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Venezuela's Government Holds First Talks With Opposition In Two Years


Here is one fact that helps explain the political crisis that's happening right now in Venezuela - government leaders have not sat down with members of opposition parties in two years. That is changing today, but this meeting isn't exactly making people feel optimistic. Congress has been trying to remove President Nicolas Maduro from office. The government has blocked that effort. And let's get more now from reporter John Otis, who is in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. John, good morning.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So this has been months now, this political crisis. And I know the economy is just - is suffering in Venezuela. How did we get here?

OTIS: Well, you know, things have really come to a head over the past month with the suspension of this recall vote. The opposition had really been counting on holding a recall referendum as a peaceful way out of Venezuela's economic and political crises because it would have cut short President Nicolas Maduro's term, and that doesn't end until 2019.

Now, by suspending this recall election, the opposition is saying that that's just another sign that the Maduro government is morphing into a dictatorship. His government has also jailed opposition leaders. It's stripped Congress of most of its powers. It's postponed gubernatorial elections.

So the opposition is - now sort of feels like the doors of democracy are closing on them and that their only option right now is to take their fight into the streets. And so that's why we've had these - these big, nationwide protests this month.

GREENE: Well, I gather that these protests are coming from a lot of anger and frustration from people, as well. I mean, how much are citizens in this country suffering right now?

OTIS: You know, very much. A lot of average Venezuelans, they're actually - they don't like the fact that democracy seems to be closing down, but they're also very concerned about the economic problems. There are critical shortages of food and medicine here. By some estimates, inflation could hit more than 1,000 percent this year.

I was just up on the Venezuelan border with Colombia, and you could see lots of Venezuelans crossing over to the other side to buy rice and flour and sugar and cooking oil and all these things that are really hard to get now in Venezuela. And others were looking to find work.

Also, the Venezuelan currency has collapsed. The highest denomination bill now is only worth 8 cents. And so, you know, when I crossed the border, I changed a couple hundred bucks, and I got back a couple of garbage bags full of money.


OTIS: And, you know, the fact that, you know, you're dealing with such huge quantities of money, some Venezuelan businesses now don't even accept cash anymore because they don't want to deal with the hassle, and they'll only do business with credit cards and debit cards.

GREENE: That's incredible. I mean, is there any end in sight to this? I mean, we have this meeting in Caracas between the government and opposition parties.

OTIS: Well, yes. Last night, the Maduro government and the opposition held their first talks in two years. And, as you mentioned, you know, it was quite a sight to see Maduro shaking hands with the opposition spokesman because things are so polarized here that, you know, it's sort of like Hillary Clinton shaking hands with Donald Trump. There's just lots and lots of tension.

But there's also a lot of concern among the opposition that the government is just calling these talks to stall for time and to take the wind out of the opposition's sails and deflate the protests. But still, even after this meeting that they had last night, the opposition is insisting that they're going to go forward with mass street protests.

The next one is planned for Thursday, and that - that could get a little ugly because the opposition plans to march downtown to the national palace, which is hardcore pro-government territory. And they want to present President Maduro with a kind of a symbolic pink slip, saying, you know, it's time for you to go.

GREENE: All right, well, lots to - lots to watch for in the coming days to see what happens with this crisis. That is Reporter John Otis reporting on the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. John, thanks a lot.

OTIS: Thanks so much, David Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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