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Venezuelans Flood Caracas Streets To Protest Against The Government

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Protesters yesterday poured into the heart of Venezuela's capital, aiming to force a recall of that country's president. That demand is in response to Venezuela's economy imploding since the president took office. Marchers blew whistles, waved little flags and carried signs with messages like I'm hungry and down with socialism. Reuters reporter Girish Gupta is in Caracas.

Good morning.

GIRISH GUPTA: Morning.

MONTAGNE: Why don't you tell us what you saw with this march yesterday, which was quite a huge gathering?

GUPTA: What we saw yesterday was hundreds of thousands of people - pushing, maybe, a million - on the streets. People really had come in from all over the country. And it's the first time I've seen in my five years here a really coordinated attempt to protest in this country because even 2014 - there were lots of people on the streets. But they didn't really know where they were going. And that's why those protests fizzled out.

MONTAGNE: What was the most vivid sort of thing you were hearing?

GUPTA: Well, I mean, the problems in Venezuela are pretty much the same as they were a couple of years ago - just a lot worse now. The currency, in that time, has collapsed more than 90 percent against the dollar on the black market.

There are queues every day at supermarkets of hundreds of thousands of people looking for basics like chicken and flour and rice. The key difference now is that people are hungry. People are genuinely saying that they're eating maybe once or twice a day. They're not eating very well.

And they're extremely angry. And what also shocked me yesterday - there were poor people at the protest. The opposition protests over the years have generally been seen as rich kids from the nice parts of town coming out against the government and leaving when they get bored. Now it was really - it was real anger at the government from people who were really genuinely suffering.

MONTAGNE: And the government was not happy to have this protest, obviously. What did the protesters want altogether? And how did the government respond?

GUPTA: So the premise of the protest was a recall referendum that the opposition is calling for against President Nicolas Maduro. And a lot of them blame him. A lot of people blame him for the problems in Venezuela. They want him out, basically.

Now, under the Constitution, if a recall referendum does take place before January 10 and Maduro does lose - the polls suggest he would - the opposition can win the presidency in another election. If it were to take place after January 10, the vice president would become president, maintaining the Socialist Party in power.

So that was the ostensible reason for the march. However, it was more just a collection of anger towards the government. People just want a change in this country. The government called this another attempted coup.

President Maduro said yesterday in a speech to his own supporters, which was much smaller - he said to them, you know, I've averted a coup today. And they talk - they're harking back to 2002, when there was a short-lived coup against Hugo Chavez.

And this is the line they used back in 2014, as well. They blame the United States for stirring this, too. So the government is not backing down in its claim that this is just a bunch of coup plotters trying to destabilize the country.

MONTAGNE: What next?

GUPTA: That's the big question. What is next? Now, I think people are going to spend today regrouping, working out how yesterday went. The opposition will see that they did get numbers that was surprising to themselves more than anyone else.

The government may see that it was a bigger march. They'll work out how to respond to it. It's very difficult. It's been very difficult over the last 15 years of opposition protests for them to gather momentum and sustain momentum. So it's a very good question. What does come next?

Will there be a recall referendum before January 10. It's unlikely. The opposition accused the government of stalling in the process. It's very unlikely that will happen. But that's what they're pushing for. We'll have to wait and see.

MONTAGNE: Girish Gupta reports for Reuters. He spoke to us from Venezuela's capital, Caracas. Thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.