Over the past two months, Venezuela has seen near daily demonstrations – with anti- and pro-government protesters taking to the streets. More than 50 people have been killed.
The political roots of the protests extend back to January 2016, when the Supreme Court suspended the election of four legislators for alleged voting irregularities. The opposition accused the court of trying to strip them of their super-majority, and went ahead and swore in three of the legislators. The Supreme Court responded by ruling that the entire opposition-led National Assembly was in contempt and that any decisions it made would not stand.
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When, in early 2017, the National Assembly refused to approve the state-run oil company PDVSA’s forming joint ventures with private companies, the government went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that it would take over the legislative powers of the National Assembly.
Protests broke out the next day – and were violently repressed – and although the court reversed its decision, the demonstrations have continued.
They come against the backdrop of a crippling economic crisis that has resulted in a drastic shortage of food and medicine.
President Nicolas Maduro has accused the United States of attempting to destabilise his government and has pressed ahead with a plan to create a popular assembly with the ability to rewrite the constitution. He says the grassroots body is needed to bring peace to Venezuela, but opponents view it as a tactic to buy time and avoid a general election.
It is a crisis that has divided Venezuelans. Here, we speak to two who explain why they oppose the government:
Helena Carpio, 25, photojournalist
‘I protest because it is a duty‘
“I attend the protests because I fear having to live like this – with fear, scarcity, censorship – my whole life. To live without a future. I protest because it is my right and because, in the face of so many outrages and threats, it is a duty.
I worked in adventure tourism for a couple of years. On the one hand I got to experience this country’s touristic potential, the raw beauty of its Tepuys and other world-acclaimed natural wonders, but on the other hand I also got to see how bad governance, terrible economic policies and an absent justice system have ravaged a once booming sector and left many in extreme poverty without any prospects.
My salary back in 2016 for a full-time job, considered a good one for a college graduate, was the equivalent of $20 [on the black market].
I’m 25, so my experience doesn’t go back much. But before Chavez, I can remember that there was lots of wealth inequality and poverty. Undeniably, there was also corruption and many of the institutional consequences derived from an oil-exporting economy. But never in the history of our country did we receive as much money from oil as Chavez did. So that applied pressure to existing institutional cracks.
President Chavez used populist tactics to transform discontent and marginalisation into political capital.
I remember vividly that he used to say things like “Rich people are not people, they are animals” and then laugh afterwards. That’s a quote. I’ll never forget that.
Some things were good. His social missions were good in principle but terribly executed. He brought health to places that didn’t have access to it before, and the same with education – but the problem was implementation and quality.
So much corruption was born within these institutions, and the quality of the services provided left people at times worse off.
Division and segregation existed before, but nothing like today. People didn’t hate each other back then because of politics. The biggest rivalries I remember were between Caraquistas and Magallaneros, two baseball teams that usually faced one another. But nothing like this – people punching you because you look a certain way or women screaming insults at others because of their shirt. It’s terrifying to see a nation broken apart by hatred and resentment.
We’ve been protesting for 60 almost-consecutive days. In a way, my job has permitted me to attend most of the protests. I’m a photojournalist, so I get paid to be there. But most people have to stop going to work in order to attend a protest during the week.
Before a protest I start monitoring Twitter to see if there’s any early repression. I pack my bag: anti-tear gas mask, Maalox or antiacid [which helps fight the effects of pepper spray and tear gas], water, helmet, bandages and Band-Aids in case I get hurt or someone near me does. I also pack my camera and an extra mobile phone battery in case I run out, as well as my press credentials.
I don’t know when this will end. And anyone that says they do is probably lying. I don’t see people quitting the protests; they are too angry, too upset, too tired and too scared. There’s so much frustration towards this government’s reluctance to change, to accept its mistakes, to listen, and to compromise, that I don’t think people will stop. They feel like their most basic needs aren’t being met: there’s no medicine, no food, inflation is rampant, crime is terrible.
At one of the protests I was near the front. After the police fired more than 60 tear gas canisters at the protesters and the protesters threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at the police and National Guard for close to two hours, I heard one of the protesters, who couldn’t have been older than 22, say: “This is it guys. Now or never. This sh***y life is not living, so be ready to die.”
You hear things like that a lot. It’s like they have lost everything, they have nothing else left to lose.
