CARACAS As Venezuela’s new opposition-led congress began fighting over the future of this Andean nation last week, Amalia Marín was a few blocks away locked in a war of her own.
For more than four hours, she had been waiting in a long and winding line hoping to get the chance to buy some rice, cooking oil and sugar — if there was any left by the time she made it inside the grocery store.
As she cradled her 9-month-old grandson, Marín said she hoped the new legislators would quit shouting at each other long enough to solve the country’s real problems: shortages and rampant crime.
“We spend so much time in lines just hoping to buy some food,” she said. “I got here at 6:30 this morning, but I don’t know if I was early enough.”
It’s no secret that the economy is a profound issue in the Andean nation. Collapsing oil prices and draconian price and currency controls have created dramatic distortions: a nation awash in oil but lacking basic medicine; a country with triple-digit inflation and a shrinking economy.
To complicate matters, Venezuela seems to be bleeding to death, with almost 27,000 homicides last year.
It was those problems that helped the long-embattled opposition win the Dec. 6 congressional race with a landslide victory and capture 112 out of 167 seats.
And yet, in the opening week of congress, those issues got little more than lip-service. Instead, opposition legislators are locked in a fierce power struggle with the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) that threatens to leave the country gridlocked and the problems relegated to the back-burner.
“Neither of the two blocs seems interested in discussing how to get Venezuela out of the crisis,” said political analyst Nicmer Evans. “Instead, they seem more worried about who’s going to end up with the power.”
The struggle for supremacy came to a head on inaugural day when three opposition deputies weren’t allowed to be sworn-in because the Supreme Court challenged their election. (Without those three congressmen, the opposition would lose its critical two-thirds majority.) The following day, however, congress — in the hands of the opposition leadership — seated the disputed deputies over the court’s objection.
That led the ruling party to ask the courts not to recognize any decision made by the new congress — even as opposition lawmakers created a commission to review the high-court, which critics say was stacked at the last minute with the aim of undermining the election results.
I fear that this year is going to slip by with the National Assembly not just fighting the Supreme Court but all of the other branches of government.
John Magdaleno, political analyst
“I fear that this year is going to slip by with the National Assembly not just fighting the Supreme Court but all of the other branches of government — all of them led by the president,” said John Magdaleno, a university professor and political analyst with the Caracas-based Politi think-tank. “But the underlying plot of the movie is the economy and that plot will continue even as we have this institutional crisis.”
For a few brief moments there were hopes that the newly victorious opposition might find a way to get along with the socialist administration for the good of the nation. But there wasn’t even an attempt at a honeymoon.
During his swearing-in speech Tuesday, National Assembly President Henry Ramos Allup reiterated that one of his bloc’s main goals will be to oust President Nicolás Maduro within six months — well before the 2019 election.
The following day, Ramos provided another dose of provocation when he ordered the portraits of late-President Hugo Chávez and a photo-realistic rendition of founding father Simón Bolívar removed from congress.
In a video posted online, Ramos is seen personally supervising workers as they cart off the displays.
“I don’t want to see a single painting here that’s not the classic portrait of the Liberator [Bolivar],” Ramos says. “I don’t want to see Chávez or Maduro. Take all that stuff to the Miraflores [Presidential Palace] or take it to maintenance.”
In a country where Bolívar and Chávez are idolized by many, the move seemed spiteful.
Yessi Romero, a 32-year-old vendor, said the opposition was blowing a chance to win over doubters.
Instead of bringing us together they’re tearing us apart. Instead of working together, they’re fighting.
Yessi Romero, Vendor
“It really makes me sad,” she said, as she joined hundreds of others to protest the removal of the portraits. “Instead of bringing us together they’re tearing us apart. Instead of working together, they’re fighting…We’re here to try to get things done, not for this.”
While the congressional redecorating may irk Chavistas (Maduro called it “the worst insult in 200 years.”), it was a necessary step in terms of creating true separation of powers, Magdaleno said. During 17 years of ruling-party control, the congress had become a rubber-stamp institution in thrall of Chávez, who succumbed to cancer in 2013.
“Perhaps what was controversial is the way it was done,” he said of the removal. “But this symbolic act is also about rescuing institutions…It’s showing the country that we have to put an end to the cult of personality.”
And Ramos has indicated that policy may take a back seat as congress ensures that people’s vote isn’t stolen through court maneuvering.
Since losing congress, Maduro has sometimes acknowledged that the vote was a call for change. But more often he says the electorate was “tricked” by the opposition, which he accuses of sabotaging the economy to undermine his administration.
Last week, he provided another glimpse into his thinking when he shuffled his cabinet and created five new economic posts. Among the new slots are the ministry of urban agriculture, the ministry of fishing and aquiculture, and the ministry of trade and foreign investment.
During the televised speech, Maduro said the country could no longer rely on oil exports alone and said that it needs grass-roots boosts to productivity. As an example, he said he and the first lady kept 50 egg-laying hens at home.
He also said he would be sending an “economic emergency” bill to congress on Tuesday. But he hasn’t provided details about the measure, and the opposition will undoubtedly shoot it down.
Creating a ministry of urban agriculture is like creating a ministry of terrestrial aviation.
Some of Maduro’s cabinet choices also raised eyebrows. Luis Salas, a 39-year-old sociologist and professor, was named minister of economics. In an article he published in August, Salas argued that Venezuela’s hyperinflation isn’t being produced by the printing of currency (as most economists suggest) but price gouging by government foes.
“Salas holds radical views on the economy, blaming Venezuela’s triple digit inflation on the ‘economic war’ waged by the private sector and is a strong proponent of price controls,” the New York-based Eurasia Group wrote. “The appointment of Salas, in particular, suggests a preference for maintaining tight controls rather than a shift to more constructive economic policymaking...Maduro’s short-term focus on survival will also help to ensure that policymaking remains erratic and reactive.”
Evans, the political analyst, said he’s willing to give the new economic team the benefit of the doubt. He said what Salas might “theorize” about inflation in an article is likely different than what he’ll do about it from a position of power.
“I just hope that these people can do what they say they’re going to do,” Evans said. “This cabinet is like a closing pitcher, they have no room for error. They either get it right or the game’s over.”
The fact that Maduro would appoint someone who sees the “economic war” as the root-cause of the crisis goes a long way toward explaining the dynamic in the National Assembly, Magdaleno said.
He argues that the government doesn’t want changes because the political costs are too high and it goes against its socialist ideals. In that sense, the opposition has no one to talk to.
“Dialogue,” he said of the deputies, “was never a viable option.”