Inside a small house in La Acequia, one of the gritty shantytowns that drape the hills around Caracas, Carlos is preparing for a day’s work: loading-up ammunition, piling-up grenades, stacking flak jackets and black balaclavas.
“We have a kidnapping now, so we must get ready,” says the 28-year-old, who works with an 80-member gang. It has a portfolio of interests, from kidnapping and drug-running to killing. He claims it also has a powerful ally: the Venezuelan government.
“Sometimes government people send us to murder. We work in partnership. It’s screwed up,” says Carlos, who asked for his real name not to be published, pointing to assault rifles he claims came from the Bolivarian national guard. “I don’t like to see my country like this but it’s the way things have turned out. We have become a nation of malandros,” or thugs, he concludes.
Venezuela’s descent into hoodlum state from beacon of revolutionary socialism — a picture of Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, hangs above Carlos’s head — has been spectacular.
Three decades ago, Venezuela boasted some of Latin America’s highest living standards. Today, after 17 years of revolution, most people cannot find toilet paper in shops — even though the country has larger oil reserves than Saudi Arabia.
Corruption is rife and violence is out of control: 25,000 murders last year made Venezuela one of the deadliest countries in the world.
But this weekend Venezuelans will elect the 167 members of the National Assembly and, for the first time in 17 years, the vote will probably end the socialist government’s majority. It promises to be a decisive moment.
President Nicolás Maduro has pledged to do “whatever it takes” to ensure “victory”, including bypassing the assembly and governing in a military-civic alliance in the “name of the people”, although there is no evidence that the people support him. Some polls suggest the opposition will win Sunday’s election by as much as two to one. Sixty-seven per cent of Venezuelans say Mr Maduro should not finish his term.
The sense of disenchantment is apparent even among once-fervent supporters of the revolution. “I believed in Chávez. I don’t believe in Maduro,” Carlos says. “Maduro is not Chávez,” he adds. That last phrase is being repeated around the country like a mantra.
That souring is reflected in Venezuela’s decrepit economy. Shortages are rife and health services are collapsing. Triple-digit inflation — estimates put it at 185 per cent — is destroying social gains. Minimum monthly wages of 9,649 bolívars are worth only $10 at the black market exchange rate, less than in Cuba, Venezuela’s closest ally. This year, the economy is forecast by the International Monetary Fund to shrink by 10 per cent, following a 4 per cent drop in 2014. Next year, it is forecast to shrink by 6 per cent.
Allegations of corruption and drug-trafficking reach the highest levels. Last month, two nephews of Cilia Flores, Mr Maduro’s wife, were arraigned in a New York court to face charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the US. The government’s usual response is to blame “the stooges of imperialism” who want to “sell the country”.
“This is the time for change,” says Lilian Tintori, the wife of imprisoned politician Leopoldo López, who has become one of the best-recognised faces of the opposition. “There is a permanent violation of civil and human rights, intolerance and aggression.”
The opposition’s factions have buried their differences to unite as Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, a political umbrella; it did the same in 2013 when Henrique Capriles narrowly lost the presidential election to Mr Maduro. The campaign message is again abstract and free of concrete proposals — aside from an amnesty for political prisoners.
The government’s unpopularity is benefiting the opposition by default, even in former chavista strongholds. Jacqueline Jiménez lives in Petare, one of Latin America’s largest slums. The 30-year old mother of three always used to vote for Venezuela’s ruling socialist party, or PSUV; not any more. Her husband, a bricklayer, was shot and killed two weeks ago on his way to work — all because he had no money on him. “This revolution was supposed to take care of us. Instead it is killing us, impoverishing us,” she laments. “I will vote for the opposition because this government is useless, and dangerous.”
Increasingly, the rest of the world sees Venezuela this way. The country comes last on the World Justice Project’s rule of law index, below Afghanistan. Senior figures such as Diosdado Cabello, the head of the national assembly and the second most powerful man in Venezuela, face US allegations of drug trafficking. Mr Cabello has denied such charges on his television programme, saying that the allegations are part of a “campaign” against socialist Venezuela.
Such invective no longer has the impact it once did locally, however — neither does it wash in much of South America. Even former allies, such as Argentina, are withdrawing their support as the so-called “pink tide” of leftist leaders that once governed much of the region loses power amid the commodity price crash. Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s president-elect, recently argued that Venezuela should be expelled from Mercosur, the regional trade group, because of rights violations.
