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Venezuela may be hitting a turning point

Public Policy
April 29 at 4:41 PM
In the cramped hillside slums where they once adored Hugo Chávez, hungry families now jeer and bang pots at the man struggling in his shadow, President Nicolás Maduro.

Chávez, a master showman who promised his country a socialist “revolution,” loved to wade through crowds of poor Venezuelans, blowing kisses and dispensing hugs. But when his successor has ventured out in public in recent months, he’s been pelted with eggs and chased by angry mobs.

“Maduro is so different,” said Irene Castillo, 26, who lives in El Guarataro, a tough neighborhood not far from the presidential palace. She voted for Maduro in 2013 when Chávez died after 14 years in power. But no one on Castillo’s block supports the government anymore, she said. “Now, those who remain ‘chavistas’ are just the radicals.”

As the country’s bloody, volatile, month-old protest movement hardens into a prolonged standoff between demonstrators and the government, the loyalties of poorer Venezuelans like Castillo have become a swing factor in determining whether the president will survive.

The thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets in recent weeks are mostly middle class, outraged by Venezuela’s economic collapse and the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But Venezuelans from longtime chavista strongholds are starting to join them, at considerable risk. Residents of Castillo’s neighborhood protested openly against Maduro for the first time last week.

Tear gas used on protesters in Venezuela’s capital

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Tear gas was used during an anti-government protest in Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, on April 26. These protests were part of ongoing demonstrations against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. (Photo: Alejandro Cegarra/For the Washington Post/Irvin Josue/Instagram)

Pro-government block captains in neighborhoods like El Guarataro have responded by threatening to deny food rations to those who march with the opposition or fail to join pro-Maduro rallies. Militia groups armed by the government and known as “colectivos” are deployed to intimidate would-be defectors and are suspected in the deaths of several protesters.

As the confrontation escalates, many other destitute Venezuelans remain on the sidelines, disillusioned with Maduro but unpersuaded by his opponents, or too busy looking for food to join a march.

Aside from a military revolt, there is perhaps nothing Maduro fears more than a rebellion spreading through the neighborhoods that long backed Chávez. There are signs it’s already happening.

On several occasions this month, a pattern has emerged in which mostly middle-class Venezuelans and student activists swarm the capital’s main highway during the day, while poorer residents stage smaller protests in their neighborhoods at night, some of which have degenerated into chaos and looting.

In El Guarataro, where services such as electricity and water are frequently shut off, residents built barricades of flaming debris in the streets last week , clanging pots and pans at their windows to amplify their frustration. Riot police and national guard troops arrived, touching off clashes in a neighborhood that has long been a solid-red bastion of support for the government.

“The base of the chavista movement has eroded, and the situation is growing more explosive,” said Margarita López Maya, a political analyst in Caracas. “There’s no bread, but the government continues to insist it has the majority of Venezuelans on its side, so it looks increasingly dissociated from the reality of people’s lives.”

The leaders of the Democratic Unity party, the big-tent coalition of Maduro opponents, are demanding that the government release political prisoners and move up presidential elections due to take place in late 2018. They also want full power restored to the legislative branch, which Maduro and pro-government judges have stymied since the opposition won majority control in 2015.

Maduro has called on supporters to march through Caracas on May 1, international labor day, in a show of strength. He depicts his opponents as terrorists who are trying to sow chaos to prepare the ground for a foreign invasion.

With the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela used to be one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations. Now it’s among the most miserable, tormented by rampant crime, corruption and staggering government dysfunction. A scarcity of food and basic medicine has left more and more Venezuelans suffering from empty stomachs or languishing in squalid hospitals.

The shortages have spread widely but fallen hardest on the poor.

survey by three of the country’s leading universities found that three-fourths of Venezuelans lost weight last year, by an average of 19 pounds.

Aware that mass hunger will hasten Maduro’s political demise, the government last year began assigning food sacks to Venezuelans in poorer areas, putting local party activists in charge of distribution. The program is known by its acronym, CLAP, and in neighborhoods like El Guarataro, residents know they could go without meals if they join protests or decline to join government-organized marches.

“They are afraid of losing the CLAP bag,” said Mirlenis Palacios, 45, an activist for the Primero Justicia party of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was recently banned from running for office for 15 years.

In interviews, several residents of poorer Caracas neighborhoods said they have been warned not to participate in any anti-government protests. “They blackmailed us with the bag,” said one man in El Guarataro, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Pro-government “colectivo” militants on motorcycles are a more fearsome threat. Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said they function like a paramilitary police force, suppressing potential protests while allowing the government to deny responsibility for their violence.

“They are a very effective form of intimidation,” Gunson said. “They openly display weapons on the street, and everyone knows who they are. So if you’re an opposition activist, it’s very risky to dissent in the barrios.”

