Anti-government rallies in Venezuela gain steam and support

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Carol Hills: We're turning to Venezuela now where anti-government protestors and police have also been clashing this week with deadly results. In the year since the death of President Hugo Chavez the country has been facing massive shortages and hyperinflation. And now the government faces a swelling opposition movement. Journalist Andrew Rosati is in Caracas and has been following the demonstrations. Andrew Rosati: The protestors are mainly middle-class university students. They started in the western side of the country, but have swelled in the recent weeks, especially getting backed by prominent opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. Since his backing, scores of critics of the government have joined but the motor of all the protest movements are the students. Hills: So it seems to have started in this western city, San Cristóbal. And Leopoldo Lopez, I read he's a descendent of Simón Bolívar. Rosati: Yes, he says he's a descendent of Simón Bolívar. He comes from a very wealthy elite family in Caracas. What he has done, that other opposition leaders haven't done, is he has said it is necessary to go to the streets in peaceful protest. Two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles who has been the de-facto leader of the opposition has been pushing for a dialog with the government. However, many are very fed up and feel like they can't wait for another [??] election, so the hardliners, like Leopoldo Lopez and many of these students, want action now, so they're in the streets. Hills: But Leopoldo Lopez was arrested, so he's not on the streets. But these protests have turned violent. What's driving them to the point of violence? Rosati: Well, I think there's a lot of factors there. One is a lot of people are very fed up with the situation in the country. There's over fifty-six percent inflation. Last year, the country saw almost twenty-five thousand murders - making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. And there's rampant shortages of basic foods like sugar, milk, and even toilet paper is hard to find here. So all that combined with an atmosphere where the government has come out with National Guardsmen, and these groups feel that they are not allowed to execute their constitutional right which is a peaceful protest. So this has resulted with students responding, throwing rocks, at times Molotov cocktails, and the government responding with rubber bullets and tear gas, and the whole thing just escalates very fast. Also when the first peaceful protest began, a student was killed by a gunshot and since then it has just spiraled. There was a lot of anger, a lot of students took to mild rioting, throwing rocks at government buildings, and damaging a lot of private property. Hills: What does this mean for Nicolas Maduro? He really inherited the mantle of Hugo Chavez. Where does this leave him? Rosati: Well, this is the most serious unrest he has seen since starting his presidency last April. President Nicolas Maduro won by a very, very slim margin, less than two percentage points. So a lot of the protestors feel that they have a really good chance of seeking change now. Now, Hugo Chavez constantly won elections by very large margins. On top of that, the inflation and the crime are the worst they've been in years here. So everything is kind of coming [??] at once in Venezuela. Hills: Now, military police have been using some unusual tactics to disrupt the protestors, including shutting down the internet. Rosati: This is creating even more unrest. We're hearing reports that in western Venezuela where these protests really started, the Interior Minister announced that he's sending three thousand troops yesterday, and on top of that, local journalists are reporting that they have not had any cellphone signal, they have no internet connection, and at times even been without electricity. One of things they're saying is that the government is doing this because Venezuelans are very active on social media, they are very active on the Internet. And since a lot of major news networks have been silenced over the years under Hugo Chavez, Venezuelans have been getting in touch and getting the word out through things like Twitter, circulating images, through getting in touch will colleagues telling them when to protest. So they're saying this is a way for the government to silence the opposition in these areas and hoping that these protest [??] out there. Hills: Reporter Andrew Rosati in Caracas. Thanks for your update. Rosati: Thank you.