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Food Shortages At The Heart Of Venezuelan Economic And Political Crisis


We're going to continue our focus on world affairs by turning to Venezuela which has been coping with extreme inflation, chronic shortages of basic needs like food and medicine and near daily protests. On Saturday, for example, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans marched along a main highway in Caracas to demand again that President Nicolas Maduro resign and allow elections to go forward.

Protesters blame the president for the country's economic collapse and also for his tactics to hold on to power, suspending local elections, refusing to allow a recall referendum to go forward, attempting to rewrite the constitution and crackdowns on protesters. Clashes between anti-government protesters, looters and police have resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries in recent weeks. To get a sense of what's happening there, we've called Girish Gupta. He is reporting for Reuters. He's with us from Caracas, Venezuela, via Skype. Girish, welcome. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

GIRISH GUPTA: Thank you.

MARTIN: Can you start by telling us about yesterday's march?

GUPTA: Yesterday was pretty huge. It was also day number 50 so very symbolic in these protests. We saw hundreds of thousands of people maybe pushing a million. People here are really angry. And what's surprising - I've been here for six years, so I've seen these sort of protests where I've seen pockets of protest. I've seen larger, maintained protests - it's that they're keeping going. They're still out there in large numbers.

MARTIN: For some time now, we've been hearing increasingly disturbing reports about severe food and medicine shortages. The country isn't producing enough food, doesn't have enough money to buy food, and the president is being obstructionist about receiving food aid. And so how are people getting by?

GUPTA: This really is the big issue in Venezuela. It all boils down to not having enough to eat which is just such a base horrible thing to not have. And, you know, I can't exaggerate it. I'm not cherry-picking when I give examples, but every single supermarket here has got hundreds of people outside and every single day waiting for six if not longer hours for real basics. We're talking pasta, flour, that sort of thing. I remember - I've been at food drives outside supermarkets where people are fighting, beating each other up or sometimes worse just for a couple of bags of pasta.

MARTIN: How is the government responding to this? Do they even respond to queries by reporters, for example, by the international press? Do they even bother to address these issues like, for example, the march yesterday?

GUPTA: I think I've been here six years now, and I don't think I've had a single response from the government. Every time we do a story which is multiple times a day, we often send an email to the government saying would you like to comment and so on. I think I've had a single response in six years. The government does not talk about this.

They do not really acknowledge the problem. They sort of do, but not quite. The issue is horrible right now. People are earning, you know, maybe 10, 20, $30 a month at the black market exchange rate. And that's just not enough in the country where you can't get things.

MARTIN: The Trump administration sanctioned eight Venezuelan supreme court judges last week freezing their assets and banning them from traveling to the United States. Has the government responded to that?

GUPTA: They have. Basically Maduro said get out of our country, you know, for 18 years Hugo Chavez and Maduro recently have rallied against U.S. government. They blame the U.S. government in fact for a lot of what's happening here - the economic crisis and for all these people being out on the streets. And, of course, Trump's move did not go down well.

MARTIN: What are people saying about where they think this goes next?

GUPTA: This is the huge, horrible question, and some people still have hope because a lot of people here say, you know, it will turn around one day. I think (unintelligible) starts at every year for the last three or four years, but it's got to collapse this year because none of the numbers add up. People are so angry, and people are so hungry and so on. So where does this go? Does the protest continue? I honestly don't know, and I don't think anyone does.

MARTIN: That's Girish Gupta. He's a reporter for Reuters, and he was kind enough to talk to us from Caracas. Girish, thanks so much for speaking with us.

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