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Venezuela Prepares For Controversial Vote


We begin this hour in Venezuela, where there is a crucial vote today. A few facts about this election - it's being called by President Nicolas Maduro to create a new governing body that will have the power to rewrite the constitution and dissolve state institutions. None of the 6,000 plus candidates are from the opposition. Protests have been banned in advance of the referendum. And there have been violent crackdowns against demonstrators that have left at least four people dead in recent days.

The opposition says this is an attempt to circumvent the country's congress so that Maduro can hold onto power amid increasing unrest and dire shortages of food and medicine. Joining us now from Caracas is Alexandra Ulmer, Venezuela correspondent for Reuters. Welcome to the program.

ALEXANDRA ULMER: Thanks so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how does Caracas feel this weekend? There have been weeks of tension and violence.

ULMER: There have been people have been blocking the streets. We've seen youth clashing with National Guard day in, day out. And frankly, I've spoken to many people who are just nervous and scared - have been trying to stock up on food despite the shortages - and are kind of holding up in their home waiting to see what happens. And now the opposition has called for more protests today in a final push to make Maduro's move look illegitimate. And we're expecting tens of thousands people to take to the highways.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what is the government saying?

ULMER: The government says the opposition is secretly looking for a coup with the implicit backing of the United States. Maduro has said time and time again that he's facing an armed insurrection, hence, why they've banned protests. We've seen thousands of people arrested and hundreds and hundreds of injuries. So he says they are not a democratic opposition, but rather, a group of business leaders who want to get their hands back on the on the country's big oil reserves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So give us a little bit of context. What exactly is this election about today?

ULMER: So Maduro has called for the creation of this new body known as the constituent assembly. It will be made up of 500 members. And as you say, it will be all powerful. Now, he says this is the only way to bring peace back to the country. The opposition says it's a total scam and is boycotting the vote. The vote itself is strange because it's about two-thirds made up of municipal votes but in which the rural areas will have particular power. And that's where the government has more supporters. So capital Caracas, for instance, will have fewer votes than some of the far flung provinces.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there's no opposition members who are candidates for this election. Is that right?

ULMER: Exactly, there are none. The opposition does control the traditional Congress here after they swept to victory about a year and a half ago. But the government has completely ignored them. And it is presumed that it will seek to supersede that Congress once the constituent assembly is in power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you just give us a sense right now of what the situation is like for Venezuelans in the country? I mean, we've heard stories of hunger, shortages of just basic necessities.

ULMER: I really can't exaggerate the scale of the economic crisis here. We're talking about inflation in the hundreds percent, food shortages and a fourth year of recession. So I have people going through my garbage in the morning. Every place you walk to - every bakery has someone basically begging in front of them. This is something we hadn't even seen in the last year.

So this - poor people are suffering the most because any food products are cruelly out of reach because they're imported and that makes them - you know, sometimes a pack of rice can cost about half a monthly wage. But the middle class is also really hard hit because they can't afford to buy basics anymore. And that is the root of Venezuela's deep, deep anger against Nicolas Maduro.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Venezuela correspondent for Reuters, Alexandra Ulmer. Thank you so much for joining us.

ULMER: Thanks so much, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.