Continuing anti-government protests in Venezuela are posing the greatest threat to the socialist government of President Nicolas Maduro since the handpicked successor to the late Hugo Chavez narrowly won election to office last year. In this oil-rich country nearly everyone is angry about food shortages, soaring inflation, and the high crime rate but there are sharp divisions over who is to blame and how to fix the problems.
The student-led protests in Venezuela, that began weeks ago, have led to some violent and deadly confrontations with police, and have sharpened the political divisions in the country.
All Venezuelans are frustrated with near hyper inflation rates, chronic shortages of basic goods, and violent crime. But Eric Olsen, a Latin America analyst with the Woodrow Wilson Center, says they are divided over who to blame.
“People who are protesting are trying to hold the government accountable for this, pointing the finger at mismanagement or policy problems on the part of the government," he said. "The government itself is blaming agitators, it's blaming the United States.”
Olsen says President Maduro’s recent expulsion of three U.S. diplomats for allegedly helping the student protests bolsters his popularity among his supporters.
Meanwhile, Maduro says he wants to directly engage the U.S. on these charges and will send an ambassador to Washington to fill the long-vacant post.
“I call for the dialogue now, I accept this challenge," he said. "Let's initiate a high-level dialogue and let's put the truth out on the table.”
For its part, the United States has denied any involvement in the Venezuelan protests and has reciprocated by expelling three Venezuelan diplomats.
“When President Maduro calls for a dialogue with the U.S. president and an exchange of ambassadors, he should focus instead on a dialogue with the Venezuelan people, because that is what is at issue here," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "This is not about the United States.”
Despite having the world's largest oil reserves, spending for the socialist programs providing free housing, health care and other services to the poor have burdened the economy. Olsen says Venezuela has to find a way to live within its means while preserving these popular programs.
"So the question is can you continue those kinds of programs but have a better and more reformed economic policy that doesn’t create such a crisis and I think that’s the challenge for both the government and for the opposition to some extent,” he said.
But so far the country remains divided over what to do and who to blame.
Anti-government demonstrators clash with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas, Feb. 24, 2014.
Anti-government demonstrators run from tear gas during clashes with riot police at Altamira Square in Caracas, Feb. 24, 2014.
People walk in front of a burning barricade blocking the highway in Chacao, Caracas, Feb. 24, 2014.
Motorcyclists waving a Venezuelan flag attend a rally in support of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Feb. 24, 2014.
Motorcyclists attend a rally in support of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Feb. 24, 2014.
Opposition supporters march protest against President Nicolas Maduro's government in Caracas Feb. 22, 2014.
An opposition supporter walks past words painted on a blocked street, reading 'Maduro murderer', at Altamira Square in Caracas, Feb. 21, 2014.
Members of a pro-government "colectivo," or "collective," march in downtown Caracas, Feb. 20, 2014.
Opposition supporters walk past a burning barricade at Altamira square in Caracas, Feb. 20, 2014.