In Venezuela, a presidential decree brings Christmas early

This post has been updated, as indicated below.

The Christmas season has officially started in Venezuela, thanks to President Nicolas Maduro, who recently declared it so.

Maduro made the announcement at a Socialist Christmas fair in the city of Caracas. According to National Public Radio, the president explained that he made “Christmas earlier because happiness and the Nativity and waiting for the arrival of the baby Jesus, it is the best medicine.”

Indeed, Venezuelans are probably in need of a little cheering up given the state of things. The country’s inflation rate has surged above 50%. Crime is soaring, blackouts are common and basic items, such as toilet paper, are apparently in such scant supply that in September, the government temporarily took over a factory to guarantee that consumers could buy all the rolls they needed.

But Maduro’s decision is not as simple, or as crazy, as it may appear to some. Venezuela pays out an annual holiday bonus to government workers at Christmas. Under the new calendar, those workers could receive that money by early December, just a few days before municipal elections are scheduled. Opposition leaders have tried to portray that vote as a national plebiscite on Maduro and his government.

Whether voters see it that way is another matter. But I’ve got to give Maduro credit. He realizes he doesn’t possess the political skills or charisma of the late President Hugo Chavez, so he’s simply trying to distract attention from the problems plaguing the country. He’s accused the United States of trying to overthrow his government, created a Ministry of Happiness to help lift the spirits of fellow countrymen and women, and now he’s declared the start of Christmas in November.

I’m not suggesting that Venezuela is on the brink of economic collapse. The country has one of the largest oil reserves in the world. But as David Smilde, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia, astutely noted, the country is “progressively sliding into the swamp of serious economic dysfunction that will make sustained growth difficult and that could undermine Chavismo as a viable democratic political project.”

[Update, 2:42 pm., November 7: An earlier version of this blog post stated inflation hovered at about 45%. A new reports released Thursday found it has surged to above 50%.]


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