MARACAIBO, VENEZUELA —
Venezuela's severe economic crisis will worsen if President Nicolas Maduro presses ahead with a controversial new congress that would further undermine investor confidence in the OPEC nation, the head of the country's biggest business guild said.
Despite months of protests by the majority-backed opposition and widespread international condemnation, the ruling Socialist Party is holding a vote on July 30 to set up a legislative superbody known as a Constituent Assembly.
The assembly would have powers to rewrite the constitution and abolish the existing opposition-controlled legislature in what foes fear would enshrine a leftist dictatorship.
"What country in the world has a successful socialist model? None!" Carlos Larrazabal, 60, president of Fedecamaras told Reuters on Tuesday during its annual meeting in the sweltering western city of Maracaibo.
"In a constituent process, with the characteristics that are being proposed, there is no legal certainty and that does not attract investment but rather scares it away," added the U.S-educated economist.
Fedecamaras has long been at odds with the government after
a former head briefly became interim president in a 2002 coup against late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
Though officials have given few details on what the Constituent Assembly - which the opposition is boycotting - might do, investors fear its legal and economic ramifications.
Comments by a Socialist Party candidate that the assembly could rewrite parts of the constitution that allow joint ventures with foreign companies have spooked some in the country's oil sector - though state energy company PDVSA later reassured partners that would not happen.
The political showdown comes amid a brutal economic crisis: inflation is in triple digits, the currency has fallen 99 percent against the dollar since Maduro was elected in 2013, and millions are struggling with food shortages.
A Reuters poll of economists on Wednesday forecast Venezuela would shrink 6 percent this year and another 3.0 percent in 2018.
"The forecasts are catastrophic. We have no positive expectations," Maria Uzcategui, president of retailers' guild Consecomercio, told Reuters at the Maracaibo conference.
Consecomercio estimates almost a million jobs in the private sector were lost in the last 18 months, and 1,150 businesses looted amid this year's violent anti-Maduro protests.
Venezuela's private sector wants to see an end to currency controls, enacted by Chavez in 2003 to curb capital flight, and price controls, which crimp production.
"Those would be the real solutions," said Uzcategui.
Some 100 people have died in nearly four months of anti-Maduro unrest. On Sunday, Venezuela's opposition capitalized on anger and held an unofficial vote in which they said 7.5 million participated and 98 percent rejected the Constituent Assembly.
The campaign is due to escalate on Thursday with a national strike, recalling events prior to a short-lived coup against former leader Chavez in 2002.
Fedecamaras' line on the strike is that each employer and employee must decide for themselves whether to follow the opposition call for a 24-hour shutdown.
Maduro says the July 30 vote is necessary to achieve peace in the volatile South American nation, and also defeat an "economic war" being waged against his government by the opposition and Washington.
"Here, there is no economic war... They've expropriated more than 1,500 businesses, taken more than 5.2 million hectares... The economic war is in fact against all these companies that were private that now don't produce!" said Larrazabal.