On Wednesday, three people were shot dead in Venezuela during anti-government protests in the central city of Valencia. A month of student-led demonstrations in a number of Venezuelan cities have left at least 25 people dead, according to the government.
Demonstrators say they have taken to the streets to protest shortage of goods, high inflation and the highest homicide rates in the world.
The protests mark the biggest threat President Nicolas Maduro has faced since his election last year. NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro speaks to Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about the violent conflict.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And foreign ministers from several South American countries say they will send a team to Venezuela to work towards a peaceful solution to the unrest there. Yesterday, three people died in the city of Valencia, and more than two dozen have died since antigovernment demonstrations started last month.
NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Caracas, Venezuela, and she joins us now. Lourdes, welcome.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Thank you.
HOBSON: Well, these protests started about a month ago. Can you remind us what sparked them and what the protesters are demanding?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They started in a city that borders Colombia, and they began on a university campus over the enormous level of insecurity in the country. This has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Like many of the protests we've seen all over the world, they began with young people and they've spread, and the more traditional political opposition parties are now trying to capitalize on them. But the grievances are many.
We have record inflation here. It's running at over 50 percent. There are food shortages. Lines snake around city blocks with people looking for things like toilet paper and cooking oil. And the opposition here is looking for Nicolas Maduro, the president who succeeded Hugo Chavez, to address these issues. Some of the more radical ones are actually asking for him to step down.
HOBSON: And when you say the opposition, give us a sense of how big these protests are in the streets.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, yesterday, there was a fairly large demonstration here in the capital, Caracas. There were about 10,000 people out on the streets, a few less in the pro-government demonstration. So those are the numbers that we're looking at, not huge, and that's been one of the main criticisms.
Many analysts here feel that the protests haven't really reached critical mass. We're not seeing people from the poorer sections of the city come out in large numbers. The pro-government people here would like to portray the protesters as sort of elitists, and that they live in the wealthier neighborhoods, and that this is sort of a tantrum by fascists. But, in fact, we are seeing people from all different socioeconomic groups come out because, in fact, the shortages here and the difficulties here are affecting everyone.
But when you walk out on the streets and you sort of talk to people who aren't involved in the protests, who don't have sort of a real stake in what's going on, you know, they say that they are sympathetic, but they also worry about the violence. They don't want to see Venezuela descend into a civil war. And for many people, there is still a sense that the legacy of the late Hugo Chavez lives on and that Nicolas Maduro should be given a chance to turn the economy around.
HOBSON: Well, let's listen to some of what President Maduro has been saying. Here he is addressing supporters this week.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO: (Through translator) I'm obligated by my constitutional responsibility to take special measures, which I will take to the epicenter of this attack by the fascists. I'm obligated, and nobody is going to bully me.
HOBSON: That sound from the BBC. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, is President Maduro showing any signs of giving in to any of the protesters' demands?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, quite the opposite, in fact. In that speech, he also talked about how he was going to basically take a firm hand against the protesters, and was really going to step up his repression of these demonstrations. And we did see that yesterday. There was a pro-government march, and they were allowed to go unimpeded through the streets of Caracas. But the antigovernment demonstrators who were trying to make it to the state ombudsman's office were stopped. There were many police. It became very violent. We also saw three deaths in the state of Valencia as well yesterday. So things really are extremely tense.
HOBSON: And President Maduro has actually launched a new radio and TV show called "In Touch with Maduro." Tell us about that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. If you remember when Hugo Chavez was here, he had a very popular weekly program called "Alo Presidente." And he used to sort of come out on television, and he would sing, and he would dance, and it was meant to be the sort of folk-sy show.
And so now, Nicolas Maduro is sort of taking a page from his book, as he has all along. He often invokes name of the former Venezuelan leader. And he has a weekly radio show that started this Tuesday where he receives calls from the public, and he discusses his thoughts on Venezuela. And I think it's a way of sort of reaching out to the Venezuelan public.
He is not Hugo Chavez, and I think even the staunchest Chavistas, as they're called here, that I've spoken to do see his limitations. They don't really see him as having the gift of the gab, as Hugo Chavez did. They don't really see him as necessarily able to deal with many difficulties that Venezuela has. And there are a lot of divisions now, according to analysts, in the government over what to do about these protests and power struggles within the Chavistas themselves.
But, you know, the public face certainly has been we are not going to give in to this. These people are fascists. They're paid by the Americans and the CIA, and they need to be dealt with with the full force of the Venezuelan state.
HOBSON: Well - and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has left open the possibility of sanctions. Tell us about the U.S. role in all of this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, certainly the United States has a vested interest in what's happening in Venezuela, and we have seen all along that the government here has used the United States as a scapegoat. On the opposition side, they say that the Cubans here are completely infiltrated into the government, and that they are behind many of the actions of the security forces here and that they are infiltrated into the Venezuelan army. So there is a sense on both sides that this is a proxy war between Cuba and the United States. And both sides use that argument to great effect with their followers.
That said, the United States really doesn't have a great deal of leverage in Venezuela simply because they aren't close to the government, and also, you know, the relationship has been so tense for so long. Secretary Kerry did speak to a congressional committee yesterday about what to do about the situation. And the subject of sanctions was raised, but he feels that the Venezuelan economy is already so fragile that sanctions would really prove a tipping point. So I don't think we're there yet. The international community has really struggled over what to do with the situation here.
We've seen the - many countries in Latin America sort of shrug, actually, and support the government, saying that President Nicolas Maduro is the democratically elected leader, and that he needs to deal with the protests as he sees fit; and that the opposition call for him to be deposed in some way is not democratic.
And so the opposition sees that as something. They really don't trust other governments in Latin America to act as mediators, and so that, of course, brings up the question who can mediate between these two sides, what does the future hold. And it's really not clear yet. No one has really stepped up yet.
HOBSON: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, speaking with us from Caracas, Venezuela. Lourdes, thanks so much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.
HOBSON: And, Robin, it's happening in Caracas, but it's also happening in many other places around the world - such a similar scene.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Right. I'm wondering if listeners wonder if maybe Venezuela has been overlooked with all the attention in Crimea, even in the way it's been covered or commented on by U.S. officials. So let us know your thoughts, hereandnow.org.
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.