World Americas

As crisis intensifies, Venezuelans look beyond Chavísmo's sharp divides

A shift in thought

The polarization that defined former President Hugo Chávez's rule has continued under his successor, Nicolás Maduro. But increasingly, even previous supporters say that something must change to address the economic and political crisis.

A volunteer of the Venezuelan initiative Haz La Diferencia (Make the Difference) gave a cup of soup and an arepa to a homeless child in Caracas in March. For years, government loyalists viewed criticism of food shortages and other social woes as attacks on Chavismo, the left-wing ideology associated with former President Hugo Chávez. But attitudes may be changing.
Marco Bello/Reuters
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Emerlinda sits in the Caracas home where she’s lived for nearly five years, reflecting on how things have changed since 2013: the year Hugo Chávez died and his hand-picked successor Nicolás Maduro was elected. Like many of Venezuela’s poor, the domestic worker adored Mr. Chávez, the country’s self-professed messiah. After she left Colombia, her native country, he made it possible for her to gain Venezuelan citizenship, and his social policies gave her a roof over her head and access to health care and education. It was only logical, she says, to put her faith in President Maduro.

“I did vote for him, but I’m very disappointed,” she says, sitting in her gray concrete home, which looks as though it’s still under construction. Emerlinda, who asked that her last name not be used, spends her time outside of work searching for food for her four young children. “I feel abandoned by the government,” she says.

She’s not alone. As of last September, an estimated 15 percent of the country identified as former Chavistas who do not support Mr. Maduro, according to a Delphos poll. When Chávez died he had roughly 57 percent of the population’s approval; Maduro, as of last November, had just 19.5 percent.

Today, Venezuela is struggling with triple-digit inflation amid dual economic and political crises. More than 74 percent of the population lost an average of 19 pounds in 2015, according to the latest Venezuela Living Conditions Survey. As food and medical shortages grow more acute, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets over the past two months, calling for elections. Nearly 50 people have been killed in the demonstrations. 

But amid the chaos, there are signs that something deeper than pro- or anti-Maduro sentiments is shifting in Venezuela. For years, Venezuelans on opposite sides of the political and social spectra have debated not just opinions, but the facts. As the atmosphere becomes more tense, and as Maduro calls for a constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution, there are signals that this deeply ingrained polarization is slowly eroding.

Many former Chávez supporters are joining the opposition’s protests – a concept almost impossible to imagine just five years ago. There are reports of people in the upper and middle classes, long used as political punching bags by Chavista leaders, sharing what supplies they can access with those in need. And left-leaning international academics, who for almost two decades defended Chávez’s vision for 21st century socialism, are now speaking out against a leader who appears more interested in holding on to power than pushing forward a social revolution.

This doesn’t mean there is political cohesion, or that the divisions between rich and poor have been healed. But it’s a key sign of change and potential transformation ahead, experts say.

“We are seeing a lot more voices bridging” the country’s two political poles, says Dmitris Pantoulas, a political analyst specializing in Venezuela. “It’s a new reality. But for this to become concrete via a new political project [or] new leadership, it will take time.”

'The tables have turned'

Inflation has been on the rise for years in Venezuela, but it really hit home for Jesús Conteras López this month. The English and music teacher based in the Andean city of Mérida realized that buying two pounds of cheese today would cost as much as his 5-night honeymoon to Venezuela's Isla de Margarita in 2014.

Soaring prices are common: In a country of 31 million, around 9.6 million Venezuelans are now eating two meals or fewer per day. Yet for every report about children dying from malnutrition or parents rummaging through garbage to feed their families, there are comments and essays painting another picture: of fear-mongers spreading lies to tarnish the government’s reputation and undemocratically push Maduro from power.

“The situation in Venezuela isn't like what the news says it is, but we are living a difficult moment,” says Antonia, who did not wish to give her last name. She lives in Caracas, while her son lives with his grandmother in another state because she thinks he’s safer outside of the capital. “The opposition doesn't want to have a dialogue and try to improve the economy in this country, they just want President Maduro to leave [office],” she says.

Both sides’ skepticism goes back years, to at least 2002. That was the year then-President Chávez passed a series of 49 laws by decree, the last straw for many Venezuelans wary of his political project. An attempted coup forced him from office, as TV stations played ads urging people to “take to the streets” in support of change.

Many, however, demanded his return to office – a fact most national news outlets and those pushing for his ousting ignored. And when Chávez did return just 48 hours later, the decision to overlook his supporters helped lay the groundwork for the political and social polarization that came to define his administration – and the country.

