For The Venezuelan Opposition, Protests Are 'Like A War'

Jun 23, 2017
Originally published on June 23, 2017 8:32 pm

Venezuela's ongoing political and economic crisis has taken a toll on daily life there.

A crash in oil prices and political instability under President Nicolas Maduro have led to food shortages, and that has prompted almost daily street protests by thousands of Venezuelans.

A 35-year-old protester named Carlos tells NPR's Audie Cornish the food situation is "pretty extreme." NPR is using only his first name for his safety.

"I cannot find basic food: no rice, no chicken. Fruits are very expensive. So what has really shocked me is that this past year, you can see on every street of the city, there is someone in the garbage looking for food," he says.

Carlos had been a tour guide until the spring, when he joined the opposition protesters, which the government considers enemies of the state. With the collapse of the economy, Carlos says tourism has pretty much dried up. These days the protests in Caracas — Venezuela's capital — are practically his full-time job.

As described by Carlos, the protests are extremely organized. Protesters, he says, are divided into levels.

"There's level 1 to 7," he says. Level 1 protesters are up front, face-to-face with police. People call them warriors.

"These are kids, most of them under 25, which are students most of them — or they have nothing to lose, they don't have a job, they don't see a future and they fight for their life," he says.

Carlos mostly hovers in the second wave of the protest. He says these are people who help with logistics. There, he passes out water and snacks and pours Maalox over the faces of protesters who are weeping with tear gas.

He gets the food through a network of people who operate more or less anonymously, sharing information through messaging apps about drop-off points and pickup spots where they are hiding supplies.

"It's like a war. There are soldiers, there's [logistics], there's intelligence. It's like a Cold War as well because we're hiding," he says. "I'm walking down the street, and I'm scared some policeman might [catch] me because now if you have a helmet in your car or a baseball hat of the flag of Venezuela — which is like the symbol of the protest — they can put you in jail."

More than 70 people have died in protests that have roiled the country since April, after Venezuela's Supreme Court moved to dissolve the National Assembly.

And the protests have taken on new urgency now that Maduro has plans to rewrite the country's constitution. Protesters believe he's trying to cement his hold on power. Carlos says protesters want new elections, the release of political prisoners and access to humanitarian aid.

Shannon O'Neil, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells NPR that Maduro has the support of between 20 and 25 percent of Venezuelans. Many, she says, are people who are getting baskets of food through a program arranged by the government.

"There is this base of support, though we have seen it eroding as this crisis gets worse," she says.

The U.S. has issued sanctions on Venezuelan leaders and has reached out to other countries in the region to try to bring together a coalition to push for change. But, as O'Neill says, such moves can bolster Maduro's anti-U.S. rhetoric. In a televised speech last month, Maduro said to "go home, Donald Trump. Get out of Venezuela, Donald Trump. Enough interventionism."

"That rallies his loyal followers. If you can blame the problems of Venezuela today not on your policies but on the United States, it serves him well," O'Neill says.

She says some people hope the government will collapse — and others fear it because that could lead to more economic hardship — and a refugee crisis.

"We've already seen tens of thousands of Venezuelans flee to neighboring countries to look for a better life, to get basic health care, to find food, and there's a worry that you could see those levels increase dramatically if Venezuela and the government collapse."

The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past year.

All Things Considered editor Emily Kopp contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Venezuela's ongoing political and economic crisis has taken a toll on daily life there.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CARLOS: I cannot find basic food - I mean no rice, no chicken. Fruits are very expensive. So what has really shocked me is that this past year, you can see in every street of the city, there is somebody in the garbage looking for food.

CORNISH: That's Carlos, a protester we reached in Caracas, speaking about the food shortages in the country. There are nearly daily demonstrations now against the rule of Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro. To learn why and what the U.S. is doing about it, we turn to Shannon O'Neil. She's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And she began by describing the Venezuelans who still support President Maduro.

SHANNON O'NEIL: We see somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the population still supports him. Many of these people are from the lower socioeconomic classes, people who have been very poor, that were treated poorly before Chavez. And then Maduro, who's his successor, came in. And many of these people are also people who are getting things from the government. So they're getting baskets of food and the like to stave off the hunger facing so many people. So there is this base of support that we have seen it eroding as the crisis gets worse.

CORNISH: So even though there's a black market in food - right? - there're shortages - you're saying some people are still getting access.

O'NEIL: Well, the government actually has developed a whole program to deliver baskets of foods to families. And there are lots of allegations that they send these to their loyal supporters and not to those who are within the opposition. There's a whole effort - it's run by Venezuela's military - to then provide food - so even more intervention in the economy by the state on this very basic level.

CORNISH: You've described Maduro's government as a long-running train wreck in part because of legacy problems inherited from the one before it. So can you just give us a sense of the ways, like, kind of the socialist policies of this government have led to the problems we see now?

O'NEIL: Venezuela's big problems come from the change in the economy. And we've seen over the last almost 20 years systematically undermining the use of the market. Venezuela has moved from a country that produced many things to one that today produces only oil. And it is now a highly indebted country. So when oil prices collapsed a few years ago, that's how we got this economic crisis.

CORNISH: So we know the opposition wants humanitarian aid. And they want the reinstatement of the country's congress which Maduro invalidated right after his opponents won a majority there. But what's his response? What does he have in mind instead?

O'NEIL: Well, Nicolas Maduro has responded to this by spurning the dialogue with the opposition and also now pushing for a constituent assembly. And this would change the politics within Venezuela. It would bring in a new body made up of all types of Venezuelans but mostly his supporters. And it would annul the national assembly, the legislative body. So we would see the opposition pushed out of any of those bodies that actually govern Venezuela.

CORNISH: What, if anything, has the U.S. done about any of this? What's our policy towards Venezuela?

O'NEIL: The United States has condemned the things that are going on there. It has reached out to other countries in the region to try to bring together a coalition to push for change in Venezuela. And the United States has also put targeted sanctions on individuals in Venezuela that are accused of corruption, of human rights abuses.

But the United States, too, as we've seen in the past with Venezuela - if the United States goes it alone in pushing Venezuela, it often backfires and gives Maduro or, before him, Chavez a reason to say, look; the imperial bully is pushing us - and actually builds up their support.

CORNISH: We actually have an example of that. This is the response from Nicolas Maduro in a televised speech last month he directed at Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

CORNISH: So translation there - "go home Donald Trump, enough interventionism."

O'NEIL: Exactly. And if you can blame the problems of Venezuela today on the United States, it serves him well.

CORNISH: Is there concern that this government one way or another will collapse?

O'NEIL: There is a hope among some that this government will move on and transition out. But there is a concern that there will be a collapse and one that could lead to further economic hardship. But it also could lead to a refugee crisis within the hemisphere. And we've already seen tens of thousands of Venezuelans fleeing to neighboring countries. And there's a worry that you could see those levels increase dramatically if Venezuela and if the government collapsed.

CORNISH: Shannon O'Neil is senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you for speaking with us.

O'NEIL: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.