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Venezuelan Opposition Holds Anti-Government Rally

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Protesters are calling it the taking of Caracas. In the capital of Venezuela, thousands of people are marching the streets protesting President Nicolas Maduro. His government has thrown activists in jail and cracked down on political dissent. Joining us now from Caracas is Alexandra Ulmer, Venezuela correspondent for Reuters. Welcome to the program.

ALEXANDRA ULMER: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: What is the scene there today?

ULMER: It was quite incredible, Ari. They're estimating about a million people came out to the streets of Caracas to protest against President Nicolas Maduro. We're talking about a country of about 30 million people.

The opposition has been calling for big protests throughout the year, but this is the first one where I've really felt a major momentum to it and felt that things have changed. Protesters were waving flags, blowing whistles and even chanting, this government will fall.

SHAPIRO: I understand that the president has mocked the protests, saying it's actually far smaller than the 1 million that the organizers are claiming. Do you have a sense of what's accurate?

ULMER: Well, it's hard to give a complete estimate given that there were several protests spread out across Caracas and, you know, people trickled in and out. But we're definitely talking about hundreds of thousands of people.

And we've conferred amongst ourselves here in the office, and it seems like it's probably one million people in Caracas. And then of course there were people protesting in Venezuelan provinces which are even more hard-hit by the economic crisis in the capital.

SHAPIRO: Maduro has said that his opponents want a coup. When you talk to the protesters, is that what they tell you?

ULMER: No, of course not. The opposition scoffs at the idea that they're looking for a coup. And they say Maduro is looking for a scapegoat, an excuse to crack down on dissent. Most of the people I spoke to said they had taken to the streets because they weren't eating three meals a day and that triple-digit inflation wasn't allowing them to live properly.

I spoke to a retiree who said he'd had a piece of fish for breakfast that his nephew had brought him from the coast, and that was going to serve for lunch as well because he had nothing else. And this is not an anomaly in his life. And this is no longer an anomaly in Venezuela. Most people are now saying they're eating two meals a day. And it's getting worse because supermarkets are ever emptier, and the queues are ever longer.

SHAPIRO: One of the chants from protesters is, this government will fall. How likely do you think that is?

ULMER: What protesters want is a recall referendum against Nicolas Maduro this year to trigger a new election and vote in the opposition. Now Maduro, as you said, has calling us the coup, and his government has said there will be no such referendum this year. So we're heading for a heated standoff, and it's unclear what could happen. This is a volatile country. But the opposition has always said we want to go through democratic routes.

That said, you know, the streets are getting impatient. People are hungry and angry. We've seen an increase in looting outside of supermarkets or even on highways in broad daylight. If a delivery truck breaks down, people will loot it, saying they're hungry or saying they're going to resell eggs or chicken or flour or what have you to make a bit of money on the side.

SHAPIRO: As we've said, the president is not very tolerant of political dissent. Is there any chance of a harsh government crackdown as we've seen in some other countries when people take to the streets?

ULMER: Yes. Well, Maduro has arrested politicians ahead of the protest, and last night on state television during an hour's long broadcast, he also warned that he could strip the National Assembly members - so legislators of their parliamentary immunity - i.e., that they could be arrested for allegedly sparking violence or looking for a coup.

There are warnings out there. There are threats that have already been arrests. Rights group here said about 25 people were arrested in the run up to the protest. Some were released after a few hours. But there's been a consistent crackdown. We've seen security forces out in the streets patrolling everywhere from the crack of dawn.

SHAPIRO: That's Reuters correspondent Alexandra Olmer speaking with us on Skype from Caracas, Venezuela. Thank you very much.

ULMER: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.