What’s Worse: Torture or Starvation? Venezuelans to Answer Today

(Bloomberg) -- Editors Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.

On the eve of what could be the biggest anti-government protest in years, Caracas has erupted in heated debate. It’s going on everywhere, in cafes and at supermarkets and on Whatsapp.

Hungry, broke and exhausted after years of relentless economic collapse, people here are angrier than ever with the Nicolas Maduro regime. There’s no argument about that. The debate is over whether it will be worth it to heed the calls of opposition leader Juan Guaido and rise up in protest Wednesday in a bid to force Maduro out of office.

After days of listening to the question tossed back and forth, I can basically put Caraquenos in two camps: “Why bother?” and “We can’t afford not to.”

Those who throw up their hands and say there’s no point recall the demonstrations that raged in 2017 and at times drew millions into the streets across the country. More than 100 people died and thousands were arrested when security forces ruthlessly moved to restore order. Tales of brutal torture of detainees quickly emerged. By the time the protests sputtered out, the opposition was divided and downtrodden and Maduro’s authoritarian grip on power was greater than before.

Why risk our lives? That’s the way my friend Roberto, who ekes out a living selling imported car parts, frames it. “Maduro is bullet proof,” he said the other day. “Going to the street serves no purpose.”

What’s Worse: Torture or Starvation? Venezuelans to Answer Today

The argument on the other side is that now is the time. This time is different, they say. Maduro is under aggressive international pressure to step down -- from the U.S., Brazil, the Organization of American States -- and also from a suddenly reinvigorated opposition. Guaido, the 35-year-old head of the National Assembly, has been giving speeches and holding rallies and asking world leaders and the military to recognize him as the rightful head of state.

Venezuelans of all stripes have rallied around him. It’s so miserable in this country, with water shortages, empty store shelves, blackouts, hyperinflation and on and on, that everyone is fed up. The tide seems to have begun to turn in working-class neighborhoods and slums that were once rock-solid Chavista bastions.

What’s Worse: Torture or Starvation? Venezuelans to Answer Today

“We didn’t have that support in 2017,” said my friend Maria, who works in marketing for a fast-food chain. Maduro, she said, has a different kind of fight on this hands this time.

She could well be right. Spontaneous rebellions have broken out around Caracas and cracks continue to grow in the armed forces’ allegiance to the president, at least in the lower ranks. On Monday, about two dozen national guardsmen raided Caracas military outposts, stealing weapons and briefly holding other soldiers captive; videos posted on social media show the guardsmen arguing with their hostages about why they wouldn’t break ranks given the state of the country.
Friends from abroad keep texting me, asking, “Is it for real this time?” All I can tell them is that I haven’t sensed anything like this kind of enthusiasm, even eagerness, for active dissent since I moved back home to Caracas in 2017. I can’t tell them what will happen.

Because the debate is still going on. There is a lot of fear mixed in with all the passion for revolt. Wednesday will show just how powerful a hold that fear has on Venezuelans. The protests are set to start at around 10 a.m.

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