Hugo Chavez's Legacy: Venezuelans Are Terrified of the Dark

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A student quickly walks home in Caracas, Venezuela.

A student quickly walks home in Caracas, Venezuela.

Photographer: Fernando Llano/AP Photo

For years in Caracas, as in most cities, the sun went down before the bars lit up. No more. Stop by La Cita, a Spanish-style pub near the heart of downtown, and find clients like Freddy Barraiz, an upstanding 64-year-old physician, knocking back glasses of wine in bright sunshine.

“It’s like a race against time,” Barraiz said. “By 6:00, you start to get nervous.”

With shootings and kidnappings an almost daily occurrence in this city once known for animated nightlife, crowds at restaurants and clubs thin out at dark. Businesses are cutting back hours and accommodating earlier crowds.

“What keeps us going is lunch,” lamented La Cita’s owner, Javier Lopez.

Venezuela was never crime-free. But long-standing problems in law enforcement have been exacerbated by erratic policies of the late Hugo Chavez, who favored military force over traditional policing. Since soldiers have little training in delinquency control, crime has exploded as the economy has imploded and political tensions have surfaced.

“What the state has deployed is the perfect recipe for a situation of chaos,” said Veronica Zubillaga, a sociologist at the Simon Bolivar University in Caracas. A reliance on the armed forces, she said, has undermined the police and has led hardened lawbreakers to be herded into packed prisons, which serve as schools of criminality.

Patrols of heavily-armed national guardsmen are a common sight throughout Caracas. While the government, now run by Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, has not published comprehensive crime statistics in over a decade, murders are thought to have climbed fourfold in the last 16 years, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, a non-profit.

Police fire rubber bullets at opposition demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 12, 2015.
Police fire rubber bullets at opposition demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 12, 2015.
Photographer: Fernando Llano/AP Photo

Affluent Areas

The rising crime rate -- now one of the world’s highest -- has not only kept late revelers from the working-class center of town, where La Cita is located, but also from more affluent areas in eastern Caracas.

“This was the golden mile,” noted, with a touch of nostalgia, chef Carlos Garcia, 42, owner of Alto, a restaurant serving up modern Venezuelan cuisine in the chic Los Palos Grandes neighborhood. The area -- a thin sliver of streets overseen by the green mountains that separate Caracas from the Caribbean Sea -- once boasted sushi bars and steak houses that catered to late night socializers. Garcia says that, like others, his business is now focused on daytime.

“The whole business has changed,” says Garcia, who has slashed his weekend service entirely to focus on lunch. “It’s all a matter of security.”

Some are foregoing dinner service entirely.

“We’re betting on breakfast,” said chef Francisco Abenante, 43 who opened La Casa Bistro, a trendy brunch spot in Los Palos Grandes last year. On weekends, customers can be seen lining up for homemade sausages and Venezuelan comfort fare until midafternoon, when the bistro shuts it doors.

Self-Imposed Curfew

A joint study published this year by three Caracas universities found that such fears reached beyond the capital and affected large numbers. According to the 2014 National Quality of Life Survey, which interviewed almost 1,500 households, 62 percent of respondents said they had recently limited their recreational activities due to fear of insecurity. And 43 percent said they had reduced their work or study.

An increasing number of businesses and institutions are adhering to a self-imposed curfew: the Central University of Venezuela, one of the country’s largest, has just shifted many of its night classes so they end by 8 p.m. Those who must drive at night try to do so in caravans. Those at a friend’s or relative’s after dark often spend the night rather than return home.

“People feel completely helpless,” said Roberto Briceno-Leon, director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory, who composed the survey. “They feel they have no chance of being protected -- that they have been left to the barbarians.”

Abduction Fears

His group detailed nearly 25,000 murders last year, about 82 violent deaths per 100,000 habitants, giving Venezuela the second-highest homicide rate in the world after Honduras. But more than being caught in the cross fire, Briceno-Leon says, the fear of abduction is keeping Venezuelans off the streets.

Some places are holding on. The sounds of salsa and reggaeton can still be heard coming out of Las Mercedes, a raucous Caracas club district. But many discos have closed, says Marco Santos, 32, a DJ and show promoter who works at La Quinta Bar.

And while on Friday nights, for the moment, the three floors of La Quinta fill up, that may not be true for long. Last month it started offering revelers an early option.

“Ten years ago this was unthinkable,” Santos said.

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