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Venezuela Slums Shun Protests for Community Work

FILE - A hill covered with low-income houses is seen in Petare district, Caracas, March 6, 2014.
FILE - A hill covered with low-income houses is seen in Petare district, Caracas, March 6, 2014.
Opposition activists in the slums of eastern Caracas hope to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, but not by blocking streets or burning tires. They plan to build parks and fix roads to show that the opposition can do more for poor neighborhoods than the ruling socialists.

The capital's slums have seen hardly a trace of the smoldering barricades and violent demonstrations that have engulfed middle-class areas for over a month in the South American OPEC nation's worst unrest for a decade.

In the sprawling Petare slum, a hillside maze of red-brick homes and humble shacks that was once a stronghold of support for late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, opposition organizers say the rock-throwers are missing the point.

"We don't want violence or blocked streets, that's not how we're going to get rid of this president," said Junior Pantoja, a municipal councilman who works in Petare with opposition party Justice First. "We've won over more 'chavistas' than you can imagine. How? By working. That's more effective than marching."

In Petare and other slums that dot the hillsides on the far east of Caracas, many see the unrest as a revival of street protests that began 12 years ago as a failed effort to dent the appeal of the charismatic Chavez, who died of cancer last year.

Petare, made up of hundreds of neighborhoods that run from groups of zinc shacks to humble but ornate homes, has been an example of how the opposition can use clear-headed public policy to challenge the government even in poor areas.

An opposition mayor won the district in 2008 by tapping into discontent with the socialist incumbent and consolidated support by paying attention to problems in poor communities.

That marked a change in approach for the opposition after years of attempting to force Chavez from office with a bungled coup, a two-month oil industry shutdown, and virulent verbal attacks on the president and his supporters.

Many poor Venezuelans say they support peaceful demonstrations against soaring inflation and chronic product shortages. But they also say protests have intruded on their daily lives and are doing little to weaken Maduro.

Food shortages have worsened as blocked roads and constant public order disruptions have crimped deliveries.

As barricades close streets and protests shut or re-route bus services, slum residents who already face formidable commutes now find themselves spending more time in transit.

Models of Coexistence

"For me, the opposition is damaging its own people with all these barricades," said Jose Guevara, a 44-year-old repairman in Caucaguita, a hilltop neighborhood of tall but dilapidated apartment buildings up the hill from Petare.

FILE - A Venezuelan soldier on patrol at the slum of Petare, Caracas, May 23, 2013.FILE - A Venezuelan soldier on patrol at the slum of Petare, Caracas, May 23, 2013.
FILE - A Venezuelan soldier on patrol at the slum of Petare, Caracas, May 23, 2013.
FILE - A Venezuelan soldier on patrol at the slum of Petare, Caracas, May 23, 2013.
​Guevara said that despite being an ardent Maduro supporter he backs opposition mayor Carlos Ocariz because he has worked to fix street lamps, collect garbage and improve roads. Though protests have unleashed partisan animosity in middle-class areas, slums such as Petare are often models of coexistence where neighbors treat political differences as no more significant than being fans of rival sports teams.

Residents reached a colorful compromise when painting the steep staircase leading to Pantoja's house, alternating between red and yellow to include the colors of both the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition Justice First party.

"I don't understand all this confrontation. I don't think it's necessary," said Pantoja, who plays on a neighborhood bocce ball team that crosses political lines. "Do you think those people are my enemies because they think differently?"

Maduro supporters and government critics in his neighborhood also occasionally square off for friendly games of "chapita," a form of improvised baseball in which a batter with a stick tries to hit a bottle cap pitched by the opposing team.

"What's the Point?"

Petare, originally a 17th century colonial hacienda, steadily filled with squatter settlements during the 20th century until it became a dense maze of narrow streets with a population that ranges from working class to destitute.

While the more affluent parts have paved roads and abundant commerce, the more recent settlements are little more than shacks and dirt paths where power lines hang precariously from logs or pruned trees.

"I don't agree with them doing all those marches out there in the street because, in the end, what's the point?" asked Rosmely Florian, 39, a housewife, standing at the door of her humble home in a particularly poor settlement called Mariscal Sucre.

She said the only help the community has received is a concrete bridge being built by the municipality across a gully to the neighboring community.

Opposition hardliners such as Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed last month for spearheading the national protests, say street demonstrations are the only option because state institutions are so degraded as to make democratic change impossible.

Maduro's supporters say the opposition is seeking to destabilize his government through violent disruptions of public order that have damaged public spaces and endangered lives.

  • Anti-government demonstrators wearing masks hold a makeshift shield during clashes with police at Altamira square in Caracas, Feb. 27, 2014.
  • Anti-government demonstrators shout during a protest at a barricade in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Feb. 27, 2014.
  • An anti-government demonstrator walks behind a burning motorcycle during a protest in San Cristobal, Venezuela, Feb. 27, 2014.
  • National Guard troops fire against demonstrators during a protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, Feb. 27, 2014.
  • Nuns raise their arms during a women's march protesting repression against anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, Feb. 26, 2014.
  • Demonstrators fill a bottle with gasoline during protests against Nicolas Maduro's government in San Cristobal, about 660 km southwest of Caracas, Feb. 26, 2014. 
  • A motorcycle taxi driver walks past burning motorcycles set ablaze by anti-government demonstrators at Altamira Square in Caracas, Feb. 26, 2014. 
  • Men on motorcycles look at firefighters extinguishing motorcycles set ablaze by anti-government demonstrators at Altamira Square in Caracas, Feb. 26, 2014. 

The protests kicked off in earnest in mid-February after three people were killed after an opposition rally in Caracas.

Since then, they have been a combination of peaceful marches and violent melees with hooded youths throwing Molotov cocktails, barricading streets, and burning trash.

Police and national guard fire back teargas using what the government says is great restraint, but critics denounce as brutal repression, citing countless cellphone videos of unarmed protesters being beaten or roughed up.

The nightly demonstrations in the plaza of the upscale Altamira district appear to have eased after the National Guard took control of the area this week. The clouds of teargas have been replaced with peaceful gatherings and even performance art.

Many still view this as a distraction from more pressing issues including shortages of staples such as corn flour, cooking oil and milk that government critics say are the biggest threat to socialism.

"The store shelves are bare, people can't find food and they spend all day in lines - why do we need so many protests if people are realizing by themselves that the system doesn't work," said Ana Castro, 33, a municipal worker in Caucaguita. "I don't agree with this violence that's destroying the few good things we have left."

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