“Upheaval” describes everyday life in Venezuela.
The South American country has been mired in an economic, political and humanitarian crisis that has spilled into the streets, with almost daily protests affecting the lives of 30 million people who either participate in them or are forced to navigate through roadblocks and debris.
In cities and towns across the country, people have come out by the thousands since early April to protest a government many no longer recognize as legitimate.
Since then, the streets of the capital, Caracas, have become the backdrop for a deadly battle of wills between the government of President Nicolas Maduro and a coalition of opposition groups intent on ousting him.
Maduro has called the protests a violent attempt to overthrow his government. But behind the protests are a large number of Venezuelans who feel they’ve reached a breaking point. The shortage of basic goods, skyrocketing inflation and what they call the repression by government forces have all contributed to the opposition’s desire to see Maduro and his government replaced.
Also at stake is control of the country’s vast oil reserves and an economy that, once strong, has descended into chaos as inflation soars to triple digits and the value of the currency plummets, according to analyses by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
At least 124 people have been killed, and thousands more have been injured, according to an August report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Government security forces and pro-government armed groups, called colectivos, are behind at least 73 of those deaths, according to the report, which adds, “It is unclear who the perpetrators in the remaining deaths may be.”
For Claudia Vivas, a 29-year-old mother living in Caracas, the violence of the protests and the government’s response to them have added to an already hard life.
“They’re massacring us,” Vivas told ABC News in Spanish. “I’ve breathed in tear gas like you don’t have any idea. I’ve never been hit, thank God. Neither me nor my husband has been hit, but we’ve breathed in that gas.”
“I’ve seen rubber bullets fly right by me and hit people next to me,” she added.
A country in crisis
Witnesses to the clashes as well as international human rights groups and regional organizations monitoring the situation have said that Venezuelan security forces have been firing tear gas canisters and buckshot at short range and using marbles, nuts and bolts as ammunition against anti-government demonstrators. In addition to the U.N. findings last month, reports from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have told of these repression techniques, which the groups say are aimed at injuring protesters.
Alfredo Romero is the director of Foro Penal Venezolano, a Venezuelan legal aid group that documents human rights abuses and represents people who have been detained at demonstrations. He told ABC News the detentions have added to the calamity in a country that already had more than 670 political prisoners, many of them students and other young people, according to the group.
Of the approximately 5,300 people detained in this year’s protests, about 650 — the majority of them civilians — have been tried in military court, according to Romero. Foro Penal Venezolano’s work has been certified by the Organization of American States.
Venezuela’s Ministry of Information did not respond to ABC News’ requests for comment on these allegations.
Detainees say that beatings, sexual abuse and torture are common, and there are numerous allegations that the government planted evidence and denied detainees legal representation, Romero said.
“Speaking about the law here, it’s nonsensical. Here, you talk about what the government wants to do, who they want to jail and who they want to free,” Romero said. “Behind all this, there’s a great policy of fear that’s hard to understand when you don’t live it. This is a regime that has stayed in power through fear.”
Venezuela’s unraveling has been a long and painful one. Lines for food get longer as food gets scarcer; diseases become deadlier as medical supplies wane. A meltdown of government institutions has consolidated power around Maduro’s party and served to criminalize dissent, the Organization of American States, an international body made up of 35 countries from the Americas, said in its July report on the country’s crisis. Earlier this month, a National Constituent Assembly was elected to rewrite the country’s constitution. The opposition chose to boycott the elections, which many world leaders denounced.
Assembly members were tasked with writing a new constitution to stop what they called the imperial aggression from the fascist groups against the government, Fernando Soto Rojas, a pro-government politician elected to the assembly, said in a live broadcast of the swearing-in ceremony. Maduro and his government blame the country’s woes on an economic war being waged by the political opposition, the private sector and foreign powers.
“[Even] when Chavez was alive, things started to get worse,” Vivas said, referring to the country’s President Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer on March 5, 2013. “But I can assure you, things were better with Chavez than what we have now with Maduro.”
From 1999 to 2013, Chavez led the country and developed a number of oil-subsidized social programs aimed at helping the poor. His supporters were known as Chavistas, and after he died, his vice president, Maduro, took over. Maduro was elected president after defeating opposition candidate Henrique Capriles less than six weeks after Chavez’s death.
But as oil prices stay under $50 a barrel, Venezuelans are bearing the brunt of their country’s lack of money for imports and the corruption involved in distributing food. The Chavez-built social programs have grown too costly for Maduro’s cash-strapped government.
“Venezuelans are living — it’s sad to say — they are living to eat,” Vivas said. “I often prefer, just like my husband, to not eat but to make sure my children have their meals.”
“Economists project that by the end of 2017, the Venezuelan economy will have shrunk by around 30 percent in three years,” reads a report from the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that carries out field research on violent conflict. The population living below the poverty line is growing fast, the group said.
The Venezuelan government has set price limits for some basic goods, including personal hygiene products and many food items. As supply decreases, black market prices for those products have soared — hitting Venezuelans hard.
“You cannot fall sick. You cannot be injured. You cannot even suffer a stomachache,” Vivas said. “You also depend on the harvest. If there’s mango harvest, you eat only mangoes. If there’s tangerine harvest, you eat only tangerines.”
For Vivas — who lives in a working-class neighborhood in Caracas with her two young children, her husband and her aging father — finding food is a struggle often tainted by politics. In theory, her family should get food from the local provision and production committees (abbreviated CLAP in Spanish), but Vivas told ABC News that organizers informed her she had been taken off the census for CLAP-supplied food bags because she supports the opposition.
