Venezuela’s opposition removes Chavez posters from Congress as political showdown looms

What’s the first thing to go when a strongman is removed from power? His giant portraits and statues. Remember Saddam Hussein and Baghdad in 2003?

Something akin to that, although on a much smaller scale just happened in Venezuela, where discontent with the socialist revolution of late President Hugo Chavez has been growing in recent months.

This week, opponents of Chavez and his successor President Nicolas Maduro, emboldened by a recent electoral victory, removed several 15-foot tall posters of the late revolutionary commander that peered down at lawmakers in Venezuela’s congressional building, the National Assembly.

This happened just a day after Venezuela’s opposition took control of Congress for the first time in 17 years.

The opposition coalition known as MUD won two-thirds of seats in Venezuela’s parliamentary elections last month, as voters punished Maduro for the country’s worsening crime rates and a collapsing economy.

After the new congress was sworn into office on Tuesday, opposition leaders wasted little time in letting Venezuelans know some things are changing.

On Wednesday, the new National Assembly president, Henry Ramos Allup, personally supervised the removal of the Chavez posters that lined the building’s hallways, telling workers to “take that junk” somewhere else.

The gesture — which was both lauded and criticized on social media — comes as Venezuela enters what will likely be one of its most politically turbulent periods in years.

With the economy in tatters, and global prices for crude at just about a third of what they were two years ago, the oil producing nation is bracing for a power struggle between the socialist led executive and judicial branches, and the new opposition-led National Assembly.

The opposition on Wednesday ratcheted up the confrontation by allowing three elected members of Congress to take their posts even though the Supreme Court had barred them from taking office while it investigates a complaint about their election filed by Maduro’s socialist party.

The votes from the three congressmen would give the opposition a two-thirds majority in Congress that would allow them to fire judges, approve an amnesty for political prisoners and pass political and economic reforms which the opposition argues are necessary to get the country back on the right track.

The government, however, has shown no signs it wants to negotiate a solution to Venezuela’s economic crisis.

Instead, Maduro appointed a hard-line left wing sociologist as his top economic minister on Wednesday in a move that looked like an effort to adhere to his revolutionary playbook.

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 4.14.46 PMAP

Will Venezuelan workers have to carry the burden of Chavez's economic policies?

Luis Salas, a 39-year-old professor at Venezuela’s Bolivarian University, was named as Maduro’s new economic czar. He is known to oppose more moderate Chavistas, who have accepted, begrudgingly, that Venezuela needs to devalue its currency to help jump-start the economy. Salas is also a fervent supporter of price controls and currency controls, that have led to widespread product shortages in the country, according to mainstream economists.

But, like Maduro, Salas blames product shortages on companies he says are hoarding goods and waging an “economic war” on the Venezuelan government. Salas has also argued Venezuela’s runaway inflation –estimated at 200% last year, though the government is not publishing official figures– is not caused by the government printing large amounts of money to cover its expenditures, but instead by businessmen “speculating” with prices.

With such different views on what has led to Venezuela’s economic collapse, there seems to be few short-term prospects for a solution to Venezuela’s crisis.

Yet the government’s huge defeat in December’s parliamentary election suggests that if product shortages, long lines outside supermarkets and shrinking salaries continue to be the norm in Venezuela, people will likely blame Maduro for their hardships, even if he claims he’s the victim of an “economic war.”

And that means that in the long run, there might be more people looking to take down other Chavez portraits around the country. Perhaps what happened at the National Assembly is just a sign of things to come.