Venezuela’s Days of Upheaval
I fell in love with Caracas before I stepped out of the taxi. On that early morning ride from the airport into the city, I saw revolutionary graffiti on barrio walls, crumbling but grandiose oil-boom architecture, music and sunshine in every corner. Then I saw the soldiers, tear gas, and barricades. I had come to Venezuela’s capital city for the first time in 2014, wanting to witness its tumultuous transition. President Hugo Chávez had died, his successor had won a narrow victory, and Venezuela’s economy was falling apart.
Chávez had implemented a series of policies that earned him love and loathing. He pumped Venezuela’s vast oil wealth into social programs for the poor and working class. He subsidized goods like flour, milk, coffee, and toilet paper to keep them affordable. He kept the bolívar, Venezuela’s currency, at an artificially high value. But the socialist dream also created immense potential for corruption. The dividends flowed to the people but also into suspicious international deals and development projects.
The president’s death was soon followed by a crash in the global oil market. Violence, hyperinflation, and a shortage of basic necessities became facts of daily life — and also cause for unrest. When I returned to Caracas this summer for my fifth visit, the capital was like an old friend who had lost weight and now had a haunted look in her eyes. The food lines had grown longer, the streets after dark more deserted, the faces wearier. Venezuelans ask, how much worse can it get?
In the working-class neighborhood of El Valle, hundreds of people gather at dawn and wait for a truck to arrive with packages of pasta. They push and shove their way through a suffocating crowd patrolled by the National Police. Despite having arrived early and taken numbers for their places in line, rule-abiders get elbowed out of the way by food resellers called bachaqueros, who bribe and threaten their way to the front. Supplies quickly sell out, leaving many out of luck. In the scrum, one woman is knocked unconscious and has to be carried out on a stretcher. Bystanders claim an officer punched the woman, but amid the chaos, it’s hard to be sure.
Waiting for Answers
Word spreads that there’s a problem at the men’s jail in Boleíta, on the outskirts of Caracas. Relatives of the inmates — sisters, girlfriends, wives, and mothers — form a wall in front of the compound. Inmates send out anxious text messages. There are rumors of violent attacks against prisoners and of guards being taken hostage. The women describe the jail as a bleak and brutal place where the inmates must pay bribes for food and water. Many of the men have been forced to sleep standing up, they say, because it’s so overcrowded. Police arrive, and the women demand answers. They stand their ground until after dark, despite a volley of birdshot and pepper spray from the police.
The National Police, a branch of the Venezuelan security forces, fire tear gas upon a group of protesters who’ve attempted to block a highway. This demonstration is led by Henrique Capriles, a popular opposition leader and former presidential candidate. After winning a majority in Parliament last year, the opposition threw its energy behind a long-shot campaign to recall Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. In October, the country’s Electoral Council dealt Maduro’s foes a major setback, suspending their proposed referendum. In a recent speech, Maduro declared that “neither through elections nor bullets” would he be ousted.
Meanwhile, food shortages fuel riots in Caracas. Small blazes of rage in a simmering city. One day this summer, I’m forced off the moto-taxi that brought me to the base of La Vega, a hillside barrio. “That’s all red zone. We don’t go there,” the driver says as a throng of people rush past us, fleeing the neighborhood. I hail another moto, and as we drive slowly into the barrio, we see a squad of National Police crouched behind a concrete wall, while officers with tear-gas launchers and shotguns advance toward a group of protesters demanding food. On the next block, there’s a burning barricade. Gunshots ring out in the distance.
At 3 a.m., long after their two daughters have gone to bed, Richard and Elixa slip out of the house. By the time they reach the government-controlled supermarket, a Costco-like behemoth, several hundred people are already assembled in the dark. Richard writes two numbers on his left wrist — 51 and 52 — designating his and Eli’s places in line. To stay alert, he flags down a vendor selling thimble-sized cups of sugary coffee. At 9 a.m., the couple is finally admitted into the store, and they come out with their ration for the day — two packets of pasta. They head home to cook breakfast for their girls.