A recent trip to Caracas showed a city where many people continue to function for better or worse, and where the rich are still living large.
CARACAS — Sure, a recent visit to the Venezuelan capital offered scenes of the country's division between supporters and opponents of President Nicolás Maduro. But perhaps the more stark differences on display are between a politicized minority and millions of Venezuelans pursuing their lives as best as they can.
With my colleague Alejandro, we arrived at Maiquetía Airport on a dawn flight from Panama. I was nervous entering the country, with my cameras and a Colombian passport at a time of tensions between the neighboring governments. After checking my bag and asking a couple of questions, a uniformed official let me through.
We stepped out into a thick, dry air. There is always a sweet smell of gasoline here, as I recall from my last visit two years ago. Our driver Emerson was waiting to take us into the city in an old Toyota Corolla. He earns a living taking goods to and from the Colombian border city of Cúcuta. He took us to our hotel, the Waldorf, which had raised the price of our rooms from $80 a night to $97.
After breakfast we drove around the city, and noticed numerous fruit and vegetable trucks. We were told import shortages had brought local horticulture to life, and small producers found an opportunity to sell produce cheaply in cities. Spontaneous peasant markets had thus appeared to meet the immense urban demand for fresh food. Amid a creeping dollarization of the economy, these still charge in bolivars, the local currency.
We later went to Petare, a populous district east of Caracas, to meet with Ibrahim, a local collaborator of El Espectador. He lives with his wife in an apartment provided by the government. The apartment block is new and sober, with concrete corridors and steel doors. Their apartment came with a fridge, which we noted was filled with food. He said he barters things he needs with his brother, and receives basic foodstuffs from the government's CLAP program. There is a CLAP box on the floor, with pasta, oil, tuna and the like imported from Mexico and Brazil.
Journalists on site had helmets, in anticipation of violence. But there was none.
The government says it has handed over 2.6 million homes, as part of its Venezuela Great Housing Mission. The buildings are easy to distinguish (apparently built by the Chinese) as their façades bear a big signature of the late leader, Hugo Chávez.
It was a Saturday, and the country's opposition leader and speaker of parliament Juan Guaidó had called for a big protest in the capital. So we went to the Alfredo Sadel square in the posh district of Las Mercedes, to observe. About a thousand people turned up. They looked well-heeled, with white skin, iPhones and some with bodyguards. There were some darker people too, selling baseball caps and T-shirts with anti-government slogans.
Some elderly ladies warned a group of hooded youths not to start any trouble. Journalists on site had helmets, in anticipation of violence. But there was none. The Bolivarian National Guard did not show up and Guaidó made another speech (declaring the "imminent" end of the regime) on a plastic podium. People applauded, and then dispersed.
We went for lunch at a grill, then drove around Chacao, where the rich live in villas and meet in private clubs. At the Caracas Country Club, gentlemen were playing golf. Clearly at the heart of the opposition, there are people who are immune to President Donald Trump's sanctions.
In the evening we went to a pizza and dance joint inside the city's big opera house, the Teresa Carreño theater. There was salsa, pizzas and not a free table in sight. Beer flowed and we could not hear a single conversation about Maduro or Guaidó. Four pizzas and 12 beers cost us $30.
The Teresa Carreño theater — Photo: José Gregorio Ferrer
On Monday, we sought out a gasoline station to fill up Emerson's Toyota. To the question of how much it costs to fill up, we heard the incredible if now familiar answer here, that the bolivar is so worthless now that people no longer pay for fuel, but tip the attendant. Emerson filled up with 15 liters, for the nominal cost of 89.4 bolivars, or 1.6 cents.
We later met members of the Bolivarian Militia, a paramilitary force with 1.5 million members. Expecting an "imperialist" invasion, these have been variously trained to use firearms, or store foodstuffs or fuel in a hypothetical invasion. A member and former soldier, José Lugo, told me the regime's strategy was to wear down the opposition and avoid confrontation. He said chaos gave Guaidó his arguments, but a relative state of peace and the impossibility of overthrowing President Maduro robbed the opposition of momentum.
The regime's strategy was to wear down the opposition and avoid confrontation.
Like the capital's prosperous districts, pro-government neighborhoods are over-politicized zones where you can breathe the conflict. But as elsewhere in the world, politics is not the main concern of the vast majority of Venezuelans. Caracas is not under martial law, and people come and go. Hundreds of thousands have admittedly left the capital, but one feels a sense of normality here.
Driving to the airport on our departure day, we see vast billboards demanding the liberation of Leopoldo López, one of the country's leading opponents (now a guest of the Spanish embassy). Events have eroded their relevance, and the tropical climate faded their colors. But neither Maduro nor López nor anyone can be bothered to have them taken down.
I thought Caracas is similar to any Latin American city, with its problems, poverty, traffic jams and corruption, but also its liveliness, guts and savvy, and a social fabric as tough as old boots. I was surprised coming from Colombia, because this is not what you read in the news. But then, peace and quiet don't sell.