Political Unrest In Venezuela Continues As U.S., U.K. Cast Support For Opposition Leader
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
That growing political crisis in Venezuela concerns the opposition leader Juan Guaido, who's president of the National Assembly and has declared himself the country's interim president. But President Nicolas Maduro was re-elected last year in a contested election widely suspected to have been fraudulent. The governments of the U.S., Canada, the U.K. and a number of Venezuela's neighbors support Mr. Guaido. And there have been mass protests against Maduro. At least 20 people have been killed, according to the U.N. Human Rights Office. Francisco Toro is editor-in-chief of Caracas Chronicles, an English-language news site. He has reporters throughout Venezuela but runs the newsroom from his home base in Montreal and joins us from there today. Thanks so much for being with us.
FRANCISCO TORO: Good morning.
SIMON: President Maduro says this is nothing more than a coup d'etat ordered, promoted, financed and supported by the government of the United States. How do you assess that statement?
TORO: Well, that's the statement that they've been running on a loop for the last 15 years whenever Venezuelans raise their voices against what has been a badly deteriorating attack on democracy and autocratic drift. It's nothing new. The government's discourse and the government's line on this is really exhausted. And Venezuelans, when they hear that, at this point, they roll their eyes.
SIMON: Does Mr. Maduro still have the support of the Venezuelan military, or is that sort of divided as well?
TORO: Well, there is a top clique of generals around Maduro that have profited lavishly from Maduro's patronage, from opportunities to skim off the top in the oil industry, from drug trafficking, from illegal gold mining in the Amazon. These people live very lavish lifestyles. And they certainly support Maduro. They understand that regime change is not in their interest. Now, as you get down the ranks, it becomes much iffier.
SIMON: Help us understand how - what life has been like in Venezuela over the past few years that's brought the country to this point.
TORO: Venezuela's shockingly misgoverned. It's hard to wrap your head around a country that has lost half of its GDP in five years without a war. That's worse economic performance than Syria. It's the - only the first case of hyperinflation in Latin America in the 21st century. Inflation is running at over 1 million percent a year, and prices are doubling every three weeks or so. And so what we've seen is a mass exodus. People have just walked - in many cases, actually walked - tens, hundreds of kilometers to the border of Colombia and Brazil to find a better life in neighboring countries.
So it's a first humanitarian crisis in South America in the 21st century. And neighboring countries have never seen anything like it. Colombia had to send a fact-finding team to the Turkish-Syrian border to figure out how to deal with an influx of hundreds of thousands of desperate, hungry people.
SIMON: Can your reporters operate freely?
TORO: Our reporters do OK because we report in English, but the people who reach everyday Venezuelans through radio and TV are under enormous pressure and censorship. And now, they're aiming - they're taking aim at the Internet as well. Earlier this week, there was a crackdown on Twitter. Twitter was shut down throughout Venezuela. Instagram was spotty. The state ISP wouldn't allow people access to these critical sources of news.
SIMON: Tell us about Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly. How did he become the main challenger to Maduro?
TORO: He is a smart, young guy. He's an industrial engineer. He's 35 years old. His grandparents were members of the military a couple of generations ago. So he has this kind of family understanding of what military codes and military conduct and sort of the military lifestyle it's like in Venezuela. And that really scares the regime because he knows how to speak to military officers. And we're all very clear that this will ultimately come down to whether the mid-ranking members in the military go to their generals and say, sorry, your time is up.
SIMON: Francisco Toro, who's editor-in-chief of the news site Caracas Chronicles, thanks so much.
TORO: Thank you.
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