CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's socialist party is holding its first national convention since the death last year of President Hugo Chavez, with delegates hoping to quell infighting and discontent about party leadership.
On Saturday, President Nicolas Maduro opened the congress of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela with a speech encouraging party members to continue the revolutionary project. The real work will take place behind the scenes, with pragmatists and hard-liners battling to hammer out a vision for the coming year.
Hundreds of delegates will consider proposals from members all over the country, many of which concern the escalating economic crisis that has gripped the oil-rich country, provoking widespread shortages and soaring inflation.
The convention is the third of its kind since the party's formation in 2008. But the scene is anything but unified.
Rank-and-file members are unhappy that they did not get more of a role in picking this year's delegates, according to Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
"There's a perception that the delegates were imposed by the top leadership, and there has not been a debate," Moya-Ocampos said.
Just a fraction of the party's 7 million members cast ballots last weekend to choose delegates for the convention. Among those chosen was Maduro's college-aged son, Nicolas Ernesto Maduro.
While Chavez held together a wide-ranging coalition by force of character and charisma, his more mild-mannered successor has struggled to project the same kind of leadership. Maduro won a narrow victory in last year's elections to replace his mentor Chavez, and in the months since, his popularity ratings have tumbled below 40 percent.
Protests against Venezuela's economic chaos gripped the country for much of the spring. On Saturday, opposition figures planned a small protest to draw attention to government critics who remain jailed on charges related to the demonstrations.
As the street movement has dissipated, the power struggles within the Chavista regime have become increasingly public. Maduro fired a high-level Marxist economic adviser in June, prompting a volley of criticism from the old-school revolutionaries in his party, as well as from independent Chavista groups.
Supporters of the ruling party are hoping Maduro will use the convention to establish his place as the head of Venezuela's socialist movement, and quell divisions. Outside analysts agree that to begin remedying the economic crisis, Maduro will need to firm up his base of support, and take tough, likely unpopular, measures that will be seen as a currency devaluation.
On Saturday, the delegates made at least a symbolic move to reaffirm Maduro's power, naming him president of the party, and designating Chavez as "eternal leader."
"The model is being debated, with some fractions pushing toward more ideological model, and some more pragmatic," Moya-Ocampos said. "We know that there's a lot of discontent."
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