcon, a former governor and former member turned dissident of Mr Maduro’s party and Javier Bertucci, a former evangelical pastor who has gained traction by hosting massive soup kitchens in poor neighborhoods. While some polls have shown Mr Falcon with a slight lead over Mr Maduro, skeptics believe a pro-government electoral board will ensure a socialist victory. Mr Falcon will lose votes not only to abstention, but also the surging popularity of Bertucci, who some polls show has 10 per cent support. Although his goal of a 10-million-vote winning margin might be a little optimistic, the signs are there that Mr Maduro is well on track to continue his political project, driving Venezuela deeper into a socialist one-party state isolated from the world. Henry Falcon is likely to provide the most robust competition but opposition to Mr Maduro is divided and weak Credit:  Carlos Garcia Rawlins/ Carlos Garcia Rawlins Source: REUTERS Heading into the vote on Sunday, his government already appears to have renewed a crackdown on the country’s private sector. On May 3 officials arrested 11 executives of the country’s largest bank and assumed control of its operations, calling it a temporary measure to stop illicit activity. In April the government arrested two Chevron employees for apparently refusing to approve government contracts. The international community has ramped up efforts to pressure his administration to respect democratic norms and the country’s constitution. The US has sanctioned dozens of individuals with ties to Mr Maduro, including Mr Maduro himself, and banned US companies from dealing in new Venezuelan debt. The EU has sanctioned a handful of individuals and threatened further action. Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to criticise Mr Maduro in August of last year after four-months of anti-government protests had left 120 dead now looks increasingly embarrassing in the light of growing international condemnation. Mr Corbyn in 2013 had called Hugo Chavez an “inspiration”. Mr Maduro may face even tighter sanctions following the elections, possibly including sanctions on the country’s vital oil sector. Faced with that scenario, he may need even broader authority at home to consolidate power and prevent internal fractions, which have been growing. Local media have reported accelerated discontent within the military. Although Mr Maduro may have defied the “donkey” nickname for now, pulling off an implausible electoral victory could also prove to be his pitfall.  




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