JUDY WOODRUFF: In March of last year, the 14-year rule over Venezuela by the controversial and charismatic Hugo Chavez came to a dramatic end when the leader died of cancer.
His handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, was elected president soon after. As Maduro marks the end of his first year in office tomorrow, divisions have deepened in a country that has become violent in recent months.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports.
MARGARET WARNER: Late last week, after more than three months of sometimes deadly street protests throughout Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro met with his political opposition.
The six-hour televised session brokered by the Vatican and three South American foreign ministers attracted record ratings on Venezuelan TV, reflecting the nation’s anxiety at the street violence that has killed more than 40 and posed the biggest challenge to the government in more than a decade.
The alternative to finding an accommodation, said Maduro, is a dark one.
PRESIDENT NICOLAS MADURO, Venezuela (through interpreter): Imagine, it would be the beginning of an armed, violent civil confrontation, bloody, bloody, and no one would win anything.
MARGARET WARNER: What began in January as demonstrations against rising crime mushroomed in February into massive marches, with hundreds of thousands protesting the scarcity of goods, insecurity and the arrest of demonstrators.
Today, there remain smaller, but fervent localized protests in neighborhoods fortified with barricades. The target of all this? President Maduro. Maduro has struggled to maintain Chavez’s aura, but he is being swamped by an economic slide that has brought this oil-rich country 57 percent inflation and near empty store shelves, and a further explosion in Venezuela’s rampant crime, creating what the U.N. says is now the second highest murder rate in the world.
This has made life unbearable for 19-year-old student Christian Alejandro Martinez. He never protested before, but after having his house robbed, his car keys and car stolen, he’s taken to the streets. He and his fellow students feel their future is slipping away.
CHRISTIAN ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ: We can’t see it on the horizon. We are studying, but we don’t really know if we’re going to ever achieve our careers. We don’t know if we’re going to go out some day at night and get shot at. So, how can you live in this situation?
MARGARET WARNER: And Martinez has no faith in Maduro, as he did in Chavez.
CHRISTIAN ALEJANDRO MARTINEZ: I do believe that Hugo Chavez had a plan, a plan that had ideals, and a way of thinking that it would be better for the community.
MARGARET WARNER: Chavez called his plan Bolivarian socialism. The goals were social justice, empowering the poor with expanded government services and redistributing Venezuela’s vast oil riches to finance it.
MICHAEL SHIFTER, President, Inter-American Dialogue: This is what Chavez represented. This is what I think he put his finger on a legitimate grievance in Venezuela.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: I think, for Maduro and his followers, this is a revolution that he’s committed to continue. The problem is, this is a model that has obviously failed and obviously is unable to deliver basic goods to people, a reasonable economic environment with security protections.
MARGARET WARNER: Why isn’t it delivering anymore? Two reasons, says former Venezuelan Development Minister Moises Naim, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
MOISES NAIM, Author, “The End of Power”: The problem is that the 21st century socialism requires two things that are no longer there. One is a lot of money brought in by very high prices and Chavez’s charisma.
MARGARET WARNER: And Maduro doesn’t have that?
MOISES NAIM: Chavez was a political genius. Chavez was perhaps one of the best politicians we have seen in Latin America in a long time.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: The problem with Chavismo is that it was based on the model of one person makes all the decisions. It’s what happened for 14 years. Nobody else was involved politically. And you see the problem with Maduro.
MARGARET WARNER: And Chavez depended on Venezuela’s huge oil reserves, the world’s largest, to fund his social programs. But Naim says mismanagement of that state-owned sector has cost the country’s oil income to slip.
MOISES NAIM: In Venezuela, production has gone down. Lack of investment in the oil industry — again, the Chavez model is not a model of investment. It’s not a model of boosting productivity. It’s a model of spending.
MARGARET WARNER: To test the public’s view of all this, a NewsHour crew went to San Cristobal far from the capital, near the Colombian border, to meet up with architecture student Geraldine Colmenares. She’s finding life untenable right now.
GERALDINE COLMENARES, (through interpreter): I cannot go out on the streets and get what I want to feed my child, always having to stand in line, looking from supermarket to supermarket and thinking if I’m going to get back home alive.
MARGARET WARNER: She doesn’t stay long at her neighborhood’s barricades. She’s afraid to take her young son, but she helps by supplying protesters with food and water. She too has no confidence in Maduro.
GERALDINE COLMENARES (through interpreter): Maduro wants to do the same as Chavez, but he can’t. He wants to be like Chavez, but he is not like Chavez.
MARGARET WARNER: There are still plenty of fervent Chavistas who are sticking with Maduro, like Marlin Marchand, who lives with her mother in Caracas, and depends on Chavez era government programs, like the subsidized food stores.
MARLIN MARCHAND, Maduro Supporter (through interpreter): This merkal is a basic grocery, but with very low prices. A pack of flour cost two bolivars. On the open market, it’s 35 or 50. Why? Because capitalism is structured in a way that we, the poor, can’t buy what we need.
MARGARET WARNER: She says her faith in Chavez and Maduro endures.
MARLIN MARCHAND (through interpreter): Chavez was a leader. He built schools for people who did not know how to read, and now many more people know how to read. This is socialism, and Chavez transmitted this to President Maduro. Maduro’s made mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, but he’s trying to lead things in a positive direction.
EDGAR RODRIGUEZ, (through interpreter): Chavez was always seeking their votes. He always spent money before elections. That is why he won.
MARGARET WARNER: Fifty-year-old Caracas-based engineer Edgar Rodriguez, long opposed to Chavez, concedes he did improve the quality of life for many of Venezuela’s poor, but he says signs of an economic implosion are everywhere now.
What’s more, he says, Maduro doesn’t have the political skills to handle the country’s changed circumstances, demonizing his opponents or those who suggest he should change course.
EDGAR RODRIGUEZ (through interpreter): There is a future if the president recognizes the other point of view, but he speaks only for himself and his people. We are talking for the other half of Venezuela, and the president is ignoring us.
MARGARET WARNER: The NewsHour contacted the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington for an interview to explore the government’s perspective. We got no response.
But, earlier this month, Maduro in an op-ed in The New York Times took no responsibility for the country’s difficulties, and instead cast blame on a familiar Chavez boogeyman.
“The anti-government protests are being carried out by people in the wealthier segments of society,” he wrote, “who seek to reverse the gains of the democratic process that have benefited the vast majority of the people. Now is a time for dialogue. We have extended a hand to the opposition.”
Maduro didn’t mention that his government has jailed a top member of that opposition, former Mayor Leopoldo Lopez, on charges of fomenting unrest.
What’s more, says Naim, statistics do not back up Maduro’s claim that this is an uprising of only the wealthy.
MOISES NAIM: Venezuela never had so many wealthy people. Venezuela didn’t have such a large middle class. And even the election results show that about half the country is against the government. That means there are millions of very poor people that they claim to represent, that the government claims to represent that are taking to the street.
MARGARET WARNER: Michael Shifter thinks there’s a bit more merit to Maduro’s charge.
MICHAEL SHIFTER: I think they are expression of the profound discontent that’s widespread in Venezuela, but it — but I think it’s a mistake to interpret the protests as reflecting necessarily the majority opinion of Venezuelans.
MARGARET WARNER: There appear to be low expectations for the talks between the government and opposition. Maduro didn’t even attend the meeting that resumed this week. But if they don’t produce any sort of reconciliation, what’s the alternative? A second year for Maduro and post-Chavez Venezuela that is worse than the first.