Embattled Venezuelan president enters 4th year in office fighting to remain in power

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Today marks Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro three full years in office — three bumpy years in which he has stumbled more than once trying to fill the supersized shoes of late President Hugo Chavez.

Amid an acute economic crisis and record levels of street crime, a recent DatinCorp poll shows that 72 percent of Venezuelans want Maduro out of the presidential palace. Only 26 percent identify as “Chavistas,” or supporters of the socialist PSUV party that has ruled the country since 1999.

That means the next few years are critical ones for Maduro. Venezuela’s Constitution mandates that after the fourth year of a presidential term (which is a six-year term), if a president is recalled he or she is immediately replaced by the vice president until the next election.

“In the next months, we can expect Maduro to focus on protecting his post instead of making the decisions needed to alleviate the country’s economic and social problems,” said Piero Trepiccione, a political analyst and professor at Andres Bello Catholic University.

Maduro, a former bus driver and a close friend of Chavez, reached his three-year mark once again immersed in a harsh battle of words with the U.S. government. On Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry said during an interview with Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer that President Maduro is “ignoring the people’s will” by staying in power and that the White House would back any effort to restore a full democracy.

In a statement, Venezuela said Monday that “Secretary Kerry's words show the participation and responsibility of the U.S. government in the interventionist and insurrectional plan against democracy” and said the U.S. is once again acting on its “intrusive and interventionist obsession.”

Despite the growing opposition on the streets and in Congress, where the Chavismo is now a minority, Maduro and his allies have managed to retain control over key institutions such as the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council (CNE).

“They will keep using them to their advantage and to block any constitutional exit to the government,” Trepiccione told Fox News Latino.

The hold on the CNE is critical these days, because it stands on the way of the opposition’s persistent calls for a referendum to revoke Maduro’s term. According to law, the referendum process is activated if and when the petition has collected signatures from 1 percent of registered voters (approximately 200,000 Venezuelans).

Once that is done and verified, the CNE has three days to collect signature of 20 percent of registered voters (some 4 million) across the country. Only then would a referendum vote could proceed.

Currently four of the five CNE members have close ties to the government and they are bluntly delaying all efforts to activate the referendum – for example, two months after formally requested, the CNE hasn’t released the forms required to collect the first batch of signatures.

“This is a really simple process but they are making it hard. They want to avoid a national election this year because they know they will lose,” said Juan Carlos Caldera, from the opposition party Primero Justicia.

He said they are aiming for a November presidential election, assuming a referendum’s outcome will go their way.

“We still have time. We are going to pressure the CNE so it can be done next November,” Caldera added.

Trepiccione and other analysts say the end of Chavismo can be precipitated if one of two things happens: if the economic crisis continues to deteriorate or if the party’s internal divisions end up shattering the government.

In order to keep his people together, Maduro is rallying supporters with an initiative called Congreso de la Patria (Homeland Congress), during which he meets with representatives of different social segments and asks them for ideas to face the country’s crisis.

Last week alone, Maduro participated in four of these activities. In all of them he asked for loyalty – as he has been doing constantly on his television addresses.

Indeed, Maduro will probably be remembered for the disproportionate amount of time and money he has spent trying to reach the dwindling mass of supporters. In his three-year term he has accumulated 1,057 media appearances (including 51 straight days of live broadcasts) and more than 409.7 million bolivars ($65 million at the time exchange rate), according to officials numbers from the ministry of Communications and Information.

Following on his predecessor’s steps, most of his messages focus on blaming the opposition and the low oil prices for the country’s woes, polarizing the nation between supporters and enemies, and denouncing U.S. conspiracies to overthrow his government.