Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Friday called on his opposition counterparts to work with him to help claw the country out of a deep economic crisis. But even as he called for unity, Maduro invoked emergency decree powers in a move that his critics called backhanded.
Maduro made the pitch during his annual speech before a National Assembly that is in opposition hands for the first time in 17 years.
Just hours before the address, the Central Bank released economic information for the first time in more than a year. That information confirmed what everyone knew: The economy is in shambles.
The bank said the economy contracted 7.1 percent for the year ending September 2015 — a historical low for the country. In addition, annual inflation reached 141.5 percent for the same period.
Never miss a local story.
The bank said collapsing oil prices, in a nation addicted to crude exports, were pummeling the economy. But it also blamed “next generation economic warfare” for the problems, saying websites and foreign interests were driving speculation and hoarding.
The bank had not released economic figures since late 2014, despite the constitutional obligation to do so.
In his almost three-hour speech before congress, Maduro stayed on familiar ground, blaming the deep economic crisis on private-sector sabotage and international plots aimed at dismantling 17 years of socialist reforms.
While he acknowledged the role of collapsing oil prices in the crisis, he also said “economic warfare” and a private sector “unwilling to cooperate” with the administration were exacerbating the problems.
The only concrete proposal he suggested for helping turn the economy around was raising the country’s cheaper-than-water gasoline prices. Maduro said he had been reluctant to raise the rates before because opposition forces were ready to “set the country on fire,” but he said the time had come for the changes.
In a rebuttal, National Assembly President Henry Ramos said he and his colleagues were willing to work with the administration if it was truly willing to change.
The socialist “model is wrong. It’s flawed and there are the figures that prove it,” Ramos said, referring to the grim economic data. “If there was truly a will to change course, then obviously we would be interested. … How can we want lines, inflation, and insecurity?”
Also during the session, Maduro presented congress with a decree giving him “emergency economic powers” for 60 days. The decree had been approved in the waning days of the outgoing congress but was only published in the official register Friday. Congress is expected to debate the decree next week.
One of the more heated moments came in reference to opposition plans to push an “amnesty and reconciliation” law that would allow for the release of more than 70 people it considers political prisoners.
Maduro reiterated claims that those prisoners contributed to the deaths of 43 people during national protests in 2014. Instead of the amnesty law, Maduro proposed creating a commission of “justice, truth, and peace” to investigate the issues. But he said he would not allow “victimizers to pardon themselves.” That would be “stabbing a knife into the heart of the country,” he added.
Ramos said he welcomed a true accounting of the protests because he said it would prove that many died because of government repression. But he said his bloc would not back down from the amnesty law.
“We cannot move forward here without liberating political prisoners,” he told the president.
Maduro, who narrowly won election in 2013, warned his opponents not to try to use the current economic crisis to undermine his administration.
“This is not Maduro’s storm. … It’s a situation that affects the entire country and all of Venezuela’s families,” he said. “It will require all of our effort and require us to put the nation first.”