The drive into the hills around Caracas passes a burned-out police station, an overturned car, queues for bread, and a smoldering trash can. Together, they signal a troubling new message for Venezuela’s embattled government: It’s time to go.
This hillside community is where President Nicolas Maduro has nurtured his base of poor Venezuelans, trading vital state handouts for loyalty. Yet last week, night after night, locals have clashed with police special forces. On the afternoon we visited, armed forces were raiding homes and taking away residents.
Here, local resident Carolina’s pristine porch belies the squalor she and her extended family endure. Their fridge contains two soda bottles, some pasta and condiments, and little else. Her young cousins play Grand Theft Auto, a relic of a better life, while she shows us cellphone videos of police raids and demonstrations. “My hand was shaking,” she said of the grainy video of gunfire and locals banging pots in protest.
Hundred of thousands have taken to the streets to protest Maduro’s regime in the past week. Amid the furor, opposition leader Juan Guaidó has declared himself president, prompting declarations of support from the United States, United Kingdom and most of Latin America, and calls for new elections.
The latest violence is not another episode of the unrest that periodically blights Caracas’s poorest; it feels new and different, say Carolina’s family, like change is nearer. One cousin, named Ronny, said: “We can’t hold it in any more. We are being crushed. We are beggars now, always begging. This isn’t political, it’s survival. People are killing each other for a kilo of rice, or flour, or water.”
An emergency of hunger
As the dispute over who should lead Venezuela escalated to a larger geopolitical struggle between the United States, Russia, China and others, we spent nearly a week inside the country attending protests, talking to soldiers, meeting rich and poor. Their live crisis is not about the fate of socialism in South America, or Cold War-era geopolitics, they told us. It is a very simple emergency of hunger.
The average Venezuelan lost an average of 11 kilos (24 pounds) in 2017, the result of years of inflation, economic mismanagement and corruption. Venezuela was once the richest petrostate in the region, but in one Caracas supermarket last week, no eggs or bread could be found. A modest basket of water, nuts, cheese, ham and fruit cost $200 US.
Within a month, food scarcity would likely drive the dollar cost of those groceries even higher. In local currency, the cost could easily double as the Venezuelan bolivar loses value. The International Monetary Fund has forecast that hyperinflation will reach a staggering 10 million% in 2019, putting the most basic supplies out of reach.
Anticipating spiraling costs and plummeting buying power, vendors end up charging tomorrow’s prices today. Even fancy supermarkets frisk shoppers and search their bags as they leave, as food has become the most precious commodity.
’Maduro! I am hungry!’
Over a decade ago, Colombians would walk into Venezuela for well-paid work in the oil-rich nation. Now Venezuelans are the cleaners, the beggars, even the sex workers trudging across the border into Colombia, where food is suddenly available everywhere.
Crossing the Simon Bolivar International Bridge from Colombia into Venezuela, we passed a steady stream of Venezuelans walking in the opposite direction. The United Nations estimates 2 million people will leave Venezuela this year, joining the more than 3 million already scattered around South America.
Stopped cars line the road toward the capital. Petrol remains cheap and plentiful in Venezuela, but in this border area, it’s reportedly being smuggled to Colombian buyers. This has caused a shortage for locals; some Venezuelans told us they slept in their cars for days, waiting to fuel up.
In Caracas, children scavenge the city’s streets. In one of the capital’s fancier neighborhoods, we met 14-year-old Uzmaria with five or six other children, who rummage through the trash to supplement their families’ diet. “We gather stuff, we beg, a piece of chicken skin to take home,” she said.
The rest of Uzmaria’s group sport clumsily bleached hair. Two of the older boys play with plastic knives, practicing for self-defense. “My brother got killed in July by another gang,” Uzmaria said. “He just disappeared and then they found the body in the river.”
One of the kids held a stick like a rifle, shouting “Maduro!” as he pretended to take aim. “I am hungry!” he yelled, before seizing up with a wheezing cough.
Soldiers under pressure
On January 23, hundreds of thousands swarmed the city center to watch Juan Guaidó, the young speaker of the national assembly, swear himself in as interim president. The crowd — a polite mix of the elderly, bourgeois and young — raised their right hands with him as he took the oath of office. Then they slowly went home.
It was left to a motley crew of young men to throw rocks outside La Carlota military air base in Caracas that evening. The National Guard responded with tear gas, charging the crowds on motorcycles. A CNN crew witnessed two young men being severely beaten by the police. But the day’s unrest slowly ebbed, and moved into the slums that night.
Both Guaidó and defectors outside Venezuela have called on the military to rise up against the government. The opposition-led parliament has drafted an amnesty law to protect defectors. But the top brass still appear firmly loyal to Maduro; last week, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez issued a lengthy message of loyalty on state television.
Discontent in the rank and file is growing, said one soldier, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals. He said he is paid a dollar and a half on the first of every month. “If I buy a chicken, I have nothing else for the rest of the month,” he said. Meanwhile, “the big fishes – the senior officers – are the ones eating, getting rich, while at the bottom we have it hard,” he added.
“I would say about 80% of the army is against the government, especially the troops, who are going through a lot more than the officers,” he added. “You can see in some states, soldiers have starting attending demonstrations. So, if there’s international help, that will get bigger.” Nevertheless, he said he doubts the military will rise up against Maduro without a sign from their leaders.
I ask if he would follow an order to open fire on protesters. “I would rather quit,” he responded. “That person could be my brother, my mother, anyone. Every Venezuelan is going through this.”
The names of some interviewees have been changed to protect their identity.