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Venezuelan Protests Continue

Apr 21, 2017
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

General Motors is stopping its operations in Venezuela. GM says its plant there was, quote, "illegally seized." That's just one news item amid a government crackdown on demonstrators and amid the effort by President Nicolas Maduro to stay in power. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Venezuela and he's on the line. Hi, Philip.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: There may be no simple answer here but what's going on with the GM plant?

REEVES: Well, there isn't a simple answer. It's very murky. This appears to be the result of a court case that goes back a number of years involving a former GM dealer who appears to have got a judicial ruling giving them the plant. But overall, you know, this is another reminder of the incredible difficulty people have doing business in this country right now.

INSKEEP: You have a socialist government, of course, that has tried to improve the economy for the poor but things have often backfired. And, of course, you have massive shortages of food and other basic items which have led to the protests that you've been - in part to the protests that you've been covering for days now. What's this week been like to live through, Philip?

REEVES: It's been surreal. It's very volatile here. And it's very tense. And it seems to be getting worse as far as one can assess. We have had reports overnight, for example, of shooting and looting. And the streets can very suddenly turn violent. I mean, I'll give you a small example, Steve, from yesterday. I returned to my hotel to find it engulfed in tear gas.

National Guard soldiers in riot gear were suddenly advancing towards us. The hotel was locked. There were barricades of garbage bags dragged across the road. The hotel then opened up to let us in. And the receptionist was sitting behind reception in a surgical mask. And an urn had been put out for the guests...

INSKEEP: Wow.

REEVES: ...So that they could douse their eyes for the tear gas while other people were sitting around quietly having a late lunch. Because, you know, scenes like this are not uncommon in this city these days.

INSKEEP: That is amazing. And now you're heading into the weekend when those people who are still employed, I guess, will have a couple days off if they want to go out and protest. What do you expect?

REEVES: You know, the opposition is piling on pressure now. You know, they're three weeks in. And they, I think, feel that they have momentum. So they've announced new protests for the weekend, including a march in Caracas which will be conducted in silence. People will be dressed in white.

It's to commemorate the deaths of the eight people who've died in this unrest so far over the last three weeks. And on Monday, a mass sit-in they say that they're planning to hold on Venezuela's highways. And that could be a flashpoint, I think, for more confrontation and more violence.

INSKEEP: Philip, you said the opposition feels like they have momentum. As best you can tell, do they? Is President Maduro any closer to leaving?

REEVES: It's very hard to tell. He's certainly not at all popular. And he's losing support and has lost a lot of support in his own heartland. But let's not forget what happened in 2014, when protests went on for weeks and more than 40 people were killed on both sides. And then they fizzled out. And Maduro will be ardently hoping that happens again.

INSKEEP: Who's leading the protests?

REEVES: Well, it's being led by a coalition, if you like, a rather fractious coalition of different opposition groups. And so it's been struggling for a long time to be united in coherence but they're beginning to gain that now partly through a propaganda war. I mean, some of the images, Steve, that are turning up on the social media are quite striking. The most striking perhaps is that of a male protester naked but for his shoes and socks who jumped on top of an armored vehicle yesterday. That got a lot of traction.

And then there's another of a woman standing apparently fearlessly right in front of one of those same trucks with her hands on the fender. And, you know, it means that some of these protests, despite the fact that hundreds of them have been arrested, have lost their fear. And that can be a turning point in conflicts like this.

INSKEEP: People sometimes talk about the silent majority in a situation like this. Is the silent majority getting less silent? Is the bulk of the populace engaged here one way or the other?

REEVES: No. I'd say the bulk of the populace isn't engaged but, you know, they have a struggle on their hands already. Don't forget that this country has a chronic shortage of food and medicine. And for a lot of people, the focus is in simply managing their lives so that they can get by and get their families fed. And that really is the struggle here for some people.

INSKEEP: NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas, Venezuela. Philip, thanks very much.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.