By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters) – Presidential candidate Henri Falcon pledged on Tuesday to raise Venezuela’s minimum wage to $75 per month in a newly-dollarized economy should he beat the ruling socialists in a May 20 vote.
Falcon slammed President Nicolas Maduro’s announcement on the eve of May Day that he was raising the minimum monthly salary to 1 million bolivars – the third increase this year, but still less than $2 at the black market rate.
“That doesn’t even pay for a kilo of meat!” Falcon scoffed, saying prices in Venezuela were effectively pegged to the dollar, while wages were not, as a result of incompetent economic policies by Maduro’s government.
“This is the worst crisis any Latin American country has suffered in the last 100 years,” added Falcon, who calls Maduro the “candidate of hunger,” in reference to a deep recession and shortages that have millions of Venezuelans skipping meals.
Falcon, 56, has broken with a boycott by the mainstream opposition – which views the vote as rigged in advance – to challenge Maduro, 55, who wants re-election in the OPEC nation.
But less than three weeks before the vote, the campaign is muted, with many despondent about the state of the nation and more preoccupied with finding food than the election.
Some polls show Falcon ahead, but abstention would hit the former soldier and state governor harder than the incumbent. Opposition activists led scattered protests on Tuesday around the country, promoting the boycott and complaining about failing services and shortages.
Maduro says his rival’s dollarization proposal is part of a wider plan to let the United States run Venezuela, and mocks him as “Fal-Trump”.
At a pro-government May Day rally in Caracas, he promised “an economic rebirth” for Venezuela after his re-election.
“Don’t leave me alone in this battle against the economic mafias,” Maduro exhorted the crowd, blaming pro-opposition business leaders for an “economic war” against his government.
At a news conference for May Day, Falcon also pledged there would be no firings or “persecution” of Venezuela’s 2.8 million state employees should he win. The government routinely coerces state workers to support it at rallies and polls.
The opposition candidate, who is viewed with suspicion by militants on both sides due to his defection from the ruling “Chavismo” movement in 2010, added that he would immediately let in foreign humanitarian aid if elected.
He also pledged to restore the local licenses of prohibited broadcasters including two Colombian stations, CNN’s Spanish-language service, and Radio Caracas Television, who have all clashed with the government over critical coverage.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)