Venezuela presidential hopeful wants Wall Street economist on team

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan presidential candidate Henri Falcon said on Wednesday he would like a Wall Street economist, who sees dollarization as the solution for hyper-inflation in Venezuela, to play a big role on his team if he wins the upcoming election.

Venezuelan presidential candidate Henri Falcon gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in Caracas, Venezuela February 28, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Falcon said Francisco Rodriguez, a Venezuelan who is chief economist at Torino Capital and advising him informally, would be the ideal leader of his economic team should he defeat socialist President Nicolas Maduro.

“What is the cancer of Venezuela, apart from the government? The economy. So the economy is for specialists,” he told Reuters during an interview at his new offices in Caracas.

“Francisco is a man with many qualifications, but he is also a politician recognized internally and abroad ... We need to build a really good team led by a great economist, that’s Francisco Rodriguez.”

Rodriguez, one of the most influential analysts of Venezuela’s dysfunctional economy, has recently been suggesting the bolivar currency should be scrapped for the U.S. dollar as an extreme measure to fix runaway inflation by stopping the government from printing excess money.

Rodriguez also believes Venezuela - in the fifth year of crippling recession that has left millions hungry and created widespread shortages - would receive major help from international loan bodies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund under a new government.

Speaking to Reuters earlier on Wednesday on the sidelines of a Caracas forum, Rodriguez confirmed he was giving informal advice to Falcon. “I’m a friend, I respect him,” he said.

He told the forum Falcon would make an excellent president. “This country cannot survive six more years of Nicolas Maduro, this country doesn’t deserve that,” he added.

Falcon, a former state governor who has broken with an opposition boycott to run against Maduro, said he would prioritize repairing relations with Washington should he win the vote slated for April 22.

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While most analysts give him little chance, some recent polls actually put him ahead of Maduro in voter preferences.

“The United States would have a potential ally in a new Venezuelan government,” said Falcon, who defines himself as a center-leftist in favor of both market-friendly policies and strong welfare protection programs.


Falcon implied he disagreed with possible U.S. oil sanctions against OPEC member Venezuela, saying he opposed any measures that “end up hurting the poor.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has already slapped some individual sanctions on officials it deems guilty of rights abuses or eroding democracy in Venezuela, and has also imposed measures to block new financing for the government.

It is pondering measures against the oil sector if Maduro does not improve conditions for the election, which critics say has been rigged to legitimize “dictatorship.”

Falcon, a 56-year-old former military man who supported the ruling socialists until a 2010 split, has drawn the wrath of Venezuela’s opposition coalition by throwing his hat into the ring and undercutting their boycott policy.

“Abstention is no use,” he said, pointing to past boycotts that had given the socialists big uncontested wins and arguing that 80 percent of Venezuelans wanted change.

“In world history, at least for the last two centuries, no government has won an election at a time of hyper-inflation,” he added, citing the price of a box of eggs equivalent to nearly two-thirds of the minimum monthly wage.

Prices in Venezuela rose more than 4,000 percent in the 12 months to the end of January, according to estimates by the country’s opposition-led National Assembly, broadly in line with independent economists’ figures.

Falcon is demanding improved election conditions, including a later vote date, U.N. observers, an end to “harassment” of Maduro opponents, and the removal of government handout booths known as “red spots” to curry favor with voters often set up near polling centers.

Without guarantees, he may withdraw his candidacy.

Falcon said he would like veteran Venezuelan politician Eduardo Fernandez, a former presidential candidate for opposition party COPEI, to be his foreign minister.

He would not be drawn on specific economic policy ideas, beyond saying he wanted to prioritize tackling inflation and supported a unified currency exchange system instead of the current mix of government and black market rates.

Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Vivian Sequera; Additional reporting by Corina Pons; Editing by Corina Pons and Tom Brown