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Venezuelan Opposition Groups Call For Day Of Protest


This is a day to focus on the contradictions of Venezuela. It's an oil rich country where it can be hard to find toilet paper, a country filled with middle-class people who've lately suffered shortages of food, a country where people who in the past took advantage of widespread plastic surgery and now have trouble finding medicine.

It's a democratic country becoming much less so under the Socialist president Nicolas Maduro. And today is a day that many Venezuelans plan to protest. NPR's Philip Reeves has been reporting from Caracas. He's on the line. Hi, Phil.


INSKEEP: What's it been like to move around Venezuela the last few days?

REEVES: Well, it's not easy, not least because there are, out in the countryside particularly, a lot of roadblocks. You see the police out there. You see the National Guard out there. But the overall impression, Steve, is one of a place that is, above all in the richer parts of town, listless, that kind of listlessness that settles on a city that's got a broken economy. And if you go into the barriers and talk to people there, you encounter people who are really, really struggling. The poor have become very poor.

And so they will tell you that they're only getting one meal, two meals a day. And the food that they're getting is often extremely basic. Things like milk are not available. And some of them - quite a few of them have starting to grow their own vegetables which raises another issue because you've got to protect those vegetables from other people who might come along and steal them.

So people are working on strategies in some places which are really particularly hard hit. Not an entire community but in some places they're working on strategies to survive and falling back on their own basic resources because the state and the economy can't do that job for them anymore.

INSKEEP: And there are people now working on strategies to protest against the government. And, of course, those protests have been going on for some days. What have they been like?

REEVES: Yeah. They've been getting more and more momentum. And we've seen sporadic violence. Today's protest is being billed by the opposition as the mother of all protests. They're hoping for a big turnout. That may not be easy. The metro stations will be closed. There are roadblocks.

They're also - the opposition - hoping this will be a peaceful protest. And what everyone's hoping is that we won't see more violence of the kind that's happened in the last three weeks with the security forces using tear gas, water cannon, rubber bullets. And some live rounds have been flying. I mean, six people have been killed, 200 people have been injured.

And remember, the government's also hoping it'll be a big rally. They want their supporters - they're telling their supporters to go out in the streets as well. So the other concern is that there'll be clashes between their supporters and opposition supporters.

INSKEEP: Let's remind people of some of the backstory here 'cause it's a pretty long-running story. There was President Hugo Chavez, who won a popular election, won again and again, cemented himself more in power, died in office. Nicolas Maduro is his successor, still pushing these socialist policies - or populist policies, really - that seem to have wrecked the economy. But what has Maduro done to stay in power?

REEVES: Well, I think the thing that really kicked off this round of demonstrations and gave momentum to the opposition was the decision three weeks ago by the supreme court to remove from the National Assembly - which is elected and is dominated by the opposition, it's controlled by the opposition - pretty much all their powers. Now, they'd been steamrolling decisions from the National Assembly for a long time before that. But this was seen as the - as a kind of defining moment, a real concrete piece of evidence that Maduro was moving towards a far more autocratic approach, dictatorial approach. And that triggered the opposition into action.

That decision was actually rescinded. It was revoked. The opposition then saw that as an opportunity to gain still more momentum because they saw that as a sign that there is some movement here. And now they're pressing ahead with their demands. They want early elections. They want action now on the humanitarian crisis. And they want the release of political prisoners, among other things. By the way, hundreds of protesters in the last three weeks have been arrested.

So they have a long list of demands, Steve. And it was that bit of politics involving the supreme court that really triggered it. But then adding onto that was a decision by the authorities here to ban Henrique Capriles, by far the leading member of the opposition, the most prominent figure, a two-time presidential candidate, nearly came close to beating Maduro in an election in 2013. They decided to ban him from running for office for 15 years. And that has added momentum to all of this, too.

INSKEEP: Well, thanks for reminding me of that election back in 2013, Philip, because while Henrique Capriles, the Venezuela opposition candidate, felt that the election was stolen from him, the official result anyway was that he lost and that Nicolas Maduro still had a lot of popular support then. But does the socialist president have very much popular support now?

REEVES: Well, it's considered to be very low, his support. And there are some signs that it's waning further and waning further in important areas. By that, I mean the poor neighborhoods which are traditionally supporters of Hugo Chavez and then of Maduro initially. There was a perhaps significant moment the other day at a military rally in an area that was thought as fiercely loyal to the government.

Maduro was captured on TV - briefly - being pelted by members of the crowd. Of course, one of the issues in all of this is that as his support wanes, will he and his government become more and more draconian? That's certainly what the opposition believe? And that's obviously a source of concern to the international community.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how tense is it there? How tense is the feeling?

REEVES: It is tense actually, Steve, I have to tell you it is. People are worried about what will happen today. No one knows really. People believe this won't be the end of it all. It's, you know, it's got many more chapters to run but this is a city on edge.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas, Venezuela, where a major protest against President Nicolas Maduro is planned for today. Philip, thanks very much. Take care of yourself.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.

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