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Inside Venezuela’s barrios

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The line outside the Mikro supermarket stretches in both directions along the Avenida Sucre in western Caracas, Venezuela. Some 200 people, of all ages, shade themselves as best they can from the midday sun in the hope of reaching the door before the sugar or the flour runs out.

"I’ve been here over an hour and a half," says an elderly woman with a downcast expression near the front of the line. "And they say the flour’s already finished."

This is Catia, a poor district only a stone’s throw from the presidential palace and a longtime bastion of government support. However, the fervor of that backing has dissipated since the death a year ago of President Hugo Chávez, whose tomb lies nearby.

For the past six weeks Venezuela has been gripped by unrest that has left around 30 people dead. Every big city has seen severe street clashes, posing questions both for the regime and for Venezuela’s neighbors. Opposition leaders have been arrested: The mayor of San Cristóbal, where the protests began, was detained on March 19. Food shortages, the cost of living and violent crime are among protesters’ main complaints.

In most cities, however, the violence and the barricades have been focused on middle-class districts. The western half of the capital — which, unlike the east and southeast of Caracas, is run by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela — has been virtually unaffected.

"This is an upside-down country," says Kelvin Maldonado, a Chavista activist. "The rich are protesting and the poor are content."

The contentment, however, is more apparent than real. "The same problems they have over there, we have over here too," says Mercedes Rodríguez, a retiree from western Caracas.

For a month now Rodríguez has been searching for the pills she needs to control her blood pressure.

"There’s nowhere I haven’t looked," she says.

She draws a blank in the 4F pharmacy too, where the woman behind the counter says that they have run out of 40 percent of the medicines they normally sell. Asked why there are no barricades in the Avenida Sucre, Rodríguez manages a wry smile.

"Maybe there’s more repression," she says.

It could be. Two black flags flutter in the breeze atop Block 15-A, part of the 23 de Enero housing project that overlooks the avenue.

"That’s the Tupamaros," a street trader says.

The reference is to a band of former urban guerrillas who formed a political party after Chávez came to power in 1999, though without handing over their weapons.

"Things are quieter around here, thanks to them," the trader says.

Armed civilian gangs loyal to the "revolution," known euphemistically as colectivos, act as community enforcers.

"The majority are criminals," says José Quintero, an opposition activist from Procatia, a non-governmental organization, "and they are armed to the teeth."

Since the conflict turned violent in mid-February, alleged members of the colectivos have been filmed and photographed using firearms against protesters. Acting in concert with security forces, they are accused by the opposition of several deaths, charges which they deny. Their tight grip on poorer communities is one reason the barrios, or shanty towns, have stayed quiet.

Another is the widespread fear of losing benefits such as housing allocations, employment or subsidized food, which are contingent on political loyalty. The oil boom that began in 2002 allowed Chávez to mount a plethora of clientelistic welfare programs, known as "the missions." Health and education were the main focus of these initiatives, which made up in quantity whatever they lacked in quality. Poverty was greatly reduced.

When the oil price stalled, however, so did social gains. The leadership of the opposition Democratic Unity alliance so far has failed to take full advantage of ensuing discontent. Critics say that it has yet to convince disaffected Chavistas that it has their best interests at heart.

In western Caracas its task is made harder by the threat of Chavista violence. Lest that prove insufficient, President Nicolás Maduro recently banned opposition marches in this part of the city, which is where the most vital government institutions, including his office, are located.

A recent survey by Datos, a polling firm, found discontent with the government across the social spectrum. Only 27.1 perc ent of respondents described themselves as pro-government, while 43.7 perc ent favored the opposition. More than seven out of 10 had a negative view of the situation today, and more than half thought it would be even worse in six months.

Having been anointed by Chávez himself, Maduro commands residual loyalty. Popular alternatives are thin on the ground. Nonetheless, more than 40 percent of government supporters blame the president for crime and economic hardship. Almost 90 percent of all Venezuelans said that the government should change its policies, and an astonishing 64 percent favored getting rid of it "by constitutional means" as soon as possible.

The Democratic Unity movement is split. Some want Maduro’s resignation, while its leaders believe that campaigning for regime change plays into the government’s accusations that the opposition is trying to mount a coup.

Quintero takes a more nuanced view. He believes that the opposition radicals merely jumped the gun. In two or three months, he says, shortages of food and basic goods will be so severe that the barrios will explode as they did in the Caracazo in February 1989, when a wave of riots and a heavy-handed response led to hundreds of deaths.

"When they can no longer find any food," Quintero says, "it will be like 1989. People will take to the streets, and they won’t be going home."

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