A pedestrian passes in front of a mural depicting the late Hugo Chavez, Simon Bolivar, and Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president, in the Palo Verde neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela. (Photographer: Carlos Becerra/Bloomberg)  

‘Maduro Is Ruin.’ Venezuela’s Poor Now Despise the Socialist Leader

(Bloomberg) -- During the day in Antimano, a sprawling web of shanties climbing the hills of Caracas, the rhythm of the barrio is the same as ever. Vendors hawk yuccas and plantains. Men smoke cigarettes and swap stories outside mostly empty bakeries. Long lines wind down the road waiting for buses that may never arrive.

Then night falls. Residents up and down the hills raid their kitchens and break out pots and pans. They bang them in a hidden, angry protest called “cacerolazos.” For the first time, it is against President Nicolas Maduro.

He may be the heir to Hugo Chavez, champion and defender of the poor like them, but now if Maduro happens to be on television, the banging is especially loud. It seems a small signal of the forces closing in on him.

“People are beginning to open their eyes,” said Pedro Gonzalez, a 34-year-old unemployed bus driver.

What’s propelling them isn’t the charisma of Juan Guaido, the opposition leader working to unseat Maduro and who has attracted support overseas and in rallies like one that pulled in thousands in eastern Caracas on Saturday. Ask around the slums on the western side of the capital: “Everyone is exhausted.” “People are tired.”

Tired of hunger, crime, blackouts, dry taps, barren store shelves. The destruction of the economy under Maduro, Chavez’s hand-picked successor, has worn down the most loyal.

The poorest Caracas neighborhoods have been strongholds of socialist allegiance. Faded stencils and murals of Chavez cover cement-block walls fronting trash-strewn avenues and alleys. People are eager to tell you what Chavez did for them before he died in 2013, with welfare programs that lifted the poor. Look at the dirt roads that were paved, the shacks fashioned out of scraps of wood and tin that were rebuilt with brick and mortar.

“Chavez was Chavez,” said Jaime Marin, 23, a truck driver, as he carried his young daughter to school. “Maduro is ruin. He’s sinking himself and taking us all down with him.”

When Guaido first called for demonstrations on Jan. 23, many from the barrios joined in. That wasn’t the case back in 2014, when waves of unrest rocked much of the nation. Even in 2017, when another uprising broke out, the west side of Caracas was largely quiet. Some residents didn’t trust the opposition leaders attracting attention in the wealthier districts to the east, skeptical of their interest in the poor. Others said they couldn’t afford to stop work just to protest.

What’s changed since then is the level of desperation. The country has sunk into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. “Before, we had the luxury of saying, ‘If I don’t work, I don’t eat,”’ Gonzalez said. “Now if we work, we sometimes eat.”

So Junior Sanchez, 35, a motorcycle-taxi driver, attended the first political rally of his life two weeks ago, after Guaido declared himself the legitimate president until new elections can be held. When Sanchez returned home that night, he was astonished by the shouts he heard from the main boulevard below his apartment as rioters clashed with police.

In this neighborhood, it felt unreal. “If soldiers hadn’t showed up 20 minutes later to put out the fuse,” Sanchez said, “all of Antimano would have gone up in smoke.”

It has been quiet during the day since then. So too in Cotiza, just north of Miraflores Palace, and in Petare, the biggest slum in Caracas, where for a few days people swarmed pock-marked streets, setting fire to barricades and throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at the police. Then masked members of the Special Action Force swooped through parts of Petare, according to residents, hunting down Maduro opponents and attacking them, using tear gas, guns and grenades.

The embattled president certainly still has supporters in all the neighborhoods.

Last Wednesday, dozens of them walked from Cotiza to the palace for a rally and then marched back, gathering on a corner near a medical clinic to wait for instructions on what to do next. They sat on the sidewalk or stood near the curb. Some looked tired, some bored.

‘Maduro Is Ruin.’ Venezuela’s Poor Now Despise the Socialist Leader

A few miles away in Catia, Gabriela Perez, 19, held her six-old-month on a narrow stairway leading to her apartment. She looked out at the subway station in a plaza where a dozen soldiers stood watch, leaning against their motorcycles. Vendors called out for customers for cooking oil, rice, coffee, corn and milk.

Perez couldn’t afford to shop. Her husband left for Colombia a month ago and sends her money when he can. “That’s how I get by. I wouldn’t know what to do without that,” she said. Asked for her opinion of Guaido, she answered that she’d heard his name.

Does she want him to become president? “I don’t know.”

She looked away. “What I do want is Maduro to step down,” she said. “I want him out once and for all. It’s been all trouble since he came in.”

Aware of the despair, Guaido is orchestrating the delivery of humanitarian aid including food and medicine to three points along Venezuela’s border. Whether he’ll be able to get them past the Armed Forces or distribute them as he’d like remains to be seen.

Walking near a huge mural of Maduro on a wall in Petare, taxi driver Richard Colmenares said that’s an increasingly common opinion. Not far away, a few people were rooting around in garbage heaps, scouring for something to eat. “Believe me,” Colmenares said, “around here almost nobody supports the government anymore.”

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