Venezuela Cracks Down on Internet as Economy Implodes

With the bolívar in free fall, the government is blocking websites that track currency rates on the black market

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Carlos Garcia / Reuters

Nicolas Maduro sings during a campaign rally in Caracas, Venezuela, April 5, 2013.

In the past month, as the Venezuelan economy has imploded, President Nicolás Maduro launched an “economic offensive” aimed at curbing the highest inflation rate in the Western Hemisphere.

First there was a crackdown on price gouging, where Maduro ordered national guard troops to invade electronic stores and drastically lower prices. That action led to Venezuelans mobbing appliance stores to take advantage of the “occupation,” with instances of people smashing windows to abscond with goods.

Last week, Maduro announced stricter inspections for businesses suspected of price irregularities, accusing “capitalist parasites” of trying to wreck the country’s economy and drive him from office. A massive power outage in Caracas and surrounding cities this week led to people in wealthier areas of the city to launch a traditional form of protest, banging pots and pans outside of their windows and calling for Maduro’s resignation. A disciple of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — though lacking in much of the fiery El Comandante’s charisma — Maduro is in the grips of an economic crisis that may curtail his political career.

With the bolívar in freefall, Venezuelans are scrambling to convert their money into dollars, but rather than address the economy’s systemic problems, the government is cracking down on websites people are using to track currency exchange rates on the black market. The online suppression went as far as to restrict access to Bitly, a popular website that shortens Web addressing to make them easier to share on Twitter and social media.

The AP reports that Maduro was trying to block access to sites such as Dollar Today; the official exchange rate of  bolívars to dollars is 6.3 to 1, while the site lists the black market rate at 64.39 to 1. Many are trying to sidestep the controls by using Twitter, prompting Venezuela’s telecommunications regulator to send a letter to the microblogging company asking it to shut all accounts used to skirt the country’s currency controls. Twitter has reportedly ignored the letter, and has not commented.

So far, the government has not said how it will curb inflation, which in October was at a two-decade high of 54 percent. Maduro, whom the Washington Post editorial board described as “a former bus driver whose ignorance of economics is shockingly obvious,” so far has been more willing to try and distract the public with conspiracy theories than unwind the decades of currency controls that are leading to the bolívar’s decline. Sticking to Chavez’s socialist bonafides, Maduro has insisted he will not adopt freer economic policies, and there may not be enough pots and pans to bang in all of Caracas to make him do so.

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