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April 23, 2014
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Chávez’s charm replaced by Maduro’s muscle

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro holds a document approving a new law called “The Fatherland Project,” presented by the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez during the 2012 presidential campaign, at Miraflores Palace in Caracas earlier this week.
By Anatoly Kurmanaev & Corina Pons
Bloomberg News

Venezuelan president switches to strong-arm tactics ahead of Sunday’s crucial elections

CARACAS — 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 lowered 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.

“Maduro inherited Chávez’s power but not his great skill to communicate with the masses and his charisma,” Andres Canizalez, a professor of Communication at Venezuela's Catholic University, said in a phone interview in Caracas. “That void has been replaced by more authoritarianism and censorship.”

Maduro has stepped up intervention after his approval rating fell to 41 percent in September from 47 the previous month, Barclays said in a November 12 report, citing a poll, which the Caracas-based Datanalisis polling firm declined to make public. His approval rating rose to 50 percent in November, Bank of America said yesterday in a note to clients.

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 Datanalisis. Price cuts allowed Maduro to present himself as a man of action, rather than words, Leon said.

‘MABURRO’

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 September 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 August 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 at the Catholic University.

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.

“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.

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.

“Chávez 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.”

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.

“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. “We are heading toward even greater instability after the elections.”

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