Massive anti-incumbent feeling’
Even so, redressing the situation in Venezuela will be hard. The election run-up has seen even greater violence. Last week opposition politician Luis Manuel Díaz was shot dead at a rally. Ms Tintori, who was standing next to him, was splashed with blood. “They want to kill me,” she told the Financial Times.
Mr Maduro’s response that night on state television was typical. He blamed the opposition for inciting violence and for paying Venezuelans $50,000 to pretend to be gun-carrying government supporters. He said the incident would be investigated — although what that means in a country that Human Rights Watch says suffers from a “near total lack of judicial independence” is moot.
“There is a massive anti-incumbent feeling,” says Javier Corrales, a Venezuela scholar at Amherst College, who also cautions it would be wrong to assume such sentiments will translate into electoral results. “This government has no interest in relinquishing power.”
The reasons for that are clear. Although the presidency is not at stake, an opposition majority in assembly would wield considerable power. It could control spending, grant amnesty to political prisoners, investigate corruption and withhold permission for the president to travel abroad. A two-thirds, or even three-fifths, majority would give it greater powers still, including the ability to appoint judges. “The government fears the possibility of being held accountable,” Mr Corrales says. “It is so complicit in crimes of all kinds.”
Alejandro Moreno, a priest and social scientist who researches violence from his bullet-pierced home in Petare, agrees. “We don’t have a criminal state, we have crime that has turned into a state,” says the 81-year old. “While the chavistas remain in power this won’t stop.” The country’s institutions have been gutted and corruption has soared amid a lack of checks and balances. “The design of the political economy here only benefits the corrupt,” says a former Chávez minister.
That is especially true of the military, which is stuffed with loyal generals, who in turn make up a quarter of the cabinet. Like other government insiders, they enjoy access to foreign exchange at preferential rates. Venezuela’s vice-president, Jorge Arreaza, has said smugglers siphoned $3.6bn worth of gasoline last year. Analysts believe the military participated in the contraband racket.
“There is a corrupt parallel state within the government,” says Luis Cedeño, of the Observatory on Organised Crime, an NGO. “Military men oversee smuggling and drug trafficking . . . The state has delegated functions to criminal gangs.”
Changing the apparatus
The cost of this corruption and violence is huge. Asdrúbal Oliveros and Jessica Grisanti, two local economists, estimate it costs more than 12 per cent of economic output a year. Transparency International ranks Venezuela near the bottom of its 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti and Yemen.
As for other institutions, the government controls the Supreme Court, state oil company PDVSA, the central bank and also the electoral council — which polls suggest 70 per cent of Venezuelans do not trust. It also has near-absolute control of the media, can use public money to fund its campaign and is widely believed to coerce government employees to vote for socialist candidates. This combination makes up what officials perhaps mean when they talk of “a perfect machinery that will take us to the perfect victory” on Sunday.
On top of that, there is intimidation. During a recent rally in Petare, congressman Miguel Pizarro of the MUD coalition says shots were fired at his campaign caravan when supporters were confronted by men wearing balaclavas and the logo of the ruling PSUV. “As the government loses support, it doesn’t have any other option than to appeal to thugs with machine guns,” he says. “But while they may have all the machine guns, we have something more powerful: the strength and clamour of people who are tired.”
Juan Contreras, a socialist congressman seeking re-election in Caracas’ 23 de Enero slum, is an exception: a politician who still defends the government. He is even optimistic about Sunday’s result. He calls criticism of the government “attacks to weaken the revolutionary process” by rightwing foes backed by Washington, and says soaring crime rates are “brought up as a strategy to destabilise the government”. He claims the same of the economy.
“Our people perfectly understand there is an economic war coming from the parasitic rightwing bourgeoisie,” he says. “After 17 years of resisting, they now try to make our people surrender through hunger. I feel we have no reason to be worried about the elections.”
Any perception that the government has stolen the election, or if it fails to recognise an opposition victory, could see the MUD coalition take to the streets — as happened in 2014, when months of demonstrations calling for Mr Maduro’s resignation cost dozens of lives.
International election observers have been barred and the government has allowed only UNASUR, a regional group, to “accompany” the vote. Brazil’s electoral authority has pulled its participation from the mission, in a blow to Venezuela’s crumbling legitimacy.
Domestically, much of that legitimacy has evaporated — certainly for people like Maite Hernández. An impoverished housewife, she and her family were thrown out of a Caracas apartment that Chávez’s government had given her. Thugs much like Carlos’s gang claimed “they had orders to take it back”, she says. They then shot her 23-year-old son and left him to die. “I hope things change, for my poor family and my poor Venezuela. They have to. If not I fear where it may all end.”