Echoing Chávez, Venezuela's Maduro given decree powers

While Maduro says the emergency decree powers are necessary to stamp out corruption and fix the country's foundering economy, the move is seen by critics as trampling democracy.

Ariana Cubillos/AP
Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro holds the documents granting him emergency decree powers as he gestures to supporters at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013. Venezuela's congress granted Maduro emergency decree powers that will allow him to approve laws without consulting congress for up to a year.

After months pressing Congress, Nicolás Maduro was granted emergency decree powers yesterday, immediately sparking celebrations at the Miraflores Presidential palace, and unease among Chavismo detractors.

"They [the bourgeoisie] underestimated me; they said Maduro was an amateur," the president called out to hundreds of red-clad supporters. "[But] what you've seen is little compared to what we're going to do."

Crowds cheered and a Venezuelan folk band played tunes dedicated to former President Hugo Chávez, the founder of President Maduro's political movement. The passage of the Enabling Law, which allows Mr. Maduro to rule by decree for the next year, is being trumpeted as a triumph for the embattled president after opposition lawmakers tried to spike the bill.

While Maduro says the powers are necessary in his efforts to stamp out corruption and fix the country's foundering economy, the move is seen by his critics as a means to consolidate power ahead of Dec. 8 municipal elections. The powers enable Maduro to fast track legislation regarding graft and the economy, however vague clauses within the statute and the experience of past decree laws under Mr. Chávez have stirred fears among the presidents critics that democracy will be trampled.

"The law allows Maduro to present himself as powerful, ruling with all the forces of government behind him," says Margarita López Maya, a historian at the Central University of Venezuela.

“[The measure] could help the president stay 'afloat,' but the fear is that all his efforts are being directed toward the short term as the country slides deeper and deeper into crisis," Ms. Maya says. Maduro’s popularity has slumped in recent months. His polling numbers have dipped to lows of around 40 percent approval, compared to around 50 percent back in April when he was elected to office.

Maduro not the first

Maduro’s move toward increased power isn’t unique in Venezuela. Chávez was granted emergency powers four times during his 14-year rule and passed over 200 laws by decree, including a controversial land reform measure and the nationalization of parts of the oil industry. In addition, the late president counted on a two-thirds majority in Congress until 2010, when Venezuela's political opposition experienced its first major breakthrough.

Fearing a power grab, Maduro's congressional opponents had said they would remain steadfast and reject the bill’s passage. However, the law gained preliminary approval last week in a vote of 99 to 60 after an opposition congresswoman – who was formerly a member of the ruling socialist party – was stripped of her congressional vote while a corruption investigation commenced against her.

“[Maduro will] continue the way Chávez ruled, even if he lacks the charisma or the votes," says Maya. "He can now present himself as the heir of Chávez.”

In his seven months as president, Maduro has been dogged by a sputtering economy and runaway inflation nearing some 55 percent, and beset by nagging shortages of consumer goods.

Recent polls show that Venezuelans have become increasingly gloomy about the country’s economic and political situation. Surveys by Datanalisis and IVAD indicate that around 70 percent of Venezuelans are pessimistic about the state of the country.

'Tenuous' hold on power?

The opposition has cast the upcoming municipal elections as a litmus test for the beleaguered Maduro government and its ability to manage the economy.

"The people will give Miraflores a clear ruling this Dec. 8,” said opposition Congresswoman María Corina Machado, while stumping in Barinas, Chávez’s home state. There, “where the process of destruction began, will also start the liberation of our fatherland,” Ms. Machado said.

"Leaders of the Chávez coalition realize Maduro's popularity declined in recent months and his hold on power is tenuous," says David Smilde, at the nongovernmental organization Washington Office on Latin America.

Insisting the country's economic woes are the result of his political adversaries and "hoarders and speculators," Maduro extended state control over large swaths of the economy in the days leading up to his gaining decree powers. He slashed prices on everything from electronics to home furnishings, tools, and toys weeks ahead of the holiday season.

As Maduro looked set to receive emergency powers, he promised to expand his "economic offensive," furthering price controls, regulations, and, among other measures, establishing profit margin limits for businesses.

Reports of looting surfaced throughout the country last week as prices were slashed to "fair" levels at retail outlets, according to the government. The National Guard was sent in to control the hordes of bargain hunters that rushed to the stores to scoop up the deals.

Gabriel del Rey, an athletic trainer, was one of the hundreds who flocked to central Caracas last night to welcome the law's passage. He says that Maduro's crackdown is necessary to keep spiraling prices in check. "The parasitic bourgeois has been looting the country's riches from the people. Now [the prices] are finally affordable again," Mr. del Rey says. "The party is over."

Still, many worry about the long-term effects of the policies Maduro is pledging to pass.

"While it could give them [Maduro's socialist party] a bump in the polls, it's a very risky strategy," says Mr. Smilde.

Referencing a Spanish proverb, Smilde adds, "Bread today, hunger tomorrow."

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