'Christmas is dead' in Venezuela, and 2016 looks grim

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Caracas (AFP) - "Christmas is dead," says Elise Belisario, who, like many Venezuelans, can't afford to hang decorations or make a traditional holiday meal this year.

And 2016 augurs bleak times too in this staggering oil giant, where the new year looks set to bring political power struggles and little respite from a crippling economic crisis.

Belisario lives in the sprawling slum of Petare, on the outskirts of Caracas, which is suffering this holiday season from the shortages and triple-digit inflation gripping Venezuela -- the twin tribulations of the once high-flying economy's demise.

Where Christmases past brought exuberant decorations and balconies drenched in lights, this year Petare's streets are drab and dark.

"There's just not enough money. We've switched off Christmas," said Belisario, a 28-year-old with two kids who recently lost her job.

When the oil money was flowing, Christmas was a consumer bonanza in Venezuela, a predominantly Catholic country with a flair for celebrations.

But that has changed as oil prices have plunged, and the opulent days under late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez (1999-2013) have given way to the malaise plaguing his less charmed successor, Nicolas Maduro.

"We were rich and we didn't even know it," said Belisario.

At a nearby shop, cashier Olga Gonzalez, 50, dejectedly picks up the nearly empty piggy bank she has dressed up in a little Santa Claus suit in hopes of getting some traditional Christmas tips.

But there are no customers to leave them.

"People are more worried about buying food than giving gifts this year," she said.

- Political war -

Exasperated with empty supermarket shelves, runaway prices and violent crime, Venezuelans gave the opposition a landslide victory in legislative elections this month, ending the Chavez movement's 16-year monopoly on power.

But Maduro's term runs until 2019, and the power struggles of divided government mean things are likely to get worse before they get better, some political analysts warn.

Maduro, who called the poll result an "electoral coup," has already made clear he is ready to do battle with the "bourgeois assembly" from the moment it is inaugurated on January 5.

And his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) appears determined to do all it can to reduce the new legislature's power before then.

It appointed 34 new judges to the country's highest court Wednesday after a series of marathon extraordinary sessions, drawing outrage from the opposition coalition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD).

The court could play a decisive role in disputes between the executive and legislative branches going forward.

The PSUV has also used the final days of its majority to convene a "national communal parliament," a sort of parallel legislature provided for under Venezuelan law -- though not the constitution -- and whose authority could become the subject of a bitter court battle.

- 'Make Maduro quit' -

The opposition appears ready to fight fire with fire.

Jailed opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez said the new legislature's priority should be "to make Maduro quit before 2019," in an interview from his prison cell.

"There are constitutional mechanisms to do that," said Lopez, who was sentenced to 14 years in September on charges of inciting violence at anti-government protests -- a ruling that drew international condemnation.

MUD's new two-thirds majority in the legislature gives it the power to put legislation to a referendum, remove officials from office and call an assembly to draft a new constitution.

It could also use its momentum at the polls to petition for a referendum to remove Maduro next year, under an article of the constitution allowing elected officials to be recalled halfway through their terms.

MUD has vowed its first act will be to pass an amnesty law for Lopez and other "political prisoners." Maduro has vowed to veto it, even though the legislature could easily override it.

Political analyst Luis Vicente Leon warned the country faces a messy power struggle.

"Can 'Chavismo' mock the decision the Venezuelan people made at the ballot box? In the short term, it can, by controling the nation's institutions. But in the medium and long term, it's unsustainable," he said.

He predicted Venezuela faces a "serious crisis" that will eventually get so bad the warring political forces will have to find a compromise to take the country forward.

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