Opposition Blocks Traffic In Venezuelan Capital Caracas

Venezuela's president is asking opposition leaders to join him in a peace conference on Wednesday. David Greene talks to reporter Girish Gupta in Caracas about the deadly anti-government protests.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Venezuela's president is asking opposition leaders to join him in a peace conference tomorrow. At least 13 people have died there in political street fighting over the past two weeks, and this morning, anti-government protesters are still blocking some of the capital's streets with burning trash.

Venezuela, we should say, has one of the world's worst rates of violent crime. Inflation is running at 56 percent, and stores are often out of basic staples such as milk and flour.

It is not clear who is going to come to the peace conference. One of the country's leading opposition figures is in prison, and another says it is just a publicity stunt by Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro.

In a moment, we're going to hear from one of the protest movement's student leaders, but let's begin our coverage with reporter Girish Gupta, who's covering the story in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas.

Girish, good morning, and welcome back to the program.

GIRISH GUPTA: Good morning.

GREENE: So, give me a sense of what you're seeing on the streets. What do these protests look and sound like?

GUPTA: Well, we're seeing barricades all over Caracas. We're seeing the burning of trash on the streets, the banging of pots and pans, which is a traditional form of protest here. And this is waking people up quite early in the mornings and going on late into the night. Even late last night, there was teargas from authorities. There were people pelting authorities with stones, with petrol bombs. Now, this isn't seeming to go away. This has been going on for about two weeks now in Caracas, and all over the country for even longer. For three to four weeks in the West, where this began, we're seeing even bigger, somewhat more organic protests.

GREENE: Well, we know this country, Girish, is split between people who support the government socialist policies, and you have more affluent Venezuelans who don't support those socialist policies. I mean, who are the people who are on the streets and leading these protests and sustaining them, as you say?

GUPTA: Well, that's about right. I think some opposition supporters would say that it's not just the more affluent Venezuelans who don't support the government, but frankly, that's generally the case. And the battle for the opposition over the last few years has been to attract the poorer classes, those people who do traditionally support or did traditionally support the government of Hugo Chavez. However, I have to say that many people in the streets now just don't care. And that's what I meant when I said that these protests seem to be a bit more organic.

I speak to protestors here and across the country. They don't care about Henrique Capriles or Leopoldo Lopez, who is the guy you mentioned that was arrested and jailed last week for instigating the protest. They don't care about Maduro, even. They just want some change. They're tired of all the problems here, the economy, the crime. This country has one of the world's highest murder rates. Inflation, like you say, is up at 56 percent. They just don't care about traditional politics.

GREENE: You know, you're describing this economic mess, which makes me want to try and understand why this oil-rich country is in this situation. I mean, why isn't the oil money in Venezuela actually helping to make people better off?

GUPTA: Well, that is the big question here, and that's the question the opposition often poses to the government. OPEC says Venezuela has the world's highest oil reserves, yet they don't necessarily seem to be making Venezuelans rich themselves. You've also got social economic policies, such as currency controls and price controls, essentially devaluing people's money every single day.

GREENE: Well, where do you think this might be going? I think a lot of the eyes of the world were on Ukraine recently. We saw a president actually toppled during a protest movement. Is it possible that President Maduro and Venezuela's government could be collapsing?

GUPTA: Well, what surprised me, and I think many people here, is how long these protests have gone on for. It's been three to four weeks now, and they look to continue. I think many in the opposition yesterday would like to see the end of Maduro's government. They're not exactly sure what they want, but they do want something different.

However, it does also seem that the opposition doesn't have a coherent strategy to take power. There's no election coming up. So I don't necessarily think that Maduro's government will fall. However, we're seeing this talk of dialogue between Capriles and Madura recently. Now, I don't know how realistic that is. I mean, Madura calls the protestors Nazi-fascists. Capriles, in turn, used the word genocide to describe the actions of Maduro's government earlier this week. So it's difficult to see that negotiations will work, but it might be a starting point for maybe more moderate government here.

GREENE: All right. We've been speaking to reporter Girish Gupta, who is covering the protests in Venezuela. Girish, thank you so much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

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