MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we'd like to turn to Venezuela, where violent protests have filled the streets for two weeks now - a story that may have been overshadowed in this country somewhat by the turmoil in Ukraine. The unrest is putting a spotlight on President Nicolas Maduro and the country's economic problems. We wanted to hear more so we've called Andrew Rosati. He's a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. And he's with us from there now. Welcome back, Andrew. Thanks so much for joining us again.
ANDREW ROSATI: Thank you.
MARTIN: So what are you seeing today?
ROSATI: Well, today it's a lot calmer than it was yesterday. Yesterday there was a big rally here and students tried to take the highway, and what they do is often they'll try and block transit for the rest of the city in a form of peaceful protest. But that usually is met by the national guards, and rocks get thrown, then tear gas and rubber bullets come out - it gets pretty ugly here. And that's what enveloped most of the eastern side of the city yesterday - at least five people were injured and there was big clouds of tear grass and rubber bullets bouncing all over the east side.
MARTIN: Bring us up to date for people who haven't been following the situation there. What set this off? I mean, what - and is there a common thread now between those who were protesting and people who were joining the protests and so forth?
ROSATI: Yeah, the whole protest movement is centered around student groups that began in the western side of the country for attempted rape on a student on a western university campus. And that kind of spiraled to a list of grievances that are bothering the country. And then about two weeks ago, they got backing by a politician by the name of Leopoldo Lopez. And everyone who is participating in these protests is blaming the government for a slew of issues like soaring crime, which started everything, sky-high inflation, basic shortage of basic consumer goods.
And people now on the streets, what we're seeing as a big difference in message from what started the protest is they just really want the president to step down. They want the government to be held accountable for all the problems facing the country. And they really feel - a lot of them - that the only way to solve these problems is a change of government.
MARTIN: You know, Maduro was Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor - is he not able to retain any of the authority or goodwill or support that Chavez had built up over time? You know, what's happened to what should have been his base?
ROSATI: Well, he still has a considerable base. Maduro won the election by a very slim margin, just over - just under 2 percentage points. The Chavista movement and the government won the municipality elections last December by - with over 50 percent of the popular vote for their candidates. But unlike Chavez, Maduro hasn't been able to win over a lot of the opposition forces. Chavez always succeeded in getting a lot of people in the middle ground with his charisma and the way he kind of made people laugh here and directed the country. People never really held Chavez accountable the same way they're holding accountable Nicolas Maduro. And Chavez was able to kind of blame it on his ministers or blame it on the U.S. But people don't believe Maduro anymore.
MARTIN: What is Maduro doing in response to this? I mean, you've mentioned that there has been obviously, you know, police, you know, military response, which is not being appreciated, you know, by the protesters sort of clearly. What's been Maduro's response? What can you point us to in the next couple of weeks to sort of see how he's going to handle this?
ROSATI: Well, it's been, in my opinion, a lot of heavy-handed tactics in form of the - on behalf of the government. The government claims that the student groups and opposition circles that support them are conspiring with Colombian forces and the U.S. government to topple his 10-month old administration. And that - in the view of a lot of people here - are ignoring, the government is ignoring what they're asking for entirely. But more recently, as the death toll has rised - there's been at least 16 people killed around - surrounding these protests - is the government is saying he wants dialogue. However, the opposition don't think he's serious about it. They think the government is being disingenuous. And they have yet to accept this invitation.
MARTIN: Andrew Rosati is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. And we reached him there. Andrew, thanks so much for joining us.
ROSATI: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.