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Morning News Brief: Venezuelan Protests, Georgia Runoff, Egypt


Up first, this day marks the anniversary of the start of Venezuela's struggle for independence in 1810. We normally wouldn't mention that here this morning but many Venezuelans plan to spend this day protesting their government.


INSKEEP: You're hearing some of the sound from recent days. People have been protesting for days. Six people have been killed. The economy has collapsed, leading to chronic shortages of food and medicine in what had been a middle class, even upscale country.

And critics of President Nicolas Maduro are blaming his socialist government. The successor to Hugo Chavez has taken more and more power to himself while the country has slid closer to chaos.


And we have NPR's Philip Reeves on the line from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. Phil, good morning.


GREENE: So is this country collapsing?

REEVES: Well, it's in deep trouble. We've heard for a long time - haven't we? - about the terrible shortages of food and the shortages of medicine and the other forms of humanitarian crisis that are unfolding here because the currency's crashed but there is now obviously this political confrontation going on. Government support is waning. And today, the opposition are preparing for what they call the mother of all protests which is going to, they hope, produce a huge turnout on the streets.

That may not be that easy because metro stations will be closed. And there are a lot of roadblocks. But they say they want to push ahead with this. And they say it's going to be a peaceful opposition, of course is concerned as to what will happen because there has been violence in past demonstrations the last three weeks.

GREENE: Yeah. And we've seen those deaths already. Well, with a protest of this size, if they want it to be the mother of all protests, what exactly are they hoping to achieve today?

REEVES: Well, they - it's all really about applying pressure and maintaining pressure. This started three weeks ago when Venezuela's supreme court decided that it was going to strip the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, of its powers. It actually, in effect, had already done that by crushing all of its decisions. But this particular ruling was seen as a very significant move towards dictatorship. It was an international outcry.

When the court revoked that decision, the opposition saw an opportunity and it mobilized. And since then, we've had off and on demonstrations in Venezuela with multiple goals, actually, but top of the list - early elections, immediate relief in the dire humanitarian situation, freeing of political prisoners and more. And, of course, the overall goal is to get rid of President Nicolas Maduro, whom they regard as a dictator.

INSKEEP: We've had a few lessons from Venezuela in recent years. One of them, it's hard to run a sophisticated economy which is what the Venezuelan government has tried to do, intervening in the economy again and again. It's easy to run that economy into the ground but it's hard to pry a populist government out of power.

There have been demonstrations for years in Venezuela. I was watching a gathering of hundreds of thousands, maybe even a million people about four years ago. But their president, Maduro, still is the successor to Hugo Chavez, who was first elected here.

GREENE: Yeah. We'll watch if these numbers swell and what exactly happens in that country. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Caracas. Phil, thanks a lot.

REEVES: You're welcome.


GREENE: So in the state of Georgia last night, there was a special election for a congressional seat. And, Steve, a lot more people were paying attention to this than you might expect.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's because a Democrat came very close to winning a heavily, heavily Republican district outside of Atlanta. Jon Ossoff, who is a newcomer to politics, won close to half the vote, a little more than 48 percent in an election with 18 candidates. So he did not quite win. There will now be a runoff but he spoke last night as if he had won.


JON OSSOFF: Let's show what it means when we say that we have more in common than we have apart, that we reject fear and scapegoating and division, that we choose to love one another and to make things happen - and to win. Thank you so much, everybody. Thank you.

INSKEEP: you know, there was a time not so long ago when $8 million dollars was a ton of money to spend on a statewide Senate race. But Ossoff raised more than $8 million for this single House race. And he now, in the runoff, faces the leading Republican, Karen Handel.

GREENE: That is a lot of money. Well, Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team is here, so is Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for The Guardian. Hi, you two.



GREENE: Domenico, it sounded like he had, like, won a presidential election last night (laughter). I mean, how big a deal was this really?

MONTANARO: Well, look. First of all, the $8 million, I think that nostalgic time of when it used to be a lot of money in a Senate race might have been last year.


MONTANARO: It's still a lot of money.


MONTANARO: And I have to admit something on your show. I have a problem. I was up later than I should have been looking at results last night for...

GREENE: That's OK. That's OK.

MONTANARO: ...One House race that is not going to change the balance of power.

INSKEEP: Likely story, Domenico.


INSKEEP: I was looking at results.

GREENE: Yeah. I was watching hockey.

