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Draft Law in Venezuela Is the Private Sector's Death Knell

On April 4, acting Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced he had uncovered a "conspiracy" to destabilize the government in order to lend support to his opponent in the upcoming elections, Miranda Governor Henrique Capriles Radonski.

Maduro told supporters the plot was undertaken by Empresas Polar, a global food and beverage manufacturer and processor that happens to be one of the largest and best known brands in Venezuela. Maduro alleged that Polar has plotted to create a situation of "unrest, shortages, hoarding and speculation."

He ended his comments with an overt threat, telling Polar that "everything in life has its time."

For Venezuelans, this is just a typical day of anti-capitalist bombast from a leader working hard to channel recently deceased President Chávez. But a new legislative proposal quickly moving through that country's National Assembly gives new force to that country's 'socialist' government's war on the private sector.

Venezuela's proposed Law Against Monopolies and Other Similar Practices grants the government the broad discretion and unchecked power to single out and nationalize the few remaining large companies in the country -- a sanction for what the Venezuelan government calls anti-competitive behavior. Assembly leaders have announced the law will move through the assembly with "parliamentary urgency." A procedural vote was already held and the common committee review will be expedited.

While the world remains fixated on President Hugo Chávez's recent death, and the upcoming presidential election to chose his successor, this so-called monopoly law continues to progress slowly through the Assembly. Passage would legitimize the government's extensive and arbitrary power over the Venezuelan private sector.

The bill departs from internationally accepted terms for anti-competitive behavior focused on market share, instead calling for a vague definition of an entity's "economic space," an amorphous term whose meaning the government will then define according to their own agenda. If passed, Chávez's successor will be granted unprecedented power over the private sector -- even more than was wielded by President Chavez and his arbitrary nationalizations.

The proposed law creates a new commission, the National Superintendent Against Monopolies and Similar Practices (SUNAM), to be chaired by a presidential appointee. SUNAM would have the power to confiscate resources and materials at will. Moreover, it states that any company in violation of the new law can be expropriated. Because the SUNAM would lack oversight, this law would subject so-called "illegal" businesses to an arbitrary state takeover with no chance for appeal or independent review. Any attempt to challenge expropriations would die inside Venezuela's judiciary, which is completely controlled by the executive.

Though the bill has progressed largely under the radar, experts and the political opposition have taken notice and are denouncing the law. Vestalia Sampedro, a Deputy in the Venezuelan National Assembly, states that the law will only further extend the government's control over the economy, extending the socialism that has not worked. Jorge Botti, the President of the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce notes that the bill's broad language means that even small businesses who succeeded by developing quality products and successful marketing strategies may not escape the government's reach.

And all the while, the Venezuelan economy continues to worsen. The number of private companies in Venezuela has already declined by 36 percent from 1998. Price controls and the recent currency devaluation have worsened already-high unemployment, crippled Venezuelans' purchasing power and exacerbated the shortages that now plague the country. Venezuelans already struggle to find basic necessities like chicken and corn. These economic policies have crippled vital industries like medical care as well. As of January, pharmaceutical shortages stood at 40 percent -- a number which will only rise if the government acts on proposals to enforce price controls on medications as well. And with legislation like this monopoly law in the pipeline, few private investors would even consider bringing their capital to Venezuela.

While expropriations in Venezuela have become so common that they rarely even make news, in point of fact they are still illegal and unconstitutional. With the passage of this legislation, while remaining unconstitutional they would become 'legal' (a paradox that only those who follow Venezuela closely understand). Should acting President Maduro win, this would leave the country's private sector in danger of extinction. Venezuela's companies are already needlessly harassed and intimidated by the government, and the country's economy has suffered as a result. This law, which the Assembly hopes to pass while the world looks the other way, would make matters far worse.