Venezuela's Embattled President Loses Support, But Clings To Power | KUOW News and Information

Venezuela's Embattled President Loses Support, But Clings To Power

Jul 13, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 4:23 pm

As Venezuela unravels — with shortages of food and medicine, as well as runaway inflation — President Nicolas Maduro is increasingly unpopular. But he's still holding onto power.

"The truth in Venezuela is there is real hunger. We are hungry," says a man who has invited me into his house in the northwestern city of Maracaibo, but doesn't want his name used for fear of reprisals by the government.

The wiry man paces angrily as he speaks. It wasn't always this way, he says, showing how loose his pants are now.

"We call it Maduro's diet," he says. "I'm thin. And I work for a minimum wage. And I have two kids. And I don't eat myself in order to make sure they can eat."

The worsening food shortages in Venezuela are hitting people like this man, the working poor, the hardest.

He tells me he used to be a supporter of Hugo Chavez, the president who brought his brand of socialism to Venezuela 16 years ago. But Chavez died in 2013, and my host has nothing good to say about his successor, Maduro.

"We want a change in Venezuela. And we want it now. We cannot live with this system of government anymore," he says.

Polls show many Venezuelans now agree with him. Maduro and his ruling Socialist Party are losing their base of support.

Venezuela's government says it is the victim of an economic war that has crippled its economy. It alleges the opposition is in the pay of the U.S. government, which is intent on overthrowing it. The opposition and the U.S. both deny this charge.

Opposition Controls Parliament

The opposition took over the legislature, the National Assembly, after a sweeping election victory last December.

And the opposition is now trying to push through a recall referendum, which, if they get enough votes, could see Maduro's term cut short.

Maduro's critics say his government is using all the tools at its disposal to make sure he stays in power. It controls the judiciary, the military, the executive and most of the media in the country.

And it has other tactics.

Carolina Ramirez, who worked at Venezuela's tax authority for more than 12 years, says she was recently fired – without explanation – along with 40 other co-workers.

She says they all had one thing in common.

"We had all registered and signed in favor of the recall vote," she said, referring to the effort to remove Maduro from office.

She says she believes the government is punishing her and sending a message to other people with state jobs.

"The government is feeling threatened," she says. "People want change and the only leverage they have is against public servants. It might make people think twice because they can lose their jobs."

If a recall vote is approved, the opposition will need a lot more people to come out and vote against the Maduro government.

An Opposition Rally

On a recent morning, a few dozen opposition demonstrators rallied outside of the courthouse to protest the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

"We are seeing that political repression is intensifying," says David Smolansky, an opposition mayor from a municipality in Caracas, who was taking part.

He points to a spate of recent arrests of opposition activists. Just last week, six young protesters were detained and last month two other activists were put in prison and charged with terrorism.

"When authoritarian regimes are weak and are in their death throes is when they start using repression and violence to stay in power," says Smolansky.

Despite such forecasts, many analysts say it's not clear what will happen next. The government has taken control of food distribution and the military is for now, on their side.

"It's completely within [the government's] hands to keep power and I think stymie this recall referendum," says David Smilde, with the Washington Office on Latin America. "And in this sense, it's really a crisis. There is a huge gap between what the people want and what the reality is of power in Venezuela right now."

For now, food riots have been quelled by the National Guard. But some worry they could return and become widespread.

"We are starting to see looting that takes on an epidemic quality," Smilde says of the recent unrest. "You'll get five, 10, 20 stores that are looted. I think that kind of social upheaval is what could be a big problem."

And that could persuade the military or Maduro's party supporters that it's time for him to go. Smilde says the next few months will be key.

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

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Venezuela is unraveling with shortages of food and medicine and runaway inflation. No surprise Venezuela's President, Nicolas Maduro, is increasingly unpopular. But he is holding onto power, as NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: He's saying, "the truth in Venezuela is that there is real hunger. We are hungry." The man's invited us into his house, but he doesn't want his name used for fear of reprisals by the government. He paces angrily as he speaks. He's wiry, but it wasn't always this way. He shows me how loose his pants are now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We call it Maduro's diet. I'm thin, and I work for a minimum wage. And I have two kids, and I can't eat myself in order to make sure that they can eat," he says. He tells me he used to be a supporter of former President Hugo Chavez, who brought his brand of socialism to Venezuela 17 years ago. But he has nothing good to say about his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We want a change in Venezuela," he tells me. "And we want it now. We cannot live with this system of government anymore," he tells me. Polls show many Venezuelans now agree with him. Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party are losing their base of support.

This year the opposition took over the National Assembly in a sweeping election victory, and they're now trying to push through a recall referendum which, if they get enough votes, could see Maduro's term cut short. But critics say the socialist government is using all the tools at its disposal to make sure Maduro stays in power, at least for now. It controls the judiciary, the military, the executive and most of the media in the country, and it has other tactics.

CAROLINA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We went to meet Carolina Ramirez, who worked at Venezuela's tax authority for 12-and-a-half years until a few weeks ago. She was fired without explanation along with 40 other coworkers. She says they all had one thing in common.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) We had all registered and signed in favor of the recall vote.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she believes the government is punishing her and sending a message to other people with state jobs.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) The government is feeling threatened. People want change, and the only leverage they have is against public servants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If a recall vote is approved, they'll need a lot more people to come out and vote against the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a recent morning, a few dozen opposition demonstrators rallied outside of a courthouse to protest the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. David Smolansky is an opposition mayor from a municipality in Caracas.

DAVID SMOLANSKY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He told me at the protest, "we are seeing that political repression is intensifying." Just last week, six young men who were protesting were detained, and last month, two other activists were put in prison and charged with terrorism.

SMOLANSKY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "When authoritarian regimes are weak and are in their death throes, that's when they start using repression and violence to stay in power," Smolansky tells me. Analysts say, though, it's actually not clear that the end of Maduro is near. The government has even taken control of food distribution, and the military, for now, is on their side.

DAVID SMILDE: It's completely within its hands to keep power and I think stymie this recall referendum. In that sense, it's really a crisis. I think there's a huge gap between what the people want and what the reality is of power in Venezuela right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It will actually depend in part, says David Smilde with the Washington Office on Latin America, on what people like the hungry man I met at the beginning of this story do. Right now food riots have been quelled by the National Guard, but if they become even more widespread...

SMILDE: We're starting to see lootings that take on an epidemic quality, and you'll get five, 10, 15 or 20 stores looted. I think that kind of social upheaval is what will really be a big problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that could make Maduro's military or his party supporters finally decide it's time for him to go. Analysts here say the next few months will be key. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.