Venezuela’s Poor Rebel, Roiling Maduro’s Socialist Strongholds

  • In western Caracas, fury erupts when food program falters
  • ‘People protest when there are no other options. It’s madness’

Why Venezuela's Many Crises Keep Getting Worse

In Caracas, the rich and poor are suddenly less divided.

For most of Venezuela’s two-decade socialist experiment, the city’s wealthier, whiter east has been the hotbed of anti-government sentiment. Now, noisy protests are erupting in poorer-but-calmer western neighborhoods that were strongholds for embattled President Nicolas Maduro as crime explodes and medicine and food are scarce and expensive.

Riot police clash with residents of La Vega neighborhood in Caracas.

Source: AFP via Getty Images

Residents in neighborhoods like La Candelaria, blocks from the presidential Miraflores Palace, erect barricades and yell slogans against Maduro’s government, banging pots and pans from inside their homes. They’re increasingly demanding a change in government, infuriated by mismanagement and Maduro’s proposed constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution -- and perhaps seize total control.

“Everyone protests, without differences, because the hunger of the stomach and the hunger for democracy have been united,” said Carlos Julio Rojas, a La Candelaria activist who has been menaced by pro-government militants called colectivos. He said that opposition activists have been joined at protests by government supporters, public employees, housewives and the unemployed.

Crumbling Foundation

The spread of unrest across the nation’s capital poses a new and heightened threat to a regime under siege. Anti-government protesters have taken to the streets of Caracas and other major cities for three months denouncing Maduro for wrecking the economy and establishing what they call a dictatorship. Almost 80 people have died in near-daily clashes between protesters and security forces.

Venezuelans last mounted extended anti-government protests in 2014, demanding Maduro’s ouster, yet ultimately they fizzled with nothing to show. This time, the opposition has gained significant international support. And inside the nation, key defections from the ruling party and the west-side unrest show that Maduro may be losing elements of the base that has sustained the socialist ideology in the face of poverty and condemnation.

Caracas’s relatively prosperous east side, where protesters rally almost daily, is home to half a dozen shopping malls, a small financial district and upper-middle-class enclaves. The west side is older, grittier, poorer and more dangerous. It encompasses the historic center where the presidential palace and government ministries lie as well as large working-class neighborhoods and the bulk of the government housing stock. It also is the location of many of the city’s shantytown barrios.

In some areas, members of colectivos loiter to monitor opposition leaders’ movements. In others, they have have seized control of buildings, harassing and threatening residents if they don’t follow government policies. But while mistrust persists among west-side residents about the opposition’s motives and their future under a new government, anger has often overcome doubt and fear.

Jean Carlos Gomez, 35, a mango seller in the working-class neighborhood of La Vega, said his home has been without propane for seven months and his family has resorted to using firewood to cook.

“Here there are no banners or marches,” he said. “People protest when there are no other options. It’s madness.”

Siege State

For Maduro, it’s a worrisome trend. Even as the overall popularity of his predecessor and mentor Hugo Chavez sank in the final years of his life, the country’s poor largely remained fervently loyal to him. Yet Maduro is even falling out of favor with that base as infrastructure fails and the oil-rich economy plunges into chaos. Night-time protests have taken place the past few weeks in west side and downtown areas including La Vega, San Martin, Mamera, Caricuao and La Candelaria.

“It’s a blind rage, where they need a form to channel,” said said Alejandro Velasco, a professor of Latin American studies at New York University who has written about Venezuela’s shantytowns. “The government has played its last hand.”

Services are shaky in Caracas, particularly in the slums that surround the capital. Water pipes go dry for days at a time, trash sits rotting and lights go out due to an aging power grid. The flashpoint has been the failure of the neighborhood food program. Deliveries are sporadic and reports of corruption are rampant.

“It takes us by surprise when it comes,” said Misleidy Gonzalez, a 21-year-old mother of two who cleans homes to get by. Barefooted children played on the cement floor of the wooden shack in the hillside Mamera slum, where she lives with her sister and niece.

Years ago, the barrio boasted government food stores filled with subsidized staples.

“Before you had to wait for hours, but you’d find something,” Gonzalez said. “Last year, I even waited in line pregnant. Now there is nothing. Only the bags.”

— With assistance by Jose Orozco

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