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At Least 15 Killed, Dozens Injured As Venezuelan Protests Swell


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Huge protests have engulfed Venezuela for several weeks now. The protests started with students and expanded to the middle class. Venezuelans angered by an economy in freefall, high inflation, and soaring rates of crime. At least 15 people have been killed and about 150 injured during the demonstrations.

I'm joined now by Josh Goodman. He's the Associated Press bureau chief in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. And, Josh, why don't you give a sense of the size and scope of these protests and how they've been affecting daily life.

JOSH GOODMAN: These protests are nationwide. It's hard to get a precise number on how many people are involved. But on Saturday, we had tens of thousands of opponents of President Maduro marching just in the capital of Caracas. And they've been going on, as you've said, for three weeks. They've disrupted daily economic life - schools haven't opened, marathons have been canceled, lots of businesses are closed, distribution trucks are not getting their deliveries to the stores on time. So they've taken a toll on the economy, as well.

BLOCK: And I mention that the economy has been in freefall. Just how bad is it?

GOODMAN: The economy - after President Hugo Chavez died a year ago, the economy really did start to have a freefall. A lot of the problems and imbalances that are now affecting Venezuela have their origin in Chavez's policies and, you know, mismanagement of the economy. But they really worsened after his death.

Just to give you a sense, when he died a year ago in March, inflation was around 25 percent. Now, it's 56 percent. The U.S. dollar was trading on the black market at three times its official rate. Now, it's 13 times the official rate. Shortages of basic goods - toilet paper, flour, cooking oil - they've also reached record levels. And then, you know, the most important of all, oil production - which is the lifeblood of this economy, 95 percent of all exports are oil - they've also been declining steadily under President Maduro.

So all of these problems are there and they are sort of the foundation on which this labor protests have really been building.

BLOCK: Well, help us understand that a bit more because President Maduro was handpicked by Hugo Chavez to succeed him. Are the new president's policies different than his predecessor and why have things taken such a turn?

GOODMAN: It's an accumulated effect. I mean this is - we've been now 15 years under 21st century socialism, as it's known. Because Venezuela is such a rich country in oil, it's always possible for them to find more resources when they need it. But, you know, eventually they've been digging themselves deeper and deeper into debt. Their deficit now is like 15 percent of GDP. So they just don't have as much liquidity, there's just not as much money circulating in the economy as there used to be.

Maduro, though, isn't as skillful as a leader as Chavez, many people feel. He doesn't have Chavez's charisma. He doesn't have that connection to the people - the poor people of this country who really loved Chavez. Maduro is, in many ways, trying to emulate that. I mean, he speaks for hours every day on television and he likes to blast the empire, as he sometimes calls the United States. But for some reason it falls a little flat.

BLOCK: Do you see any signs that President Maduro would respond to any of the demands of the protesters - short of stepping down - any modifications to the economic plan or anything else?

GOODMAN: Yeah, I mean I think he has said he wants dialogue but, in the same sentence, will then attack his enemies as fascists. And I think that he is trying to pursue, more recently, a more pragmatic economic policy. They're trying to find ways to eliminate the black market for dollars here. And, you know, some investors think that's a positive step.

So his government will be judged on how he's able to steer the economy. But it is a very, very difficult task and it's made harder by these protests, which I said, you know, have paralyzed a large amount of the economic activity in the past few weeks.

BLOCK: OK. Josh Goodman, the Associated Press bureau chief in Caracas, Venezuela. Josh, thanks very much.

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