BOGOTA, Colombia — It has been two months since Venezuelans have seen or heard their ailing president. But the administration insists that the cancer-stricken comandante is firmly in control of Latin America’s fourth-largest economy, even if he is incommunicado in a Cuban hospital.
On Friday — hours before the nation was headed into a four-day holiday for carnival — the government announced it was devaluing the currency by 46.5 percent to 6.3 bolivares to the dollar. The move was needed but is likely to be unpopular as it will jack up prices in a country heavily reliant on imports. It’s also unclear how much of a difference it will make: dollars are so scarce in Venezuela that most people are forced to turn to the black market, where greenbacks fetch three to four times the official rate.
The devaluation comes almost two months after President Hugo Chavez traveled to Havana for a fourth round of cancer surgery. The administration says the 58-year-old leader is on the mend, but doubts persist. Since he climbed the steps to the presidential aircraft Dec. 10, the usually garrulous leader has been completely silent. The only proof of life is an occasional signature — scrawled in red ink — that the administration puts on display.
On Friday, Vice President Nicolas Maduro said he had met with Chavez in Cuba and that the leader wanted to send the nation a message: “That we need to make a great effort to keep up the economic growth.”
Chavez’s absence seems to have emboldened his allies.
Over the last week, Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello have gone on the attack, accusing their political foes of plotting their assassination, conspiring with foreign powers, and corruption.
“These unprecedented attacks are the product of the institutional crisis: It has been more than 60 days since we’ve known anything about the president of the republic,” Gustavo Marcano, the national coordinator of the opposition party First Justice, told The Miami Herald. “They’re trying to divide the opposition.”
Marcano has been at the eye of the storm. During a raucous congressional session Tuesday, Cabello displayed oversized checks and payroll statements they said were proof that Marcano and his First Justice colleague Richard Mardo are corrupt.
“This is nothing personal,” Cabello said. “This is an accusation against a mafia organization, a cartel that has used politics to do business.”
Both Mardo and Marcano say the accusations are trumped up and that their real target is Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles, one of the founders of First Justice, who ran against Chavez in October.
If the president were to step down or die it would trigger new elections within 30 days, and many see Capriles, 40, as the most likely challenger to take on a Chavez successor.
“We all know that they’re not after Mardo or Marcano,” Capriles told a crowd this week. “They’re coming after me.”
New elections would be a challenge for an opposition that has fared poorly in recent national and local races. But the administration is facing obstacles, too, including soaring inflation, food shortages and a terrifying crime rate. Friday’s devaluation is likely to add to the sense of economic malaise.
Chavez has managed to overcome those problems — and win an additional six-year term — largely due to his connection with the masses and legendary charisma, said Herbert Koeneke, a political science professor at Caracas’ Simon Bolivar University. But Maduro doesn’t have those charms and seems to be ramping up the rhetoric to compensate, he said.
“Why this new round of (verbal) violence we’ve been seeing? They’re trying to prove that if Chavez can’t be president for another term, then his substitute is going to be equally hard-line,” Koeneke said. “They’re trying to intimidate the opposition.”
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It seems to be working. In the midst of Tuesday’s congressional meeting, Deputy Hernan Nunez declared he was switching allegiance to the ruling PSUV party and then accused his onetime opposition allies of cronyism.
The latest administration offensive began a week ago, when Capriles traveled to Colombia to meet with Spanish socialist and former president Felipe Gonzalez. That same day, Maduro took the airwaves.
“If they went there (Colombia) to sabotage the economy, bring in paramilitaries to assassinate in our country, and to look for money that comes from laundering and corruption, here we have a government that will work with an iron fist to stop any conspiracy or treason against the country,” Maduro said.
On Feb. 4, when the administration celebrated the 21st anniversary of Chavez’s failed attempt to overthrow the government of Carlos Andres Perez, Maduro announced that the administration was adopting the red, blue and yellow baseball cap as its symbol. Capriles wore the tricolor cap throughout his presidential campaign and it’s intrinsically associated with the opposition. Maduro’s move was akin to the U.S. Democratic Party rolling out an elephant as its new mascot.
The following day in congress, the broadside against the First Justice deputies began.
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Marcano said the accusations are ridiculous. The charge brought against him — that he had phantom employees on the payroll — had previously been tried and dismissed in the courts, he said. His colleague Mardo is facing allegations that he accepted millions in illegal campaign donations. He claims the donations were legitimate and passed along to his constituents.
“This is all part of a dirty tricks campaign,” Marcano said. “But we’re not going to flee the country and they are not going to muzzle us.”