The Manhattan of Venezuela Parties Against a Backdrop of Crisis
In the courtyard of La Esquina, a restaurant in Caracas’s upscale Chacao district, Alexandra Lovera lived the more pleasant half of her double life.
The 24-year-old culinary student and frequent protester of Venezuela’s authoritarian government was among a birthday party that also included a television host, a baseball agent and a gaggle of business owners. They were smoking a hookah and knocking back sangria and whiskey.
“In the day, I’m in the march or the barricades,” Lovera said. “I come home, bathe and change and text my friends, ‘What’s the plan?’” she said. “It’s like a routine.”
In mornings and afternoons, protesters pack Chacao’s plazas and streets, erecting barricades and throwing stones. After the sun goes down, bars light up and the cocktail of choice isn’t a Molotov, but a Scotch. For a select few Venezuelans, the epicenter of unrest is also the best place to escape the country’s myriad woes.
From afar, Venezuela’s capital appears to burn day and night. Protests against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro have raged for more than 100 days, claiming scores of lives as the economy crumbles and masses go hungry. This month, the nation faces the prospect of a constitutional assembly that could hamstring democracy, a general strike and the possibility of fresh economic sanctions. But after dark, an elite class emerges to fill Chacao’s bars, strip clubs and marble-floored shopping malls.
“It’s the Manhattan of Caracas,” Mayor Ramon Muchacho said.
Venezuela was once the continent’s wealthiest nation thanks to its oil riches, and its capital was renowned for its glittering nightlife. Today, Chacao, on the more affluent east side, draws expatriates, a mix of old and new money spending savings or the proceeds from a government contract — and those simply willing to blow a paycheck to forget for a while.
“This is the country of magical surrealism,” said Edgar Grossmann, 50, a transportation company owner who hunched over a bar at La Esquina as the birthday party bubbled behind him. “The country’s going to hell, but people keep going out — there’s no alternative.”
The capital’s smallest district, Chacao is also the wealthiest, boasting a financial zone, a half-dozen shopping malls and an elite golfing enclave called The Country Club. The sliver-thin neighborhood is packed with low-rise apartments and gated residences and stretches from the Guaire River to the lush green mountain that separates Caracas from the Caribbean.
Long a bastion for opponents of the socialist government, two former Chacao mayors contended with the late Hugo Chavez for the presidency. Now, the neighborhood is an arena for protests because it’s the most central district that the opposition controls, nearest to off-limits downtown ministries and the presidential Miraflores Palace.
After demonstrations, customers trickle in to La Esquina wearing the opposition’s white clothes and red-yellow-and-blue caps, said Juan Carlos Senior, 31, who opened the restaurant in 2015 with a partner.
“You protest in the morning,” said Senior, “but that doesn’t mean you stop living.”
Thanks to fear of crime, the district’s raucous overnight parties have largely given way to afternoon brunches. But on weekends, lines of dark-tinted SUVs — some armored and protected by bodyguards — wait for partying passengers late into the evening.
Tomas Perez, a construction company owner at a lounge where disc jockeys spun house music, said he had been kidnapped twice, so he hits the town in a bulletproof Toyota 4Runner.
“It’s not standard,” he said, “but it is the standard for those who want to go out.”
In Chacao, fine dining can be had for the price of fast food. Chef Carlos Garcia says a 10-course meal of modern Venezuelan fare at his establishment, Alto, costs the equivalent of $20.
“Here, you get luxury,” said Garcia, 44, whose restaurant is the country’s only one with a Michelin star.
That luxury is enjoyed mainly by those who have access to hard U.S. currency. More than a decade of stringent controls engendered a thriving black market for dollars, which trade for hundreds of times their official worth. Many citizens have greenbacks squirreled away from flusher times, and some multinational companies pay in hard currency. Other Venezuelans have plum contracts with the government that allow them access to dollars.
Venezuelans without such resources also find ways to enjoy life amid a grinding conflict. On Fridays, crowds of locals pass around bottles outside Chacao’s liquor stores, while others pack its Spanish-style pubs to watch sporting events.
“Everyone is looking for an escape valve — each at their own level,” said Pedro Mezquita, a restaurant critic and radio host.
Jose Cabrera, a 22-year-old university student out at a rooftop bar, said that when he’s not studying he participates in every demonstration he can, but friends criticized him for going out.
“Look, I march, I protest, I do my duty for my country,” said Cabrera. “But what are we going to do at night? Are we going to block a street? Are we going to march on Miraflores Palace? I’ll be back out on the streets tomorrow at 7 a.m., even with a hangover.”