‘The Taking of Caracas’: Venezuela braces for protest amid tension, hunger

Protesters march towards the national electoral board (CNE) during a demonstration in support of a referendum on the rule of President Nicolas Maduro, not pictured, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, July 27, 2016.
Protesters march towards the national electoral board (CNE) during a demonstration in support of a referendum on the rule of President Nicolas Maduro, not pictured, in Caracas, Venezuela, on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. Bloomberg

Editor’s note: Jim Wyss filed this story shortly before being detained, then expelled by Venezuelan immigration authorities.

Two weeks ago, Andrew Rodríguez quit his job as an assistant manager at Church’s Fried Chicken to sell cigarettes and shots of coffee on the streets of Venezuela’s ailing capital.

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He earned 34,000 bolivares a month (about $53) and was surrounded by fast food during work hours — but the 22-year-old couldn’t keep his family fed.

“We only eat once or twice a day,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like to work all day and still go home broke?”

Venezuelans are taking to the streets Thursday to express their discontent with soaring inflation, gnawing hunger and rampant crime. The opposition has promised it will be the largest demonstration in the capital’s history, with more than 1 million people expected. The goal of the march, dubbed “The Taking of Caracas,” is to force a recall this year of President Nicolás Maduro.

Read More: Where does Venezuela’s military stand?

Even the apolitical say there are reasons to join in.

“It’s not that I’m against the government, but things have to improve,” said Rodríguez, who says he’s lost 37 pounds in recent months because food, when it’s available, is unaffordable. “If things got better, there would be no reason to get rid of Maduro.”

Despite boasting the world’s largest crude reserves, a combination of low fuel prices and draconian price and currency controls has generated shortages of just about everything, from flour to medicine. Triple digit inflation has decimated purchasing power and soured the national mood.

The government seems worried — but also shows no signs of compromise.

In what has become a routine dismissal of protests, the government says that Thursday’s march is cover for a U.S.-backed coup and that the opposition is planning acts of sabotage and violence. In recent days, government forces have arrested opposition leaders, banned private flights and the use of drones, barred some foreign reporters from entering the country and blocked roads to keep people from converging on the city.

Since early this week, Liborio Guarulla, the opposition governor of Amazon state, has been marching toward the capital with several hundred people. Speaking by phone late Tuesday, Guarulla said his delegation had been blocked on the border of Bolivar and Apure states. Police and military wouldn’t even let ambulances pass, he said.

“We’ve never suffered through a worse time as we have under this regime,” he said. “The last three years have been tragic for us. . . . But we’ll make it to Caracas one way or another.”

Rumor mill

On Wednesday, the streets of the bustling capital were full of rumors and simmering tension. Packs of motorized police patrolled the commercial district, as locals traded gossip. One woman said her friends in the military had been ordered back to the barracks to keep them from joining in protests. Another said the government was going to flood the streets with food and other hard-to-find products so people would focus on shopping rather than protesting.

“It’s like an anthill out here,” said Rodríguez, the coffee vendor. “Things are tense, and any little provocation might make it erupt.”

Maduro and the socialist administration insist that they’re the victims of a dark plot.

The president, during a Tuesday rally in downtown Caracas, warned that the United States was working with the opposition to sabotage the socialist administration and topple him.

Coup fears?

Jorge Rodríguez, the mayor of Caracas and a ruling-party leader, said opposition “gangs” had explosives and planned to wreak havoc and commit murders during the protest.

“If it was up to the attitudes and plans of the U.S. State Department and its lackeys in Venezuela, we’d already be bathed in blood,” he said.

Venezuela has a history of political instability. In 1992, late President Hugo Chávez — then a tank commander — led a failed coup. He was pardoned two years later and went on to win the presidency in 1999.

In 2002, Chávez himself was briefly ousted in a putsch the administration has long blamed on the United States. This week, state-run television has been running back-to-back documentaries about that event.

In 2014, national protests also swept the nation. While many said they were motivated by hunger and crime, the government said they were also a coup attempt. At least 43 people died during those demonstrations on both sides of the political divide.

Earlier this week, the government arrested Voluntad Popular politician Yon Goicoechea, a U.S. educated lawyer, saying he had a stash of detonators in his car. In addition, Daniel Ceballos, an opposition mayor who had been under house arrest, was taken to a maximum security prison this week, drawing a rebuke from the U.S. State Department.

Both men, the government claims, were intent on stoking violence during the protests.

The opposition says the charges are absurd and trumped up.

“It’s pathetic, the way the government is trying to demobilize the democratic leadership and intimidate the people,” said Jesús Torrealba, the head of the opposition coalition known as the MUD. “Maduro’s scared and this is his tribute to the people who are fighting for liberty.”

Peace hopes

Organizers say that Thursday’s marches will be peaceful and that they have no intention of toppling Maduro or confronting government sympathizers. What they want is for the National Electoral Council to hold a presidential recall before Jan. 10, so it would trigger new elections. If the vote happens after that date, Maduro’s handpicked vice president would finish out his term through 2019.

The most recent poll by Datanalisis, which produces some of the most closely watched surveys, found that Maduro’s approval ratings are near historical lows and that 75 percent of those polled want him to step down or be forced out in a recall this year.

Asked to name the country’s top problems, 43 percent said food shortages, followed by inflation (14 percent), crime (10 percent), and shopping lines (5 percent). The July survey of 1,000 people has a confidence level of 95 percent.

Despite the widespread discontent, it’s unclear what might be accomplished with the demonstration. The administration holds almost every lever of power, and analysts believe it will run out the clock on a recall.

Thursday’s “marches are unlikely to precipitate a referendum this year, something the opposition leadership probably understands,” wrote the Texas-based analytical firm Stratfor. “Nonetheless, the protests will give the [opposition coalition] an opportunity to demonstrate how much force it can bring to bear against the current government.”

And violence during the protests — if it does appear — could be a game changer, the group said.

“If security forces inflict heavy casualties in their efforts to quell the protests, for instance, military commanders may reconsider their support for Maduro — and whether the country can afford to postpone the recall referendum any longer,” the group wrote.

Veronica Castellanos, a 46-year-old vendor, said people in her working-class neighborhood were weary of confrontations and violence but desperate for change.

Castellanos said she’s lost 77 pounds in the past year and often goes home to an empty refrigerator.

“The only thing I have in my house are electricity and water,” she said, wiping away tears. A lifelong supporter of the socialist administration, she said she hopes Thursday’s protests will trigger changes.

“I pray every day that God will touch the president’s heart,” she said. “And that God will put food on the shelves.”