Violent Crackdowns In Venezuela Severely Impacted Maduro's Opposition
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Venezuela this year has witnessed huge inflation, shortages of staple goods, more authoritarian policies and fewer demonstrations. Protests used to be daily events in Caracas. Back in June, we heard from a man whom we'll call by his first name only out of concern for his safety. Carlos is a tour guide and actor in the Venezuelan capital. And six months ago, he was a regular at demonstrations against the government of President Nicolas Maduro.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CARLOS: It's a mix - really, really impressive - of low class, middle class and high class. So if you turn around, you're going to see to your side maybe this poor kid with no shoes with a handkerchief on his mouth protecting from the tear gas, fighting. If you turn to your right, you're going to see this lady around 50 years old, blonde with pearl earrings, also with a handkerchief on her mouth, fighting for the same thing.
SIEGEL: That was Carlos describing a protest in Venezuela back in June. And he joins us once again. Welcome to the program.
CARLOS: Thank you. Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: How common are protests like that these days?
CARLOS: Actually, the protests have ceased. I mean, there are no more protests of that kind, no big protests. There are two factors, very important, that happened after the protests in June. First of all, the violence by the government increased so much. The police would come and fire to the protesters either rubber bullets or real bullets.
SIEGEL: Live rounds.
CARLOS: Yeah, it got pretty, pretty violent. So people got really scared. The protests stopped also because politically there was this very confusing agreement between the opposition leaders and the government. They call it a dialogue. And the people were furious because this dialogue was supposed to create a new electoral power to make elections for a new assembly and a new government, but the government didn't do it.
SIEGEL: So what you're describing is no great political change to speak of, but no protests anymore either.
CARLOS: That's it. And also, there's a factor that after protests the inflation got crazy and there was more - even more food shortage. So in order to eat, you have to make a five-hour line to buy food. There's no time to protest.
SIEGEL: Carlos, when you speak of inflation getting much worse, for Americans, even if we go back decades, 10 or 12 percent inflation is horrendous. What's it like?
CARLOS: Actually, in the supermarkets, every week they change the prices. Any taxi driver, every day they change prices. At restaurants, they change the menu price every three days. So actually, there's a lot more people in the streets asking for food or digging through the trash to find food. This is pretty sad.
SIEGEL: Back in June when you spoke with us, you sounded at least a little hopeful that the protests would lead to change and that change would lead to, as you spoke, of your freedom. Are you at all hopeful these days?
CARLOS: No. I think we still have a little spark of hope because we feel that we live in the greatest country of the world. For us, it's our home. It's beautiful. We love the weather. We love our people. But it's like this thing that we believed before, that we were able to make a change, now I don't feel I can make a change, and neither do the people on the streets feel they can make a change. And now I can say that me and many other people around me are just waiting for an opportunity of a job outside. Once we get a job outside Venezuela, we're going to leave. I mean, it's like just - the last one can turn the light off.
SIEGEL: That's very different from what you told us back in June. You described that - you said your sister, who lives in Miami, was urging you to go to the states to join her there and you told her, no, I love my country. You're betting on change in Venezuela - totally different now.
CARLOS: Yes. Now actually I told her, well, if you can assure me a job over there, I'll leave just like that. Of course, now I want to leave, but with the hopes to coming back. But I think now it's so complicated, the situation. The government made a very, very intelligent maneuver. They successfully managed to make the opposition fall apart completely. We don't have a clear group of opposition leaders - some imprisoned, some exiled. So if they make an election for the president, they will win because they buy people with food. So they give everybody food for free in the streets with these boxes they call CLAP boxes, which include all the basic needs in the box. So people in the low class, they - which is the majority of the population - that's why they support the government. It's just simple need.
SIEGEL: You know, you talk about the weakness of the political opposition. But President Maduro has ruled largely by decree for the past few years. He is a radical socialist in the mold of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Apart from the idea of protesting against him and asserting one's freedom, is there a competing idea that unites the critics of Maduro? Is there is some approach to politics that those of you who oppose him agree on?
CARLOS: Well, actually, Maduro, I don't think he's a socialist. He's a dictator. And even though we have a regular, normal life every day, we know that we cannot make any statements, public statement, against the government because we might get persecuted or the police might knock on your door and just take you way.
SIEGEL: As you said, the - Maduro's power base is among the poor, among the working classes who...
CARLOS: Yes. Yes.
SIEGEL: ...Get the food parcels. Do you ever have occasion to talk with people who don't feel the way you do, who think this is a great man who's looking after them? Do you - does that...
SIEGEL: ...Conversation take place?
CARLOS: Yes. That's the most difficult conversation because I once talked to a taxi driver. He follows Maduro. And he told me that because of the United States we are like this, because of the imperial power who destroys our economy we are hungry. But we have to - we have to feel the hunger for 20 years so we learn how it is to be hungry. And then we can grow as a country.
So it's the classic example of somebody who gets everything for free and who follows an ideal of this thing that Hugo Chavez for years and years and years, over more than 18 years now, has been telling to the people. Being rich is bad. Your boss is bad. The developed countries like the United States and Europe are a power that wants to oppress us. But it's a double speech because he - Chavez always said he was fighting for the poor, but he became the richest man in the country.
SIEGEL: There are people who leave dictatorships and who don't - you know, they didn't see Hungary for 40 years. They didn't get back to Poland for a half a century.
SIEGEL: It's a difficult fate for someone who leaves a dictatorship.
CARLOS: Yes. I mean, so this - it's a personal decision to leave your country. I think I'm not personally ready to leave it. But this little hope that I have, this little spark of hope, it's every time getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It hasn't gone all out yet, so I'm counting on that.
SIEGEL: Well, Carlos, thank you very much for talking with us once again.
CARLOS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: Good luck to you.
CARLOS: Thank you for listening.
SIEGEL: And Happy New Year.
CARLOS: Happy New Year.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "APERTURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.