Christmas Will Come Early To Venezuela, But Is It Just A Ploy?

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro announced an early start to the Christmas season because he wants "happiness for everyone." The decision means that workers will receive the first two-thirds of their Christmas bonuses and pensions this month. Critics say he's just looking for votes ahead of municipal elections in December.

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It's not even Thanksgiving yet here in the U.S., but in Venezuela, the president has declared an early Christmas season. It kicked off November 1st. As NPR's South America correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro explains, the president is eager to put his country in a good mood.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela came out with a surprise announcement during the so-called socialist Christmas fair in central Caracas. The ostensible aim is to lift people's spirits, and it comes with a cash dividend. State workers will be getting the first two-thirds of their Christmas bonuses this month, too.

A few weeks ago, Maduro also created a Ministry of Supreme Happiness. In comments after the Christmas announcement, Maduro explained his motives.

PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Through Translator) We made Christmas earlier because happiness and The Nativity and waiting for the arrival of the baby Jesus, it is the best medicine.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But analysts say there is another reason for the president's new interest in making his countrymen feel the spirit of Christmas. Municipal elections are slated in early December, and they'll be the first referendum on Maduro's presidency, which he won by the slimmest of margins last spring.

Things haven't been going well in Venezuela. Inflation is running at 45 percent. There are frequent blackouts and rampant crime. The new president also doesn't seem to have the charisma of his former mentor, Hugo Chavez. And so, he seems intent on invoking Chavez whenever he can.

MADURO: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In one of the more bizarre recent episodes, he went on live TV praising construction workers who claimed they saw the image of Chavez appear - like the Virgin Mary - in one of the underground railways being worked on. Chavez is everywhere, he said. We are Chavez. You are Chavez. He's also declared a loyalty and love to Hugo Chavez day. Even the intercession of a divine Hugo Chavez, though, won't help understocked stores this now longer holiday season. Importers say that foreign currency restrictions mean there will be a shortage of toys this Christmas. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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