A teenager is knocked off his feet by a water cannon. Armed security forces volley tear-gas canisters across a high street and acrid white fumes force a mass of demonstrators to retreat. For months, scenes like this have become a daily occurrence across Venezuela with the country mired in violent anti-government protests.
East of the centre of the capital Caracas, the neighbourhood of Los Palos Grandes is usually quiet and suburban. But on the morning of 8 July, when resident Leopoldo López – Venezuela’s most prominent political prisoner – is released from military jail, a large group of camera crews and joggers assemble on its mango-tree-lined streets.
The leader of Venezuela’s opposition Voluntad Popular (Popular Will) party, López finds support in the middle class and has long pitched himself as a centrist on a ticket of individual rights and resistance to the authoritarian slide of Venezuela’s government. “Just extraordinary,” says Los Palos Grandes resident Beatriz Díaz while waiting to catch a glimpse of the leader at his home. “Today is a day to celebrate.”
In 2015, López was sentenced to 14 years in prison and charged with inciting violence during the first round of mass anti-government demonstrations. When the country’s loyalist senior court attempted to seize the powers of the oppositional parliament in March this year it unleashed nationwide protests. López’s incarceration became a rallying point that united various factions of the opposition and what remained of the independent press. His release and return home – albeit under house arrest – was a reminder that the opposition in Venezuela, made up of both dedicated politicians and journalists, is still robust despite the government’s efforts to shut them up.
“It was a direct order by [president] Nicolás Maduro,” says Lilian Tintori, López’s wife, who took over much of the day-to-day running of Voluntad Popular and wears a T-shirt printed with López’s Warhol-esque portrait. “With his return home, Leopoldo says to Venezuela: this is a stride towards freedom.”
The case typifies the ongoing standoff between Chavismo – the Socialist project begun by former leader Hugo Chávez and continued in increasingly authoritarian form by Maduro’s government – and Venezuela’s myriad opposition groups. Chávez revived the spirit of leftist revolution in Latin America on assuming office in the early 2000s, nationalising vast swathes of the economy and using the country’s oil billions to elevate the poor. But in the process he squandered oil revenue, expropriated businesses and spurned investment.
Maduro, a former bus driver and foreign minister under Hugo Chávez, inherited a much-deteriorated Venezuela in 2013. From a once-stable democracy – when Concorde flew between Paris and Caracas – Venezuelans now live under a crackdown on the media and a government that many describe as moving towards one-man rule.
Henrique Capriles, the outspoken, athletic governor of the state of Miranda, knows this reality all too well. He narrowly lost to Maduro in the 2013 presidential election and was recently barred from running for president for the next 15 years. He was accused of “administrative irregularities”, in a move seen as an attempt to silence the opposition’s best hope. Yet he remains persistent. “The protests haven’t stopped but we have asked anti-government demonstrators that we concentrate our efforts further,” says Capriles, who addresses supporters daily via public briefings and his own online TV channel.
Sitting at a table surrounded by three iPhones mounted on tripods, Capriles’ face is scarred from a reaction to tear gas. He reiterates the greater sense of unity among the disparate opposition alliance. “We must not get distracted,” he says, referring to old rivalries between parties. “We need focus, concentration and mobilisation.” What is undeniable, he adds, is that the government cannot hide its lack of support any longer. “Each Venezuelan is a truth that walks the streets.”
Beyond its political crisis, Venezuela’s economic collapse has drained foreign reserves and left supermarket shelves bare. “Everyone, across all social classes, has gone down a step in Venezuela’s social pyramid,” says Miguel Pizarro, a 29-year-old member of parliament. He has been among the loudest exponents of street action to oust the ruling Socialist regime that came to power when he was growing up in Caracas’s working-class district of Petare. Rolling up his sleeves to reveal tattooed arms, he is a younger face of the opposition. A former vegan, he says he returned to eating meat to cope with the punishing schedule of demonstrations.
The economic crisis, he insists, is driving the protests: basic services and staples no longer arrive in either the slums or upmarket neighbourhoods; diseases long curbed, such as diphtheria and malaria, are resurgent because of limited medical supplies; and inflation is biting into wages.
Pizarro insists that the crisis will not disappear regardless of what Maduro plans in the next six months. “It is a broken political model,” he says. “And one that the people of Venezuela are wholeheartedly against.”
Alongside these opposition legislators, a much-diminished but defiant group of media outlets continue to take an independent line despite government pressure. At El Nacional, Venezuela’s last opposition daily, the editorial floor feels neglected; behind glass walls is a line of tired printing machines where each edition goes to press. Getting these machines turning every day is a struggle as staff must bargain for pages with the government, which controls paper distribution.
