CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — President Nicolas Maduro first declared an economic emergency due to "catastrophic" inflation and growth figures and then endured the indignity of a nationally televised scolding from the head of a newly empowered opposition Congress.
Congress leader Henry Ramos wagged his finger inches from the president's head in a state-of-the-nation rebuttal that was broadcast live across the South American country Friday — unprecedented media access for an opponent of the country's socialist revolution.
Neither Maduro nor his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chavez, had ever contended with a hostile audience for a speech to Congress, but foes of the administration took control of the institution last week for the first time in 17 years, carried to victory on a wave of economic turmoil.
The government's Central Bank, which had kept key economic indicators to itself for more than a year, dumped a batch of new bad news earlier in the day.
It said the country's economy contracted by 7.1 percent during the quarter that ended in September 2015, and inflation reached 141.5 percent.
Maduro described the numbers as "catastrophic" as he defended an emergency declaration giving him 60 days to unilaterally enact sweeping decrees.
He devoted most of his three-hour speech to what he called a "monstrous attack" on the economy by business owners and other foes of the leftist government, blaming them for most of the inflation and shortages.
Ramos took a professorial tone in rebuttal, saying that Maduro and Chavez themselves are responsible for the crisis.
"If you don't want to hear this, close your ears or leave," he warned as Maduro sipped from a coffee cup and checked his watch in the next chair.
"If you give in to the desire to have more and more bolivars with the same number of dollars, your bolivars are going to lose value," Ramos said, referring to the country's plummeting currency.
The sight of an opposition leader lecturing the president on a live television feed all networks were required to carry shocked even ardent supporters of the sharp-tonged new congressional leader. Maduro rarely exposes himself to questions from independent reporters, much less questioning from political opponents. And few broadcast networks carry opposition events.
Still, both men were often jovial as they jabbed rhetorically, and Maduro had taken an unusually conciliatory tone in his address, calling for dialogue to support his decrees.
But he gave no hint he'd back away from key policies and vowed to block one of the opposition's key initial proposals: Giving people who live in government housing the title to their homes.
"No, no and no, we will not permit it," Maduro said, complaining that would amount to privatization. "You'll have to get rid of me first."
The opposition has pledged to do just that, issuing a six-month deadline to hold a recall election.
Venezuela, which has the world's largest oil reserves, has suffered enormously as the price of oil has crashed from above $90 a barrel two years ago to just $24 today. Analysts say that means Venezuela is dangerously close to just breaking even on the oil it produces, which accounts for 95 percent of export earnings.
Maduro echoed many Venezuelans' fears Friday when he said he hoped the coming year would see peace, "not senseless violence that could lead anywhere."
Hannah Dreier is on Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahdreier
Her work can be found at: bigstory.ap.org/content/hannah-dreier