Monday marked the 60th anniversary of the birth of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez – and the start of successor President Nicolas Maduro’s first week as head of the ruling United Social Party of Venezuela (PSUV). Maduro took over amidst a six-day party congress, which was the first to take place since party founder Chavez died of cancer last year.
Though the PSUV congress is dominated by moderates with alliances with Maduro’s cabinet, internal dissent was nonetheless apparent, as were the president’s difficulties in stifling this vocal opposition from within his party. Here the differences between Maduro and his charismatic predecessor are front and center: since taking office in April 2013, Maduro has struggled to maintain Chavez’s tight political grip. Whereas Chavez easily reined in the bickering among the party’s various factions, i.e., Marxist hardliners and business and military representatives, Maduro has grappled to contain party stalwarts angry over his government’s inability to repair Venezuela’s worsening economy and skyrocketing inflation. (Check out our primer on Latin America’s top three inflation winners – or losers.)
The main source of dissidence is the government’s reported plan to unify Venezuela’s various tools for currency control, which has party purists grumbling about changes to Chavez’s economic policy and accusing Maduro of bowing to party plutocrats. Signs of internal friction were particularly apparent last month when Maduro expelled Urban Planning Minister Jorge Giordani — a holdover from the Chavez era and the architect of Venezuela’s “revolutionary” economy — after he criticized Maduro for his lack of leadership. This week the president threatened to eliminate any other critical voices from within the Socialist Party, announcing, “history will judge them and they will dry out, just as those who have attacked the nation have.”
This, as yet vague, threat of an internal purge coincides with the government’s intensifying campaign on dissent via social media, which saw thousands of activists arrested. Yet these attempts to crack down on dissidence within and without Maduro’s government look to have had little effect thus far. One year into office, Maduro’s popularity remains low, hovering around 39% as of late May. What’s more, the government’s violent reaction to street protests led by opposition groups in early 2014 further dented the president’s image both at home and abroad.
Now, rumors that the government is planning to increase fuel prices in a measure that could right Venezuela’s flailing economic ship may herald a more dramatic split in the party between Maduro’s camp and chavismo stalwarts. Not to mention a public uproar. (The last time time the government dramatically raised gas costs was 25 years ago; the move prompted violent riots, which left hundreds dead, and two coup attempts.) The danger here is that if Maduro commits to necessary but painful economic measures, he may find himself confronted with an unhappy populace – without the full support of his party.