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Chavez foes criticize big boost in 2012 budget

By Christopher Toothaker
Associated Press / November 2, 2011

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CARACAS, Venezuela—Opposition leaders criticized lawmakers loyal to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez on Wednesday for sharply boosting the government's budget, saying they suspect it is meant to help the president's bid for re-election.

Pro-Chavez lawmakers who hold a majority in the National Assembly have proposed a 2012 budget totaling $69 billion, which is a 45.6 percent rise from this year's budget. Legislators are expected to approve the budget within several weeks.

Chavez's opponents called the increase excessive, saying it will allow Chavez to spend lavishly to help augment his popularity before the election next Oct. 7.

Allies of Chavez denied the accusations, saying there is no evidence to suggest the government plans to use public funds for campaign purposes.

Government officials and pro-Chavez lawmakers argue Venezuela needs to increase public spending to expand social programs for the poor, build public housing and pay for other projects.

"This important contribution for these projects means the budget is aimed at creating productive investment for economic growth," Planning Minister Jorge Giordani told a congressional committee Wednesday.

Chavez defended plans to increase the budget, saying it would help spur economic growth and reduce poverty.

"The budget is a lever for development, a lever for social justice and redistribution of wealth," said Chavez, speaking on state television.

"This irresponsible opposition doesn't understand that," he added.

Some Chavez opponents have speculated that the president might devalue Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, to further buffer state coffers and give him more money to spend before the vote.

But pro-Chavez lawmakers said there are no plans for a devaluation.

"That possibility has been ruled out," said Jesus Farias, a lawmaker belonging to Venezuela's party.

A large share of Venezuela's budget is financed by oil sales, and officials based the budget on an average oil price of $50 a barrel. Officials typically use conservative estimates as a cushion against possible fluctuations.

With independent analysts estimating oil at up to $100-a-barrel next year, Chavez could end up with a large surplus to spend beyond the budget.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said he worries officials are intentionally underestimating the government's revenues in hopes of providing Chavez with a surplus that his government could spend without full public disclosure.

Another opposition congressmen, Elias Mata, said details of government spending "must be visible to all Venezuelans."

"All we are asking for is the information," Mata said.

Some of Chavez's allies questioned the campaign financing sources of opposition candidates, urging them to fully disclose their contributors.

Opposition presidential contenders including state governors Henrique Capriles and Pablo Perez say they are receiving donations from supporters as well as proceeds from fundraisers organized by their parties. They and other government opponents will compete in a Feb. 12 primary to choose a single candidate to face Chavez in October.