Venezuela's Embattled President Loses Support, But Clings To Power : Parallels Nicolas Maduro presides over an unraveling economy marked by empty shop shelves, food riots, malnutrition and unrest. He's losing backers, but still has the military on his side.

Venezuela's Embattled President Loses Support, But Clings To Power

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Venezuela is unraveling with shortages of food and medicine and runaway inflation. No surprise Venezuela's President, Nicolas Maduro, is increasingly unpopular. But he is holding onto power, as NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: He's saying, "the truth in Venezuela is that there is real hunger. We are hungry." The man's invited us into his house, but he doesn't want his name used for fear of reprisals by the government. He paces angrily as he speaks. He's wiry, but it wasn't always this way. He shows me how loose his pants are now.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We call it Maduro's diet. I'm thin, and I work for a minimum wage. And I have two kids, and I can't eat myself in order to make sure that they can eat," he says. He tells me he used to be a supporter of former President Hugo Chavez, who brought his brand of socialism to Venezuela 17 years ago. But he has nothing good to say about his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "We want a change in Venezuela," he tells me. "And we want it now. We cannot live with this system of government anymore," he tells me. Polls show many Venezuelans now agree with him. Maduro and the ruling Socialist Party are losing their base of support.

This year the opposition took over the National Assembly in a sweeping election victory, and they're now trying to push through a recall referendum which, if they get enough votes, could see Maduro's term cut short. But critics say the socialist government is using all the tools at its disposal to make sure Maduro stays in power, at least for now. It controls the judiciary, the military, the executive and most of the media in the country, and it has other tactics.

CAROLINA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We went to meet Carolina Ramirez, who worked at Venezuela's tax authority for 12-and-a-half years until a few weeks ago. She was fired without explanation along with 40 other coworkers. She says they all had one thing in common.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) We had all registered and signed in favor of the recall vote.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she believes the government is punishing her and sending a message to other people with state jobs.

RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) The government is feeling threatened. People want change, and the only leverage they have is against public servants.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: If a recall vote is approved, they'll need a lot more people to come out and vote against the government.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: On a recent morning, a few dozen opposition demonstrators rallied outside of a courthouse to protest the imprisonment of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. David Smolansky is an opposition mayor from a municipality in Caracas.

DAVID SMOLANSKY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He told me at the protest, "we are seeing that political repression is intensifying." Just last week, six young men who were protesting were detained, and last month, two other activists were put in prison and charged with terrorism.

SMOLANSKY: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "When authoritarian regimes are weak and are in their death throes, that's when they start using repression and violence to stay in power," Smolansky tells me. Analysts say, though, it's actually not clear that the end of Maduro is near. The government has even taken control of food distribution, and the military, for now, is on their side.

DAVID SMILDE: It's completely within its hands to keep power and I think stymie this recall referendum. In that sense, it's really a crisis. I think there's a huge gap between what the people want and what the reality is of power in Venezuela right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It will actually depend in part, says David Smilde with the Washington Office on Latin America, on what people like the hungry man I met at the beginning of this story do. Right now food riots have been quelled by the National Guard, but if they become even more widespread...

SMILDE: We're starting to see lootings that take on an epidemic quality, and you'll get five, 10, 15 or 20 stores looted. I think that kind of social upheaval is what will really be a big problem.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that could make Maduro's military or his party supporters finally decide it's time for him to go. Analysts here say the next few months will be key. Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Caracas.

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