“It’s a miracle El Nacional keeps printing,” says Miguel Henrique Otero, the editor in chief, speaking by phone from Madrid. Grandson of the founder, Otero has been working in exile for two-and-a-half years as the government has made it clear that he faces jail time should he return home. He co-ordinates each edition of the paper via sms with an editor in Caracas.
When the government chooses not to sell paper to El Nacional, the team are forced to buy it elsewhere at a distorted black-market exchange rate. Were it not for the support of other Latin American newspapers that send paper and funds, Otero explains, the daily title would never be printed. While more than 20 local publications have closed or migrated to the web, El Nacional has remained a thorn in the government’s side.
As production and paper costs soar, keeping wages in line with triple-digit inflation without letting the business go bust is tough. Yet even with fewer staff, El Nacional continues to break exclusives; it has also become a platform for dissident Chavistas who break away from the regime.
For El Nacional’s senior editor Patricia Spadaro, the importance of print media is heightened. “We are here to document history; it’s more than just reporting,” she says, looking over the next day’s front page with the other editors. “What about all those children dying in hospitals? What about businesses that are looted? We are working to print every piece of the puzzle so that future generations have the full picture.”
Echoing Spadaro’s sentiment is the recusant voice of radio presenter César Miguel Rondón. He, like the editors at El Nacional, is battling on and being heard, despite concerted efforts to silence him.
Rondón’s three-hour morning talk show, a mix of news and political commentary, is into its 26th consecutive year on air and attracts the largest listenership in Venezuela outside state-controlled media. His studio at Unión Radio sits behind a barbed wire fence and the 63-year-old, who has dedicated his life to speaking out against the government, is now escorted to work by a security team.
“My programme is constantly stalked and harassed, and more so every day, for criticising this government,” says the presenter. His passport was confiscated in May, meaning he cannot leave Venezuela, and the president publicly named Rondón as someone who ought to be incarcerated for “inciting violence” on the airwaves. It was a shock for a journalist long considered untouchable by his loyal and widespread audience. But the veteran presenter isn’t cowed: “It’s almost four decades since [my audience] went from being just individual people to this huge suffering group, humbled and lost. Together we will get out of this. That’s why I do radio.”
Censorship is a reality for Venezuelan television too: dozens of independent channels have been shuttered or had their broadcasting licences withdrawn. But a group of guerrilla journalists are circumventing this issue by delivering independent news live, direct to commuters on local buses.
El Bus TV launched on 27 May to mark the 10th anniversary of the closing of the country’s most influential and critical private network: Radio Caracas Televisión (rctv). As buses make their way through the city, a three-minute script is read from behind a cardboard television set by a team that has grown from six to 50 volunteers in just a few months. The team offers commuters unfettered news bulletins mixed with anecdotes on the ongoing crisis – commuters baulk at the news, for instance, that a single can of tear gas can cost more than a month’s minimum wage.
“You have to make a real effort in Venezuela to be informed,” says El Bus TV founder Claudia Lizardo. “Our democratic rights were reinforced by having access to information and that’s something we have a duty to fight for.”
Facts & figures
Venezuela in numbers
An interconnected series of political and economic problems, plus terrible leadership, have brought crime and crippling inflation – and there is little hope on the horizon. As a result, the numbers don’t look good.
Venezuela has the highest rate of inflation in the world
As prices have risen, empty shelves in supermarkets have become common. A 2016 survey across 44 cities found that 93 per cent of people felt they were getting half or less of the food they need.
Caracas was the most violent city in the world in 2016
In 2016 there were 21,752 murders in Venezuela. Private security and mercenaries have become a common sight outside schools and key buildings
The number of Venezuelans claiming asylum worldwide in 2016 totalled 34,200
Day-to-day life is increasingly politicised and dangerous and many Venezuelans have headed overseas.
Foreign reserves have fallen 77 per cent since 2009, from $43bn to $10bn today
It has led to a scarcity of imports; chefs at Coma (pictured) hire extra staff to scour markets for ingredients.
As many as 3,600 protestors have been arrested between April and July this year And according to Venezuela’s main crime watchdog there were 4,667 deaths at the hands of state security in 2016.
Since 2013, 22 newspapers have shut down
Freedom of the press is all but strangled in Venezuela – and to add insult to injury, there were 380 cases of violence against journalists in 2016.