MONTANARO: But the fact is, you know, Donald Trump I think has a problem too because he was up watching the same results. He tweeted after midnight that it was a big R win and he was glad to be of help. So clearly, all of the Republicans who would have liked to have tamped down the national significance of this - Donald Trump, the president of the United States, happy to make this all about him. And that's exactly what Democrats are trying to do.

And there's going to be - you talk about that $8 million, it's going to be a lot of money spent. It's going to be like a Senate race between now and then because this is the opportunity for Democrats to show that they can take out that frustration with Donald Trump, be able to try to exact some measure of revenge and enthusiasm. The problem for them is going to be that Ossoff came about 3,700 votes short - 3,648 votes short of an outright win last night.

GREENE: Now he has be in a runoff in - against a Republican.

MONTANARO: And he's going to be in a runoff. And it's going to be a lot tougher.

GREENE: Sabrina, was this a referendum in some ways against Donald Trump?

SIDDIQUI: Absolutely because most of the voters who became aware of Ossoff and even in describing why they supported him said that it had to do with their distaste for the incumbent president.

GREENE: That's what was driving voters to come out.

SIDDIQUI: That was what was really driving them to the polls. And you'll see Republicans try and spin this as Ossoff came short of actually winning and he forced the runoff. But if you look at 2016, this is a seat where a Democratic candidate typically ran 24 points behind where Ossoff was last night.

GREENE: That's a lot of ground to pick up.

SIDDIQUI: That's a lot of ground. And I also think that this is, of course, one week after you had a special election in Kansas where Democrats similarly fell just shy of turning a reliably red state. So you have a warning sign for Republicans in 2018, especially when you'll have more turnout than you typically do in a special election. That, you know, the reliably red districts or states are no longer - can no longer be taken for granted.

GREENE: Domenico, a quick question about Fox News. There's so much swirling right now around host Bill O'Reilly and these sexual harassment allegations. Do we know anything at this point, this morning, about his future?

MONTANARO: Well, we know that NPR's David Folkenflik did report yesterday - or last night - that Fox News is game planning for life and possible primetime lineup shakeup without O'Reilly. So there you have it, Fox preparing for life without O'Reilly.

GREENE: OK. Domenico Montanaro of NPR's Politics team and Sabrina Siddiqui, a political reporter for The Guardian. Interesting stuff here, Steve.

INSKEEP: Yeah, strange moment for Fox News, although it continues as a big institution. On this election, Sabrina made a really valuable point in saying it's a warning sign for Republicans. But with that said, Democrats have yet to win and did not win in Kansas either. And if they want to win in 2018, which is the big prize here, they may have to carry some red districts.

GREENE: All right. Domenico, Sabrina, thanks.

SIDDIQUI: Thank you.

MONTANARO: Thank you.


GREENE: And, Steve, a bit of good news this morning for an aid worker in Egypt.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Her name is Aya Hijazi. She's Egyptian-American. And she's free. She founded an organization for street kids in Cairo. She was accused, as you may have heard in recent days, of child abuse as Egyptian authorities cracked down on non-governmental groups. An Egyptian court, however, acquitted her a few days ago. And last night, her lawyers said she was finally released after two years in jail.

GREENE: And our colleague, Jane Arraf, has been following her story. She's on the line in Cairo. Jane, she's free now. Can she now get back to work helping kids in this good mission?

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Oh, it's not quite that easy. So this has been a really high-profile case because she was helping street kids with her foundation along with her husband and volunteers. And then all of a sudden, she was charged with sexual trafficking of children. It was a case they failed to prove obviously, which is why she was released. But it will be very difficult for her to get back to work in this particular field.

There's a crackdown going on here on all kinds of groups. The government doesn't trust organizations like this. It doesn't want them to receive foreign funds. And so the future of her group is a little murky, although her future certainly is looking up since she's been released.

GREENE: And what does this tell us about the future of Egypt, this case?

ARRAF: Well, it's a really interesting case again because in Egypt, the struggle like in a lot of countries has been between - the balance between human rights and openness and openness in the rest of the world and security. And the government here is coming down on the side of security.

It says it has to crack down on unregulated groups. It has to crack down on protests. So this case is kind of the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of other groups that have been shut down. There are a lot of people languishing in jail. Hijazi was held in jail long past even the Egyptian Constitution says she should have been.

GREENE: Yeah. So...

ARRAF: But one of the things is that U.S. pressure seemed to have helped her, too.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Jane Arraf joining us from Cairo. Jane, thanks.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.