‘Everything is in chaos’: protest, violence and looting engulf one Caracas district
The singed remains of an old fridge dumped on the side of a trash-covered street are the only sign of an outbreak of violence that erupted after anti-government protests in El Valle, a gritty working-class neighbourhood in south-east Caracas.
Other traces – ripped-out door frames, shards of broken glass – were swiftly tidied away by government workers, said Ana Sánchez, a local resident, who asked not to use her real name for fear of reprisals.
“They’re even painting the edges of sidewalks bright yellow. That’s never been done before,” she said. “The government is trying to pretend nothing happened, but we all know.”
Sánchez, a stay-at-home mother, was referring to a wave of protests that broke out on 20 April and slowly morphed into a nighttime looting spree that left 12 people dead. Nine of the victims died inside a bakery, electrocuted after a bare cable from an industrial coffee-maker ransacked in the looting hit a puddle of water. Three other people were shot.
But the events of that night also offer an indication that Venezuela’s slow-moving crisis may be shifting to a new phase: poor people took to their streets to express their frustration with the government of Nicolás Maduro. A week before, in the city of San Félix, the president was pelted with stones and eggs. Six months earlier, a similar incident happened in the island of Margarita.
Maduro grew up in El Valle, and residents say they are not necessarily joining the anti-government marches – but they are angry, and they’ve begun to show it.
In El Valle and other poor sections of Caracas, the stakes may be higher: residents fear a heavy-handed response from the national guard, but they also fear the heavily armed street gangs which dominate such neighbourhoods – and which now appear willing to confront state security forces.
The latest round of unrest began just over a month ago, when a supreme court ruling stripping the opposition-led assembly of its powers. The power grab was quickly overturned, but it galvanized the opposition, which has launched a string of near-daily protests.
Thirty people have died, including a national guardsman, a woman who was hit on the head by a bottle of frozen water thrown from a balcony, and the nine men inside the La Mayer bakery.
Demonstrators again clashed with riot police on Tuesday after Maduro announced a constituent assembly to redraft the country’s constitution, saying it was necessary to restore peace and prevent his opponents from carrying out a “coup”. Opposition activists described the move as a ploy to delay regional and presidential elections that the government knew it was unlikely to win.
And public frustration is unlikely to diminish soon.
Venezuela has the world’s highest inflation, forecast by the IMF to exceed 700% by the end of the year. In 2016, the economy contracted more than 18.6%. Everyday life has become reduced to succession of challenges: food shortages, cash shortages, spiralling crime and a health sector in crisis.
In El Valle, this translates into endless hours lining up – often under a hot sun – for a chance to buy basic foods. Crime forces people to live under a self-imposed curfew. Economic contraction means more people hold informal jobs – typically as moto-taxi drivers or street fruit vendors – with low incomes that evaporate as prices rise.
For businesses, it means a lack of raw materials, the increased threat of robbery and a daily struggle to make a profit. It also means a new threat: looting.
The bakery, La Mayer del Pan, has remained closed since the night of the looting. So have most of the other shops on the Cajigal street, at the foothill of the Las Malvinas shantytown.
“Why would they open? They have no products,” says Nelly Olavarria, who used to buy bread there “whenever there was any”.
But shop owners are also wary of lifting their heavy corrugated-iron doors again for for fear discontent will once again boil over – and their shops will be destroyed.
This is not the first time that violent riots have shaken Venezuela: in 1989, the capital was shaken by a spasm of riots and looting that lasted three days and shook what had until then been considered the most prosperous economy and stable democracy in Latin America.
The wave of unrest, known as the Caracazo, hit El Valle hardest. Hundreds of shops were destroyed and thousands killed in what was seen as a social explosion brought on by discontent towards a political elite that had become incredibly corrupt and had ignored the poorest for too long. The military was forced to move in and restore order, but Venezuela never fully recovered.
Those events have been seen as a prologue to the rise of Hugo Chávez, and the self-styled “Bolivarian socialist revolution” he tried to build before his death in 2013.
Some now fear that history is likely to repeat itself in a country where – despite the social gains of the last decade – the poor are still at a disadvantage, even when it comes to looting.
“National guard troops guarded the big mall where the big supermarkets are, but they left the small shops that belong to the poor at the mercy of the looters,” said Javier Vargas, a 60-year-old Colombian who runs a small business – and who also asked not to be referred to by his real name.
Vargas arrived in Venezuela when he was 25 and has now lived longer here than in his native country. “I love this country; it gave me everything I am. But everything here is in chaos. My sons are Venezuelan, but if it weren’t for them I’d leave,” he adds.
Vargas lives near the main street that divides the part of El Valle that was formally developed, and the part that has resulted from decades of informal settlements slowly consolidating into what Venezuelans call barrios, or slums.
The higher you go up the hill the poorer life gets. From afar, Vargas’s side of El Valle looks like a solid mass of red brick homes miraculously piled up one over the other, a mesh of mangled electricity cables running all along it.
Vargas watched the events of 20 April unfold, and admits that he couldn’t help feeling afraid.
“I saw three people get killed that day. I knew two of them,” he recalled.
The previous day, hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets in rival rallies for and against Maduro’s government.
Those who supported the government wore red T-shirts and gathered close to the presidential palace in western Caracas. Those who opposed it wore white and marched from more than a dozen parts of the eastern, more affluent side of Caracas towards the city centre.
In El Valle, the bigger priority of finding food kept many from joining either rally.
“I stood in a line for four hours hoping to buy flour, and maybe coffee, and then went home early. I was happy because I was one of the last who got some,” said Sánchez.
Vargas also went home early. He was afraid the twin marches would clash, and there would be violence.
Although there was no head-on confrontation during the two days of back-to-back marches, three people died, and scores were detained. In a now-familiar pattern, the national guard shot teargas and buckshot at anti-government protesters to disperse them.
By the 20th, tensions in El Valle were rising, and several of Vargas’s neighbours went out to the street to bang on pots and pans, a local form of protest known as cacerolazo. By 9pm, burning tyres were blocking several streets and the first military armoured car rolled into the barrio.
“First, it was people protesting in the street, then a handful saw they could break into the shops and steal food. Next thing it was as if the whole hillside was coming down,” said Vargas. “What I saw that night was hunger,” he adds.
Local media said the national guard moved in to restore order, and clashed with looters. But according to local residents, the security forces were also met by the neighbourhood’s powerful street gangs, armed with military-grade weapons including hand grenades bought over the years from corrupt soldiers.
In March of last year, nine men were killed in El Valle after rival factions clashed, allegedly for control of a drug corridor. Local media reported that as many as 150 men armed with AR-15 rifles were involved.
The clashes last month involved fewer gunmen, but locals say fighting between the national guard and the gang members went on for at least four hours.
“It was a war. The thugs hate the national guard – and they met them head-on with the same weapons they’ve been buying from them for years.”