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Venezuela unrest chokes transport, worsens economy

Monday, March 3, 2014
A woman holds up a banner with a play on the word “calle” that reads in Spanish; “Don't let the streets get quiet,” during a rally with human rights activists, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Friday. The start of a weeklong string of holidays leading up to the March 5 anniversary of former President Hugo Chavez’s death has not completely pulled demonstrators from the streets as the government apparently hoped. President Nicolas Maduro announced this week that he was adding on Thursday and Friday to the already scheduled long Carnival weekend that includes Monday and Tuesday off, and many people interpreted it as an attempt to calm tensions. AP Photo

Anti-government protests in Venezuela have left some 1,500 trucks that distribute about half the country’s vegetables sitting idle in the western city of La Grita, waiting for roads blocked by demonstrators to be reopened. That paralysis is worsening already acute shortages of basic foodstuffs and inflation that hit 56 per cent in 2013, two of the factors which, ironically, set alight about a month of street protests in the first place.


At least 17 people have been killed in unrest that has posed the most serious challenge yet to socialist President Nicolas Maduro’s ten-month-old administration. Some transport companies have idled trucks due to the threat of violence as protesters face off against security forces at barricades, especially in the western state of Tachira. Others have parked their vehicles in solidarity with the demonstrators.


La Grita is a central distribution point for Tachira state, which produces about half the fruit and vegetables consumed in Venezuela, a country of some 29 million people. While student-led opposition protests in the capital Caracas have lost steam this week, confrontations continue in Tachira. Business leaders estimate that deliveries nationwide of basic goods, including eagerly sought staples such as toilet paper, milk and flour, have fallen to about half their normal level since the start of February because of blocked roads.


Maduro accuses the opposition of waging an “economic war” to try to trigger a coup d’etat like the one in 2002 that briefly toppled his mentor, the late leader Hugo Chavez. Those turbulent days also saw a two-month oil industry strike. In the central state of Carabobo, home to many Venezuelan businesses, barricades have also stopped raw materials reaching factories, and finished products getting out to customers. 



Hoping that an extended national break for the long Carnival weekend could take the heat out of the demonstrations, Maduro declared Thursday and Friday national holidays too. Business leaders say that was a mistake. “Six days off work is a delicate proposition, when we look at the empty shelves,” said Carlos Larrazabal, vice-president of national business lobby group Fedecamaras. “The political decisions the government are taking are going in the opposite direction to how we should solve the shortages.”


Venezuela’s shopping malls have reduced their opening hours during Carnival, and many businesses in the capital Caracas were closed on Friday, and the streets largely deserted. The central bank’s shortage index, which tracks the availability of staple goods, hit a historic high of 28 per cent in January, meaning three out of ten products were unavailable.





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