The government is losing the hearts and minds of Venezuela’s poor, said Gunson, “so its control is largely through force and the threat to deny government welfare benefits, including food.”

The poorer neighborhoods are still widely referred to as “chavista” neighborhoods, but the label no longer applies, said Luis Vicente León, director of the Datanalisis polling firm, whose recent survey found that 88 percent of Venezuelans are unhappy with the government.

“The Venezuelans living in those neighborhoods want change, too,” León said. “But they don’t have time to go to marches, and they have no leadership.” Even as they sour on Maduro, he added, they feel the middle-class opposition movement is “not their natural ally.”

Democratic Unity activists only recently have begun making inroads in Caracas’s poorest districts, he said, because it remains dangerous for them to attempt ordinary grass-roots political work like knocking on doors or staging rallies.

But León said there are clearly more poor Venezuelans at opposition protests now than there were in 2014, when the government last faced a major rebellion, months of clashes in which more than 40 people were killed.

The political violence this month has left 29 dead, including Venezuelans apparently slain during looting.

Maduro still has Venezuela’s military, its oil revenue and its state-run media, even as the poor have started to tune out the propaganda. But the biggest obstacle the opposition faces in appealing to the poor may be the perception that the street protests won’t make a difference.

“We’re almost reaching a month of protests, and it’s done nothing,” said Xavier Hernández, 23, a motorcycle-taxi driver who lives in El Guarataro. “I’m not going to risk my life for it.”

Miroff reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Wash Post

15 Comments on "Venezuela may be hitting a turning point"

  1. paulo1 on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 8:29 am 

    Terrible situation for those poor people. Another failed Petro State.

    I think in the States, if the new Trump tax outline ever reaches fruition through legislation and people begin to see the outright pillage of the Country (beyond what is already happening), more isolated and extreme acts of violence will occur due to the sheer numbers of firearms owned by so many. This will be used to fortify police agencies and implement crackdowns. Then…..?

    The catalyst is food, drugs, and entertainment. If people lose those, all bets are off. It wouldn’t take much for the anger to burst out all over.


  2. onlooker on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 8:58 am 

    Sad combination of a country mismanaging its affairs but being interfered with from the outside. The irony is it sits on vast oil reserves but does not not have the economic prowess or technical savvy to exploit them

  3. baha on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 9:56 am 

    Their economic prowess has been siphoned off by the 1% (dictators) and their technical savvy has been focused on exploiting the people instead of the resources. It’s socialism working backwards…

  4. Hawkcreek on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 10:01 am 

    I worked in Venezuela at both Corpoven and Maraven refineries long ago doing commissioning. Great people down there, but they have been screwed by their leaders and outside corporations for so long, it will take a miracle for things to get better, IMO.
    Great example of the natural riches of a country being siphoned off by the elite, and never making it to the people.

  5. onlooker on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 10:14 am 

    Their economic prowess has been siphoned off by the 1% (dictators) and their technical savvy has been focused on exploiting the people instead of the resources. It’s socialism working backwards…– I don’t think so Baha. That is a canard put forth by Western media. Those types of actions are much more consistent with Western interference. It seems more like the case of alienating the international business community and the middle and upper classes of Venezuela leading to widespread economic problems. And yes I concede that a Command Economy is less efficient than a Capitalist one. And I even heard they encouraged rural farmers to neglect their vocation. Not wise

  6. rockman on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 10:17 am 

    Looker – “…but does not not have the economic prowess or technical savvy to exploit them”. But it did when foreign companies managed the oil development. So yes: those companies got a big piece of the pie. But the also paid 100% of the cost in the beginning. And then Chavez spread a lot of the revenue around the bottom of the pyramid which helped keep him in power. And when it wasn’t enough to keel the game running he nationalized. And then when his own oil field and refinery workers rebelled he replaced them with unskilled workers. And thus the continued degradation of the infrastructure. And given the choice between investing in infrastructure and buying off the citizens he went with the voters. And naturally that led to further deterioration.

    Which led to where the country is today: of enough revenue to maintain the poor and repair the infrastructure. Pulling in foreign capital from China and Russia helped for a while but apparently much wasn’t spent on infrastructure. So now having failed to meet obligations to those countries there little interest by anyone else to bail them out as long as the current political system remains. But as pointed out that system still have the monies to maintain the military and thus control.

    So yes: the Venezuelan govt owns 100% of the oil and complete control. Which also means it owns 100% of the current situation. Starting to remind of Iran and the days prior to overthrow of the shah.

  7. onlooker on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 10:27 am 

    Informative analysis Rock. In retrospect defying the dominant energy/financial system and veering hard into socialism proved quite costly. One wonders how they could overestimated their ability to do so, so grossly. Maybe Chavez was so enraptured with his own personal ascension, he didn’t see much else

  8. Sissyfuss on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 10:39 am 

    The important question being has this societal implosion lowered the overall carbon footprint of the country? A resounding yes. A silver lining to an ever darkening cloud.

