CARACAS, Venezuela – Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has declared an economic emergency in the country, which is experiencing its most turbulent period since the early 1990s as the price of oil, its most prized commodity, continues to plunge.
The measure, which will allow Maduro to rule by decree for a period of 60 days on economic issues, came just before his annual State of the Union speech, which was delivered before a National Assembly that was filled with an opposition majority for the first time since 1999.
Luis Salas, the recently named Economic Minister, read the decree over national television and radio.
The points outlined that the government has the power to revise the national budget, establish measures to avoid endemic tax evasion, expedite the processes of importation of necessary products and supplies (by suspending certain customs requirements and fees), jumpstart national production by major industries and incorporate small and medium producers at every level and make certain exemptions in monetary exchanges.
The decree itself must be debated and approved or rejected by the unicameral National Assembly and the Constitutional Court by this Saturday, January 23.
Shortly after the decree was made, Maduro went before the very same National Assembly amid a hostile environment to bid goodbye to a “catastrophic” 2015, a year which saw the economy shrink by well over four percent and inflation hover between 60 percent earlier in the year to over 140 percent in the fourth trimester, the highest figure in the world.
Noting the problems ahead, Maduro asked the “businesspeople, mayors, governors and other representatives of public powers to form a debate group called the ‘National Council for a Productive Economy’ that would seek solutions to Venezuela’s economic problems.”
Maduro finished the nearly three-hour-long speech by calling for “peace and unity to prevail” in order to make the “rebirth of Venezuela” a possibility in one of the increasingly common signs of reconciliation and cooperation after initial heavy friction following the opposition’s big parliamentary win just weeks ago.
On December 6 of 2015, the opposition’s Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) coalition won big in the parliamentary elections, securing control of the 167-seat unicameral National Assembly by winning 112 seats.
Henry Ramos Allup, head of the centrist Democratic Action party, became the new head of the National Assembly where it was made known that the MUD would have an absolute majority after having passed the necessary threshold of two-thirds of the seats.
The 72-year-old lawyer is now tasked with “changing the government,” to use his words, as President Nicolás Maduro of the center-left United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and his Ministers are still mandated to remain in power until 2019.
Thus, the aims of the MUD are now to initiate some sort of mechanism that will attempt to recall or impeach Maduro before his term expires and call for early elections, and Ramos Allup has already announced that he would approve a parliamentary investigation into Maduro’s decisions and actions.
The absolute majority the MUD enjoyed has now been reduced to a simple majority; three parliamentarians who were still under investigation by the National Electoral Council (CNE) for irregularities in their electoral victories were sworn in as representatives, thus violated the national law and constitution.
In response, the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ) made the decision to hold the National Assembly in contempt, which meant that all acts passed by the body would be ruled void. The three lawmakers in question then stepped down from their posts temporarily until their respective investigations are finished in order to overcome the barrier.
The change in the number of MUD representatives in the National Assembly has now moved from 112 to 109, meaning that the absolute majority the opposition enjoyed briefly is gone and so are certain powers that come with that absolute majority, like the ability to pass constitutional amendments (that could cut short Maduro’s term) and far-reaching reforms and to name new judges to the Supreme Court that would vote in the opposition’s favor.
In any case, the MUD still holds a majority in the National Assembly (and in the opinions of most Venezuelans today) and wields considerable power. Indeed, Ramos Allup said last week that the “elections had an element of a punishment vote, and if the government does not want to be punished again, it will need to correct the course.”
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that Maduro has toned down his harsh rhetoric toward the opposition and has begun asking for cooperation and support from “all the honest men and women in Venezuela, starting with those in the National Assembly.”
As the President of the National Assembly, Ramos Allup customarily took to the podium after Maduro spoke to offer his response. He was met with jeers and whistles from the PSUV representatives, just as Maduro was by those from the opposition when he spoke. “Cover your ears or leave the assembly hall because I will say what I need to say,” Ramos Allup said early in his 33-minute rebuttal.
Ramos Allup criticized Maduro for his “generic ideas” concerning the economy and his earlier criticisms of the opposition: “Make no mistake, this (the National Assembly) is now an autonomous constitutional power that will will discuss and legislate with the power that it is constitutionally guaranteed,” he said.
Like Maduro, however, Ramos Allup’s discourse then took on a more reconciliatory tone when he said that the opposition was willing to study the emergency economic decree that it must decide upon, but he added that the MUD would require more information from Maduro and his ministers about the decree’s contents so that it can be scrutinized thoroughly.
“You, Mr. President, inherited a very difficult economic situation. Now we just have to put our feet on the ground and try to resolve between us this difficult situation in which we find ourselves,” Ramos Allup said.
Regarding the call for cooperation from Maduro, Ramos Allup said that “if there is rectification of the situation and a will for sincere dialogue, then we are willing to have a seat at the table.” He added that this “dialogue is welcome on our part but only if it is permanent.”
In the December election, the PSUV lost their majority in the National Assembly for the first time since 1999 (back when their coalition was known as the Fifth Republic Movement). Led by the iconic Hugo Chávez, his “Bolivarian Revolution” was immensely popular in Venezuela for well over a decade but a series of developments over the last several years severely damaged its popularity and reputation.
Fed up with issues like high inflation, shortages, high crime rates, insecurity and what they deem to be political repression, the populace of Venezuela has been increasingly turning away from the party, especially since the death of Chávez in March of 2013 and the subsequent worsening economic situation in the country, brought about mostly by the sharp fall of oil prices and other commodities.
For those same reasons, various anti-government groups and opposition leaders took to the streets on February 12, 2014, and the violent march that ensued ended in three dead and hundreds injured. The demonstrations, organized and led by opposition figure Leopoldo López, intensified for several weeks thereafter and left 43 Venezuelans dead (mostly security figures) before calm returned to the nation.
López, who was already banned from serving in a public office in 2008 after he orchestrated similar demonstrations that ended in violence, was a decisive character among the opposition. With a shady past as he was implicated for receiving illegal promotions and kickbacks within the state oil company due to his mother’s long-held political connections, and his fiery anti-dialogue demeanor, López divided the opposition.
In September of 2015, López was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison for his part in the disturbances after having been detained at the Ramo Verde military prison in the interior of the country, some 35 kilometers (22 miles) south of Greater Caracas in the town of Los Teques, since February 18 of 2014.
After López’s sentence, however, the fractured opposition only further unified and solidified their respective voting blocks for December’s ultimately successful elections. The MUD is planning to propose a bill very soon that will seek to free “political prisoners” across the country including López, a bill that will surely test the two sides’ newfound cooperative spirit.