We are protesting not only because of the scarcity, the lack of security, and censorship, but because of the president’s bid to create a popular assembly that would have the authority to rewrite the constitution. We want to let the government know that we are against it, and against the way that he is implementing; it’s unconstitutional. Protesting is the only way we have found of actually being heard.
In 2014, one of the first times that the government sat down and spoke to the opposition was after months of protests. The government has shown repeatedly that they don’t listen to the opposition.
I don’t want to keep protesting; there are a million more constructive ways to actually improve the country. But we can’t do this until the government recognises us, the other part of the country that is calling for change.
I want to see elections, free, fair, universal elections. I want the will of the people to be heard. I’m not asking for my vision to overcome the vision of others, I’m asking for an equal playing field, for the referendum that we asked for last year.
I want to live in a democracy. I want to be someone who worked hard during college and is actually able to earn a living. I want to be someone who can marry in her own country, and see her children grow up in the same places where she grew up. I want to be in a country where I can travel wherever I want, and go to the mountains and climb them and not be scared of being mugged when I get down.
I want to live in a country where people don’t hate each other, where neighbours’ doors are open, and they can talk to each other, and where I’m not scared to go to certain places because I look a certain way, and a place where my opinion is respected just as much as anybody’s. I think sometimes that is worthy of dying for.
I’m scared during the protests, I’m not going to lie, people get killed.
I known some of the kids that have lost their lives. But you know what scares me more than that, having to live like this for the rest of my life, because this is not a life; being scared, having to queue to get food, and with a government that wants you gone. That’s why they feel they have nothing left to lose, and sometimes I feel the same way.”
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Amaranta Campos, 26, student
‘The greatest legacy of Chavez was the division of this country’
“I study literature at the Catholic University of Andres Bello. I am also a housewife and mother of two children.
We are going through a very difficult moment. What we are experiencing is a mixture of all our defects, as a country, set in motion at the same time.
Life has always been difficult in Venezuela, but the levels of difficulty we have now are unusual. Until a few months ago there was neither money nor food. Now there is food, but not enough money to buy it.
Daily life is basically about surviving
I feel that we will live this for thousands of years unless something more forceful takes place. But to do something more forceful would not lay a good foundation for the next government.
Today I own my home. My husband is a professional who works in a ministry. And, yet, on many days we are not able to eat because we only have enough money to buy food for our children.
My husband and I have decided to be vegetarians so we don’t have to buy meat; the little we buy, and we can afford, is for our kids.
Daily life is basically about surviving.
Life is very different from what it was before. My mother, 16 years ago, managed to sustain my brother and me on a teacher’s salary without any problems, and without any help.
Now my husband’s salary is not enough.
Wages are really low. For example, if I earn 40,000 bolivares ($3,934), and a package of rice costs 6,000 ($593) bolivares and it is 8,000 bolivares ($791) for a package of Harina Pan, and 17,000 ($1681) for a chicken, how can you afford anything else?
There are people who eat every day from what they find in the rubbish.
Many blame foreign actors, but I wonder, if the government controls the currency, and here everything that can be produced needs raw materials that you will need to buy with that currency, who is to blame, then?
Transnationals have left the country because foreign investment is so heavily limited. Add to that exchange control and it is not profitable to have a business here anymore.
Now the Venezuelan “upper class” are members of the government who have been enriched by stealing government money.
Most of my life I have lived under the presidency of Hugo Chavez. I remember that my mother, with her teacher’s salary, was able to shop at the supermarket, and every weekend we had the chance to go out and do something new.
I also remember that I could go out without too much fear, I could walk or get on a bus, and the safest place to be was the metro.
From the age of 16 to 18 I worked as a construction worker. What I earned was enough. I had enough for me and to help my mother with the expenses of the house.
Eventually, I left the country, but when I returned things were worse.
When my husband and I returned to the country in 2013, we decided to ask for a loan to buy an apartment. The bank gave us 350,000 bolivares ($34,568) in August 2013. The apartment cost us 1,000,000 bolivares ($98,757). Do you know how much a smartphone from a little-known brand costs in May 2017? Between 700,000 bolivares ($69,218) and 1,000,000 bolivares. With what I bought my house for four years ago, I could now only buy a smartphone.
Unfortunately, today, the ruling party is absolutely exclusive, and the opposition too. The greatest legacy of the late President Chavez has been the deep division of this country into these two factions.”