“I had never seen anything like this,” says Annika Hernroth-Rothstein, a Swedish Jewish journalist documenting the protests in Caracas. “I’ve wept on numerous occasions seeing children eating from the trash. The poverty is rampant, all over the city.”
For the last week she has been documenting the unrest in Venezuela, which has reached a point of no return, she says.
On Monday she was heading into barrios of poverty-stricken areas of Caracas to meet the colectivos, groups that were originally raised to support the government of Hugo Chavez. Now those groups have morphed into lawless mafias often made up of motorcycle-riding “death squads,” say locals. Armed by Chavez, they patrol poor areas and trade off their connections to corrupt government officials. The colectivos, locals have told Rothstein, is just one example of the problems facing Venezuela today amid the mass protests of pro-government and opposition activists.
“The government is reminiscent of Iran,” says Rothstein, comparing it to her past experience reporting in Tehran. It monitors people on social media. “I’ve been stopped three times,” she says. They are aware of which journalists are covering the protests in Venezuela.
But nothing in Venezuela is simple, she says. “It’s better and worse than I imagined.” She explains that there is food for the wealthy and those with money, but for the poor there is little. The videos in major media of protests and depictions of the crisis also don’t quite offer the full picture. “There is this interesting thing of everything happening in waves – you have clashes and extreme violence,” Rothstein says, followed by lulls.
The lulls in the protests are connected to poverty, she says. “The people in these poor barrios don’t have the money and time to protest. They don’t have the money to get downtown. The revolution is middle class. In these barrios people survive hour by hour.”
Life goes on among the very poor. She says that one person, when asked about supporting Guaido, had not even heard the name of the opposition leader-turned-interim president
. “There are two or three worlds here and the disparity between the people who know and who are involved and those who are trying actively not to die is stunning. The hopes are fragile. People say they have seen protests before and, yes this is bigger.”
While they have demonstrated in the past, this time they have the international community on their side
But people are fearful that things can get worse. They’ve been living under Chavez since 2002 and now Maduro’s regime since 2013. “They can’t afford to be unrealistic about life and politics,” Rothstein says.
Venezuela has received its greatest support from Russia, Turkey and Iran. But unlike how Iran responded to the 2009 protests by violently suppressing them, Maduro’s government has been more reticent. There is lawlessness, says Rothstein. Police also complain of corruption. They might be arresting colectivo members or rooting out crime, but also find that government officials have connections with gangs and mafias. The government says that it is the victim of a US-supported coup. It’s supporters talk about Israeli conspiracies and accuse Guaido of being a far-right extremist. Rothstein says she has been targeted online as a Jew. The regime appears to use bots online the way Russia and other countries have been accused of.
Maduro appears at a crossroads of crises. He hasn’t ordered a massive crackdown and he doesn’t have the ideological support that Chavez inspired. A recent military exercise outside of the capital fueled rumors that the military would be deployed. Journalists have been detained. “He [Maduro] can’t maintain this,” she says. Either he goes or he has to find a way to defeat the protests. It has reached a point of no return.”
She believes stories of Russian support are also not as straight forward as they seem. “Russia’s heart isn’t in it. They are weighing their options. Russia isn’t willing to die on the hill of Venezuela.”
Guaido is an inspiring figure. Rothstein compares the aura around him to the US election of Barack Obama in 2008. Not just the “hope and change thing,” she says, but also how well managed he is. He hasn’t made missteps. “Everything feels very perfect.” Even the protests are well organized. On Sunday people seemed to take a “day off” from the rallies. And at the rallies they are well managed. Speakers talk just before sunset and sing the national anthem. “So even in the most violent parts there is a sense of organization and that surprises me,” Rothstein says.
But far from the media spotlight, tragedies are unfolding. “There are areas where it flares up, there are areas I wouldn’t go to, so there is violence and it is contained. There are anonymous people dying silently in these poor areas and don’t get as much coverage as those in the central squares.” It’s a low level separate conflict being fought out of the spotlight. And Rothstein says that even if Maduro leaves it will take a new government decades to fix the problems that have set in.
The US now says it wants to help send humanitarian aid. Because Washington has recognized Guaido, he should be the one to authorize its delivery.
But the Maduro government still controls the border, which sets up a catch-22, and people are desperate for the aid. Rothstein says many people are asking for the humanitarian support before they even discuss larger issues like Guido or Maduro or socialism. It’s on a simpler level.
Those abroad have the luxury to discuss whether socialism in Venezuela succeeded or is an example of its massive failure. People in Caracas just want to survive.