  9. KEnz300 on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 12:41 pm 

    The worlds poorest people are having the most children. They have not figured out the connection between their poverty and family size. Endless population growth is not sustainable. If you can not provide for yourself you can not provide for a child.

  10. onlooker on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 12:49 pm 

    It is not that straight forward Kenzbot. They have no Social Security in poor countries. Progeny are their SS. Also, more children=more wage earners

  11. Apneaman on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 5:17 pm 

    KEnz-infinity, we are not the world’s poor – we are among the global haves, not, have nots and we do not live where they live, so why keep telling us? Are you hoping all the peakoil regulars will catch some inspiration social justice spirit because of your pathological babbling? Give up the goodies and move to these poor countries and start an anti-fucking campaign?

    Kenz the truth is your life time eco footprint is 1000 times more than any 3rd worlder when you add it all up. And I mean all of it starting the moment mommy and daddy knew you were growing inside mommy. Start with mom & your fossil fueled prenatal care in all those resource intense dr offices and hospitals and all the fancy medical machinery and the gas your parents burned driving to and from to those appointments and any meds and high end white people food and vitamins and parenting books and preparing your room with the proper colour of industrial paint and your crib that was probably shipped from halfway around the world and a small mountain of diapers you filled with industrial waste from the fossil fueled industrial baby food you ate and all your slave labour made toys and clothes and on and on throughout your obviously spoiled childhood. Don’t forget your eco footprint share of all the schools you attended either and your share of paving the roads and all of it that is way too much to list. Add it all up and you know what asshole? Your life has been one long enviroment holocaust. Not an eco-footprint, but more like a kick in the teeth of Gaia. One of those 3rd worlders would need to live a thousand years to equal your share of the cancer. You sanctimonious environmentalists make me want to vomit. Funny how there hundreds of millions of you telling everyone to change, but I have not seen it from y’all. Seriously if a couple hundred million envirotards cut their consumption by 1/2 it would have show up in the economic numbers – it hasn’t. Because y’all just greened your non stop consumption. Full-of-Shit! and I have also tested many of you and a great number don’t even have a basic layman’s understanding of the science. I figure that’s because, like the denier douchebags, it’s really about the politics.

  12. Anonymouse on Mon, 1st May 2017 1:25 am 

    I long ago suggested kenz-bot stop preaching here, and take it on the road. The real road. He needs go on a turd-world tour, to deliver his message that poor people are too stupid to stop having children, directly to their faces. You know, rallies, seminars, discussion groups, that sort of thing. Stick kenz on a podium, give him a mic so he can tell the worlds people how stupid they are in person, oh, and to stop reproducing of course. Because, you know, kenzbot wants a hydrogen car in his garage and vacations on the moon with cloggie. I am certain kenzbots impassioned message will resonate with the worlds poor in ways we can only imagine, ahem.

    If money is an issue, kenz, you might want to look at crowd-funding for your whirlwind African and Asian ‘Your too stupid tour.

  13. Cloggie on Mon, 1st May 2017 4:18 am 

    Because, you know, kenzbot wants a hydrogen car in his garage and vacations on the moon with cloggie. I am certain kenzbots impassioned message will resonate with the worlds poor in ways we can only imagine, ahem.

    We’re going to forget about moon vacations, but how about offering smart North-American blacks with several centuries of experience in white lands in their bones, like Anonymouse and Kenz, a Eurasian paycheck and act as the new African elite and proxy of a Eurasian development program and finally get Africa mildly developed in return for a rigorous Chinese-style birth control program.

    (Chinese despair with Africa)

    (The Chinese are coming)

  14. Hubert on Mon, 1st May 2017 5:55 am 

    Nobody cares.

  15. bobinget on Mon, 1st May 2017 1:31 pm 

    Oil price can’t/won’t rise until Maduro leaves office.

    BOTH the east and west are squeezing Venezuela for regime change.

    China’s no longer supporting the current government. In event of collapse, China and Russia will step in, bring in food, medicine, consumer goods, install puppet leadership and stop dumping petroleum into US markets. Note how imports from Venezuela have grown. Just in the last few months, oil in Chinese tankers are flooding US storage.
    Imports exceeded demand by over a million barrels p/d. IOW’s flooding US markets forces prices
    lower. BTW, there’s nothing wrong with US demand, remaining steady around 19.6 MM Bp/d

    WW demand is growing, all be it slowly around 1.5% per year. The ‘problem’ remains: Asia is growing economies (and oil consumption) rising to unsupportable levels given the FACT that exploration, the “E” in E&P, dropped off the roof in reaction to below $49 crude.

    My fear, besides the mess in Venezuela, it will take years to rebuild oil based economies. When real, long term, shortages take old.

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