Maduro’s government started the CLAP program to distribute food in the country. Venezuelans looking for food need to sign up for CLAP and pay a monthly fee to get bags of often hard-to-find products, which are distributed by the military. Sometimes the bags include noodles, flour and oil — now prized staples in a Venezuelan diet that has become more restricted, according to Vivas.
The family now relies on her father’s food bag. He still has access to it because, unlike Vivas, he supports the government. The bag lasts four days for the five of them.
“Once we have consumed the food from the bag, things change because we have to wait 21 days — sometimes 31 — and the bag doesn’t come. So we have to buy on the black market, or a friend of ours tells us where there’s food available, and we try to help one another,” Vivas said. “You’ll find a price today, and tomorrow it will be another. The amount is never accurate, what we are sure of is that it’s not enough.”
Raising two children is a struggle for her.
“I want my children to have what I couldn’t, but in this economy, I think they will have much less than what I did,” she said.
This is not the first time Venezuelans have taken to the streets to protest Maduro. Demonstrations in 2014 also calling for his resignation left dozens of people dead, many others injured and several opposition leaders jailed.
By late 2015, the opposition had won a majority in the National Assembly, the country’s legislature.
But by 2016, the government-aligned Supreme Court curtailed the National Assembly’s powers, calling its resolutions unconstitutional — including one to speed up the recall referendum process in order to oust Maduro.
Efforts to hold a recall referendum that year were squashed, and that, along with a restricted legislature and worsening economic and humanitarian crises, resulted in this year’s waves of protests, which many among the opposition have called Venezuela’s “hora cero” (zero hour) — the breaking point, when the Maduro government must go.
Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin America program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said the Supreme Court’s 2016 decision was a turning point in what she called Maduro’s move toward a dictatorial regime.
“Once he saw he could lose power through an election, he has curtailed all the institutional mechanisms that handle the electoral system,” she told ABC News. “Now that they see that they’re going to lose elections, they’re putting away any means to do them.”
But Alexander Main, a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, disagreed.
“The only thing [the opposition] seems to be able to agree on is that the government needs to go,” he said. “They’re not very persuasive to the general population as a viable alternative to the government, so even if a lot of people are disenchanted with the government, they don’t have much confidence in the opposition at all.”
Splintered opposition leadership has given rise to small pockets of radicalism, as people grow frustrated with the government’s repression of the protests and the lack of change.
Armed with Molotov cocktails, rocks and makeshift shields, groups of opposition protesters have waged war on security forces, throwing tear gas canisters back at the national guard and hurling rocks at pro-government groups. More radical opposition factions were responsible for a July 30 bombing in Caracas that injured seven members of the national guard.
“There are numerous examples historically in Latin America where the closing off of any peaceful means for political means radicalizes the opposition and leads some people to embrace violence, and that is happening as well in Venezuela,” Arnson said. “There’s a small group of people who say, ‘We can’t just continue to go into the streets and have people killed at point blank … We need to meet fire with fire.'”
Vivas, who said she went to the demonstrations every day for almost a month, is fearful. While she said the violent groups among the protesters are small, she needs to put her children first.
“I want to fight for my country. I want to fight for my children. But to be killed or hit by a rubber bullet or get hurt from that — that scares me a lot,” she said.
The fact that the opposition is a coalition of parties united only in their discontent with the government has failed to reassure many.
“There’s a great deal of jockeying for position in terms of who is the leader of the opposition. There are a number of personalities that are important that have had a hard time speaking in one voice,” Arnson said.
An uncertain future
Venezuela’s turmoil has garnered international attention and provoked fiery rhetoric, such as when President Donald Trump said U.S. military intervention in the country was on the table.
The Trump administration has sanctioned Venezuelan government officials it believes are linked to international drug trafficking and human rights violations, including Vice President Tarek El-Aissami and several government ministers.
For the first time since Maduro’s election in 2013, the majority of countries in the Organization of American States have issued strong condemnations of his government. Although OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro has called Maduro’s efforts to sew up power “treason” against the Venezuelan people, the organization has failed to pass any resolutions against the Venezuelan government.
International pressure can do only so much. It’s a combination of internal dynamics and external factors that bring about change, Arnson said.
Attempts at formal dialogue between the Maduro government and the opposition — often brokered by former world leaders or other neutral parties — have so far proved fruitless.
Late last year the Vatican tried to mediate talks between leaders from both sides without success.
Opposition leaders and other critics of the Venezuelan government, including Arnson, maintain that dialogue just buys Maduro time.
Four months into the protests and with a new, powerful Constituent Assembly working to rewrite the constitution, it seems that possible solutions to the Venezuelan crisis are growing scarcer.
“The only alternative to dialogue is civil war,” Main said. “Because the situation has reached such a gravity, there’s kind of an opportunity now.”
The Venezuelan military could prove an important factor in determining the country’s future.
“The principal arbiter of power will be the armed forces — the extent to which people in the military are no longer willing to go into the streets and repress opposition protesters,” Arnson said. “The splintering of the armed forces would create a moment in which negotiations once again become viable. It’s those kinds of cracks in the Chavista movement that can contribute to more dramatic change.”
For her part, Vivas said only Venezuelans can resolve this crisis.
“Something needs to really happen, because if we don’t end up shooting each other dead, we’ll starve to death, or we’ll die from an illness for which you can’t find medicines,” Vivas said. “International help — I think we should just forget about that. We’re going to have to do our own dirty laundry here.”