Venezuelan VP slams criticisms of economy

‘URGENT NEED’::Business leaders said Caracas’ bad policies were unbalancing the economy, which Vice President Nicolas Maduro called a ploy to destabilize the nation

Reuters, CARACAS

Mon, Jan 21, 2013 - Page 7

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro hit out at the country’s business leaders on Saturday, saying they were seeking to destabilize the country while cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez fights to recover from surgery.

Chavez has not been seen in public nor heard from in five weeks since his latest operation in Cuba and his heir apparent has taken on an increasingly visible role as the face of the government in the OPEC nation.

Accused by the opposition of presiding over a troubled economy afflicted by 20 percent inflation and shortages that the authorities blame on hoarders, Maduro rejects the charges as part of a malicious campaign against Chavez’s leftist project.

The main private sector chamber, Fedecamaras, complained recently about the “urgent need” to address growing economic imbalances that it said were caused by insecurity, instability and misguided policies. That provoked a stern response from the government.

“It takes your breath away, the hate they have for the Venezuelan people,” Maduro said during a televised tour of a market selling state-subsidized food.

“Get lost, Fedecamaras! Here we have a revolutionary government that is going to continue pursuing hoarders, as well as the badness, intrigue and lies which you represent ... there is a psychological war to demoralize and confuse our people,” he said.

In Chavez’s absence, former bus driver-turned-minister of foreign affairs Maduro has increasingly swapped his business suits for the casual tracksuits favored by his boss. However, he has struggled to replicate the president’s powerful folksy charisma.

For his latest Chavez-like state television appearance, he adopted something of a greengrocer’s manner at the open-air market in Carabobo State, inspecting pastries, holding aloft vegetables and remarking on the freshness of fish.

“Just in today ... so tasty, we only have this quality for you!” Maduro told a crowd of shoppers, many of whom wore red Socialist Party T-shirts and chanted: “We are Chavez,” “The people are with you” and “[The opposition] won’t return.”

Major policy decisions appear to be on hold while Chavez, 58, battles to return after his fourth cancer operation in just 18 months. That includes the question of devaluation of the bolivar currency that local economists say is long overdue.

A devaluation would increase state revenue from oil sales, but would also push up prices. In late 2011, Chavez’s government extended controls that regulate prices of products ranging from meat to deodorant, while fixing profit margins.

That kept a lid on prices during last year despite blow-out government spending on popular welfare programs that helped Chavez win a new presidential term in October last year and helped Socialist Party candidates triumph in 20 of the country’s 23 states at a gubernatorial vote last month.

A devaluation would also slow capital flight and would ensure that merchants have US dollars to import basic products, such as wheat flour, that have disappeared sporadically in recent weeks.

Opposition leaders are increasingly critical of what they say is a policy paralysis that has been caused by a reluctance among top officials to make decisions in Chavez’s absence.

Outside of a shopping mall in a wealthy Caracas neighborhood on Saturday, an opposition activist asked a crowd if they had had problems with shortages.

“Who couldn’t find sugar this week? Who went from shop to shop looking for meat or chicken?” he asked, as most people put up their hands. “Things are much worse in the countryside.”

Meanwhile, surrounded by tables laden with produce in Carabobo, Maduro introduced the country’s representative to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Marcelo Resende de Souza, who said that there are 800 million hungry people in the world.

“But none of them are Venezuelan because there is food security here,” he said, as Maduro nodded and the crowd cheered.

If Chavez were to step down or die, a new election would be called within 30 days with Maduro as the ruling party candidate.