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Sunday, February 23, 2014 - 1:18am

As The Economy Struggles, Venezuelans Hit The Streets

Leopoldo Lpez is a rock star to Venezuelans living in the United States. But in west Caracas he's the rich guy. And those contrasting images could affect the outcome of street protests playing out in Venezuela right now.

But first the obvious: This week's arrest of Lpez, a top Venezuela opposition leader, is a reminder that President Nicols Maduro's credibility is plummeting during the anti-government demonstrations that have swept his country since Feb. 12.

Maduro calls it all a "fascist coup plot." But the largely student protests that began in a number of cities last week are about one thing: what protesters call the incompetent and authoritarian response of Maduro's socialist administration to a raft of crises. The oil-rich nation is being rocked by high inflation, chronic shortages of goods and South America's worst violent crime.

As of Friday, at least six people had been killed in the unrest, among them a 22-year-old beauty-pageant queen who was shot in the head on Wednesday. In almost every case, those responsible have not been identified but brutality by government security forces and pro-government citizen militias known as colectivos have come under heavy scrutiny, as have the actions of more radical protesters.

Yet Maduro decided Lpez was among the killers seemingly on the basis of little more than Lpez's backing of the protests. So he had Lpez arrested for murder and terrorism on Tuesday though the murder charge was dropped on Thursday.

President Obama and other world leaders have called on Maduro to release Lpez. But the more important question isn't whether Obama is defending Lpez. As he was being hauled away, Lpez said he hoped his arrest would "wake up a people." Yet a larger groundswell of Venezuelans hasn't seemed to rally around him and therein lies a big problem for the opposition if not the protests.

Image Problem

Lpez, fairly or not, has his own image problem that of a sifrino, or yuppie. The Harvard-educated former mayor of Caracas' Chacao district is certainly popular and passionate.

But his appeal fails to reach far enough beyond well-heeled turf like Chacao. He isn't widely embraced in the kind of working-class strongholds Maduro's base that the opposition needs to win over if it's going to alter Venezuela's starkly divided political math. That's especially true since the military appears to have Maduro's back.

"These protests are important for getting the regime to face Venezuela's crises, but they're not going to provoke the overthrow of that regime," said Carlos Romero, an independent political analyst at the Central University of Caracas. "Lpez is well known and well supported by the middle class, but people refuse to follow him on the poor side of town."

And that in turn is a big reason Venezuela's opposition parties have balked at making Lpez their standard bearer. They did not select him as their unity candidate in 2012 against then President Hugo Chvez, the socialist firebrand who died last year, or against Maduro in the special 2013 election to succeed Chvez.

They chose instead Henrique Capriles, who as governor of Miranda state had demonstrated more talent at poaching votes from Chvez's United Socialist Party (PSUV, a.k.a the Chavistas). And it seemed to pay off in the special election, which Capriles just narrowly lost.

Since then, Maduro has poured out populist largesse including a decree to slash prices on consumer goods just before last December's local elections in an attempt to regain his and the Chavistas' political footing.

No one is denying Lpez's brass, although even U.S. diplomats have complained that he can be a bit of an egotistical maverick. But when I called opposition leaders in Caracas' poorer barrios this week, I asked them why Lpez's bogus arrest hasn't resulted in larger anti-government backlash.

Saverio Vivas, an erstwhile socialist turned opposition coordinator in Catia a cradle of Chavismo said he too is outraged by the Lpez travesty. Nonetheless, he admitted he'd have a hard time calling even opposition supporters into Catia's streets to rally around Lpez.

Said Vivas, who is a Capriles supporter: "This is where you see the gap between the east side of Caracas," including affluent districts like Chacao, "and the west side," or poorer zones like Catia. "It's hard for people here to identify with Leopoldo."

If so, the best that voters on the east side can hope for is that Venezuela's epic mess eventually makes it harder for voters on the west side to identify with Maduro.

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