RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.
Venezuela is dealing with food shortages, massive inflation, and rising discontent; all this despite the country's rich oil reserves. And it's happened under the leadership of the socialist government that's held power for the past 15 years. So you'd think these problems would present a golden opportunity for the political opposition in that country. Instead, that political bloc remains fractured and weak with one of its main leaders behind bars. Reporter John Otis explains why.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Lilian Tintori climbs into the back of an SUV with her five-year-old daughter. They're on their way to a prison on the outskirts of Caracas to visit Tintori's husband, opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez.
LILIAN TINTORI: We are going to Ramo Verde prison. It's a military prison.
OTIS: Back in February, Lopez helped lead massive antigovernment demonstrations that he hoped would force the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro. Instead, Lopez was arrested and charged with inciting violence during the protests which left 43 people dead. His incarceration is taking a huge toll on his family.
TINTORI: My daughter, Manuela, 5 years old, she asks a lot, why Maduro put my father in jail? Why they don't want to open the door of the cell? So it's a lot for a kid. And she asked me, mommy, my father's going to die in jail?
OTIS: Human Rights Watch, the UN, and the Obama administration all say the charges are trumped up and have called for Lopez's release. Still, Lopez may have miscalculated. His jailing means that for the past 11 months, Venezuela's most charismatic opposition leader has been effectively silenced. His actions, critics say, form part of a pattern of blunders by the opposition that have ended up bolstering the socialist revolution launched by Hugo Chavez in 1999.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
OTIS: In 2002, for example, opposition leaders supported a military coup that briefly ousted the democratically-elected Chavez. They also promoted a strike by oil workers that severely damaged the economy.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
OTIS: In recent years, a more democratic opposition has been gaining ground. In the 2013 presidential election, challenger Henrique Capriles nearly defeated Maduro, who nearly defeated Chavez that same year following his death from cancer.
Since then, inflation has skyrocketed and Venezuelans face shortages of food, medicine, and consumer goods. However the government still holds huge advantages, including massive oil income. Most major news outlets are pro-government, making it hard for critics to get their message out.
Meanwhile, the opposition, which includes politicians from the far left to the far right, has been bickering over strategy and leadership. Capriles and Lopez have gone from close allies to bitter rivals.
LUCILA FLOREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: As a result, average Venezuelans like Lucila Florez, who sells fruit in a working-class suburb of Caracas, remain skeptical.
OTIS: She says...
FLOREZ: (Through interpreter) I don't see any unity. Lopez and Capriles are each going their own way, and a divided country will never amount to anything.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
OTIS: With Lopez behind bars, Maria Corina Machado has emerged as Venezuela's most militant opposition voice.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
MARIA CORINA MACHADO: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: But she's also paying a steep price. In April, she was stripped of her seat in Congress for criticizing the government at an international forum. Last month, prosecutors charged Machado with plotting to assassinate President Maduro. As with Lopez, she says the government appears to be using the legal system to gag its critics.
MACHADO: What they want is a silence and docile opposition. And that's not what they're going to get. We have the right to speak out the truth.
TINTORI: (Spanish spoken).
OTIS: After an hour-long ride to the prison to visit Lopez, the guards won't let me in. So I say goodbye to his wife and daughter. But before leaving, Lilian Tintori insists her husband did the right thing. His unjust imprisonment, she says, has finally exposed to the world the authoritarian nature of the Maduro government.
For NPR News, I'm John Otis.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.