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In socialist Venezuela, a threat from the left

June 26, 2014

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Already grappling with street protests led by the right, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is facing a new threat from an unlikely place: old-school leftists who accuse him of betraying the socialist legacy that carried him to power.

Maduro was tapped by Hugo Chavez as his preferred successor to the presidency, and is quick to invoke the late leader’s name, but orthodox socialists are grumbling over liberalized currency reforms they say are counter to the revolution.

The tensions came to a head last week when Maduro fired Planning Minister Jorge Giordani, a Marxist economist whose Spartan lifestyle and anti-capitalist doctrine earned him the nickname “the Monk.” Giordani is not going into forced retirement quietly.

In a lengthy tract published on several websites, he has accused Maduro of undoing Chavez’s gains and failing to control his administration, implying corruption and incompetence. It is, he said, “painful and alarming to see a Presidency that does not convey leadership.”

This high-profile criticism joins with public complaints from union representatives and former Chavez advisers who have turned Aporrea, a popular pro-government website for policy discussion, into a forum for increasingly blunt attacks on the presidency.

Charges that Maduro is mishandling Chavez’s legacy have the potential to do real damage. The former bus driver and union leader squeaked out a narrow electoral victory by riding the tide of admiration and mourning that followed Chavez’s death from cancer last year.

If Maduro loses support of the ideological left, he will be hard-pressed to continue reforms aimed at extracting the country from a widening spiral of economic chaos, said Max Cameron, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia.

“This is one of his biggest problems,” Cameron said.

That’s saying a lot.

Maduro is confronting a host of troubles as he moves into his second year in office: Opposition protests have left 43 dead by the official count; Venezuela’s bolivar has lost more than half its value during his term; and essential items such as toilet paper and flour have become impossible to find with any regularity.

A lack of foreign currency has forced many of Venezuela’s largest automakers to halt operations because they’re unable to import parts. The lack of work has emboldened a coalition of auto workers, who last week wrote to Maduro warning they would defend their right to their jobs as fervently as they have defended the revolution.

Even pro-government militias are joining the chorus of complaints. Earlier this month, a coalition of so-called “colectivos” issued a press release calling on Venezuela’s socialist party to choose its leaders more democratically.

Mexico-based economist Heinz Dieterich, a one-time close Chavez advisor, posted an open letter Tuesday saying Giordani’s positions may have been outdated, but that doesn’t mean the administration will be better off without him.

“The workers are starting to despair and become radicalized because of the ineptitude and inaction of the government,” he wrote.

There are signs that Maduro supporters are moving to quell the critics.

Former Chavez energy minister Hector Navarro, who publicly called for an investigation into claims Giordani made of corruption, said late Tuesday that he’d been stripped of his leadership role in the socialist party and referred to a disciplinary board.

For his part, Maduro has ignored much of the criticism as he pushes for reforms he says are essential to stabilize the economy.

Over the last year, Venezuela’s central bank has rolled out several new parallel foreign exchange rates, which critics call stealth currency devaluations. In March, the bank launched a supply-and-demand based system that offered dollars for eight times the official price. The free-floating currency system, intended to curb the black market, allows individuals and companies to participate in daily trading. Recently, Maduro’s advisers have signaled that they may unify the various exchange rates into a single system.

Maduro argues that the revolution must continue to seek new answers, though he appears to be loosening restrictions grudgingly, as a last resort. And, as is common when threats to his leadership arise, the president has responded to critics by invoking the memory of Chavez.

On Wednesday, he addressed his detractors directly, calling them “stale and tired leftists.”

“I am just a son of Chavez trying to complete the task he left me in an honest, humble way, working every day to stay loyal,” he said.

Still, the undercurrents of discontent are likely to rankle him in ways the opposition marches have not.

Those protests have not posed a serious threat to Maduro’s hold on power because the military remains loyal, according to Risa Grais-Targow, an analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Eurasia Group.

But with Maduro’s approval ratings slipping below 40 percent, any fracturing in his coalition will make it harder for him to make pragmatic, potentially-painful policy decisions.

“He was already weak and now he’s weaker,” Grais-Targow said. “He’s afraid of rocking the boat: People can say ‘You’re betraying Chavismo.’”


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