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High stakes in Venezuela

THE gloves are off in Venezuela, with socialist President Nicolas Maduro ordering a 60-day nationwide “economic emergency” and the right-wing opposition declaring its intent to remove him within six months.

The president issued his proclamation on Friday, shortly before he entered the lions’ den of the opposition-dominated National Assembly to deliver his State of the Union address.

He was confronted there by National Assembly president Henry Ramos who has taken upon himself the role of leading scourge of the Bolivarian revolution and its would-be liquidator.

Veteran rightwinger Ramos is a throwback to the ancien regime dislodged in 1998 by the election, in a people’s peaceful revolution, of late president Hugo Chavez.

Ramos’s Accion Democratica (Democratic Action) party presided, with rivals COPEI and the Democratic Republic Union, over a 40-year undemocratic stitch-up formalised in the Pact of Punto Fijo in 1958.

This agreement comprised a shared programme of government and inter-party co-operation to ensure a bipartisan monopoly of power between Accion Democratica and COPEI throughout this period.

Both parties belong currently to the Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) opposition coalition that won two-thirds of the seats in Venezuela’s recent National Assembly elections.

Ramos’s election as assembly president caused an element of surprise when he defeated Julio Borges who belongs to the Justice First party of former MUD presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

His sharp language and aggressive tactics exemplify to an extent divisions within the MUD coalition on how to use its new-found assembly majority.

Many favour a concentration on economic issues to seek to broaden their popular base by improving daily life for citizens while others, including Ramos, are intent on political and symbolic change that belittles the revolution.

He took a decision personally on taking office to remove large portraits of Chavez and Simon Bolivar, ordering staff to take them to the presidential palace or dump them in the rubbish.

Ramos has since specified that pictures of Bolivar should show a traditional depiction of the Liberator and not the image that hung in the National Assembly which he claimed was doctored to make Bolivar appear a “mulatto.”

Until Chavez was elected, economic and political power was concentrated in the country’s 20 per cent white minority, while half the country is of mixed heritage and about 10 per cent of African origin.

Chavez celebrated his African and indigenous origins as part of a campaign for racial equality and recognition of the role played by groups that suffered discrimination.

Ramos has made an amnesty for political allies convicted of crimes of violence — what he calls political prisoners — his central demand, prompting a strong response from Maduro.

“They think they can make a law that allows murderers to pardon other murderers,” he declared, pledging to veto any such proposal.

The opposition leader responded that rejection of an amnesty law would be followed by National Assembly removal of cabinet ministers.

Ramos’s biggest gamble involved the attempt to bounce the Supreme Court into acquiescence to the assembly president’s decision to swear in three opposition deputies whose election is being investigated by the court.

He flouted the court’s authority by swearing them in but was forced to backtrack when the Supreme Court warned that every decision of the assembly would be null and void as long as the three deputies whose election has not yet been confirmed took part in proceedings.

MUD had upped the ante before Ramos’s confrontational decision, saying: “The unusual decision of the Supreme Court, which leaves no parliamentary representation for all Amazonas state, is a declaration of rebellion of the defeated bureaucracy in the face of the legitimate decision of the people.”

It is noteworthy that Organisation of American States general secretary Luis Almagro, who has waged a constant and ill-informed campaign against the Bolivarian process, jumped in to back the opposition before it was forced to reverse its unconstitutional stance.

Almagro claimed that the Supreme Court decision “puts at risk the balance between state powers,” insisting that its ruling be quashed and threatening Venezuela with suspension from the OAS.

The Washington-based OAS bureaucracy has been a loyal echo of US denunciations of Venezuelan democracy as a “dictatorship,” even though the conduct of the December elections and their immediate acceptance by the president proved its vibrancy and transparency.

The sight of Maduro sitting alongside Ramos in the National Assembly and being lectured by the opposition leader confirms the falseness of the dictatorship claims.

“If you don’t want to hear this, close your ears or leave,” he told the president live on state TV, wagging his finger inches from his head.

“If you give in to the desire to have more and more bolivars with the same number of dollars, your bolivars are going to lose value,” he added in a critique of the government’s stewardship of the national currency.

However, the Central Bank of Venezuela suggested on Friday that more than half of the country’s inflation rate is caused by currency manipulation.

“Preliminary estimates find … close to 60 per cent of inflation registered in 2015 is the result of foreign exchange incidents, associated with the exaggerated depreciation of the bolivar,” it said.

The bank specifically referred to “websites” that have played a key role in currency “distortions.”

Concerted pressure to undermine the bolivar forms part of the opposition economic offensive, backed by the US and its regional surrogates, to create scarcity of basic goods in shops as a means of destabilisation.

In the past two years, since Chavez was taken to hospital, the private sector has engineered shortages of, among others, milk, sugar, cornflour, rice, cooking oil, pasta and personal hygiene items through hoarding and black-market trading of price-controlled commodities in neighbouring countries, especially Colombia.

Inability to buy essential supplies has depleted electoral support among the socialists’ working-class base, even as unemployment has been slashed to 5.9 per cent and increased pay and pensions makes such goods more widely affordable.

Maduro voiced his desire to initiate a dialogue process with the assembly, expressing his hope that 2016 will see peace, “not senseless violence that could lead anywhere.”

However, he said that there would be no retreat from basic revolutionary principles, rejecting the opposition demand to transfer into private ownership the million new homes provided to poor people by the Great Housing Mission.

This mission is to be expanded to provide affordable housing to 40 per cent of Venezuelans by the end of the decade.

“What we want for the year 2016 is that our country enters down a path of development and economic growth that generates wealth and employment,” said Maduro.

He highlighted the differences between his administration’s socio-economic policies and those of the opposition, saying: “There are two models, the neoliberal model that destroys everything and the Chavista model that is centred on the people.”

The president also pointed out that the government is formulating an alternative to the current model of economic growth that will not contradict the principles of the revolution.

Revolutionary supporters within Maduro’s United Socialist Party of Venezuela, other member parties of the Great Patriotic Pole and grassroots social movements have been calling for a mass consultative exercise to analyse government mistakes and shortcomings and renew the revolutionary process, which the president has approved.

Despite suffering a major electoral setback, they are intent on rebuilding and resisting the right-wing onslaught.

At the same time, the opposition will search for ways of undermining revolutionary structures by launching investigative commissions to identify “corruption” and sack officials, including Supreme Court judges.

It remains committed to organising a mid-term recall referendum against Maduro, although this would require 3.8 million voters’ signatures.

Venezuelans are engaged in an all-or-nothing struggle that will either take the revolution to a higher plane or restore political power to the oligarchy. High stakes indeed.

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