Political crisis takes toll on Venezuelan business

In birthplace of recent anti-Chavismo protests, anger deepens with shortages, inflation and economic insecurity

A barricade in San Cristóbal, a hot spot of anger over worsening conditions in Venezuela.
John Moore/Getty Images

SAN CRISTOBAL, Venezuela — Coffee is served black in this affluent Andean city where protests have hobbled the economy for the past month.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said Humberto Moncado, a waiter with dark half-circles under his eyes. “Ever since the violence started here, milk is hard to come by.”

Shortages of basic supplies like milk and toilet paper affect cities across Venezuela, though recently none have been hit harder than this western college town, where last month students protested over what they describe as a police failure to respond to a sexual assault on campus.  

When authorities did respond, they reportedly cracked down against protesters. The move snowballed into more marches and seemed to embolden a nascent opposition long frustrated with Chavismo — shorthand for centralized government planning that the late President Hugo Chávez largely inspired.

The city’s police department was not immediately available for comment.

Assault on protesters

About an hour’s drive from the border with Colombia, San Cristóbal is considered the birthplace of nationwide protests that have evolved from a march about campus security into a call for greater economic and social reforms.

And as in many other Venezuelan restaurants these days, waiters and waitresses here leave early to get home before nightfall, when much of the violence occurs. 

At least 21 people have been killed across the country since fighting broke out in February, according to the government tally. Hundreds more have been wounded or arrested. 

But many in this middle-class city say there is a growing concern that the violence could escalate, particularly after security forces on Sunday launched a late-night assault against protesters. 

“All the stores are closed,” said Norlin Mota, among the restaurant’s few patrons. “So it’s hard not to be a little afraid.”

Moncado shuffled back to the front of the bar.

“We close around 3 p.m.,” he said and carried away a few empty plates at a hurried pace. “It’s been difficult here.”

In the city’s hillside neighborhoods, where residents skew against President Nicolás Maduro, the air is acrid with traces of tear gas, which is fired off almost daily by national guardsmen.

But by midafternoon, young men — mostly middle- and upper-class residents — drag sheet metal and fencing onto roadways and set up barricades at check points that teenagers and college students man.

“We need them for protection,” said Ani Sánchez, a 24-year-old protester who said armed bands of young men ride through her neighborhood at night on motorbikes. 

“Without them, these collectivos [gangs] would drive up to our houses with guns and start firing,” said Ricardo Alvarez, a 23-year-old native of San Cristóbal. “With the barricades, they have nowhere to go, and we can fire back if we need to.”

Opposition leader and Miranda Gov. Henrique Capriles says the collectivos are government supporters whom the Maduro government has brought together to attack and harass protesters.

They allegedly deploy ahead of national guardsmen — a two-pronged approach bent on wearing down the opposition, according to protesters.

But Maduro denies any connection to the gangs and points to a scattering of opposition hard-liners and anarchists who hurl stones and set fires, goading security forces into conflict.

“What would the U.S. do if a tiny group would say they’re going to generate a revolution or a revolt to change the constitutional government of the U.S.?” he asked CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

Shortages have become dire in some cities, and many restaurants, like this one in San Cristóbal, are seeing an equally acute shortage of customers.
David Ariosto

The clashes echo across the city, while small fires that burn atop barricades give the surrounding hills an eerie glow as night falls.

Maduro — Chávez’ successor — blames much of the violence on gangs backed by foreign governments, including the U.S. and Colombia, as part of an alleged effort to topple his government.  

Tantamount to a stalemate in places like San Cristóbal, where barricades offer residents both protection and isolation, the month-long conflict has added another layer of hardship to Venezuela’s already struggling economy.

“The heart of this situation is an economic crisis,” said César Pérez Vivas, a former governor of Táchira, where San Cristóbal is located. “But the government is responding with the military.”

And as armored cars rumble through town, grocery shoppers often wait for hours in front of supermarkets.

A cash shortage, in part prompted by government price controls, frequently leaves the shelves bare.  

“My store has been empty for months … no baby formula, no nothing,” said Augustín Sánchez, a local pharmacy owner. “But it was like this before the violence.”

Venezuela’s annual inflation tops 56 percent, among the highest in the world, and crude oil production — the nation’s cash cow — has dropped by roughly half since peaking in 1997.

But in more rural parts of Táchira, there is evidence of government social programs at work, as tractors build new housing for impoverished communities in an effort to close the yawning income gap between rich and poor. 

And yet in middle-class communities like San Cristóbal, the economic fallout of the crisis seems to have heightened frustrations, leaving many residents facing the violence with empty shelves and black coffee. 

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