Dire conditions drive growing anti-government opposition in Venezuela

JUDY WOODRUFF: After years of recession, skyrocketing inflation, and hardship, the oil-rich country of Venezuela is spiraling into social and economic collapse.

Many of its people have been taking to the streets on an almost daily basis for the last two months to demand that President Nicolas Maduro step down.

With the support of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico went to Caracas to find out how the wave of uprisings is creating a political crisis.

NADJA DROST: Venezuela today, an economy in freefall, triple-digit inflation, dire shortages of nearly everything, from food to medicine.

The social and economic crisis that started intensifying after President Nicolas Maduro took over from his iconic predecessor Hugo Chavez is tailspinning into a political one, as anti-government protests rock the capital, Caracas.

Chavismo, the populist form of socialism branded by Chavez that provided services for the poor paid for by profits from the world's largest oil reserves, is teetering on the verge of collapse.

Behind us is a sea of angry Venezuelans who have been taking to the streets since early April, protesting the government and its handling of this country's deepening crisis. But now that President Maduro is pushing ahead with his controversial plan to convene a citizens assembly and write up a new constitution, opposition protesters say that a new constitution will consolidate government power and severely shrink the political space for the opposition.

DAVID APONTE, Protester (through interpreter): We need a solution to problems that Venezuelans confront every day, like shortages, insecurity.

NADJA DROST: The streets have turned violent. Since early April, over 60 people have been killed and 1,000 injured as a result of protest-related violence.

Most protesters march peacefully, but a violent minority has prompted the government to call them terrorists. An intensifying crackdown has led to more than 2,500 arrests.

Many of them are represented by attorney Jorge Ramos, who runs a legal assistance group called the Venezuelan Penal Forum.

Ramos says there's a benefit for the government to detain people.

JORGE RAMOS, Venezuelan Penal Forum: And the benefit is intimidating this specific group of society. Why? Not to demonstrate, not to say things against the government.

NADJA DROST: But even intimidation tactics can't seem to quell the discontent of so many Venezuelans, as the crisis bleeds into every aspect of life.

Lisbeth Vieras has worked for nine years as a taxi driver shuttling passengers to and from the Caracas Airport to support herself, her son and daughter Glorybeth. She was never a fan of Chavez nor Maduro, but now that tourism and business travel has plummeted, she blames the government for sending the economy down the tube.

LISBETH VIERAS, Mother (through interpreter): There are a lots of changes. Two years ago, we could make three to four daily runs, today, only one.

NADJA DROST: Now, Vieras can barely cover the cost of food and her daughter's law studies at university. But her daughter's still studying, luckier than others.

GLORYBETH PARRA VIERAS, University Student (through interpreter): I have peers who can't pay their tuition. It's more important to eat in this situation than to study.

NADJA DROST: As Venezuela's crisis deepens, the chorus of voices calling for change grows.

Michael Penfold, a university professor in Caracas and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says that Chavismo is failing to understand that political and economic conditions have changed.

MICHAEL PENFOLD, Professor: But the problem is that this revolution, which right now holds a minority, is trying to run the country as if they still held a majority and as if they still had this hegemonic sort of impulse of controlling society and controlling institutions.

NADJA DROST: Opponents have protested delayed regional elections and the attempt to strip authority from the opposition-held Congress. But Maduro's decree to create a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution, a move they fear will favor only his priorities, was the last straw.

This resident of a Caracas barrio says it is yet another political distraction.

WOMAN (through interpreter): You see a lot of problems here, and we know that this man is inventing fictions. Instead of looking for solutions, he's looking to entrench himself in power. We don't want this. What we want are solutions.

In my family, five people have left the country. Fleeing what? There's crime. You don't know when you leave when you will come back. I spent 18 hours to buy four pounds of corn flour, 18 hours. That's not human.

NADJA DROST: It isn't, but she has a roof over head, which is more than this group of people who find themselves living on the streets, scavenging for food amidst the garbage. It is a desperate, but organized activity. They know the schedule of the garbage truck, and wait at restaurants exactly when the garbage is taken out, carry the bags over to the riverside, and comb through it.

Pedro, who didn't want to be identified by his full name, used to work as a graphic designer, but can't find work.

PEDRO, Unemployed Graphic Designer (through interpreter): I found myself short of money when I was renting a room, and the solution was the streets.

NADJA DROST: He says more and more people join them every day.

PEDRO (through interpreter): Everyone who comes here arrives skinny, and gains weight because, in reality, we eat. People may say that we eat garbage, but now many of them envy us because we have something in our stomachs.

NADJA DROST: As more and more Venezuelans find themselves in dire situations, more are pulled towards political groups in the opposition coalition, in search of a response to the crisis, like the Voluntad Popular Party.

At its helm is Freddy Guevara, one of several young opposition members of Congress who are playing a key role in organizing the anti-government marches.

FREDDY GUEVARA, Voluntad Popular (through interpreter): We have reached the point where all constitutional doors have been closed on us. That's pushed everyone to head out into the streets.

NADJA DROST: For Guevara and other hard-line government opponents, it all comes down to one central demand: that Maduro leave.

FREDDY GUEVARA (through interpreter): There is no way to solve all these problems with Maduro at the head.

NADJA DROST: At home in a high-rise complex of free housing built under Chavez, Darwuin Hernandez fears a new government would turn their back on the interests of the poor in particular.

DARWUIN HERNANDEZ, Maduro Supporter (through interpreter): What has the revolution and socialism given me? Well, this humble home where I am, thanks to God first and to Chavez, and to Maduro. It's what I always wanted, a decent home, nothing else.

NADJA DROST: Professor Penfold says the opposition shouldn't underestimate the power of Chavismo.

MICHAEL PENFOLD: I don't think that you can move out of this situation without an important fracture happening within the government coalition.

NADJA DROST: Guevara and the opposition are counting on government dissidents to help bring down Maduro.

FREDDY GUEVARA (through interpreter): That is to say that, every day, there are more players inside the regime that move away from Maduro. This way, he won't have the power to impose his will.

NADJA DROST: But until and if that happens, Venezuela is stuck in political deadlock.

MICHAEL PENFOLD: It's also a country — and I have to say this — with horror, that cannot stay in the situation it is for a longer time.

NADJA DROST: Taxi driver Vieras can hardly cope with worries over the chaos and insecurity, and her kids.

LISBETH VIERAS (through interpreter): She, for example, she escapes and goes off to the marches. She says, "Mama, if I tell you I'm going to the protest, you won't let me go."

NADJA DROST: Vieras knows that when her daughter runs off to marches, she always takes her cap. It's become her way of checking in on her daughter's whereabouts.

LISBETH VIERAS (through interpreter): I call her brother and I say, go to her room and see if her hat is there.

GLORYBETH PARRA VIERAS (through interpreter): I understand her as a mother how it would be to receive a call that your daughter is dead or your daughter was attacked. But, even so, sometimes, I go to the protests.

NADJA DROST: In fact, she goes several times a week, helping her university peers who are often injured on the front line.

GLORYBETH PARRA VIERAS (through interpreter): Here, he who tires, loses. And we're going to keep going until we're able to get out of this.

NADJA DROST: For the PBS NewsHour, reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost in Caracas.

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