RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Venezuela is facing a deepening economic crisis. Inflation is through the roof, hospitals are running out of medicine and grocery stores are running out of food, triggering protests and riots. The Venezuelan economy has been spiraling downward along with the price of oil, which fuels the nation's economy. This is all happening while senior U.S. diplomats have been meeting with Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, who's looking for international help to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
To get a sense of what's been going on we reached out to Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a political columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional.
DANIEL LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: So you have a situation that is worsening on the ground from moment to moment. Food is becoming scarcer. Electricity, especially outside of Caracas, and water remain very intermittent. And in a sense that demobilizes some of the opposition to the government because when you have to wait in line for five, six hours a day to get food - basic staples - when you can count on two, three hours of electricity or water in your home to wash clothes or to bathe yourself then that raises the price considerably on going out to protest.
SUAREZ: Let's put some more definition on the idea that food is becoming scarce. What exactly are we talking about?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Venezuela for many years has been, I would say, the most import-dependent country within - definitely the Americas. This is a country which - 98 percent of its export economy is oil-based, which brings in a lot of dollars historically. Those dollars were then brought into a central government, which would then distribute them. And that was the way that the economy worked. That was a system that gave little incentives to the government for diversifying economically, even to the point where the country could feed itself domestically.
And at the same time, before the economic crisis that began two or three years ago in 2014, Venezuelans had to be paid more to do the same job as a Colombian or an Ecuadorian. So the ability for a company to produce domestically - I mean, Venezuela, we have the same soil, the same sun as Colombia, but for decades we've been importing sugar. We've been importing coffee. We've been importing milk. And one minute there were - aren't enough dollars to be able to facilitate those imports then the imports cease, and then you have moments of extreme scarcity.
SUAREZ: The new opposition in the legislature is trying to engineer a recall election. Where do things stand with that?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: If the president is recalled in the first four years of a six-year term then you have a new election, and you can have an actual regime change or an actual administrative change. If it's in the last two years then it goes to an appointed vice president. So I mean, technically there is nothing blocking an outgoing president from appointing their wife or their son as vice president - having their only act be to appoint the ex-president as vice president and resign. They'd be right back in.
So this is something that creates a situation in which the government needs only to play for time and avoid those catalysts, because if they can make it to January 10, 2017, then Maduro could step down. But, prior to that date, Maduro stepping down means a change in ruling party.
SUAREZ: In a recent piece in Foreign Policy magazine, you wrote about your friends picked up by Venezuelan National Guardsmen, during a routine traffic stop, in the process of verifying voter signatures for the referendum. Have you heard anything from them? Have election canvassers been disappearing in this way?
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: The arrest of Francisco who is a - he's a U.S. citizen. He studied and lived between both countries. He believes very strongly in trying to bring change to Venezuela, trying to bring the democracy that he's experienced in the United States to his other country. He had lots of options to stay here, and he went back to seek public service there - him and his friend Gabriel San Miguel. And they were working on validating a signature drive. And this signature drive is required to be able to get a recall referendum, which would essentially allow for a new vote on Maduro. They're being held currently in a actual prison, instead of a detention center.
And it's interesting to point out that the moment that this happens - Francisco, a dual citizen with the United States, and Gabriel, a dual citizen with Spain - are moments in which conversations with the United States by Venezuela are picking up again. Thomas Shannon, the State Department representative, was there last week. And former President Zapatero from Spain is also very active in the Organization of American States analysis of Venezuela. So suddenly, right before those conversations begin, two potential bargaining pieces that are coming into play. And it's people being used as just another commodity. And it's wrong.
SUAREZ: That's Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez, a columnist for El Nacional in Venezuela. Thanks for joining us.
LANSBERG-RODRIGUEZ: Thank you.
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