MIAMI (AP) – Venezuelan opposition lawmakers quietly agreed to receive a payment of $ 5,000 per month when they approved $ 100 bonuses for doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus, a large amount in a country where most workers try to survive on a couple of dollars a month, according to people involved in the process.
The financing for the payment, which has not been previously reported, was included in a project that the National Assembly approved last week and in which an “Fund for the Liberation of Venezuela” of $ 80 million was created, made up of assets Venezuelans seized by the United States government in its sanctions campaign to overthrow the socialist president Nicolás Maduro.RELATED
The legislation was promoted as a historic achievement for Juan Guaidó, the 36-year-old Congress leader whom the United States and 60 other nations consider to be the legitimate president of Venezuela, but who has struggled to exercise real authority. For the first time since he invoked the Constitution to proclaim himself interim president, Guaidó would have access to part of the billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets frozen abroad.
But the details have been shrouded in secrecy. The text of the new measure – which implements a general law passed in February to create the fund – has not been published in the official legislative gazette, as required, although The Associated Press obtained a copy from sources. And the official announcement makes no mention of wages or the proposed payment of $ 5,000, noting only that 17% of the $ 80 million in recovered assets will be used for “the defense and strengthening of the national legislature and social protection of its members ”.
Guaidó’s communications team released a statement Thursday night denying that a “salary” of $ 5,000 has been approved. He indicated that lawmakers, who have not received any payment since Maduro canceled funds for the National Assembly after the opposition was left in control of the National Assembly after an overwhelming electoral victory in 2015, will determine an appropriate amount and make it known to the rest of the country transparently. He noted that the $ 14 million in funds earmarked for the National Assembly will not only be to cover legislators’ personal income, but also to pay for office expenses, personnel costs, travel, and other related legislative expenses.
Two lawmakers and three assistants from Guaidó confirmed the salary plan hours before and acknowledged that it could make a bad impression, since many Venezuelans suffer to deal with an economic crisis that has reduced the minimum wage to just $ 2 a month. The five spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal details of what they said is an intense debate for several months that threatens to divide the anti-Maduro coalition.
They highlighted that, if divided between the five years in which the Assembly has been controlled by opponents, the payments are equivalent to $ 1,000 a month, much less than what legislators in other parts of Latin America perceive. They stated that some of the legislators will undoubtedly refuse to collect these funds, despite the fact that many of them have problems covering their expenses while living in exile or traveling to Caracas to participate in parliamentary sessions.
Since the measure was passed, Guaidó has frequently promoted his plan to deliver $ 100 vouchers to the nearly 60,000 doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus pandemic in a country where most hospitals lack running water, electricity and supplies. basic.
“The dictatorship keeps kidnapped billions of dollars, and we, with less than 0.01% of what they have managed, will be able to do more,” Guaidó said when announcing his plan.
The 14 million dollars in funds for the National Assembly are the second largest section in the “Fund for the Liberation of Venezuela and Care for Life-threatening Cases” after a disbursement of 45% in social expenses to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. That includes the three monthly $ 100 bonuses for each of the “health heroes,” which will be delivered through digital wallets. The system will be managed by the Organization of American States at a cost of $ 9.2 million.
Another 11% is destined for diplomatic missions in countries that recognize Guaidó as interim president. There is also money to strengthen the communications scope of the opposition and judicial cooperation abroad, and 4.5 million for the security and defense of democracy, which Guaidó may use at his discretion.
The money comes from some of the billions of dollars in Venezuelan assets frozen abroad: much of the amount comes from the sale of oil and revenue from CITGO, based in Houston and a subsidiary of the state-owned oil company PDVSA, which the government President Donald Trump took Maduro from him but had so far refused to hand over Guaidó.
Francisco Rodríguez, a Venezuelan economist who used to work in the National Assembly, said he welcomes the payment for elected officials who work in the interest of the people. But he noted that it would be better if the efforts of the opposition and the United States were used to provide assistance to Venezuelans devastated by the collapse of the country, including the around 5 million migrants who have fled Venezuela in recent years and do not have savings to back up during the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is extremely disturbing that lawmakers are willing to approve a generous compensation package for them without first having found time to discuss how to use the funds at their disposal to help Venezuelans who are currently on the verge of starvation.” Rodríguez said.
Led by Guaidó, Venezuelan opposition lawmakers have been the target of repeated physical attacks, threats and arrests by Maduro’s security forces. Since January, they have been barred from entering the legislative palace after a dissident faction of lawmakers – accused by the opposition of receiving bribes from the president – claimed leadership of Congress with the backing of the ruling party.
Precisely in order to uproot corruption and avoid future defections of the legislators who support Guaidó, who are the majority by a small margin, opposition leaders considered it important to start paying a fair salary, according to the five people. The payments, which are retroactive to January, will also be made to surrogate legislators who often must replace the large number of elected representatives who have been forced into exile.
Members of Maduro’s party will not receive any payment. That is because the United States has sanctioned many of them for violating Venezuela’s democracy.
The Trump administration has yet to issue a special permit granting a five-member commission appointed by Guaidó access to the funds, which are in a New York Federal Reserve account, after the United States government seized a $ 342 million payment for a 2015 deal in which gold was given in exchange for loans and which Maduro defaulted on the Bank of England.
Associated Press journalist Scott Smith contributed to this report from Caracas.
Goodman is on Twitter as: @APjoshgoodman