High-ranking employees at Venezuelan state firms who oppose President Nicolás Maduro will face a steep price for their perceived disloyalty: their jobs.
In what appears to be a sign of growing worry within the government that a recall push to oust Maduro could succeed, he has ordered a purge of management-level employees at five key government ministries, a spokesman said.
Jorge Rodríguez, the leader of the ruling United Socialist Party, or PSUV, said Maduro has directed top officials to fire any underlings whose names appear on the petition drive to back a recall vote that could force the unpopular president from office.
"They have a period of 48 hours to make sure workers in trusted positions, in leadership roles, find other jobs," Rodríguez said Monday.
He said the jobs were too important to be entrusted to those "who oppose the government."
The leader of the opposition United Democratic Roundtable party, or MUD, Jesús Torrealba, said Rodríguez should be investigated for his statement, likening it to political "blackmail and extortion."
"It's a violation of the constitutional right to express one's political opinions," Torrealba said Tuesday in a radio interview.
Oil-rich Venezuela is facing its most severe financial crisis in decades, but Maduro and the PSUV blame the situation on an "economic war" waged by his domestic rivals and enemies abroad. Maduro's term does not expire until 2019, but amid chronic shortages of food and medicine, the opposition has been gathering signatures on behalf of the recall drive to force new elections this year.
Maduro has ruled out a recall vote in 2016 and is trying to hang on as long as possible. If held next year, a recall vote would not trigger a new election and would simply put his vice president in charge. The PSUV would remain in power.
Electoral officials, who are nominally independent but widely perceived to be government loyalists, have slowed the opposition push for a vote in 2016. Torrealba and other MUD leaders are organizing a march on Sept. 1 to demand that the vote go forward this year — one possible reason for the latest test of allegiance to Maduro.
"Government employees now represent the backbone of Maduro's coalition, and their loyalty is essential for its survival," said David Smilde, a Venezuela analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"This is a message to all state employees that the government will not tolerate any lack of unity or any collaboration with the recall effort," said Smilde, who has spent eight months living in Caracas.
The public sector accounts for a significant number of formal jobs in oil-rich Venezuela, where more than 2 million employees work for the state. Rodríguez said the government had already compiled a registry of names of workers who will be sacked, delivering the blacklist to the food, basic industry, finance and labor ministries as well as the office of the president.
Such retaliatory measures are nothing new to Venezuelans, nor are requirements of political fealty as a precondition to well-paid government jobs. Perhaps a bigger surprise would be the presence of Maduro opponents in any of those positions.
Maduro officials have urged government loyalists to inform on other Venezuelans who meet with opposition groups or their supporters.