OCUMARE — It's midday on this Thursday, and hundreds of people are squeezing inside a supermarket in Ocumare, a poor city about an hour's drive south of Caracas. Armed police officers are allowing people in, but just a few at a time, infuriating the multitude massed outside since dawn to buy corn flour at a government regulated price.
As tensions mount, one policeman on a motorbike accelerates towards the crowd, forcing people to scatter.
"We're hungry, you wretches," a woman screams.
A young man yells: "Let's storm the shop!"
Just 500 meters away, another line is forming outside a bank that has only just opened. It had been closed all morning due to electricity rationing. Most of the people waiting outside the branch are retired. They want to withdraw pension payments that were deposited this morning. Whenever a bank teller comes towards the door to receive the next client, people scream at each other and jostle. In one of the tensest moments, two men even exchange punches.
"Nobody can take this anymore," says manicurist Amelia Rivas, 42. "There's a shortage of food, of electricity, of water, of security." Her distress is palpable. And it's shared by just about everyone as the country's already severe economic and social crisis deepens further still.
Exhausted by almost three years of shortages and inflation, the population lets its impatience pour out with ever more violence, rekindling fears of a new Caracazo, an eruption of popular anger that left about 300 people dead back in 1989.
Looting has taken place across the country, including in Caracas, the capital. Everyday, social media are filled with new images of people invading markets and warehouses, or attacking food trucks. This week, one video even showed people attacking fishermen as they were about to unload sardines they'd just caught off Margarita Island.
Small protests against the crisis are also spreading, often in streets barricaded by burning tires. In recent weeks, the inhabitants of Ocumare demonstrated several times against water cuts.
Just a few minutes of watching people lined up in supermarkets and pharmacies, furious and shouting, gives the impression that conflict is imminent.
The government's response was to multiply military checkpoints and send more armored vehicles to several cities, making areas in and around Caracas look like the capital was under siege. President Nicolás Maduro has also declared a state of emergency, granting him special powers for 60 days.
Nicolas Maduro and Venezuelan troops — Photo: Nicolasmaduro.org
"People have opened their eyes, and the government is afraid," says 28-year-old Marliober Ozcategui, as she breastfeeds her two-month-old baby while waiting outside a supermarket.
One police officer confirms that people are getting "more desperate by the day" and admits he's scared. "Like everybody else," he says. He also makes it clear that if ordered to do so, he won't hesitate to shoot at demonstrators.
Maduro says the economic crisis is the result of an anti-socialist conspiracy and of falling oil production due to the great plunge in oil prices since 2014. The president also says that the power and water cuts are unavoidable because of a drought that's left the country's dams empty.
For the opposition and most economists, the crisis started before oil prices began to fall and is the consequence of poor management by Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez (1999-2013), who hurt the manufacturing sector by pushing through price and foreign-exchange controls.
The opposition won control of Venezuela's single-chamber legislature in elections held last December. It is now using that majority to organize a recall referendum to remove Maduro from office, perhaps by the end of the year.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles believes that the more the government opposes the referendum, the bigger the chance of a popular revolt. "Venezuela is a bomb that can explode at any moment," he says.