Post-Chavez Venezuela: One country, divided in two

  • A poster at Lola, an upscale eatery in Altamira, Venezuela, and a man, in the same neighborhood, in February. 
  • Julian Motta, 12, sits on the steps of a building near the center of Caracas that was once an abandoned lot but now houses a group of families. On the right, broken glass is used to protect against intruders in Antimano.
  • Roses grow in front of a pristine home in the Favela community of Antimano. On the right, a teacher watches classes at the private Simon Bolivar II school. 
  • Apartment buildings in the wealthy enclave of Los Palos Grandes. 
  • A young student at a public school in Antimano, left, and Jaculen Meijia, 33, with her son, Emanuelle David Rico Meijia, 1, in their home in an expropriated apartment building in Caracas. 
  • A girl sits on the floor of a friend’s house in Antimano, left. On the right, palm trees are seen behind barbed wire in the upscale suburb of Las Lagunitas.
  • A flower tree partly obscures electric and barbed wire fencing that lines an apartment building’s gates in upscale Altamira. The rate of kidnappings and robberies in this area are very high and the homes are kept under lock and key. On the right, a woman hangs her laundry on her roof in Antimano, a poor barrio in Caracas. 
  • Victoria Anais Godoy Figuerdo, 7, does her homework in her family’s apartment in an expropriated building in downtown Caracas. 
  • In Antimano, subsidized products like household cleaning supplies are often hard to find and are hawked on the street at a mark up. On the right, young women pose for a photo on a public beach in La Guaira. 
  • Freddy Bustamante, 59, poses for a photo in his Antimano home. He makes around 3-4000 Bolivares a month selling toys from his home. On the right, children look out from a window of a home in Antimano. 
  • Boys play basketball in Antimano. 
  • Maria Bernarda Gomez, 74, a domestic worker, poses for a photo at the home she works at in Altamira. She was worked for the family for over 20 years, and was recently beaten by burglars who broke into the house when the family was out of town. On the right, a bible sits open in a home in Antimano.
  • Julian Motta, 12, left, and a friend look out from an expropriated building near the center of Caracas, which is being built by its inhabitants into apartments.
  • Sara Escalona, 11, and Alejandra Bello (left) 11, practice the recorder at the Simon Bolivar II private school in Caracas. On the right, a model prepares for a fashion show during an event at Lola, an upscale restaurant in Altamira.
  • A horse is seen in its stable at the Caracas Country Club. On the right, an umbrella sits on the green of the Caracas Country Club golf course. 
  • Models walk through the space at Lola, an upscale restaurant in Altamira. They wear black ribbons on their arm as a gesture of mourning a 14-year-old opposition protester who was killed in the border town of Tachira the day before. 
  • A woman gets a shampoo at a salon in Las Lagunitas, left. On the right, models prepare for a fashion show during an evening event at Lola, an upscale restaurant in Altamira. 
  • A couture party hat at Lola, an upscale eatery in Altamira, left. On the right, women drink coffee and play cards at the Caracas Country Club.
  • Young men watch surfers on a Sunday afternoon in La Guaira, a poor beachside community next to Caracas.
  • A woman walks along the road in La Guaira late on a Sunday evening, left. On the right, a bouquet of flowers and some orange slices lie in still water near the beach in La Guaira. Spiritualism practices which use materials like these are popular among poor and working class Venezuelans.
  • The windows of a large housing project or “Mision Vivienda” in La Guaira, left. On the right, Wilfredo Marquez, 34, a security guard, poses for a portrait in Altamira. He makes about 15,000 Bolivares, or $53 per month. Due to inflation the current black market rate for Bolivares to dollars is 281/1. 
  • A mechanic holds a grease rag in his hand in his shop in Petare, left. On the right, a pro-Chavez mural at an expropriated apartment site in Central Caracas.
  • A young girl stands in an alleyway in Antimano on a Friday evening in February. On the right, a view from the hilltop Barrio of Antimano of Caracas as it stretches out in the distance beneath the Avila mountains.

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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.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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