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After GM flees their country, Venezuelans take sides over who is to blame

GM and antigovernment protesters blame the far-left policies of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez. The government says GM and other foreign firms have intentionally slowed production in an effort to sabotage the Maduro administration.

The assembly lines stopped whirling years ago. Now weeds blanket the factory grounds.

Like so much in this country destabilized by political and economic turmoil, the General Motors plant here in one of Venezuela's largest cities no longer functions. It stopped producing cars in late 2015.

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What caused the stoppage is a matter of fierce debate among Venezuelans, one that highlights a major division at the heart of the nation's escalating crisis.

GM and antigovernment protesters blame the far-left policies of President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, saying a sharp rise in inflation has made it impossible for companies to secure the foreign currency needed to import parts and raw materials.

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The government, which has carried out a years-long campaign of expropriation and nationalization in what it calls an "economic war" against multinational companies, says GM and other foreign firms have intentionally slowed production in an effort to sabotage the Maduro administration.

The conflict came to a head last week, when, against a backdrop of bloody street protests raging across the nation, GM announced it was leaving Venezuela. The Detroit-based automaker said the Valencia plant had been illegally seized by government authorities, "preventing normal operation."

Maduro's government has denied claims that it expropriated the factory, saying a court took control of the plant as part of a 17-year-old legal conflict between GM and one of its distributors.

Caught in the middle of the fight are thousands of workers who once made middle-class wages at the plant, but who in recent years have been paid a small fraction of their former salaries because of the lack of assembly line work.

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"I have done everything to survive in this situation," said Adan Tortolero, a union leader at the factory, who started working there in 2005. "We have had to sell our things, and take other jobs."

Since the factory stopped its production of the Chevy Spark, Aveo and Cruze a few years ago, Tortolero said GM has paid him and other employees a nominal fee of less than $1 a week.

"That's not even enough to buy a dozen eggs," Tortolero said.

With his salary suddenly cut, Tortolero joined the ranks of millions of other Venezuelans who have gone hungry because of unemployment and an annual inflation rate of more than 450% that has resulted in nationwide food shortages.

Last year, three-quarters of the country's population lost an average of 18 pounds because of a lack of available food, according to a survey by Venezuelan nonprofit groups and universities. A well-known priest and vocal critic of Maduro recently urged his followers to label any trash that is edible so foragers can fill their empty stomachs.

"I do not know how much more of these conditions we can take," said Tortolero, a father of four. "Our families are demanding that we bring some bread to the table."

The economic problems have been acutely felt in Valencia — located about 75 miles west of the capital, Caracas. At one time, it was a prosperous industrial hub, with multinational companies including Ford and Sherwin-Williams competing for workers. But Clorox, Bridgestone, Kimberly-Clark and many other international firms have left the country in recent years, saying government price controls and the difficulty of importing raw materials have made business impossible.

Tortolero doesn't blame the government for Venezuela's woes — a stance that underscores the complexity of the political situation in Venezuela, whose leftist leaders are embraced by many despite rampant hunger and soaring crime. The recent street protests, which were sparked this month when the Supreme Court announced it had stripped the opposition-controlled congress of its powers, have seen antigovernment demonstrators clashing with bands of armed civilians who support Maduro.

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Speaking to a group of 400 workers who had gathered at the plant over the weekend to discuss what will happen next, Tortolero wore a ball cap emblazoned with the name "Chavez," as well as a picture of the leftist revolutionary leader Che Guevara.

The union leader proudly declares his loyalty toward "Chavismo," the socialist, anti-colonial ideology propagated by the former Venezuelan president, who died in 2013.

Tortolero endorsed the government's version of events at the GM plant, saying the seizure of the factory had to do with the legal case brought against GM in 2000 by a distributor who said the company failed to deliver promised vehicles.

"This is a legal fight between private companies, and us workers are in the middle of it," he said. "The solution of our work situation requires that the company first solve its legal problem."

In a statement last week, GM didn't address the legal fight and placed the blame squarely on the government, saying the factory had been "unexpectedly taken by the public authorities."

While Ford and Toyota have held on to their factories, they too have slowed or stopped production. Most cars made in Venezuela are sold there, and in March, just 293 cars were sold nationwide. In 2007, the monthly average of car sales was 41,666.

David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, said currency controls and other economic policies carried out by the Venezuelan government have deeply damaged the country's ability to produce goods while also hurting its ability to pay for products from other nations.

"They're absolutely destroying the productive apparatus of the country and just making the country worse," he said.

While protests raged across the country Saturday, with some demonstrators wearing white to commemorate the deaths of protesters at previous events, Tortolero told the group of factory workers that Venezuelan authorities had informed him that they would be eligible for emergency loans from the state bank.

He also said the government hopes to reopen the plant. He didn't mention how the government planned to do that, given its own dire cash flow problem and GM's announcement that it is leaving.

Meanwhile, as they wait to see what happens next, Tortolero and other workers have set up several tents at the entrance to the factory. They have been guarding it day and night to fend off looters.

Twitter: @katelinthicum

Times staff writer Linthicum reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Mogollon from Valencia.

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