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Venezuela’s Tug-of-War Class Divide

Fear and distrust have made it hard for Venezuelans of different backgrounds to come together in their shared discontent.

by Alice Speri
Feb 28 2014, 1:51pm

Stefan Krasowski

Most narratives split the playing field in Venezuela between the opposition — middle-class students and urbane, foreign-educated leaders — and the Chavistas — the generally poorer citizens that support President Nicolas Maduro’s post-Chávez government. Both camps heap abuse on the other, both ignore the other’s calls for unity, and both accuse the other of being authoritarian. In Venezuela, as these accounts would have it, you’re either with the US or with Cuba.

There’s perhaps a kernel of truth to this easy distinction, but things are naturally not so simple. Most Venezuelans feel as though they are in the middle of a tug-of-war.

“It’s not about opposition or Chavismo; it’s about Venezuela,” Luis Itanare, a 30-year-old college instructor who lives outside Caracas, told VICE News. “The government is doing a great job of dividing people, and so is the opposition.”

Itanare's friends and students are active on either side of the protests. He feels that the voice of average Venezuelans has been lost in the clamor. “Everyone is basically hating everybody,” he said. “Everyone is angry at the situation. We all have so many problems.”

The problems — chronic shortages, pervasive crime, a crumbling economy — should give Venezuelans plenty to commiserate over. You'd think they'd band together in the national interest and sort these issues out. But distrust and even spite for Chavismo on the one hand, and the fear of a return to the rule of economic elites on the other, have made it hard for Venezuelans to come together in their shared discontent.

“The class difference is obvious,” George Ciccariello-Maher, a political scientist at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, told VICE News. “Yet the concerns raised by opposition protesters are concerns that many Chavistas share. They’ll sympathize with those stated concerns, but they won’t sympathize with #LaSalida.”

Large numbers of Venezuelans may be more or less critical of president Nicolas Maduro’s government but remain committed to the social vision of his predecessor. They’re more than a bit skeptical of the opposition and its leaders, many of whom supported a brief 2002 coup against Chávez.

Critics of Maduro’s government quickly realized that if the protests remained confined to the wealthiest neighborhoods — as they largely have — they would only go that far.

“Middle class protests in middle class areas on middle class themes by middle class people are not a challenge to the Chavista power system,” wrote opposition blogger Francisco Toro. “The only thing that actually threatens the governing clique’s control of the state and its rents, is dissent in its natural base of support.”

The opposition’s defeated candidate for president, Henrique Capriles, remarked that the protests would fail if they don’t manage to attract “the humble people, the people of the barrios.”

Ciccariello-Maher said that the opposition “was very proud that they had a demonstration in a poor neighborhood, but really they were just close to one, and it was still a pretty privileged area.” The Chavistas have a strong base, he added, especially among the poor.

“They’re afraid to lose their benefits, but they’re affected too,” Itanare said of that group. “More Chavistas are moving to the opposition, because you can’t just live on promises. But the opposition needs a more popular leader, someone the Chavistas can identify with.”

To a certain extent, the protests have attracted Venezuelans from different backgrounds. But the country is nevertheless divided largely along class and geographical lines.

“In the case of Caracas, the middle class and college students are the primary actors in the demonstrations,” wrote anarchist Venezuelan blogger Rafael Uzcátegui. “On the other hand, in other states, many popular sectors have joined the protests. In Caracas the majority of the demands are political, including calls for the freedom of the detainees and the resignation of the president, while in other cities social demands are incorporated, with protests against inflation, scarcity and lack of proper public services.”

But it doesn’t appear that Venezuela’s poor are loving the country’s current situation.

Despite being a nation rich in natural resources, with some of the world’s largest oil deposits and massive quantities of coal and lucrative minerals, Venezuela’s economy is unstable and unemployment is high. Government controls of foreign currency introduced by Chávez have fueled a booming black-market currency exchange, deepened shortages, and exacerbated inflation, which reached 56 percent in 2013. A Gallup study released this week showed that last year only 33 percent of Venezuelans said that their standard of living was improving — a record low.

Even some of the social programs that earned devotion to Chavismo are starting to dwindle.

“Today there is no money for the free breakfast and lunch that used to be available in the poorest neighborhoods,” wrote Maruja Tarre, a Venezuelan journalist. The country’s teachers also have very low salaries, if they are paid at all.

“I just now finished a semester that started in early 2013, because the teachers were not getting paid,” Eduardo Barreto, a student at the University of Carabobo in Valencia, told VICE News. “They returned to the classroom for us, but some haven’t received their salaries in, like, six years.”

In other words, things are bad for most people in Venezuela, with the exception of the so-called boliburguesía — party loyalists who have benefited monetarily from their connections to Chavismo. The protests might have started with the rage of the middle class, but the country’s poor aren’t doing so great either.

Image via Flickr