Venezuela’s Maduro looks for ‘99’ as he seeks decree powers

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is one “yea” shy of the 99 votes he needs in the National Assembly to win the decree powers he says he will use to squash rampant corruption in the South American nation. But just how, and from whom, he will get that final vote is testing the resolve of a battered opposition as it’s gearing up for critical municipal elections.

Since floating the decree idea last week, Maduro has been urging opposition members to jump ship. In his speeches and tweets, “99” has become shorthand for the debate.

“Number 99 can do everything, I trust him now and forever,” he tweeted Wednesday. “Who will it be?”

On Thursday, the coalition of opposition parties, known as the MUD, tried to bring their congressmen to heel.

“In the hypothetical case that the government wins 99 votes during the [legislative] session that would mean that a vote was bought from an opposition member,” the MUD wrote in a full-page ad. “That is to say that, once again, [the administration] would have committed an act of corruption.”

The MUD also questioned why Maduro needs special powers if he already controls the legislature and 90 percent of all the resources that come into the country.

“How can they justify this request,” the MUD wrote. “It would mean that the National Assembly and the Comptroller General’s Office would be delegating their power to the presidency — the very body that these two powers are supposed to be overseeing.”

Maduro needs three-fifths of the legislature’s 165 votes to win the decree powers that would give him the right to enact corruption-fighting legislation without going through the National Assembly. However, his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, was granted decree powers on four occasions and often used the authority to legislate beyond the issue at hand. In 2010, when given the power to fight flooding, he used it to pass laws on banking, housing, police and other issues.

Rivals fear Maduro will use his special powers to attack their candidates in the run-up to December’s municipal race.

“There is a clear attempt going on to undermine the opposition,” said Freddy Guevara, the national political coordinator for the Voluntad Popular opposition party. “They are trying to lynch us morally and politically and, who knows, maybe even legally.”

Since taking office in March, Maduro has made fighting corruption central to his administration. But that has put him in the position of shining a light on problems that Chávez — his hero and mentor — ignored during his 13 years in power.

“Why now, after so many years, is the government worried about corruption?” the MUD asked in its letter, published in El Universal. “Wasn’t Chávez worried about it?”

Maduro has said there are no sacred cows in this fight. In June, the former governor of Guarico and a party loyalist, Luis Gallardo, was jailed for misuse of funds. Earlier this week, the government announced it had detained more than 40 people for gaming the foreign currency control system, called Cadivi. Among those caught in the net was Lt. Col. Francisco Navas, who ran Cadivi’s import department for more than a decade.

But much of the corruption campaign seems focused on the Primero Justicia political party, which was founded by Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles — who ran against Maduro in April.

Earlier this month, authorities ordered the detention of Oscar López Colina — a longtime Capriles’ collaborator — on allegations of money laundering and tax evasion.

Deputy Pedro Carreño of the ruling party showed pictures of López at a party hugging other men and wearing a wig and accused him of running a prostitution ring. He also accused Capriles, who is unmarried, of being a homosexual.

In July, legislators stripped Primero Justicia Congressman Richard Mardo of his parliamentary immunity on allegations of tax evasion.

And there’s more to come. On Wednesday, Maduro said he would present a report to the National Assembly with “concrete proof and proposals” that will leave those who support corruption “naked.”

Capriles is fighting back, saying Maduro is playing the bully to hide his own problems.

“The government’s fight against corruption is a lie,” Capriles said recently. “There’s no big fish being caught here, just skinny ones. It’s just office clerks who stamp papers.”

Political insiders and State Department cables released by WikiLeaks have tarred the names of high party officials, including National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello.

Earlier this month, Central Bank President Edmée Betancourt, in an interview with Ultimas Noticias newspaper, said $59 billion had been taken out of the Cadivi currency-control system in 2012 — more than double the usual amount — and that some of it had ended up in the hands of “phantom companies.”

She was replaced a few days after the interview.

Karen Hooper, director of analysis for Latin America at the Texas-based Stratfor group, said that Maduro is likely “flexing his muscles” after winning the election with a razor-thin margin.

“This is Maduro using old Chávez tactics — and that’s definitely his model,” she said.

Despite persistent rumors that Maduro is in a power struggle with Cabello over the fate of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, or PSUV, so far Cabello seems to be backing him, she said.

“The most important part here is that he doesn’t seem to be getting any open resistance form the PSUV camp,” she said.

There’s no doubt that corruption is a serious issue. Venezuela ranked 165 out of 174 nations in Transparency International’s most recent global ranking. That puts it right behind Haiti and one spot ahead of Iraq.

But whether Maduro will be given the right to fight corruption with a decree comes down to number 99.

Guevara, with Voluntad Popular, said he didn’t have much faith in legislators. At least four opposition members have jumped the fence, or talanquera as it’s known in Venezuela, during critical junctures before, he said.

Asked if he thought the opposition could stick together this time, Guevara didn’t hesitate.

“Unfortunately, no,” he said. “This is a moment of moral, economic and ethical crisis in our country.”

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