Thursday, May 4, 2017

Virginia López - Everything is in chaos': night of violence reveals depths of Venezuela crisis

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.

“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...