CARACAS, Venezuela ― When Venezuelans go to the polls on Sunday to elect a National Constituent Assembly, they will do so after months of protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro in the eastern neighborhoods of Caracas. In the past week, these parts of the capital have once more become the center of opposition efforts to block Maduro’s plans ― this time his attempts to modify the constitution and solidify his grip on power.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the vast majority of businesses in eastern Caracas observed a two-day strike and remained closed to the public. Protesters also blocked roads in the city’s east with tree trunks, strands of wire, trash bags and construction materials. With transportation workers off the job, disoriented drivers and stray motorcycles struggled to dodge makeshift barricades on the deserted streets. Other than groups of neighbors who stood next to the rubble, the eastern streets of the city were utterly empty.
But while the unrest in these parts of the capital came as no surprise, a dramatic change has occurred across town that signals a fundamental shift in the months-long political stalemate between government and opposition.
For the first time, protests led by university students, local activists and common citizens, which had once been contained within the bounds of the capital’s affluent eastern neighborhoods, have started to spread to government strongholds in western parts of the city. The geographic expansion of the protests over the past few weeks reveals the conflict may be reaching a tipping point.
Throughout most of July, anti-government demonstrations have taken place in neighborhoods like La Candelaria, El Valle, La Vega and El Paraiso ― iconic middle- and working-class areas in the west of the city that were once loyal to Hugo Chavez’s regime. During the strike this week, most commercial shops in the west joined the protest, although bakeries, banks, grocery stores and the subway remained open. Traffic in the blocks surrounding the presidential palace, the ultimate symbol of Maduro’s power in Caracas, was as scarce as during national holidays.
The west is “the last bastion of the government,” social activist Roberto Patiño explained this week. “The west is the capital. It is the seat of the branches of government. It is extremely risky, from the government’s perspective, for protests to take place in that zone.”
Sunday’s vote is the culmination of a months-long confrontation between Maduro and the opposition that has so far claimed the lives of more than 130 people.
Once elected, the new National Constituent Assembly will be an omnipotent body that will be tasked with writing a new constitution. Maduro’s critics fear the main goal of this effort is to modify the structure of the state to expand his powers and help him stay in office. They also fear threats of a recent plan to incarcerate public officials and members of the opposition through the assembly. The main critique, however, is that Maduro intends to push through his proposal without the approval of Venezuelan voters.
According to the opposition, more than 7.5 million people participated in a symbolic referendum on July 16 that aimed to measure the discontent of the local population. The results indicate that virtually all voters disapproved of the National Constituent Assembly. Recent polls suggest that more than 74 percent of the country disapproves of Maduro’s mandate overall.
Despite domestic and international pressure to call off the vote, Maduro has indicated the election will proceed as planned. The administration doubled down on dissent leading up to the weekend and issued a ban on protests until the vote concludes. At least five people were killed and more than 100 protesters detained in clashes during the two-day strike.
For the past four months, the strength and intensity of anti-government protests has varied across Caracas along the city’s geographical lines.
“There used to be a sort of Berlin Wall near the neighborhood of Chacaito,” said Victor Amaya, a journalist for several local publications. “That wall then retreated to Plaza Venezuela and then it stayed there,” he said, in reference to parts of Caracas on the border between east and west. “I don’t think it has been entirely lifted.”
“If an anti-government march tries to cross the city from east to the west” Amaya added, “it will simply not make it. The difference now is that we have more of a curtain that moves, that sways.”
According to Patiño, the social activist, the new forms of protest that have emerged from the crisis have helped mobilize more people. “The largest recorded protest so far was the Popular Consult on July 16,” he says. “More than 400,000 people voted in the municipality of Libertador. That tells you that the east-west divide is farce and that everyone is protesting.”
Patiño said several elements have caused the expansion of the protests.
“Thousands of people have protested in places where fear has historically had an overpowering influence,” Patiño explained. “A first element is the middle class of the Libertador municipality, which has massively joined the protests.” As the only administrative division in the country’s Capital District, the municipality of Libertador houses the seat of government and is led by mayor Jorge Rodriguez, who is a prominent figurehead of the Maduro administration.
“A second element is the emergence of social protests,” said Patiño. As Venezuela’s economy continues it’s out-of-control downward spiral, not all of the protests in government strongholds are related to the political process. Instead, protesters demand food, cooking gas and medicine.
Víctor Álvarez, an award-winning economist and former member of Hugo Chávez’s cabinet, echoes that view and says protests in these areas respond to a systemic failure in Maduro’s economic policies. “The fact that these sectors are currently spaces for sustained conflict is a consequence of an exhausted socialist model based on government spending of the national income from oil,” he explained.
“When oil prices were high,” Álvarez said, “the government could finance a series of social programs that satisfied the basic needs of these sectors. In 2013, we saw the first symptoms of economic deceleration and then the stagnation of all economic activity. These sectors are starting to resent that the benefits and gratuities they received are now debilitated, that the quality of life they enjoyed under Chávez is beginning to disappear under Maduro.”
Recent polls suggest that nine out of 10 Venezuelan households can’t afford to buy food with their family income. As of last year, nearly 82 percent of Venezuelans lived in a state of poverty. According to the Federation of Venezuelan Pharmacists, the shortage of medicine in the country reaches 85 percent of the market.
In Catia, a low-income neighborhood home to 400,000 people in the western end of Caracas, these hardships color daily life. Local residents have become accustomed to standing in line on the sidewalk to buy a loaf of regulated bread or a bag of imported goods the government sells in the area.
For more than a week, military officials have occupied schools and institutions, like the Arnoldo Gabaldón Elementary school near Catia, to serve as polling centers on Sunday. Staff at that school has been denied access to the building until after the elections.
“Catia was one of the remaining bastions of the government, but the situation has forced people to manifest their discontent,” said Dr. Ángel Páez during a break from his midday shift at a local medical dispensary on Wednesday. “I suspect that voter turnout in this area will be low on Sunday.”
In addition to the protests, the growing discontent with Maduro in these neighborhoods has been visible at the polls. During the parliamentary elections in 2015, the opposition won three out of four seats in Catia and obtained 62 percent of the seats in congress.
“Part of the Chavista block is against the Constituent Assembly because of the way in which it was convened,” explained Álvarez, in reference to Maduro’s attempt to summon the assembly without public approval. “This is Maduro’s great treason.”
Near the dispensary where Páez works, the day of the symbolic referendum ended in tragedy. Xiomara Escot, a 61-year-old nurse, was killed by an armed group of government loyalists who shot her as she waited in line to cast her ballot. These violent groups of militants, also known as colectivos, have recently stepped up their attacks in Catia and across the country to intimidate protesters.
“People fear the colectivos,” Páez said, “but in spite of that fear, that day they joined the protest.”
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