Post-Chavez Venezuela: One country, divided in two
Two years after the charismatic and divisive President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez died, the country he left behind suffers from severe inflation and product shortages, one of the highest murder rates in the world according to independent violence observers, and has made headlines in the last year for waves of protests that have rocked the country.
Moved by these protests against the government of Chavez’s hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro, I came to Venezuela last year to photograph the unfolding of events. I was curious to better understand a movement in which many of the protesters were middle and upper class citizens furious at the socialist regime and demanding that President Maduro step down.
At least 44 people have died in the last year’s political unrest. Among the dead are student protesters, pro-government militia members, law enforcement, and bystanders. I was fascinated by what could drive the upper class of a country, those who are the most comfortable, to participate in a clearly dangerous protest movement. Gradually I came to understand the level of insecurity here that leaves many Caracas streets deserted after sundown, and the fear of robbery and kidnapping that seems to touch the lives of everyone. Rampant inflation and an economy based almost entirely on the country’s oil resources have nearly capsized Venezuela’s economic system. Working in the country, I came to see it as two different societies and two different nations occupying the same cities but existing in separate realities.
In the Barrio, the Venezuelan term for the hillside Favela communities where the poor build their homes, images of Chavez are everywhere. When asked questions about politics, or about their daily lives, many are quick to state their gratitude to Chavez, for their subsidized food, for the schools their children attend, for their heavily discounted refrigerators, for repeatedly insisting that the poor should have as much power in society as the wealthy. “Thanks to President Commander Chavez we have all we need,” is a sentence repeated often.
In the barrios, the protest movement is often the butt of jokes. Preoccupied with survival, inundated with violence to the point that walls are pock-marked with bullet holes, and disproportionately affected by the supply shortage problems, many of the poor echo the party line of Chavez and Maduro: The shortages are the result of North American and corporate sabotage and hoarding by the rich; the opposition movement is composed of a greedy upper class determined to keep the country’s vast wealth for themselves.
Meanwhile, across town, in high-rise apartments with elaborate security systems, private guards and fortress-like fences, the middle and upper class residents of Caracas can barely contain their outrage. Every week another friend or cousin or family member moves to Miami or Panama or Spain. Neighbors trade the latest horror stories of kidnappings and robberies over their morning cafes con leche, and use Whatsapp groups to advise each other about which stores have received shipments of rationed laundry detergent or milk.
A collapse of the relationship between the government and many international airlines has lead to exorbitant prices for flights out of the county. The site of a brown-skinned motorcycle driver, the stereotypical perpetrator of crimes in Caracas, evokes fear and anger, often until the driver removes his helmet, and is recognized as a local construction worker or gardener or moto taxi driver. The paranoia mixes with the necessary precautions for living in such a dangerous city, but becomes infused with racial tension and political hostility.
Everyday the mistrust seems to grow. “This country is turning into Cuba!” The middle and upper classes wring their hands as the values of their bank accounts plummet on a daily basis due to inflation. Some blame the poor for voting for Maduro “in return for hand outs.”
Navigating these these two worlds - both of which suffer from violence and inflation yet suffer differently while blaming each other without truly getting to know one another – was the impetus for this project.This work documenting daily life across the class divide in Caracas is an attempt to put these people together in one place, despite the fact that they are increasingly, and as some would argue, dangerously separate.
Natalie Keyssar is a photographer based in New York City.