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Angry streets, not recall, may be Venezuela leader’s biggest risk

People shout while they queue to try to buy toilet paper and diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
People shout while they queue to try to buy toilet paper and diapers outside a pharmacy in Caracas May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Reuters

Streaming down from hilltop slums in the dead of night, hundreds of Venezuelans join an ever-growing line that circles the vast “Bicentennial” state-run supermarket.

By sunrise, there are several thousand, closely watched by National Guard soldiers, all waiting for the chance to buy coveted rice, flour or chicken at subsidized prices amid crippling nationwide shortages and inflation.

Many of them used to be devoted supporters of Hugo Chavez, the late socialist president who brought his quirky brand of left-wing nationalism to the OPEC nation during a 1999-2013 presidency.

Now, in the grumbling of pre-dawn lines, there is disillusionment with Chavez’s “Beautiful Revolution” and undisguised anger at his successor and self-declared “son” Nicolas Maduro.

Word that no price-fixed food – only diapers, detergent and deodorant – would be on offer this particular morning spreads quickly, further deflating and frustrating the crowd.

The day before, when food ran out, there was a riot.

“This is unbearable,” says Wilson Fajardo, 56, a mechanic whose three children ate only bread for dinner the previous night. “We voted for Maduro because of a promise we made Chavez, but that promise has expired. Either they solve this problem, or we’re going to have to take to the streets.”

It is these people – who struggle to find food or medicine amid worsening shortages, see their income gobbled up by runaway inflation, and suffer near-daily water and power cuts – who are arguably a bigger problem for Maduro than his formal opponents.

For sure, the opposition coalition is organizing marches and trying to channel discontent into a drive for a recall referendum against the former union leader and bus driver.

Yet they are failing to attract large numbers to protests and Socialist Party officials say the referendum will not happen this year, confident the government-leaning electoral body will drag its feet on the complicated paperwork needed.

As institutional channels to remove Maduro close, anger is spilling over in other ways.

Small spontaneous demonstrations are picking up: about 17 per day around the nation, according to the Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict, a rights group. It says looting, too, is becoming more common, with 107 incidents in the first quarter.

In towns around the nation, it is becoming common for neighbors to block roads or gather near state utility offices to show their rage over power-cuts, food prices or lack of water. Videos of mobs breaking into shops, swarming onto trucks or fighting over products often make the rounds of social media.

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