The Poorest In Caracas Stay Reluctant To Join Venezuelan Protests

Protests are still roiling Venezuela after a month, but the opposition is having trouble attracting demonstrators from poor neighborhoods. The protests continue to struggle to find broader support.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Melissa Block. More protests are expected this weekend in the Venezuelan capital. For nearly five weeks now, demonstrators have taken to the streets. Protests were sparked by anger over a sexual assault and have grown to express a wide array of grievances. At times, tens of thousands have joined in; at others, the turnout has been less impressive as the opposition struggles to attract broader support.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Caracas.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: It's a blazingly hot noon and three prominent members of the political opposition in Venezuela are holding a news conference in one of the main shopping streets in the capital.

MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Legislator Maria Corina Machado says the Venezuelan people say to the world with pride, Venezuela is awake. The people are on the streets and we will struggle until we win. But other than the gathered press and several dozen supporters, passersby, even if they nod their heads in agreement with what she's saying, don't stop and listen.

LO CANES: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lo Canes is 50 and unemployed, and he's strolling near the press conference with his daughter. When asked about the protests, he shrugs. This is a conflict between political parties and it brings us regular people even more problems. The list of grievances here is long - record inflation, deadly crime, food shortages and unemployment.

The government of President Nicolas Maduro, who succeeded the late Hugo Chavez, has struggled to contain them and has been cracking down. People have been killed on both sides, 28 in total, and there's no end in sight. Protests have been a regular feature of life in Venezuela since Chavez launched his self-styled revolution 15 years ago, but he's no longer around and Maduro doesn't have his level of support.

Still, the opposition has a problem. Despite the fact that people from all walks of life have joined the demonstrations, the protests are focused around the wealthier areas and tens of thousands, at most - not hundreds of thousands - are participating. The Catia slum was a traditional bedrock of support for Hugo Chavez and many residents voted as well for his successor, Maduro.

We meet Saverio Vivas here, a local opposition organizer. A former Chavista, he's now allied with Enrique Capriles who almost won the presidency in the last elections. He says the protests haven't resonated much here yet.

SAVERIO VIVAS: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The message by the opposition, he says, has been leave now, Maduro, and that's a message that isn't really attractive to the poor areas. There is a feeling, he says, that this is a political battle between the parties over power and not the real problems that people are facing.

VIVAS: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says there's still a lot of support for Maduro's socialist government, too, and even if the many problems have eroded that, people are skeptical about the alternative. He says the government, with its control over the media and public discourse, has been able to capitalize on those fears.

VIVAS: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As an opposition leader in the communities here, he says, and despite our great effort, we still haven't convinced people that we are just the opposition. We are a solution to the problems of this country. But it's not only mistrust that is keeping people from the streets. There is also fear in Venezuela. Where you fall on the political spectrum can affect your livelihood in very direct ways.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The young man I'm speaking to is in his early 20s. He used to happily participate in pro-government marches under Chavez. He voted for Maduro, he says, because he believed that he would do what was best for the country.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But Maduro, he says, has shown he isn't capable of dealing with the country's many problems. He goes on, but I can't speak about that publically. I have a government job and they don't allow dissent, he says. You are obliged to be mute or you could lose your paycheck or worse, he says. He says he feels many people like him are keeping their heads down because they want to survive.

Back at the opposition press conference, people are handing out fliers. Venezuelans, it says, whatever your political persuasion, you also have problems with electricity, scarcity, water, insecurity. This is everyone's fight. Come to the streets and protest. Whether people will actually heed that call may very well determine what happens here over the coming weeks and months. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Caracas.

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