CARACAS, Venezuela — In the cramped hillside slums where they once adored Hugo Chávez, hungry families now jeer and bang pots at the man struggling in his shadow, President Nicolás Maduro.
Chávez, a master showman who promised his country a socialist “revolution,” loved to wade through crowds of poor Venezuelans, blowing kisses and dispensing hugs. But when his successor has ventured out in public in recent months, he’s been pelted with eggs and chased by angry mobs.
“Maduro is so different,” said Irene Castillo, 26, who lives in El Guarataro, a tough neighborhood not far from the presidential palace. She voted for Maduro in 2013 when Chávez died after 14 years in power. But no one on Castillo’s block supports the government anymore, she said. “Now, those who remain ‘chavistas’ are just the radicals.”
As the country’s bloody, volatile, month-old protest movement hardens into a prolonged standoff between demonstrators and the government, the loyalties of poorer Venezuelans like Castillo have become a swing factor in determining whether the president will survive.
The thousands of demonstrators pouring into the streets in recent weeks are mostly middle class, outraged by Venezuela’s economic collapse and the government’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But Venezuelans from longtime chavista strongholds are starting to join them, at considerable risk. Residents of Castillo’s neighborhood protested openly against Maduro for the first time last week.
Pro-government block captains in neighborhoods like El Guarataro have responded by threatening to deny food rations to those who march with the opposition or fail to join pro-Maduro rallies. Militia groups armed by the government and known as “colectivos” are deployed to intimidate would-be defectors and are suspected in the deaths of several protesters.
As the confrontation escalates, many other destitute Venezuelans remain on the sidelines, disillusioned with Maduro but unpersuaded by his opponents, or too busy looking for food to join a march.
Aside from a military revolt, there is perhaps nothing Maduro fears more than a rebellion spreading through the neighborhoods that long backed Chávez. There are signs it’s already happening.
On several occasions this month, a pattern has emerged in which mostly middle-class Venezuelans and student activists swarm the capital’s main highway during the day, while poorer residents stage smaller protests in their neighborhoods at night, some of which have degenerated into chaos and looting.
In El Guarataro, where services such as electricity and water are frequently shut off, residents built barricades of flaming debris in the streets last week , clanging pots and pans at their windows to amplify their frustration. Riot police and national guard troops arrived, touching off clashes in a neighborhood that has long been a solid-red bastion of support for the government.
“The base of the chavista movement has eroded, and the situation is growing more explosive,” said Margarita López Maya, a political analyst in Caracas. “There’s no bread, but the government continues to insist it has the majority of Venezuelans on its side, so it looks increasingly dissociated from the reality of people’s lives.”
The leaders of the Democratic Unity party, the big-tent coalition of Maduro opponents, are demanding that the government release political prisoners and move up presidential elections due to take place in late 2018. They also want full power restored to the legislative branch, which Maduro and pro-government judges have stymied since the opposition won majority control in 2015.
Maduro has called on supporters to march through Caracas on May 1, international labor day, in a show of strength. He depicts his opponents as terrorists who are trying to sow chaos to prepare the ground for a foreign invasion.
With the world’s largest oil reserves, Venezuela used to be one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations. Now it’s among the most miserable, tormented by rampant crime, corruption and staggering government dysfunction. A scarcity of food and basic medicine has left more and more Venezuelans suffering from empty stomachs or languishing in squalid hospitals.
The shortages have spread widely but fallen hardest on the poor.
A survey by three of the country’s leading universities found that three-fourths of Venezuelans lost weight last year, by an average of 19 pounds.
Aware that mass hunger will hasten Maduro’s political demise, the government last year began assigning food sacks to Venezuelans in poorer areas, putting local party activists in charge of distribution. The program is known by its acronym, CLAP, and in neighborhoods like El Guarataro, residents know they could go without meals if they join protests or decline to join government-organized marches.
“They are afraid of losing the CLAP bag,” said Mirlenis Palacios, 45, an activist for the Primero Justicia party of opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who was recently banned from running for office for 15 years.
In interviews, several residents of poorer Caracas neighborhoods said they have been warned not to participate in any anti-government protests. “They blackmailed us with the bag,” said one man in El Guarataro, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Pro-government “colectivo” militants on motorcycles are a more fearsome threat. Phil Gunson, a Venezuela-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said they function like a paramilitary police force, suppressing potential protests while allowing the government to deny responsibility for their violence.
“They are a very effective form of intimidation,” Gunson said. “They openly display weapons on the street, and everyone knows who they are. So if you’re an opposition activist, it’s very risky to dissent in the barrios.”
The government is losing the hearts and minds of Venezuela’s poor, said Gunson, “so its control is largely through force and the threat to deny government welfare benefits, including food.”
The poorer neighborhoods are still widely referred to as “chavista” neighborhoods, but the label no longer applies, said Luis Vicente León, director of the Datanalisis polling firm, whose recent survey found that 88 percent of Venezuelans are unhappy with the government.
“The Venezuelans living in those neighborhoods want change, too,” León said. “But they don’t have time to go to marches, and they have no leadership.” Even as they sour on Maduro, he added, they feel the middle-class opposition movement is “not their natural ally.”
Democratic Unity activists only recently have begun making inroads in Caracas’s poorest districts, he said, because it remains dangerous for them to attempt ordinary grass-roots political work like knocking on doors or staging rallies.
But León said there are clearly more poor Venezuelans at opposition protests now than there were in 2014, when the government last faced a major rebellion, months of clashes in which more than 40 people were killed.
The political violence this month has left 29 dead, including Venezuelans apparently slain during looting.
Maduro still has Venezuela’s military, its oil revenue and its state-run media, even as the poor have started to tune out the propaganda. But the biggest obstacle the opposition faces in appealing to the poor may be the perception that the street protests won’t make a difference.
“We’re almost reaching a month of protests, and it’s done nothing,” said Xavier Hernández, 23, a motorcycle-taxi driver who lives in El Guarataro. “I’m not going to risk my life for it.”
Miroff reported from Bogota, Colombia.