CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has sent troops into the streets, clamped down on the press and sidestepped Congress to intensify what he calls the war against the “parasitic bourgeoisie” ahead of local elections.
The opposition says Sunday’s vote to elect 337 mayors and 2,455 councilors is a referendum on Maduro, as Venezuelans cope with the fastest inflation in the world, blackouts, water cuts and a surge in violence. Maduro says the vote is a chance to show loyalty to the late President Hugo Chávez, who reduced poverty by more than half in his 14-year tenure.
Maduro’s answer to inflation has been to deploy soldiers to enforce price cuts in electronic stores last month and seize an Irish-owned packaging company last week, saying companies can’t overcharge consumers. He has also pledged to lower prices for cars and commercial rent, warning business owners that he is “going all the way” after lawmakers gave him the power to rule by decree last month.
“Maduro inherited Chávez’s power but not his great skill to communicate with the masses and his charisma,” Andrés Cañizález, a professor of Communication at Venezuela’s Catholic University and director of the media advocacy group Monitoreo Ciudadano, said in a phone interview in Caracas. “That void has been replaced by more authoritarianism and censorship.”
As banks from JP Morgan Chase to Barclays have warned investors of the risks from economic imbalances produced by currency and price controls, yields on Venezuela’s benchmark bonds due in 2027 hit a two-year high of 13.8 on Dec. 3. Venezuela’s average yield has increased 5 percentage points since Maduro was election on April 14.
Maduro has stepped up intervention after his approval rating fell to 41 percent in September from 47 the previous month, Barclays said in a Nov. 12 report, citing a poll, which the Caracas-based Datanálisis polling firm declined to make public. His approval rating rose to 50 percent in November, Bank of America said Friday in a note to clients, citing a Datanalisis poll.
While presenting himself as a “son of Chávez,” Maduro hasn’t been able to match the charm of his mentor, who punctuated his speeches with jokes and anecdotes, said Luis Vicente León, director of Datanálisis. Price cuts allowed Maduro to present himself as a man of action, rather than words, León said in Caracas Dec. 5.
His gaffes have earned him the nickname Maburro in social media, a pun on the Spanish word for mule. Last month in a televised speech, while admonishing business owners for usury, he said capitalists “speculated and robbed just like us.” On Sept. 15, he fell off a bike on live television during a Sunday ride with his wife and ministers.
He said his gaffes were deliberate to keep people listening. “I’m not as much of a brute as they say,” Maduro said on TV Aug. 16.
In his battle to improve his popularity, Maduro appears on television an average of 90 minutes a day, compared with Chávez’s average of 50 minutes, according to data compiled by Marcelino Bisbal, director of media studies at the Catholic University.
In a televised address on Nov. 23, Maduro said the measures he implemented should slow inflation and asked government statisticians to “go beyond the technicalities and technology” when calculating the consumer price index.
The decision to force price cuts may win Maduro support in this weekend’s election, while deepening the country’s economic woes, Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University, said by phone from Baltimore Dec. 4.
“Since the day of my inauguration, the parasitic bourgeoisie has not let up for one second in its war to destroy me, to fill the people with hate toward me, as they did with Comandante Chávez, sabotaging the economy, agitating the country,” Maduro said in October.
Annual inflation quickened to 54 percent in October, the fastest pace in 16 years. At the same time, the central bank’s scarcity index, which measures the amount of goods out of stock at any given time, rose to 22.4 percent as customers searched for milk, antibiotics and tires. Venezuela produces a third of the goods it needs, according to industry association Consecomercio.
In his last presidential run, in October 2012, Chávez won 55 percent of the vote. Maduro fell short of that mark in the April presidential election, winning 50.6 percent, while opposition candidate Henrique Capriles received 49.1 percent.
While Maduro increases his use of media, Capriles is being shut out. Speeches by the opposition leader are not broadcast by any television channel in the country.
In August, six journalists quit Globovision, the country’s main news channel, in protest over alleged interference by Maduro’s government. The station stopped airing live speeches by Capriles after changing owners in May.
As Maduro criticized private newspapers for covering shortages and violence, 20 legal actions were brought against journalists and private media companies from January to October, up from four in 2012, according to the Caracas-based Institute of Press and Society, a group that advocates free press.
“Chavez felt more sure of himself than Maduro and because of this allowed an outlet for dissident voices,” said Canizalez. “Nowadays, Capriles’ message is only heard on Twitter and some nighttime news bulletins” on television.
Information Ministry spokesman Raimundo Urrechaga and presidential spokesman Rafael Marquez declined to comment on the media strategy, elections and economic measures.
Maduro has surrounded himself with celebrities as part of his campaigning strategy. Magglio Ordonez, a multi-millionaire former Major League Baseball star, was appointed by him to run for mayor in Puerto la Cruz, the nation’s fifth biggest city. Pop star Antonio ‘El Potro’ Alvarez, who married two Miss Venezuelas, is running for the top job in the Caracas’ borough of Sucre.
The opposition’s refusal to recognize Maduro’s narrow victory in April has left the president no option but to respond toughly to his critics, said Miguel Tinker Salas, professor of Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
“A measured response would’ve been preferred but in the context of the elections and national polarization there’s a logic to his actions,” he said by telephone on Dec. 3.
The latest example of the government’s tougher tactic came on Nov. 24 when Capriles campaign official Alejandro Silva said he was pulled out of a hotel room in Caracas at 1:40 a.m. by plainclothes police and detained for 16 hours without charge. “For me it was a common kidnapping,” Silva said in an emailed comment. Venezuela’s attorney general Luisa Ortega Diaz said Silva was held as a witness, without providing details.
Miami Herald reporter Jim Wyss and filmmaker Tim Tracy, both U.S. citizens, were temporarily detained under Maduro’s government after trying to cover subjects including product shortages and opposition parties.
“I don’t think Maduro understands the negative economic and social impact of his actions,” Riordan Roett, director of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins, said by phone from Washington on Dec. 3. “We are heading toward even greater instability after the elections.”
With assistance from Nathan Crooks in Caracas.
© 2013, Bloomberg News