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Young Socialist Hardliner to Lead Venezuela's Economy

  • Associated Press

President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's new Minister for Economy and Productivity, Luis Salas, shake hands Jan. 6, 2016, at a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas.

President Nicolas Maduro (R) and Venezuela's new Minister for Economy and Productivity, Luis Salas, shake hands Jan. 6, 2016, at a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas.

President Nicolas Maduro is doubling down on his existing economic policies with the appointment of a young leftist hardliner to head the country's cratering economy, setting the stage for confrontation between the ruling socialist party and the newly powerful opposition.

Luis Salas, the new 39-year-old vice president for the economy, has scant administrative experience, but champions the same theories of price and currency controls that have defined Venezuela's leftist economic policy for 17 years.

Like Maduro, Salas says the country is suffering from the world's worst recession and triple-digit inflation because business interests are colluding with the U.S. to sabotage the economy.

He even goes further than Maduro in arguing that many of the country's problems are the result of being too capitalist.

'Inflation doesn't exist'

A professor at the Bolivarian University, an institution created by the late president Hugo Chavez, Salas was relatively unknown before this week. Now, the country is poring over his large body of pamphlets and letters.

"Inflation doesn't exist in real life," he wrote last year.

FILE - People wait in a line to buy staple goods outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 20, 2015.

FILE - People wait in a line to buy staple goods outside a supermarket in Caracas, Venezuela, Oct. 20, 2015.

He added that prices go up not because of scarcity, but because of "capitalist economies that are driven by the desire for personal gain through the exploitation of others; by selfishness."

Along with shortages, inflation has become the No. 1 concern among Venezuelan voters, many of whom spend hours each week waiting in line for goods that are increasingly impossible to afford.

After the opposition swept Dec. 6 legislative elections, Salas wrote an open letter in which he attacked as "pragmatists" those people within the socialist camp who were floating the possibility of a currency devaluation, a move that outside economists agree is a necessary first step for righting the economy.

Disbelief at the president's choice for a new economic czar echoed in opposition circles Wednesday night, with some speculating Maduro might be trying to drive the economy into the ground.

Since its landmark victory, the opposition coalition has been split between those who favor negotiation with the government and those who want to remove Maduro from office. The new appointment and the socialists' combative stance since the new congress was seated Tuesday could silence opposition voices favoring dialogue.

New lawmakers under fire

On Thursday, socialist leaders asked the Supreme Court to nullify any actions the new congress takes. They argue that because the opposition swore in three lawmakers Wednesday that the Supreme Court had barred from being seated, any legislation passed is now invalid.

The court, which has never ruled against the executive branch, had barred the inauguration of the three lawmakers as authorities investigate allegations of voter fraud.

Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro hold up photographs of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez as they gather Jan. 7, 2016, outside Supreme Court building in Caracas.

Supporters of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro hold up photographs of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chavez as they gather Jan. 7, 2016, outside Supreme Court building in Caracas.

Socialist supporters have backed appointment of the new economic czar.

Hundreds of pro-government people rallied in downtown Thursday morning to protest the opposition leadership's removal of portraits of Chavez from the gold-domed capitol building.

Maduro named other hardliners to top spots Wednesday as part of a larger cabinet reshuffle he says is intended to protect the revolution during a new political era. And he created a new urban agriculture ministry and announced that he and first lady Cilia Flores had taken up urban farming themselves.

"Cilia and I keep 50 chickens at our home. It's time to start building a new culture of production," he said.

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