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Next week in Venezuela a new parliament is set to be sworn in, after members of the opposition boycotted elections earlier this month. It leaves opposition leader Juan Guaido in an even more precarious position, and the country with an uncertain future. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.
Now to Venezuela and the ongoing struggle for power amid a growing humanitarian crisis.
Next week, a new Parliament is set to be sworn in, after members of the opposition boycotted elections earlier this month. That leaves opposition leader Juan Guaido in an even more precarious position and the country with an uncertain future.
Special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.
They are lines that seem to go on forever, all across Venezuela, hungry children waiting to receive a meal.
Last winter, we visited this community kitchen in a poor barrio of Caracas, where volunteers from the foundation Alimenta La Solidaridad providing food for members of the community to prepare for their neighbors.
We met the head of the organization, Roberto Patino. He told us that, in 240 community kitchens throughout Venezuela, his team was serving around 25,000 people.
Early this month, we learned that their office was raided, their bank account frozen, and Patino was wanted for arrest on charges of terrorism and corruption.
Why do you think that they're going after you?
I'm not sure what their intentions are. They are very paranoid. And they see conspiracies all over. They think that everything that is being done on the community level might have the purpose of overthrowing them.
And we're trying to make them see that this is a big mistake, that they're not hurting me. They're not hurting the opposition, which doesn't own this program. We are open for everyone.
Patino told me they never ask anyone whom they support, President Nicolás Maduro or the opposition.
But politics permeates everything in Venezuela and can determine whether you support Maduro and eat or go hungry. In early December's parliamentary elections, Maduro's ruling party was widely denounced for promising food for votes.
It was the latest turn in a years-long political crisis that has left the country in chaos and with two presidents, Maduro, whose election in 2018 was declared illegitimate by the opposition-led Parliament, and Juan Guaido, the former speaker of Parliament who in 2018 was constitutionally first in line to the presidency.
President Donald Trump:
For the almost two years since, and despite being recognized as the true president by the U.S. and more than 50 countries, Guaido has not been able to win the support of the military, and therefore hasn't taken control of the country.
We were there almost one year ago when National Guard troops barred him from entering Parliament. Maduro's party essentially ran unopposed in this month's election. Only one-third of registered voters actually showed up.
We did not boycott the election. This was not an election. This was a fraud. We want elections.
Leopoldo López was once the face of the opposition, until his imprisonment in 2014.
In 2017, he was released on house arrest, under the condition of silence. His protege and fellow activist Juan Guaido took up the mantle. And, together, they made a failed attempt to oust Maduro from power 18 months ago.
In October, López made headlines when he escaped the country and fled to Spain, where he was able to reunite with his family.
I was increasingly more isolated. And I needed to contribute from the outside.
Repression in Venezuela has increased a great deal. For example, President Guaido does not sleep in the same place every night. He needs to move every night in order to be safe.
In response to what he calls a fraud, López recently joined members of the opposition from exile in staging its own referendum, with six million Venezuelans both in country and abroad demanding new elections.
For its part, the government has responded to this by saying those voters look like zombies and the results have no bearing on reality.
How do you go forward with these two dueling realities? This strategy has not seemed to work so far.
We have been many times in a moment with huge enthusiasm, with tens of thousands of people in the streets pushing protests and pushing and rallying support, and then we fall into a period of demobilization and loss of hope.
And then we need to regain and we need to continue to push forward into a new upside cycle.
But, meanwhile, the Venezuelan people suffer. U.S. sanctions hammered a country already facing economic collapse and humanitarian crisis.
The COVID pandemic dealt a further blow to a crumbling health care system and a country already starving. Patino says, as his organization is shut down, the neighbors have come together, each contributing a little something to the kitchens.
But, with supplies dwindling, the kitchens may be forced to close, a prospect too much for some to bear.
This single mother broke down in tears.
"This kitchen is helping me and my daughter so much," she says. "There are so many children that are hungry."
Patino worries that the current opposition strategy focuses too much on international efforts to change the political system, and not enough on the people suffering at home.
If you put yourselves in the shoes of the average Venezuelan, you have to consider how the struggle for democracy relates to this person, how this person can see it has a — there's a connection between her or his immediate needs and the aspiration of a democratic outcome.
I think that's the big question that all of us who want democracy in Venezuela need to struggle with.
Leopoldo López agrees that the Venezuelan people are at the center of this fight, but says they must continue fighting to see real change.
The only way in which there will be a change in the humanitarian situation for the Venezuelan people is if there is political change. We have been top. We have been in the bottom. And — but, at the end, we will win the final battle.
But for those still on the ground in Venezuela, it seems the wait for that day never ends.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Marcia Biggs.
And just yesterday, Roberto Patino received word that his arrest warrant has been revoked, but his accounts remain frozen.
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Marcia Biggs is a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour, specializing in coverage of the Middle East, where she has over a decade of experience. Recent highlights include a four-part series “Inside Yemen,” as well as in-depth reports on the battle against ISIS in Iraq and the human rights violations taking place against those fleeing Mosul. For her coverage for PBS of Iraq, Biggs has received a Gracie Allen Award, a First Place National Headliner Award, and a New York Festivals World Medal. Most recently, she was named the 2018 Marie Colvin Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the Newswomen’s Club of New York. Before her work with the NewsHour, Biggs reported for Al Jazeera English, Fox News Channel, CNN, and ABC News. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, she received her Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut and currently resides in New York City.
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