Poor Venezuelans protest as shortages stoke anger at Maduro

For two months, Yasmin Coromoto has had no running water at home. Every other day her son climbs the steep streets of Petare, a sprawling shanty town in the eastern hills of Caracas, to a stream where he fills a plastic tank before carrying it back down to the house.

“It’s not just water that’s a problem,” Ms Coromoto said as she sat in her home in Petare where she has lived for all of her 59 years. “It’s also the lack of petrol and electricity. We’ve just had a power outage that lasted three days. Things can’t go on like this.”

As Venezuela’s seemingly endless economic crisis deepens, exacerbated by US sanctions and now coronavirus, people are desperate and angry.

Residents of Caracas have recently staged “cacerolazos” — banging pots and pans in unison — a time-honoured Latin American expression of discontent with their leaders.

In the past, these protests were limited to wealthier neighbourhoods where people have long opposed President Nicolás Maduro. Now, they are spreading to poor areas and streets close to the presidential palace, once strongholds of “Chavismo”, Venezuela’s brand of revolutionary socialism.

“The only ones to blame are the government,” said Betzabe Morales, a 36-year-old resident of Petare. “If we don’t protest, no one will notice.”

Tamara Taraciuk, Venezuela researcher at Human Rights Watch, said a series of factors have combined to make this “a very difficult situation for the regime”.

“People are having a hard time living their everyday life, and we’ve seen in the past that sometimes this has led to protests. The question is will something happen that will make this ticking bomb explode? I don’t think it’s possible to predict when or how but I do think anything could happen.”

Gauging the strength of Venezuela’s demonstrations is difficult, particularly in times of coronavirus when most people are supposed to be indoors.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a non-governmental organisation, recorded 716 protests nationwide in April, more than in March but fewer than in February, before the lockdown. That compares with nearly 2,000 in April last year, when the country was not in lockdown and opposition leader Juan Guaidó was riding a wave of anti-Maduro sentiment following his US-sponsored emergence.

View from the roof of the Jehova Gire shelter, a half-finished judiciary building in Petare that is now the home of squatters © AFP/Getty Images

In 2019, the NGO registered 16,739 protests, easily the highest figure on record. Even in 2014 and 2017, when people staged huge demonstrations against the government, that figure was less than 10,000.

The protests are less political these days and more about basic services. In April, 87 per cent were about social issues, including water, electricity, gas and petrol. “In May that figure’s likely to be even higher,” said Marco Antonio Ponce, the observatory’s director.

The UN said this month that many people in Venezuela were “teetering on the brink of survival”. Late last year, it said a third did not have enough to eat, four out of 10 households had daily interruptions to their electricity and 72 per cent were short of gas. The US-backed opposition, which has published regular surveys during coronavirus, said things have got much worse since then.

The government still delivers subsidised food parcels to poorer residents, but they have dwindled in size and quality.

In Petare, people have had to endure violence too.

In the first days of May a ferocious gun battle broke out and continued every night for a week. Machine-gun fire rattled over the breeze-block houses and zinc roofs of the José Félix Ribas neighbourhood. Graphic videos circulated on social media of young men shot at point blank range. “It was raining, raining bullets, hour after hour,” said Juan Carlos Mejía, a local street vendor.

The firefight reached a climax on May 8. The next day, the opposition said 12 people were dead and accused Mr Maduro’s security forces of “extrajudicial executions”.

The government has not responded to the claim. The president earlier said the violence was linked to a bizarre plot to topple him, led by US mercenaries. He said the conspirators stirred up trouble in Petare to distract the police and clear the way for an assault on Caracas.

In Petare, home to half a million people, residents say criminals led by a man known as Wilexis have wrested control of José Félix Ribas from the government and are policing it themselves.

One gang member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Wilexis used to be close to the area’s socialist mayor but they fell out.

“[Wilexis] rebelled and turned against him and now he’s supporting the opposition,” said the young man, who carried two pistols as he sat down in a makeshift bar to speak to the Financial Times. “When the government saw Wilexis had turned against them, they came up here to try to take back the neighbourhood.”

“The FAES [a feared state police unit] were all over the neighbourhood, killing people without asking anything,” he said. “They came up here every night for six nights. No one here supports the FAES or the government. People support Wilexis.”

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While the violence has abated, residents remain fearful as they struggle to navigate a lockdown that Mr Maduro has extended until mid-June.

“I have a vehicle but I’ve not worked for 40 days,” said 56-year-old Víctor Vásquez, who used to run errands. “I go to fill the tank, I spend three days waiting in line, there’s no petrol left, or it’s rationed and I’m not entitled to any. It’s a disaster.”

Alejandro Lovera, a 49-year-old carpenter, said he had sold his possessions to get money for food. “This situation isn’t easy for anyone,” he said.

Meanwhile, the gang member said that if Mr Maduro sent the FAES to Petare again, Wilexis and his followers would respond with force.

“We’re going to defend Petare from the government with lead and blood, it’s as simple as that,” he said.