Venezuela's political crisis is reaching a breaking point

Social unrest has simmered in Venezuela for the last few years, at times breaking out in widespread protests, and tensions have mounted this year, as an opposition-led legislature leads an effort to recall President Nicolas Maduro.

But a protest that broke out near the presidential palace in Caracas on Thursday indicates that the strife has reached a segment of the country critical to the government’s popular support.

A group of Venezuelans waiting in line at a supermarket in Caracas made a run for Miraflores, the presidential palace, after they saw what appeared to be people affiliated with the government taking food they had been waiting for hours in the heat to buy.

According to The Associated Press, over 100 people ran down the city’s main street, chanting “No more talk. We want food,” before encountering riot police less than six blocks from Miraflores.

The protesters clashed with the police, striking their shields, as other Venezuelans leaned out of windows to yell insults at police and bang pots. Police eventually deployed tear gas against the demonstrators.

“We have needs, too. We all need to eat,” Jose Lopez, a 23-year-old, told the AP. Lopez said he and other demonstrators were neither supporters nor opponents of the government, “just people trying to feed themselves.”

Downtown Caracas, the area around the presidential palace, is “territorio chavista,” or government-supporter territory, the government has said. Antigovernment protests are rare in that area, the Latin America Herald Tribune noted. The AP called the demonstration a “rare, apparently spontaneous outburst of anger.”

“CARACAS DISTURBANCES Looting attempts reported at [Avenue] Urdaneta, San Jose and La Candelaria. #WeWantFood,” this tweet reads in English.

“I’m protesting because we’re tired of the lines, of not finding products,” another protester, 21-year-old Francis Marcano, told AFP.

Jorge Rodriguez, the mayor of Caracas and ally of President Maduro, said the protests was initiated by black-market vendors, who resell scarce goods at what he called “blood prices.” He said the government was working to put them out of business. Chuo Torrealba, the opposition leader of the National Assembly, said the protests were “a country acting in self defence.”

Venezuela — which has suffered under rolling power blackouts, rampant shortages of food and medicine, widespread violence, and lacking access to running water — has seen “near-daily spontaneous” protests over the last few weeks, according to the AP.

Looting and attempted looting incidents have also risen this year, from about 20 incidents in January to more than 70 in May, according to a local nongovernment organisation.

But Thursday’s protests seem to indicate that the government is losing support among poor residents in and around the capital — people it has long relied on for support. The opposition’s formal, organised marches tend to attract middle-class Venezuelans, and tend to take place in middle-class areas of the city.

Thursday’s protests in the streets near Miraflores appeared to be driven by a different group — poor CaraqueƱos, generally considered to be governments supporters, who had spent hours waiting to buy food at subsidized prices.

The lines, which have become commonplace in Venezuela in recent years as the country’s economic crisis inhibits the government’s ability to import food, exposes poor Venezuelans not only to heat and hunger, but also makes them “easier targets for violence,” Alejandro Velasco, a professor at New York University, told Business Insider in an interview earlier this year about violence in Caracas.

Shops closed in the capital Thursday as police clashed with protesters, and opposition leaders, who are waiting on the National Electoral Commission (CNE) to rule on signatures gathered in support of a presidential recall referendum, have warned that Venezuela “faces an explosion of unrest” if the referendum doesn’t happen this year.

Recall-referendum backers gathered nearly 2 million signatures, well more than the roughly 200,000 needed to initiate the process. Despite that response, the opposition has had trouble rallying its supporters, and its legislative efforts have been stymied by government resistance.

Moreover, the referendum-approval process is complex, and political analysts have told AFP that the CNE could delay a referendum until next year. At that point, if Maduro lost, he would be replaced by his vice president.

Amid the partisan political wrangling, tensions in the streets have stirred memories of the weeks long riots and protests in spring 2014 that left 43 dead, as well as to the Caracazo — a week of protests in the capital city in 1989 that left hundreds, thousands by some accounts, dead.

The head of the Organisation of American States — alleging “graver alterations of democratic order” — has called for an emergency meeting to considered suspending Venezuelan from the regional body, something the government has condemned as a possible prelude to an “intervention.”

The government and the opposition took the rare step of meeting through proxies last week in order to mediate the political crisis, but it’s not clear how much patience many Venezuelans — about 70% of whom want Maduro out this year — have left.

“Everyday people [are getting] closer to Miraflores demanding food, soon they will be at the door of the palace Nicolas Maduro!” opposition leader Henrique Capriles tweeted on Thursday.

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