During his weekly televised address Sunday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that he was ordering a countrywide minimum wage hike. Beginning Monday, Venezuelans on the lowest rung of the economic ladder can expect a 60 percent boost to their monthly wages.
"We're here to take care of the workers, those who are most humble, and not the privileges of the oligarchs," the president declared on Sundays with Maduro, according to The Associated Press. Then, the wire service reports Maduro looked on as officials handed out the keys to hundreds of new public housing apartments.
The announcement — the third such pay raise so far this year — came less than a day before Venezuelans once again flooded the streets of major cities across the country. Both Maduro's supporters and detractors thronged highways and city centers Monday to commemorate International Workers' Day and have their say on the embattled president, undeterred by violence that has left nearly 30 people dead in more than a month of protests.
Opposition activists say the minimum wage increase is merely a publicity ploy from a president who refuses to meet their demands for the release of more than 100 political prisoners and the establishment of new elections. And critics fear the influx of cash with the wage hike will only exacerbate Venezuela's runaway inflation rate, which is projected by the International Monetary Fund to hit 720 percent next year.
Partly because of that inflation rate and a collapsing currency, the new minimum wage and food subsidies amount to just about $47 a month, John Otis reports for NPR's Newscast unit.
Still, the move apparently aims to shore up Maduro's footing with Venezuela's poor, a group that has long provided a bastion of support for his United Socialist Party and his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. Even as Maduro's administration has endured its fair share of protests, those demonstrations generally have been stocked with students and members of the middle class rather than people from big-city slums.
But The Washington Post reports that the situation appears to be changing.
"The base of the chavista movement has eroded, and the situation is growing more explosive," Margarita López Maya, a political analyst in the capital Caracas, tells the Post. "There's no bread, but the government continues to insist it has the majority of Venezuelans on its side, so it looks increasingly dissociated from the reality of people's lives."
Lately, the newspaper reports that more former members of Chavez's base have been joining the anti-Maduro protests, ignoring threats of violent reprisal from block captains and the possible loss of government food handouts in retaliation.
Maduro chalks up these protests — and the food shortages that have helped drive them — as proof of people seeking to unfairly undermine his government, both from inside and outside Venezuela's borders. Late last month, Venezuela formally declared its intention to leave the Organization of American States, citing the international group's criticisms as "legal and institutional violations that are arbitrary."
Pope Francis, the first Latin American pontiff, renewed his calls for peace and human rights protections in Venezuela during an address Sunday at the Vatican. The pope had previously tried mediating negotiations between Maduro and the opposition — talks that were broken off by the latter in December amid frustrations Maduro wasn't upholding his end of the bargain.
And the AP notes that in a public letter Sunday, the opposition Democratic Unity party made clear it does not intend to resume those negotiations soon.
"The only dialogue acceptable in Venezuela today is the dialogue of voting, which is the only way to overcome the crisis and re-establish Venezuela's kidnapped democracy," the letter read.