MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to Venezuela, where opponents of President Nicolas Maduro want to remove him from office by a recall referendum. Election officials suspended the recall process last week. And since then, demonstrators have been taking to the streets. They are promising to keep protesting until the recall vote is allowed to go forward. Now the pope is stepping in. The Vatican is brokering emergency talks between the government and opposition. Hannah Dreier is the Venezuela correspondent for The Associated Press, and she's been following this story. And she's with us now from Caracas. Hannah, thanks so much for speaking with us.
HANNAH DREIER: It's good to be with you.
MARTIN: So let's go back a bit. And for those who've not been following the story, could you just tell us why there is so much discontent with President Maduro?
DREIER: So Venezuela is basically a country with a failed economy right now. You can't find basic things like toilet paper and milk in supermarkets. Crime here is apocalyptic. And people are just very unhappy with the way things are going, and they blame President Maduro. Eighty percent of people want to see him out of office this year. And what he's done is block pretty much every democratic way of getting him out.
MARTIN: You mention that really the economy is in freefall there. Venezuela is thought to have the world's largest oil reserves, but yet it's in a third year of this massive economic contraction. Now, even given the fact that oil prices have been contracting for a while now, a lot of people are just wondering, how is it possible that there are these massive shortages of kind of basic staples - food, you know, medicine, you know, basic things - when there is this natural resource? Why is that?
DREIER: Part of what happened is that while oil prices were high, the government stopped producing things locally and Venezuela started buying everything it needed, all the food and medicine it needed, from the outside world. Then when oil prices crashed, suddenly there was this cash crunch and they couldn't import things anymore. And the result has been just insane shortages like nothing you see in other places in the world.
MARTIN: So, Hannah, it sounds to me like a very dire situation there. Realistically, do people believe these talks might prove fruitful? Does there seem to be any indication - particularly, let's just say, on the government's side - of any willingness to negotiate around these issues?
DREIER: It really looks like the government has decided that it doesn't matter what the international community thinks. It doesn't matter how many hundreds of thousands of people come into the street. What's really important for them right now is not allowing a vote. So I don't see a lot of hopefulness about these talks.
And it's funny, when you go to the protests - like, last week there was a protest with maybe half a million people in the streets. It's a very old crowd for a protest because a lot of the young people here have left the country or have just disengaged from politics. So you go and you're getting, you know, people in their 70s who are protesting. And the future of Venezuela is working on their exit plan.
MARTIN: That's Hannah Dreier. She's the Venezuela correspondent for The Associated Press, and she joined us from Caracas. Hannah, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DREIER: Thank you.
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