Venezuela bus strike causes traffic chaos in Caracas

Alexander MARTINEZ

Caracas (AFP) - Venezuelan bus drivers protesting their country's economic crisis parked their buses in the street on Wednesday, causing traffic chaos in Caracas and embarrassing President Nicolas Maduro, a former colleague.

Hundreds of drivers joined the strike, demanding better pay, more security against violent crime and spare parts for their buses.

Tires, car batteries and motor oil are on a long list of goods that have disappeared in the shortage-racked country.

The protest paralyzed half the bus fleet in the city of three million people, the drivers said.

Scores of drivers parked their buses outside the transport ministry, causing havoc on the capital's east side as they shut off one of its main arteries for nine hours.

"We're not budging. They think they're so important? Well, we are too," spokesman Hugo Ocando shouted from a parked bus.

Transport Minister Ricardo Molina had refused to meet union leaders, blaming schedule conflicts, Ocando said.

He threatened the drivers would escalate to a nationwide strike if the ministry did not give them "answers."

- Struggling for lunch money -

Drivers are calling on the authorities to raise the bus fare from 45 to 60 bolivars -- around 10 US cents at the highest official exchange rate, in a country where rigid government exchange controls have led to shortages of the foreign currency needed to import goods.

They want the increased revenue to go toward raises for trying to keep up with the world's worst inflation, forecast to top 700 percent this year.

"Our income isn't enough to maintain our buses or support our families," said Ronny Blanco, a 33-year-old freelance driver who makes around 5,000 bolivars a day.

Some 2,000 of that goes to buy his lunch, he said.

The lack of spare parts has paralyzed around half the bus fleet, union leaders say.

Drivers who need to get their vehicles back on the road to earn money are forced to pay 200,000 bolivars on the black market -- twice the government's official price -- they say.

Drivers also complain they are targets for violent crime, which has spiked amid the crisis.

"They robbed me three times in one week," said Daniel Sanchez, 32, standing beside his aging bus.

- Government take-over? -

Oil-rich Venezuela's economy has tanked as crude prices have plunged since mid-2014.

Severe shortages of food, medicine and basic goods have led to outbreaks of looting and riots.

Maduro, the political heir to late leftist firebrand Hugo Chavez, blames the crisis on an "economic war" by Venezuelan elites, backed by "American imperialism."

The opposition, which is pushing for a referendum on removing the former bus driver from power, blames the crisis on the failure of 17 years of socialist policies.

Opinion polls indicate Maduro would lose a recall referendum.

But the referendum must be held by January 10 -- four years into his six-year term -- in order to trigger new elections.

After that date, he would simply be replaced by his vice president.

Maduro's staunch ally Aristobulo Isturiz currently holds the post, although the president can replace him at will.

Isturiz threatened the government would take over the transportation sector if the drivers continue their strike.

"We're not going to abandon the people," he said.

Maduro has already given the army sweeping power over food distribution in a bid to restock bare supermarket shelves.