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Venezuela's Crime And Shortages Fuel Anti-Government Protests


Venezuela's deep political divisions turned deadly this week. Three demonstrators were killed in clashes between government supporters and opponents. Cars burned, windows were smashed and the government of President Nicolas Maduro ordered the arrest of a leading opposition figure.

The Wall Street Journal's South American bureau chief Juan Forero is reporting on this story. And he says the immediately cause for the latest demonstrations is a little vague.

JUAN FORERO: Some of these problems, as you know, have been going on for a long time: high inflation, rampant crime, there's a problem with imports, some of the store shelves are empty. But things have certainly been getting a lot worse and the government has also radicalized. And the opposition is going after that, basically they are talking about how there needs to be a quote-unquote, "exit," meaning that Maduro must leave office.

But it's unclear how that supposed to happen. And right now, there's really just a lot of chaos in the country.

INSKEEP: Now, let's figure out who the opposition is. I know there was a disputed presidential election last year, Nicolas Maduro claimed victory. The opposition candidate said that that was false and has protested for months. Are these the same people who are protesting now?

FORERO: Well, I think some of the students who are our in the street are some of the same people who are protesting. There are a lot of university students who've been out there protesting, now and in the past. But I think the leadership is sort of shifting a bit. The opposition candidate who lost the election last year was Enrique Capriles, and he hasn't been a wholehearted supporter of going to the streets. He thinks that that is policy that has failed in the past.

This has really been led by two other opposition leaders. One is Leopoldo Lopez and another one is Mario Carina Machado. Right now, what's happening is that the government has issued arrest warrant for Mr. Lopez.

INSKEEP: Is the government in danger of falling?

FORERO: No, I don't think so. The government controls the military. The government controls the police. But the government is certainly facing a real critical economic situation right now; one of the highest inflation rates in the world, and a problem in terms of imports - you know, they cannot pay for imports. The government is, in fact, sort of selectively defaulting right now. I mean they're paying bondholders in New York and so forth. But they're not able to pay for the imports that put food on shelves and so forth.

INSKEEP: When you were last in the country a few weeks ago, did it feel desperate to you, among the people?

FORERO: Well, I think Venezuelans have gotten used to it the situation there. So yeah, I mean people are still out in about. They're still going out of their jobs and so forth. But it's a critical situation in the sense that even the government admits that almost a quarter of all basic items are not on store shelves. And there's a real critical lack of parts for all kinds of things. So there are a lot of industries that are just starting to shut down.

In fact, an interesting story from the last week is that Toyota - which has a plant in Venezuela - says it's shutting down. You know, they can't get parts to continue assembling cars. And you see that in industry, in factories and many, many sectors of the economy.

INSKEEP: Why would Toyota be unable to get parts in Venezuela?

FORERO: Well, because you need dollars to be able to import parts and the government just doesn't have the dollars. I mean that goes back to that point I made earlier about selectively defaulting. And so, we're having a situation, for instance, where airlines are stopping flights - they're not servicing Venezuela like they did before. Why, because they can't get paid.

INSKEEP: Juan Forero, of The Wall Street Journal, pleasure talking with you.

FORERO: It's a pleasure, thank you.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.