Bar­rios’ loy­alty to Chav­ismo is wan­ing

Dis­sent is ris­ing within Venezuela’s once-solid core of poor loy­al­ists weary of daily grind.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Mery Mo­gol­lon

CARA­CAS, Venezuela — Walls fac­ing the streets still bear faded slo­gans ex­tolling for­mer Pres­i­dent Hugo Chavez, whose arched eye­brows peer from images sten­ciled out­side run­down apart­ment blocks and bar­ren shops, ghostly hints that some­one is still watch­ing.

But the allure of Chav­ismo, the late pres­i­dent’s so­cial­ist poli­cies aimed at van­quish­ing in­equal­ity and spread­ing pros­per­ity, has waned even here in La Vega — an ur­ban ex­panse of nar­row al­leys and ram­shackle dwellings gouged into ver­dant hills in the west­ern edges of this cap­i­tal city.

La Vega, like other im­pov­er­ished zones, has been a bas­tion of sup­port for the rul­ing so­cial­ist party and of the late Chavez’s cho­sen suc­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

Both Maduro and Co­man­dante Chavez, as he is still af­fec­tion­ately known by many, long de­nounced the op­po­si­tion as the prod­uct of bour­geois back­lash against the so­cial­ist “rev­o­lu­tion” launched in the name of long-marginal­ized masses like the peo­ple of La Vega.

Be­fore Venezuela’s econ­omy be­gan to crum­ble a few years back, gen­er­ous govern­ment al­lo­ca­tions of sub­si­dized food and hous­ing, cash pay­outs and other ameni­ties helped build and main­tain a sturdy citadel for Chavez in La Vega and other govern­ment strongholds.

On Jan. 23, how­ever, as

op­po­si­tion law­maker Juan Guaido pub­licly de­clared Maduro a “usurper” and pro­claimed him­self act­ing pres­i­dent, some La Vega res­i­dents de­scended to the streets in sol­i­dar­ity. A fear­some elite po­lice squad, the Spe­cial Ac­tion Force, known as FAES, af­ter its Span­ish acro­nym, vi­o­lently broke up the anti-govern­ment de­mon­stra­tion, res­i­dents say.

But the fact that poor peo­ple here and else­where took to the streets in protest is seen by some as a sign of a grass-roots po­lit­i­cal shift in this long-po­lar­ized South Amer­i­can na­tion of 32 mil­lion.

“This whole bar­rio used to be Chav­ista, but not any­more,” said Ka­rina Mon­terola, 44, who has lived in La Vega since she was a child. “Why? Be­cause there is hunger, a lack of wa­ter, all kinds of short­ages .... The min­i­mum wage isn’t enough to af­ford to eat — much less to buy cloth­ing, or even an ice cream for my daugh­ter.”

Af­ter the clashes in late Jan­uary, dis­con­tent is still mostly whis­pered in La Vega, where govern­ment loy­al­ists act as in­for­mants and en­forcers in Cuban-style block as­so­ci­a­tions, ac­cord­ing to the op­po­si­tion. Po­lice in white pickups rum­ble through the neigh­bor­hood’s pot­holed av­enues.

To­day, as Venezuela en­dures the lat­est and pos­si­bly de­ci­sive stage of its pro­tracted eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal cri­sis, the poor and work­ing-class core of Chav­ista sup­port ap­pears to be erod­ing amid mount­ing hard­ships.

“The Chav­is­tas are suf­fer­ing a lot, they are the poor­est sec­tor — and now they are even poorer,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Je­sus Seguias said. “They were the back­bone of [govern­ment] sup­port, and now they feel like they are be­ing laughed at by the govern­ment, aban­doned .... There has been an im­mense col­lapse in sup­port in the bases of Chav­ismo.”

The govern­ment crack­down on in­cip­i­ent protests fol­low­ing Guaido’s dec­la­ra­tion of an “in­terim” govern­ment shook not only La Vega, but also other tra­di­tion­ally pro-govern­ment zones, in­clud­ing the sprawl­ing Petare district in east­ern Cara­cas.

Ri­ot­ing, loot­ing and clashes between po­lice and demon­stra­tors roiled many poor neigh­bor­hoods.

An es­ti­mated 40 peo­ple were killed na­tion­wide and some 850 de­tained dur­ing late Jan­uary’s anti-govern­ment protests, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions, which al­leges at least 26 were shot to death by pro-govern­ment forces.

Af­ter the clashes, “came the re­pres­sion,” said Mon­terola, who spoke as she sat in a car me­an­der­ing through the wind­ing streets of La Vega, point­ing out its farflung set­tle­ments — with names like the Tow­ers, the Blocs, the Ma­gi­cians, the Ce­ment Fac­tory.

“We know there were deaths, but not how many. They took away a lot of young men who haven’t been seen again. Their fam­i­lies don’t know where they are.”

The govern­ment has been mostly si­lent on the Jan­uary vi­o­lence. But Maduro has tra­di­tion­ally at­trib­uted protest ca­su­al­ties to armed and paid op­po­si­tion provo­ca­teurs.

“Don’t come to us with sto­ries about what is hap­pen­ing in los bar­rios,” Maduro told re­porters on Fri­day. “A group of delin­quents was hired, and they’re [now] all pris­on­ers, did you know that? They paid them $100 a day to make vi­o­lence and the peo­ple re­jected them. Who­ever goes out to make vi­o­lence will face jus­tice.”

That Maduro blames the coun­try’s eco­nomic break­down on ex­ter­nal forces — U.S. sanc­tions and other moves by Wash­ing­ton that he la­bels an “eco­nomic war” and “block­ade” — doesn’t seem to have quelled dis­sent within the once-solid ranks of Chav­ismo.

