“It makes no sense! You go into a Chavista’s house and Chávez and Maduro’s faces are everywhere but you open their fridge and it is empty! Empty!” This was the passionate reaction I received from an acquaintance I was chatting with yesterday when I commented that protests in Caracas have not seemed to receive support from popular sectors in the city.
His frustration came from seemingly inexplicable support for a government under whose watch food has become both more expensive and more difficult to find.
In the past year the large majority of Venezuelans have been hit hard by the food shortages this man was referencing. Indeed, it is specifically for this reason that some hoped protests would unite the country around common concerns and cross class lines.
Nevertheless, the protests have remained largely identified with the middle and upper classes, failing to gain traction in the popular sectors. Rather than uniting Venezuela it seems more likely that protests have deepened divisions and polarization.
Why have common concerns not produced cross-class concerted action here? Just last year we saw exactly this happen with Brazil’s “Spring of Unrest.”
A leading explanation among opposition sectors is that those in the popular sectors would like to protest in their own neighborhoods; however, they are afraid of repression by the collectives that support the government.
In an article this morning in El Nacional, university student and Catia resident Eumary Requiniva rejected the idea that the popular sectors have not joined the protests. According to Requiniva: “It is not true that students and people protesting are only from the east. I have lived my entire life in Caita and we have gone out to protest…the collectives have to understand that the struggle is not against them, it is for them.”
There is most likely some truth to this explanation. In some parts of Catia collectives are armed and believe it is their responsibility to protect the Bolivarian Revolution (though it is important to note that most collectives are neither armed nor violent). Nevertheless, I would like to suggest a more mundane explanation for the geographical limitations of the protests.
Among many in the popular sectors there remains a basic lack of trust or confianza in the opposition parties and any group connected to them (In Venezuelan Spanish you have confianza in someone if you are sure he or she will “do right” by you).
In other words, many remain unconvinced that the opposition cares about and will look out for their interests. This desconfianza applies to the protests affiliated with the opposition.
For example, on March 8th protestors took to Las Palmas Avenue in Caracas in a march dubbed “las ollas vacías” (the march of the empty pots). Protestors at the march carried banners and posters decrying a shortage of basic foodstuffs like milk, chicken, and coffee.
But the marchers’ original route planned to end up on the Andres Bello Avenue, where a Mega-Mercal (an open air, provisional government subsidized food market) had been organized that same day. This route raised suspicions that the marchers eventually planned to collide with the Mega-Mercal. Thus, a march that demanded solutions to food scarcity quickly became perceived as an attempt to disrupt a market that many in the lower classes depend upon to buy food.
And while the march of the ollas vacías was purportedly about food shortages, flags from the opposition party Primero Justicia waved through the air right behind banners decrying these shortages. This makes Catia residents see them as a play for power by politicians that they have a hard time trusting.
For many, perhaps the most important legacy Chávez left behind was the memory of a president who put the interests of el pueblo first. And Chávez’s commitment to “do right” by the poor transformed the landscape of sectors like Catia: health missions like Barrio Adentro provide free healthcare; the Bolivarian universities created by the Chávez government draw the majority of its students from the lower classes and provide them with a free education that many students would not receive otherwise; and Mercals and Mercalitos sell basic food items between 10 to 15 times cheaper than supermarkets or from individual vendors on the street.
This is not to say that these initiatives are not flawed. As early as 2010 human rights group Provea pointed out that at least 33% of the Barrio Adentro modules were barely functioning. And last week I stood in a line with a friend for about 4 ½ hours while we waited for a Mercal to be set up in our neighborhood before we could buy food.
Many believe, however, that it is worthwhile sticking with a government that laid the groundwork for these programs. At this point supporting the marches would be tantamount to switching political sides. And the “other side” has yet to convince the popular sectors that it would continue the social programs created under Chávez or any way fight for the needs of “el pueblo.”
Standing in the Mercal line last week my friend commented: “Despite everything, the Mercal is a gotica de petroleo (drop of oil) that has reached el pueblo” thanks to the government. The man in front of us broke into our conversation, laughing and saying “Mejor el diablo que conoces que el angelito desconocido” (better the devil you know than the angel you don’t).