CARACAS, Venezuela — Venezuela’s legislature on Tuesday gave President Nicolás Maduro decree powers that he says are necessary for an “economic offensive” against the spiraling inflation and food shortages buffeting the country’s economy ahead of important municipal elections.
The 50-year-old former union activist and bus driver, who succeeded Hugo Chávez after the mercurial leader died of cancer in March, secured just enough votes for the measure to pass after a dissident lawmaker was recently stripped of her seat. Opponents warned that Maduro, who blames the economic crisis on private businessmen conniving with agents of the U.S. government, is leading Venezuela to ruin while trampling on individual liberties.
“We are going to consolidate this economic offensive,” Maduro said shortly after the vote, explaining to viewers on national television that he accepted the new powers in the name of his mentor. “Mission completed, Comandante Hugo Chávez!”
The government has recently taken extreme measures to slow the country’s 54 percent annual inflation rate, one of the world’s highest, and end widespread shortages of toilet paper, milk, cooking oil and other basic goods. The local currency is also in a free fall, skyrocketing to more than 60 bolivars to the U.S. dollar on the black market, 10 times the official rate.
Earlier this month, after railing against “bourgeois parasites,” Maduro ordered troops to take over a major electronics store chain and force managers to sell goods ranging from plasma TVs to stereos at bargain-basement prices.
“Let nothing be left on the shelves,” Maduro told Venezuelans at the time.
The government also slashed prices at appliance dealers, auto-mechanic stores and toy shops, prompting a rush on businesses across the country as shoppers hunted for bargains. Dozens of businessmen were arrested, accused of speculating and hoarding supplies.
“They are barbaric, these capitalist parasites,” Maduro said, using the same combative language his predecessor had wielded against opponents.
Chávez, a bombastic orator who set Venezuela on a collision course with the United States, frequently used decree powers during his rule to push through radical economic and political changes in his efforts to remake Venezuela into a socialist country.
With the ability to pass laws without congressional approval for up to a year, Maduro said that he would move fast to restrict profit margins and introduce other changes to the economy. The government’s plans have rattled entrepreneurs, who during nearly 15 years of leftist populist rule have seen 1,000 businesses expropriated while facing a raft of intrusive government edicts.
Massive state spending, much of it in the form of handouts to followers, has generated growth and won supporters for the self-styled revolutionary government. But Venezuela’s opposition leaders say the policies are not sustainable.
“You have ruined, persecuted and expropriated,” María Corina Machado, a lawmaker and one of Maduro’s toughest adversaries, said during Tuesday’s hearing. “Everything you touch you ruin. Everything you touch you asphyxiate and corrupt. This has generated unemployment, shortages, pain and misery in Venezuela.”
The government, in turn, lashed out at opponents from the Democratic Unity Table, or MUD in its Spanish acronym, accusing its members of orchestrating a destabilization campaign. “I ask everyone, why does MUD reject the actions I took to lower prices?” Maduro said via his Twitter account. “Because they invent lies.”
Economists, though, say that government interventions have squelched investment, forcing Venezuela increasingly to import products from across Latin America and from the United States. And currency controls, which opponents say often favor those close to the seat of power, have only driven up costs as businesses are forced to go to the black market for the dollars needed to pay for imports.
Although Venezuela is one of the world’s major oil powers, having generated billions of dollars for Chávez and Maduro to funnel to social programs, economists say the state oil company is so financially hobbled it is unable to extricate the country from its economic doldrums.
Mauricio Roitman, an economist at the Central University of Venezuela, said the government’s latest measures were designed more to shore up Maduro than to fix the economy. “You can’t blame others for the mistakes that you make,” he said.
Still, forcing businessmen to slash prices has struck a chord that could help buoy the government ahead of the Dec. 8 elections for mayors and city council members.
Anthony Smith, 36, who was waiting in line outside an electronics store, was pleased with the measures. “You can save like 60 percent,” he said with a smile, explaining that he thought the government’s plans would improve the economy. “The measure should continue.”
Another shopper, Isneda Uribe, 47, said she was able to buy a washing machine at a third of the listed price. “Supposedly they are going to maintain these prices,” she said, as she stood in line for her sister.
Luis Vicente León, a political analyst and pollster, said that Maduro, whom many see as a lesser leader than his predecessor, is looking to “present himself as being stronger, and that he is accompanying the people in this crisis.”
“This is to demolish the idea that he is weak,” León said. “He does this with populist actions that can connect him to the people.”
Forero reported from Bogota, Colombia.