Jan 16, 2015 7:35 PM

Venezuela crisis deepens as Maduro seeks support abroad

The Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) When Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro returns from an urgent fundraising trip that has taken him to seven nations, he'll find his oil-dependent economy teetering on the edge and desperate countrymen searching empty store shelves for basic goods.

In the two weeks Maduro has bounced around the globe seeking help, the government has deployed soldiers to prevent stampedes and looting at markets while business leaders have warned that food stocks will run out by early March. Political opponents are rallying supporters and foreign investors are bracing for a potential default.

The crisis is the worst since the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez, Maduro's predecessor who launched the country's socialist revolution after winning the presidency in 1998.

"For 15 years, we've been hearing that the country is collapsing. But never before have we had an economic, political and social crisis at the same time," said Dimitris Pantoulas, a Caracas-based political consultant.

About 95 percent of the money Venezuela earns from exports comes from its oil sales. This week, prices for Venezuela's heavier crude fell below $40 a barrel for the first time since 2008, a decline of more than half since September.

"The true ideology of Chavismo is a single number: the price of oil," said Alberto Barrera Tyszka, author of a 2004 biography of Chavez. "Now that the money is running out, the only way to stay in power is by reducing democracy more controls, more censorship, more repression."

Venezuela's crisis has been long in the making. Even before collapsing oil prices strangled its foreign revenue stream, the country was stuck in a year-old recession and its inflation rate raced toward triple digits. A Datanalisis poll last month showed popular support of Maduro had fallen to 22 percent, the lowest since he took office in 2013.

Maduro announced his Jan. 4 trip with only a few hours' notice and along the way has surprised many Venezuelans by adding stops, including a second visit to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin. In Beijing he touted a $20 billion infusion of Chinese investments, and while in Qatar announced a new financial alliance. His quest also has taken him to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria. On Friday, he touched down in Portugal en route home, where supporters promised to greet him with a rally at the presidential palace.

Maduro says the harried shuttle diplomacy is securing the financial "oxygen" Venezuela needs. But observers aren't so optimistic. Investors have been driving up the cost of insurance to protect against what they see as almost certain default.

A sense of desperation is palpable in Caracas, where some schools this week advised parents to pack toilet paper in their children's backpacks and at least one executive-class hotel told guests to bring their own detergent if they want laundry services.

The government has deployed the military to maintain order in daylong lines snaking around blocks and has implemented rationing at government-run supermarkets where prices are capped. Goods also have become harder to find on the normally thriving black market, a sign that the government is holding onto dollars earned from oil sales rather than deliver them to importers who need the money to buy merchandise.

"If you want 20 things, you have to wait in 20 lines," Alexander Anteliz said Friday at a shop in a poor Caracas neighborhood, where it took the store only 30 minutes to sell out of its daily supply of corn flour. "Maybe the opposition wouldn't be much better, but the government is clearly failing."

Political opponents, wracked by division and infighting since violent protests last year failed to unseat Maduro, have seized on the crisis. This week, both hardliners and moderates gelled behind a common call to take to the streets to denounce the government's failings. The main anti-government coalition, however, has yet to organize a march and protests by students a key sector in last year's demonstrations have been small and sporadic.

The opposition hopes to gain momentum ahead of legislative elections later this year and take control of congress, which they hope to use as leverage to force a recall of Maduro.

Some analysts have raised the possibility of an even more dramatic scenario a military coup. So far there's been no outward sign of disloyalty or nervousness on the part of the armed forces, which have seen their power expand dramatically under Maduro. But observers point out similarities to 1992.

That was the last time an unpopular Venezuelan leader traveled abroad amid the throes of an economic crisis spurred by a sudden collapse in oil prices. When then-President Carlos Andres Perez returned from Switzerland, he was greeted by an army rebellion led by a then-unknown lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chavez.

"It is not inconceivable that stakeholders, among which are the armed forces, would step in before Maduro drives the government into single digits of popularity," said David Smilde, a Venezuelan expert who is a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

"That would be unfortunate but is within the realm of possibilities."


Associated Press writer Hannah Dreier reported this story in Caracas and Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writer Jacobo G. Garcia in Bogota contributed to this report.


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