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World

U.S. Officials Warn Of Possible Coup In Venezuela

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to a country experiencing food shortages, daily power outages, triple-digit inflation, not to mention serious political tensions. This is Venezuela right now. Over the weekend, the socialist government there announced a nationwide state of emergency. It's so bad some U.S. officials believe President Nicolas Maduro risks being ousted by his own military.

Reporter John Otis is in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, with the latest. And John, to start, these reports are alarming. Just how bad is it?

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Well, they're alarming, but I would describe the situation a bit more like a slow-motion meltdown. I get here to do reporting trips every couple of months, and every time I come here, things are just a little bit worse. You mentioned all these problems, like that the currency - every time I come here, it's a little bit - you know, the currency is worth a little bit less. The lines at the supermarkets are a little bit longer.

The latest problem now is that there's going to be a beer shortage because the main beer producer here has run out of foreign currency to import malted barley. So you know, shops and restaurants and bars are starting to run out of beer.

And you know, on top of all of this, you've also got power outages pretty much nationwide. And public employees are only working on a couple of days a week. I was out in the city of Maracaibo recently and stopped in at City Hall to ask about the problems there, and you know, there was nobody home, and the lights were out.

CORNISH: You mention nobody being there at City Hall, but what about the national government? I mean, is there a danger there of it collapsing?

OTIS: You know, there's all kinds of discontent here. And now it's not only, you know, among the traditional opposition, but it's also within President Maduro's own Socialist Party. Many people inside the government would like to see Maduro leave office because they think he's destroying the legacy of the late Hugo Chavez, who founded the Bolivarian Revolution 17 years ago.

And this discontent may also be growing within the military. It's kind of hard to know exactly what's going on inside the armed forces, but officers do feel the pinch of food shortages and inflation. And that's why U.S. intelligence officials are now saying there's a growing risk Maduro could end up being ousted in a military coup or some kind of a popular uprising.

CORNISH: But can we go back to the opposition for a moment because I understand they're actually pushing for a peaceful way out of the crisis.

OTIS: That's correct, Audie. The opposition would like to hold a recall referendum, and the idea would be to shorten Maduro's term, force him to step down before his term ends in 2019. And if they manage to hold the recall this year and Maduro loses, that would open the door for the opposition to return to the presidency for the first time in ages, the first time in 17 years.

But the problem is that the electoral commission is controlled by allies of the president, and they're putting up roadblocks all the way. And if this recall vote isn't held until next year and Maduro loses, then he would just be replaced by his vice president, and a lot of people think if that happens, the crisis is just going to continue.

CORNISH: You know, John, at the start, you described this as a slow-motion meltdown. What are you hearing on the streets from people?

OTIS: You know, people are just very angry. I've been in a lot of traditional pro-government neighborhoods that used to love the Bolivarian Revolution, and now it's getting harder and harder to find people who support the government. Even hard-core Chavistas - people who supported this government - are now looking for a change.

CORNISH: That's reporter John Otis. He spoke to us from Venezuela's capital, Caracas. John, thank you so much.

OTIS: Thank you very much, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.