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Venezuelan Economy May Be Improving, But Poor Don’t Feel It

November 5, 1991

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Poor Venezuelans are taking to the streets again to protest hard times in the barrios, raising fears the country may be facing a repeat of rioting that killed more than 300 people nearly three years ago.

The government argues the economy is finally recovering from the oil industry depression and the debt crisis, but the recent troubles suggest the poor of this oil-rich nation are not feeling it.

The recent rioting has resulted in a few deaths, but so far it has not produced the levels of violence that occurred in February 1989 when the poor rampaged in the capital in anger over skyrocketing prices and the lack of jobs. But some officials are worried it could be an omen of worse times.

A few days ago, the town of Los Teques just south of Caracas was virtually shut down by riots involving students from the local university.

Protesters burned trucks and flipped cars. A student and a police officer were killed and four others were seriously injured when police opened fire.

The following morning in the Caricuao area of southwest Caracas, hundreds of students and residents marched to protest the death. Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas.

The week before, residents of the capital’s ″January 22″ district fought with police in several small-scale clashes that left one officer and a civilian dead.

Overall, at least a dozen disturbances have erupted the past two weeks.

The violence was a sobering reminder that all is not well, despite recent improvements in Venezuela’s economy.

Economic output is expected to grow a solid 8 percent this year. And Venezuela’s success in getting its foreign debt under control is touted as a model for other Third World countries.

But prices are still rising rapidly - about 35 percent a year - and eating away the buying power of the poor. The unemployed and under- or self-employed make up close to half the work force.

″Poverty has increased,″ said Juan Jose Delpino, former president of the Venezuelan Workers Federation. ″Hunger is visiting the homes of Venezuela more now than it has in years past.″

President Carlos Andres Perez concedes the country ″is living in difficult times,″ but he predicts Venezuela will escape serious violence.

As in 1989, the recent disturbances were triggered by increases in transportation costs.

About two weeks ago, the base fare on the ″por puesto″ - inexpensive mini-buses that transport millions each day - rose to the equivalent of 11 cents from 8 cents.

On Thursday, gasoline prices rose slightly to about 28 cents a gallon, higher than ever before here. And Perez plans to slowly raise the price to about 40 cents by the end of 1992.

Update hourly