September 5, 2016 / 11:01 PM / 3 years ago

Spain's 'Jesus Christ of economics' joins Venezuela government

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has enlisted a Spanish academic he has hailed as the “Jesus Christ of economics” to help the South American country manage chronic product shortages.

Alfredo Serrano is the only foreigner to form part of the Superior Organ of the Grand Mission of Sovereign Supply, a group of civilians and military officers tapped by socialist President Nicolas Maduro in response to the country’s economic crisis.

He will work on the creation of a “new distribution and marketing system” under the supervision of Food Minister Rodolfo Marco, according a resolution published in Venezuela’s official gazette over the weekend.

Serrano, whose beard and long hair lend him an apostle-like appearance, has political beliefs similar to those of Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos and is friends with several high-profile party members, a party spokesman said in an interview.

He is not a member of Podemos, the spokesman said.

Serrano did not respond to requests for comment.

Maduro has promised an “economic miracle” for a nation struggling with triple-digit inflation, snaking supermarket lines, and a deep recession that he blames on an “economic war” led by his adversaries with the support of Washington.

His adversaries say the malaise is caused by the state-led socialist economic model of price and currency controls, and insist that extending government control over the economy will only make the situation worse.

Maduro in recent months has boosted the role of the armed forces in the distribution of staple products and created socialist neighborhood committees to sell products to individual consumers in efforts to fight smuggling of subsidized goods.

He also removed businessman Miguel Perez as economy vice-president, which economists interpreted as a sign that the market-friendly wing of Maduro’s cabinet was losing ground to hardline socialists who support more aggressive controls.

The new commission includes 17 high-ranking military officers to oversee the distribution of staple goods ranging from sugar and black beans to toilet paper and sanitary napkins.

Serrano in an online opinion column last week said the neighborhood food committees could help Maduro stave off an opposition recall effort by boosting his popular support the way late socialist leader Hugo Chavez used socialist programs known as “missions” to win a 2004 recall vote.

Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas on Thursday in the country’s largest demonstration in more than a decade to demand that electoral authorities speed up a recall referendum against Maduro.

Additional reporting by Daniel Kai in Caracas and Angus Berwick in Madrid,; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Sandra Maler

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