Maduro’s crit­ics say cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment are be­hind the coun­try’s eco­nomic woes.

Chavez, a ca­reer mil­i­tary of­fi­cer from hum­ble ori­gins, was elected pres­i­dent in 1998 on a left-wing, anti-es­tab­lish­ment plat­form, vow­ing to clean up cor­rup­tion and make the oil-rich na­tion a more eq­ui­table so­ci­ety.

His ap­proach ap­pealed to poor and work­ing-class Venezue­lans alien­ated from the pre­vi­ous two-party sys­tem that many viewed as fa­vor­ing a long-en­trenched oli­garchy and U.S. oil gi­ants.

With his trade­mark red beret and rants against U.S. “im­pe­ri­al­ism,” Chavez soon be­came a hero of much of the global left and a con­fi­dant of Fidel Cas­tro, the late Cuban rev­o­lu­tion­ary icon.

His first decade in of­fice ben­e­fited from a hike in oil prices, pro­vid­ing rev­enues for a stream of so­cial pro­grams. He died in 2013 and a year later, un­der acolyte Maduro, oil prices plum­meted, pre­sent­ing a ma­jor on­go­ing chal­lenge.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­ci­sion to slap sanc­tions on Venezue­lan oil sales — the coun­try’s ma­jor source of rev­enue — was de­signed to has­ten the fall of Maduro and of Chav­ismo.

Yet the frus­tra­tion ev­i­dent in La Vega and else­where in poor dis­tricts ap­pears less a re­pu­di­a­tion of the egal­i­tar­ian prin­ci­ples that Chavez ex­pounded than an ex­pres­sion of des­per­a­tion about the coun­try’s ever-de­clin­ing qual­ity of life.

A vis­i­tor to La Vega and other strug­gling en­claves in­evitably con­fronts an al­len­com­pass­ing weari­ness — fa­tigue with chronic short­ages, queues for food and medicines, a gen­er­al­ized break­down of ba­sic ser­vices.

Un­der a blaz­ing sun, res­i­dents with hag­gard faces and tat­tered cloth­ing trudge up and down the steep hills of La Vega, home to more than 150,000. Pub­lic trans­port is ir­reg­u­lar; many lack cash to pay for plod­ding cabs and moto-taxis.

Maduro lacks both his men­tor’s charisma and the abun­dance of oil rev­enues that helped Chavez spend lav­ishly to boost liv­ing stan­dards.

Some prom­i­nent exChavez func­tionar­ies have pub­licly bro­ken with the Maduro ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Guaido’s as­cen­dance, mean­time, has, for now, uni­fied a long-frag­mented op­po­si­tion, but it is un­clear how long that unity will last.

Even the op­po­si­tion con­cedes that Maduro re­tains a core of pop­u­lar sup­port — at least 17% of vot­ers, an­a­lysts say — who re­main loyal to his rule, and to the ideals of Chavez.

His free-spend­ing 19992013 ad­min­is­tra­tion, buoyed by the high oil prices, over­saw a drop in na­tional poverty rates, un­em­ploy­ment and il­lit­er­acy.

“One has to rec­og­nize that the govern­ment, both of Co­man­dante Chavez and that of Ni­co­las Maduro, have done good things,” said Maria Coro­moto Blanco, 42, a La Vega res­i­dent and mother of two who runs a small clean­ing-sup­ply business and re­mains a loyal Chav­ista. “We have ac­cess to af­ford­able food … med­i­cal care, cash grants for fam­i­lies. And the govern­ment has built homes for the poor. We can go to univer­sity and study.”

Pro-govern­ment coun­ter­protest bri­gades in­evitably ma­te­ri­al­ize on days of big op­po­si­tion mo­bi­liza­tions. Some are or­ga­nized groups of mili­ti­a­men or mo­tor­cy­cle-rid­ing colec­tivos, ready to con­front what they view as op­po­si­tion in­cite­ment.

The op­po­si­tion dis­misses them as mer­ce­nar­ies, but many seem to ex­press gen­uine loy­alty to the govern­ment — and a de­ter­mi­na­tion that what they view as a U.S.-de­signed coup, or pos­si­ble in­va­sion, will not suc­ceed.

“I’m here to fight for the rev­o­lu­tion,” More­lia Mar­quez, 48, a teacher, said as she stood with a group of pro-govern­ment demon­stra­tors re­cently out­side the heav­ily guarded Mi­raflo­res pres­i­den­tial com­pound. “We are pre­pared to fight, to de­fend the coun­try.”

Ka­rina Mon­terola, the long­time La Vega res­i­dent, says she has bro­ken with sup­port for Maduro and Chav­ismo, even though her house­hold is among the mil­lions re­ceiv­ing monthly boxes of sub­si­dized food from the govern­ment.

She fears her daugh­ter, 18, might soon join the mass ex­o­dus of Venezue­lans em­i­grat­ing from the coun­try. Like oth­ers, she says the daily grind is wear­ing her down.

“I work day and night and the money hardly leaves me enough to live,” said Mon­terola, who does a day shift as a cashier in a pro­duce shop and works nights as a nurse. “My daugh­ter has no future. She wants to leave. If she does, I would have to go with her. I don’t have any­one else. I can’t af­ford to lose the one thing, my daugh­ter, that I have in life.”

Yuri Cortez AFP/Getty Images

PO­LICE CLASH with protesters who took to the streets of Cara­cas to op­pose Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Maduro.

Adriana Loureiro Fer­nan­dez For The Times

WOMEN IN La Vega, a poor sec­tor of Cara­cas. The Chav­is­tas there were loyal to the rul­ing so­cial­ist party, but sup­port is fray­ing amid Venezuela’s eco­nomic woes.

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