CARACS, Venezuela (AP) – President Nicolas Maduro was greeted by the Venezuelan equivalent of a ticker tape parade Saturday as he returned to an increasingly stricken economy from a two-week fundraising trip.
Crowds of government supporters danced to live salsa, clutched brightly colored balloons and cheered as the socialist leader and former bus driver arrived at the presidential palace, driving himself at the head of the motorcade.
The administration called the festivities to welcome Maduro back from a tour of China, Russia and five other countries. He had sought to win new loans and to persuade fellow oil-producing countries to work together to stop the dive of crude prices, which has been disastrous for Venezuela's already struggling economy, which gets 96 percent of its export revenue from oil sales.
Maduro has said he achieved what was needed, touting an infusion of investments from China and a new financial alliance with Qatar. Downtown Caracas was lined Saturday with banners featuring pictures of Maduro shaking hands with world leaders above the tagline "Successful tour."
But details of any new deals have been sparse, and members of the oil cartel OPEC have so far stood firm in rejecting Venezuela's plea to cut production.
While Maduro was on the road, extending his trip at least twice, state-run supermarkets implemented a new rationing system to curb out-of-control lines, young protesters began sporadically blockading streets and opposition leaders strengthened their calls for immediate change.
Even supporters of the 15-year-old socialist revolution launched by the late President Hugo Chavez joked Saturday that the long wait in the hot sun to get into a rally at the palace grounds echoed the hours-long lines that shoppers across Venezuela have been making outside supermarkets hoping to buy increasingly hard-to-come by items like toilet paper and laundry detergent.
The government called for people to line the route from the airport, and groups of a few hundred red-clad supporters, mostly government workers, waved to Maduro's entourage as it passed a dozen or so pre-determined meeting points.
On arriving at the presidential palace, Maduro led his supporters in an anti-U.S. and applauded the steps his government took in his absence, including arresting some young protesters. He denounced the "parasitic" private sector and claimed enemies of the government were intentionally mangling Venezuela's supply lines.
Lawmaker Ricardo Sanguino was among those nodding in enthusiastic agreement. Like most Chavistas, he believes that enemies of the government, allied with the United States, are driving the country's problems.
"This event is important because we need to show that the people are still with Maduro despite how difficult things are these days," he said.