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Latin America

Crime and hunger undermine 'Chavismo' control of Caracas slums

A night of looting in a former bastion of Venezuela's socialist government reveals how the government of Nicolás Maduro is losing its support among the poor.
3 May 2017 – 05:33 PM EDT
Residents of El Valle, in Caracas, search for food in the trash left after a night of looting on April 21. Crédito: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela – First they took off with the rice – 120 sacks of imported grains delivered to the market the day before. Then, they grabbed the pasta, flour, toilet paper, sugar – the retail products that can scarcely be found on supermarket shelves across the country thanks to government price controls.

Residents hauled away everything, while six hooded men with assault rifles at the doors of the premises forced the police and the National Guard to turn tail when they realized they were outgunned.

The scene was recorded by the security cameras of one of the 30 businesses looted on the night of April 20 in the Caracas neighborhood of El Valle, a former bastion of 'Chavismo,' the radical socialist ideology of Venezuela's late President Hugo Chávez, who died of cancer in 2013.

The erosion of Chavismo's traditional support base in the poor neighborhoods of Caracas appears directly related to the economic and political crisis sweeping the country. Desperation over food shortages, the world's highest hyper-inflation and street crime have steadily mounted in Venezuela over the past 15 years. That has accelerated since 2013 after Chávez's heir, Nicolás Maduro, took office, and has dramatically overwhelmed the government’s capacity to respond.

A couple of hours before the riots there was a pot-banging protest demanding the resignation of his successor, President Nicolás Maduro.

The next morning, adults and children alike ate food directly from the litter strewn along the looted street, picking between garbage and mud.

Official reports say 11 people died in circumstances that are still unclear. Eight bodies were found electrocuted in a looted bakery. Three died in the gun battles with riot police who responded to the looting.

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"We haven't seen anything like this since [the times of] Carlos Andrés Pérez," said one 55-year-old vegetable stand owner, referring to a former president who's rule was tainted by notorious riots in 1989 over food and gas prices in 1989 – dubbed the "Caracazo" – that claimed hundreds of lives and caused widespread property damage.

In a 2010 speech to honor the victims, then President Chávez claimed "the Caracazo was the spark that ignited the engine of the Bolivarian revolution."

Times had changed, he went on. "[Now] there's a president who will never allow the bourgeoisie to unload their hatred against the people," Chávez promised in his address, delivered on El Valle's 14th Street.

Tables have turned

The April 20 looting is a sign that the tables have turned once more, in what some analysts consider a symbolic moment in the declining fortunes of Maduro's government.

Two days after last month's looting, neighbors threw stones at Caracas' mayor Jorge Rodríguez and struck up another deafening pot-banging protest when he visited the neighborhood in a convoy of SUVs to give away free food bags. "Get out of here!" residents furiously chanted from their apartment windows in a scene captured by cellphone videos.

"We do not want your lunch bag, we want this to change," one El Valle neighbor recounted telling the mayor.

Few residents were willing to defend the mayor and his aides, including a local community leader, Marjorie, who asked that her last name not be used as she presides over Chávista-based organizations in her neighborhood and is in charge of distributing the food that the government delivers to 500 party-affiliated families.

"They must be nuts. How do you come to the neighborhood with those loudspeakers shouting 'Viva Chávez', with things as they are?” Marjorie asked. She is a spokesperson for a local Communal Council, as well as water and health committees.

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Maduro's barrio

Situated at the southwest entrance to the capital, El Valle was once a neighborhood of middle class apartments that was gradually surrounded by poor shantytowns with a labyrinth of narrow paths snaking up the hillside. It is home to Fort Tiuna, the most important military headquarters in the country, as well as the presidential residence, La Viñeta, where Maduro lives.

Growing up, Maduro worked in an El Valle ice cream parlor, and formed a rock group with friends in the barrio. In the late 1980s he became a union officer living in the barrio with a number of future leaders of Chávez's left wing Bolivarian revolution.

When he became president in 2013, Maduro inherited an indebted country and a broken state-run petroleum industry that despite having the world's largest reserves of oil and gas, no longer produces enough revenue to fund the government's subsidies and hand-out programs, known as "social missions."

Since 2003, the missions subsidized the minimum health, food and education needs of the poorest. But critics say the causes of poverty were never addressed, or the lack of schools and medical services, as well as the need to promote domestic productivity and create jobs in a country heavily dependent on oil and foreign imports of many basic goods.

Now, hunger, unemployment and endemic diseases strike Venezuelans in a way unseen for a century, when military dictatorships ruled the country. And in neighborhoods that previously gave their unconditional support to Chavez and feted his slum visits, many despise those who, like Maduro, ruled with him and inherited his power.

A poll by the respected firm Datanálisis found that even before the recent outburst of protests that began in early April, 88 percent of Venezuelans wanted a change of government. Maduro's popularity had fallen to between 17 and 20 percent.

In fiery speeches, Maduro angrily blames the economic woes on an international conspiracy - led by Washington - to oust him from the presidential palace of Miraflores where Chavismo has ruled for 18 years. The government says the April 20 looting in El Valle was financed by the "terrorist right wing."

While the Maduro government says it will punish and jail the alleged intellectual authors of the looting, naming opposition political leaders, the police appear more focused on local criminal gangs.

Rising death toll

Detectives plastered the metro station and the nearby shopping center with photos of "El Loco Leo," "El Koki," "Miguelito" and "El Parmalat," members of the band “El 70” of El Valle. For almost a week, police mounted nightly raids on the slum. Truckloads of police officers came down from the hillside slum each morning with hooded men, handcuffed behind their backs. So far the raids have not recovered any of the money, equipment or goods stolen from business owners.

Opinions in the neighborhood regarding the true spark for the looting are divided: some say that it was due to hunger, while others see ulterior criminal motives. Everyone agrees with the police that the operation was organized by the area’s criminal gangs. The mayhem spread after poor residents, not linked to the criminal gangs, then joined in the looting.

The looting in El Valle was the most fatal incident during the current wave of riots and protests against Maduro that have engulfed Venezuela over the last four weeks, claiming the lives of 34 people, according to official totals, and more than 1,000 arrests.

A recent poll on living conditions in Venezuela conducted by researchers from three of the country's public universities found that 93.3 percent of those surveyed said their income was insufficient to put food on the table. Almost three quarters said they had lost almost 18 pounds (eight kilos) of weight in the last year.

In a desperate effort to keep his support among the poor, the government recently began confiscating private bakeries to ensure its supporters get fed through a network of local committees.

But, recognizing perhaps its inability to meet the basic needs of many, the government is clinging to the appeal of its ideology.

Comrades at one confiscated bakery, renamed La Minka, hold weekly talks. On Monday there was a forum on fair prices and Tuesday the subject was "Why live without gluten?"

At the bottom on one flyer to advertise their activities, an ideological motto suggests food isn't everything: "One cannot live on bread alone," it reads. "People are not free just because they eat."

Additional reporting by David Adams

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