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Venezuela's President Cracks Down On Opposition Lawmakers


Let's get an update from another country in crisis. The successor to Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez is presiding over economic disaster. President Nicolas Maduro faces stubborn opposition, too. And his government has arrested the mayor of the capital, Caracas. Reporter Girish Gupta says the mayor is one several opposition figures accused of conspiracy to overthrow the government.

GIRISH GUPTA: It's very serious allegations being made against him, but there is very little evidence. The critics of the government would say this more distraction against the country's much larger problems.

INSKEEP: Despite Venezuela's oil wealth, the currency has collapsed against the U.S. dollar.

GUPTA: And that's created so many ridiculous distortions. For example, I was speaking to a doctor over the weekend. She's a pediatrician. About 35-years-old - so senior within what she does. She earns - if you look at the black market rates, which is essentially what's being used for most things - she earns about 30 bucks a month. That's around a dollar day. And she's a serious professional, and the same is said by lawyers, engineers and so on. But it's not just their earnings that are difficult. She said to me that she's seen people die on the operating table because it's been difficult to import the instruments, the medicines and so on.

INSKEEP: So we have this situation with economic chaos and the government arresting its opponents and saying that they're conspiring to overthrow the government. Can you help us understand what the conspiracy theory is here? Are they saying, as they have in the past, that the opponents are working in conspiracy with the United States?

GUPTA: Well, that's right. All of these allegations from the government generally about conspiracies to plot against Maduro, to oust him from power or to murder him. They're often said with the collusion of the United States. And there's no real evidence provided by this. Nicholas Maduro said that this week he will provide evidence. He says this a lot, but nothing really comes to light. There's always been this - using the U.S. as this devil that is destroying this country. It's that anti-imperialism that is used generally as a distraction, I think, here. For the announcement of Hugo Chavez's death, just a couple of hours before, a couple of U.S. diplomats were chucked out of this country. And that happens fairly often here.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask one other thing then, Girish Gupta, because the former president, Hugo Chavez, for all of Venezuela's problems, was quite popular among the people. Now he has this successor who is embattled by opponents. But do you get any sense as to whether there is still a lot of basic public support for this man and his socialist-leaning programs?

GUPTA: You're completely right. Hugo Chavez was incredibly popular in this country - incredibly popular, even when things weren't going so well economically. Even when people couldn't get hold of chicken, rice in, you know, it the most - in the easiest way or at the best prices. Hugo Chavez was able - using is personality - was able to hold things together. Maduro's approval ratings now are in the low twenties. And they look to be falling. You know, I go to poor parts of town - places where people still wear the Hugo Chavez T-shirts - the red T-shirts. And they, you know, worship. And that's not too strong a word. They do sometimes worship this guy, Hugo Chavez, comandante. And they are starting to tell me - they have been for a few months now - that Maduro just isn't it.

They don't blame Chavez. They do not blame the Chavez economic policies. But they do blame Nicholas Maduro. And this is not good for him because the main reason he's in power - the only reason he's in power is because he was appointed by Hugo Chavez himself. I think support for Maduro really is falling. And we're going to have legislative elections later this year. And the opposition needs to - and it isn't quite - but it needs to get itself together, consolidate and do well if it wants to finally force some sort of transition out of chavismo.

INSKEEP: Reporter Girish Gupta is in Caracas. Thanks very much for talking with us.

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