Maduro pressed to drop ‘magic’ focus on ‘realism’

April 15, 2013

Nicolas Maduro’s election campaign was rich in magical realism, designed to bedazzle voters.

Banking on sympathy votes after Hugo Chavez died of cancer last month, and confident he would don his mentor’s socialist revolutionary mantle, Maduro conjured visions that blurred fantasy and fact, evoking the genre that Latin American literary giants Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges had popularized.

But many Venezuelans were less impressed by his flights of fantasy than they were frustrated by a lack of initiatives to address myriad crises ‑ including food shortages, power blackouts, rampant crime and inflation. After Sunday’s election, which delivered the narrowest electoral victory in Venezuela in 50 years, Maduro is under intense pressure to drop the magical and focus on the realism that is wearing thin the patience of his people and threatening the stability of the OPEC nation.

The campaign planks of the former bus driver, union organizer and foreign minister capitalized on Chavez with a series of tales.

Chapter 1: Maduro said Chavez may have had a hand in Christ’s decision to anoint Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pope. “Something influenced the choice of a South American pope,” Maduro said, “someone new arrived at Christ’s side and said to him: ‘Well, it seems to us South America’s time has come.’”)

Chapter 2: He said Chavez appeared to him in the form of a bird, flew into a small chapel where he was praying, whistled and blessed him. On the campaign, Maduro broke into birdsong and sported a hat with a model bird perched on it.

Chapter 3: Maduro warned rivals that they would befall the curse of Macarapana, a 16th century massacre of indigenous tribes by Spanish colonial troops, if they voted against him.

Chapter 4: He claimed there was a U.S. plot to kill his opposition rival so that the murder would be blamed on the government and it would trigger a coup ahead of the election. Washington denied the claim, and one person he accused labeled the charge “outrageous.”

Venezuelans, who gave Chavez an 11-percentage-point margin of victory over state governor Henrique Capriles in elections just six months ago, were less willing to back his anointed successor. Sunday, Maduro edged Capriles by a margin of a mere 1.6 points. Maduro agreed to a recount, but the electoral authority gave no indication whether or when this would occur.

In a country already polarized by Chavismo’s mixed success, such a weak mandate erodes the legitimacy of Maduro to lead a disparate ruling alliance that includes oil executives, military officers and slum leaders. Maduro has neither the military background nor the charisma of Chavez, who led for 14 years.

“The unpredictable narrow margin of the election results has proven how volatile the political scenario is,” said Venezuelan political analyst Diego Moya-Ocampos. “The death of Chavez was a game changer that is leading to the gradual reorganization of political power in Venezuela, in which the armed forces will play a key role behind the scenes.”

While Maduro takes the reins of a country with the world’s largest oil reserves, the economic challenges loom large and his ability to act is constrained.

Economic growth is slowing. Pre-election spending in 2012 powered growth of 5.6 percent last year. But private economists say that may fall to 2 percent or less in 2013.

Inflation, at about 22 percent, is one of the highest in the Americas and threatens to climb further. A promise to raise the minimum wage by more than 40 percent will put upward pressure on prices, as two currency devaluations, which are making imports more expensive, already have in recent months. The devaluations, as well as price controls, have caused shortages of staple foods.

In addition, currency controls have limited the availability of dollars to companies that need to import key items to sustain, let alone grow, their businesses.

Underinvestment in state companies, such as oil firm PDVSA and other recently nationalized firms, have left the companies operating below capacity.

Maduro won’t be able to count on endless oil dollars. About 95 percent of export earnings come from oil, which makes up 45 percent of government revenue. But servicing Venezuela’s debt and doling out social handouts at home and cheap oil to allies like Cuba, is creating huge deficit headaches.

While there are no official statistics for the government’s budget deficit, estimates range from 7 percent to 19 percent of gross domestic product. If so, that would put Venezuela’s fiscal gap on a level with some troubled euro-zone nations.

Fears about personal safety regularly top polls about voters’ concerns. Murders, armed robberies and kidnappings make Venezuela one of the most dangerous countries in world. During the campaign, Maduro vowed to go on foot, unarmed into the toughest slums of Caracas and ask the gangs to lay down their guns.

Maduro’s bravura was, to Capriles, nothing short of fantasy.

“Do you think Nicolas is going to solve the violence problems?” Capriles asked. “It’s not opening your jacket and saying, ‘I’m Superman and I’m going to go I don’t know where.’ I’d like to leave my house at 11, 12 o’clock at night, for my children to be able to go out and not to be terrified. Can we do that today? Can we live like that? No.”


PHOTO (Top): Venezuela’s acting President and presidential candidate Nicolas Maduro wears a hat with a bird during a campaign rally in the state of Vargas, April 9, 2013. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

PHOTO (Insert A): Nobel Prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez listens to a speech during a journalism seminar in Monterrey September 1, 2008. REUTERS/Tomas Bravo

PHOTO (Insert B): Venezuela’s opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles attends a campaign rally in San Felipe in the state of Yaracuy September 26, 2012. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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