Today that mistrust of the opposition and its perceived influence over the international narrative about Venezuela is still common.

It’s true that not everyone in Venezuela is starving. But the country’s institutional and economic deterioration are increasingly affecting people from all walks of life. Citizens are increasingly suffering preventable health problems, as confirmed by the release this month of the first public health data since 2015. The Ministry of Health reported that cases of infant mortality have gone up 30 percent; maternal mortality, 65 percent. Malaria, diphtheria, and Zika also saw sharp jumps as hospitals struggle to provide the most basic care.

“I have hope for Venezuela. I want to have hope. But I don’t know,” says María Elena Rojas Loynaz, whose family relies on her husband’s international travel for work to supply them with food provisions from abroad. “It’s so complicated right now.”

Still, she thinks about leaving, Ms. Rojas says. She wants to provide her teenage daughter with a more stable environment. But, in the meantime, “I try to help people around me,” she says. She and other parents at her daughter’s school have been working together to prepare bags of food to give to people on the street, or seek out medicine from their connections abroad and donate it to first aid groups at protests.

“We are very privileged,” Rojas acknowledges. But even with food on the table, she has trouble falling asleep at night, wondering what challenges or dangers the next day might bring.

It’s not just the wealthy who talk about leaving. “We don’t have much here anyway,” says Emerlinda about her likely return to Colombia, now that the promises of Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution have fallen short.

“The previous governments, historically, were made up of elites,” says Mr. Contreras. That style of governing is part of what helped Chávez rise to power: A large sector of the population felt ignored by their disconnected leaders. For the first time in decades, a politician singled out the poor and promised to prioritize their needs.

“But today, the people with the most [wealth] are once again the people inside the government,” Mr. Contreras says. It’s one reason, he thinks, that this administration is losing popularity.

Contreras is solidly middle-class, but even so, life in Mérida has gotten increasingly more difficult over the past few years, and this month has been the worst yet, he says. Not only do people need to dedicate an entire day to get groceries, since no one store has everything one needs, but the environment has gotten very tense. Protests have swept the mountainous city, at times closing the only two entrances.

“There was a point where you couldn’t say anything bad about the government in public, because you felt like you were being observed,” he says. “Now, if you say something bad about the government it’s hard for almost anyone to refute. The tables have turned,” he says.

He’s not just referring to the shortages of food and medicine. Over the past several months, the government has taken some alarming steps: The Supreme Court temporarily took over the opposition-led National Assembly, the government pledged to remove itself from the Organization of American States after being criticized for its response to public protests, and Maduro has called for a rewrite of the Constitution, the bedrock of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution.

Space for change

That last move, announced earlier this month, has created fissures in even the long-calcified extremes of Venezuela-watchers.

Take the leftist website Aporrea, or “the beat.” For years it’s been a resource with decidedly pro-Chavista essays and commentary. But in recent months, particularly following Maduro’s call for a new Constitution, the content has started to split.

“That’s changed. There’s really debate within it now,” says Daniel Hellinger, professor of international relations at Webster University in St. Louis. He says after Maduro’s calls for the constituent assembly to rewrite the Constitution, the content on this popular site became split almost 50-50, with some saying Maduro’s move advanced the revolution and others saying it was his attempt to simply keep grasping at power.

“The people will never forgive you!” one of the essays on the homepage reads, telling Maduro to resign so citizens can “try to reconstruct the Venezuela that once existed.”

“Now, it’s not just the usual voices that are being critical of Maduro,” Mr. Hellinger says.

Despite the shifts in Venezuela’s long-polarized political and socioeconomic landscape, concrete change could take years – maybe even decades. The 1989 “caracazo” protests over rising fuel prices “created the fertile ground for Chávez to appear” in politics, Mr. Pantoulas says, but it was another decade before he won elections.

What’s happening now is “creating the space for … new political forces in Venezuela to emerge, but it could take three, four, 10 years,” Pantoulas says. Regardless, he says, “we are seeing an important moment of social transformation.”

Not everyone, however, will be willing to wait that long.

Contreras and his wife have thought about joining the more than 1 million Venezuelans who have emigrated since 2000, soon after Chavez was elected. He feels left behind by his many peers who have moved to other countries in search of new opportunities and more stable lives.

“But my family is here,” Contreras says. “And above all, in a situation as difficult as this, there’s a real need for family.”

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