Venezuela Marks 1 Year Since President Chavez's Death

The government tries to control protests fueled by middle-class Venezuelans, who blame Chavez for inflation, food shortages and crime. David Greene talks to Girish Gupta, a reporter based in Caracas.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Today marks one year since the death of charismatic Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. This anniversary comes as the government is struggling to control violent street protests fueled largely by middle-class Venezuelans. The demonstrators blame Chavez and his elected successor, President Nicolas Maduro, for high inflation, food shortages, and rampant crime.

Joining us is Girish Gupta, a reporter based in Caracas. Girish, good morning.

GIRISH GUPTA: Morning.

GREENE: So tell us how the government is planning to mark this anniversary?

GUPTA: Well, the government has got some huge events planned for today. We've got some military parades to be led by President Nicolas Maduro this morning. And then he's taking people up to the mausoleum where Chavez is buried, and that's also the location where he led the coup - the coup attempt, at least - in 1992, which really brought him to popularity in this country when people were so unhappy with the economic and social policies of the time.

Now, this is going to be a huge event for the government. Hugo Chavez was just such a big figure for this country over the last 15 years since he did come to power. And also, Maduro politically, he's not Hugo Chavez. And he needs to remind people, he needs to remind supporters why exactly they did support his government.

GREENE: And we should say, I mean there are people who support the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez and his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

GUPTA: Well, that's right. Hugo Chavez was very popular. And Nicolas Maduro, in his wake, is also very popular. Now, we've seen these parades before and we, of course, saw them towards the end of Chavez's life. We saw these huge seas of red, tens of thousands of people, hundreds of thousands of people, marching through the streets. And it won't just be Caracas, it will be all over the country. The figures are there. The opposition needs to realize - and sometimes hasn't realized over the last 15 years - just how popular the government is here.

GREENE: Well, how is the opposition planning to respond today? Are they holding their own events?

GUPTA: So in the last four weeks we've seen major protests all over this country, and they came to Caracas about two or three weeks ago, and they just keep going - which I think is something that has surprised some analysts here and myself included. Now, I was out last night at Plaza Altamira, which is one of the focal points of the protests in Caracas, and people were saying to me, yeah, of course, we're going to be out tomorrow. And I suggested that maybe Chavez supporters would see that as a lack of respect for the big man himself. And they didn't see that at all. One of them said to me, you know, they don't seem to care about the death of opposition supporters over the last few weeks; why should we care about their guy? So yeah, I do expect big marches to be held today by the opposition - I mean perhaps even clashes. We have seen clashes most nights for the last few weeks and maybe they'll be stronger today because feelings will be heightened.

And we should say, I mean these protests have been enduring - as you said - in part because of the economic situation. This is a country with so much oil, but yet inflation is so high, people are struggling. What has the last few weeks been like? How bad are things at stores and what sort of situation are people in?

Well, I was in Tatra(ph) a few days ago. Now, Tatra is in west of the country, as it borders Colombia and it's where these protests began, it's where there were sparks. And I was at the supermarkets there and I was amazed to see the queues outside. I spoke to people who have been there for seven, eight hours. They had numbers on their wrists and on their hands, on their palms, and these numbers were in the thousands. So the lines are absolutely incredible and this is to buy by flour, to buy...

GREENE: And these were numbers - just to be clear - these were numbers like written on your palm for sort of your place in line?

GUPTA: Yes. Exactly that. So, you know, I spoke to one woman who had the number 1,296 written on her palm and that's really telling. So these people are not happy. They're waiting very patiently, I was quite surprised. But yeah, it's a long time to be waiting and it's of course a day wasted, and it's a day wasted every few days to buy these basic goods.

You mentioned inflation as well - 56.3 percent, that's the price rise over the last year. That's a huge figure, one of the highest figures in the world - certainly in the Americas here. Most of that's all down to currency controls that were enacted by Chavez well over a decade ago.

GREENE: Girish Gupta, the freelance reporter based in Caracas. Girish, thanks as always.

GUPTA: Thank you.

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