Maduro wards off 'Venezuela Spring' but troubles not over

CARACAS Thu May 8, 2014 9:36am EDT

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, in this March 14, 2014 file picture. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Files

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, in this March 14, 2014 file picture.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Files

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CARACAS (Reuters) - A few weeks ago, Plaza Altamira in Caracas was teeming with thousands of highly-charged students baying for an end to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government.

Now, barely a dozen activists remain in the spacious 1940s square dabbling with posters. Beside them, crosses, flowers and photos lain on the floor mark the students' dead.

"Maduro's still there, isn't he? And so are all the problems. It didn't go as we wanted," lamented student Eduardo Ortega, painting "resistance" in black letters on a sheet.

"People got tired, civil society didn't support us, and the students are divided. But this isn't over. We're going to a second phase, you'll see," added Ortega, 26, his banner naming a litany of problems: shortages, crime, inflation.

Demonstrators took to the streets across the nation from early February, many dreaming of a "Venezuelan Spring" that would sweep Hugo Chavez's hand-picked successor from power and end 15 years of socialist rule in the OPEC nation of 29 million people.

The protests snowballed, gained some foreign celebrity support under the catchy slogan "SOS Venezuela", and gave prominence to previously-sidelined radical opposition leaders like Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado.

Yet the vast numbers mobilized in places like Egypt or Ukraine never materialized here. And crucially for the balance of power, there was no hint military chiefs might abandon Maduro. Disappointingly for protest leaders too, enthusiasm did not spread deeply from middle-class opposition strongholds.

Though he survived the crisis and has declared victory over his opponents, whom he accused of a "coup" attempt against him, Maduro's troubles are by no means over.

An ailing economy and rampant crime, two of the protesters' main complaints, are keeping the pressure on. One poll put his approval at 37 percent, the lowest since taking power last year.

And he could face a recall referendum in 2016.

'CHAVEZ'S MAN'

In the Catia barrio of west Caracas on a recent morning, residents said they shared some of the protesters' complaints - mainly, high prices and food shortages, although they virulently opposed the tactics.

They also griped loudly about Maduro, especially when comparing him to the wildly popular Chavez, although they could not think of anyone else they would rather see in power.

"I'm not happy with things at all. I can hardly feed my family with these crazy prices for everything," said Jorge Mendez, a carpenter and father of four, referring to Venezuela's 60 percent annual inflation rate, the highest in the Americas.

"But you don't solve these things by using violence and barricades. And you certainly don't help the poor putting a right-wing capitalist in power instead of Chavez's man," he said, watching his son at a football game on a dusty field.

Maduro, a mustachioed 51-year-old former bus driver who rose to be Chavez's foreign minister and vice-president, has used the protests to unite his disparate socialist coalition around a common enemy in hallmark Chavez style.

His offers of dialogue at the height of the trouble helped appease foreign pressure. It also widened a split in the opposition between moderates who favor talks and hard-liners who say meeting Maduro is akin to negotiation with murderers.

Often provoked by masked youths hurling stones and petrol bombs, National Guard soldiers and police reacted with endless volleys of teargas in scenes of chaos unseen in Venezuela on such a scale for a decade.

At least 41 people died, with victims on all sides, including a local beauty queen shot dead protesting, a "Chavista" on a motor-bike whose throat was slit by a cable set up by demonstrators, and nine members of the security forces.

Another 800 people were injured, and more than 2,700 arrested, with 197 of those still behind bars.

OPPOSITION MUST REGROUP

The talks have helped calm emotions and drawn approval from abroad, including the Vatican and South America's Unasur block who are helping mediate. But they have led to few concrete changes beyond agreements in principle to set up a truth commission and investigate the situation of political prisoners.

Venezuela's moderate opposition leaders, most notably twice-presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, are deeply frustrated.

They think the protesters have unwittingly played into the hands of the government and shattered a new solidarity within opposition ranks that took years to create and gave them their best showing in the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections.

Previous bouts of street violence - such as those that helped trigger a brief 2002 coup against the late Chavez - had given them a reputation as power-hungry saboteurs.

The moderates argue the opposition's main achievements since then have come from grass-roots organizing and addressing day-to-day concerns like trash collection and public transport.

Now, with a 2015 parliamentary election and possible 2016 presidential recall referendum on the horizon if they can garner the 4 million or so signatures needed to trigger that, opponents need to unite again or face further frustration.

Though sporadic violence continues, including near-daily protests like burning or seizing buses, Maduro's biggest challenge now is a range of economic problems such as soaring inflation and slowing growth.

Shortages of staple goods continue to leave people stuck for hours in supermarket lines. Even when state-run shops manage to quell the scarcity of a product such as toilet paper, another staple such as wheat flour then goes missing.

The government will use the recent protests to justify poor economic data. March's 4.1 percent inflation data, for example, was squarely blamed on the disruptions from protests.

But Maduro has also vowed to turn the situation around through a combination of new currency measures and an "economic offensive" to lower prices.

He is loathe to roll back the currency controls, price caps and nationalizations of private businesses - touchstone economic policies of the Chavez era that economists routinely identify as the causes of Venezuela's economic dysfunction.

Back at Altamira Square, children play around a fountain, but the scars of a traumatic last three months are everywhere.

"Maduro, murderer" is vividly painted on one road. A slogan on a nearby wall, made popular among demonstrators, could apply to either side in the conflict: "If you tire, you lose."

(Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Kieran Murray)

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