CARACAS, Venezuela — On the leafy east side of this capital city, where the rich people tend to live, most children have stayed home from school for more than a week, protest bonfires burn in the streets at night, stores shut early and carnival celebrations have been canceled.
But on the west side, where many of the poor people live under tin roofs, you would hardly know the country has been stirred by weeks of unrest. Schools operate normally, restaurants serve arepas, and residents, enjoying the extra days off that President Nicolás Maduro has given the country, prepare to crown their carnival queens.
On both sides of the city, it is hard to find toilet paper or flour and the country is plagued by some of the highest inflation, homicide and kidnapping rates in the world.
But don’t expect a Ukraine-style street revolution anytime soon in the South American nation, where the opposition hasn’t united behind a single strategy or managed to broaden its appeal beyond the largely middle- and upper-class educated followers it’s had on its side all along. The man they are up against, Maduro, has a near-complete grip on the military, broadcast media and institutions from congress to the judiciary after 15 years of socialist rule.
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That could change if the protests continue and unrest gets further out of hand. But for many Venezuelans, the opposition’s two highest-profile leaders, former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles and the jailed Leopoldo López, are still viewed as part of an elite detached from the poor and working-class people.
The split personality in the city mirrors the divide that cleaves this oil-rich nation into supporters and opponents of the socialist-inspired revolution begun by Hugo Chávez, who was president for 14 years until he died nearly a year ago.
Tensions from that long-standing rift have exploded in protests sweeping the country against the government of Chávez’s successor, Maduro, resulting in violent clashes between civilians and National Guard soldiers. At least 17 people have been killed, with security forces implicated in several cases. Maduro, speaking at a conference called to promote dialogue, said a soldier was killed Friday in Valencia, the country’s third-largest city.
The disconnect between wealthier and poorer areas could seriously limit the impact of the protest movement, a weakness that some of its leaders seem keenly aware of.
“Change is not possible in Venezuela if the slums are not involved,” Capriles, who narrowly lost to Maduro last year, said recently at a large rally that took place — once again — in the wealthy side of town.
Many of the city’s poorer residents wholeheartedly support the government, and aside from some gatherings in poor neighborhoods where residents bang pots in anger, the major protests have not taken place in the slums or drawn noticeably large contingents from them. Maduro has seized on this repeatedly and has dismissively depicted the demonstrators as “fascist, spoiled, rich kids.”
But many in the capital’s slums have doubts about the government, or oppose it. Some have joined the protests in other parts of the city. Others reject its central demand that Maduro be pushed from office, saying he was elected and that it would subvert democracy to oust him.
“I’m a Chávista, but things are going badly,” said Estefanía Medina, 26, a restaurant worker who lives in a slum in a tiny brick hut perched precariously on a hillside. “Maduro is doing things badly. But I don’t support the violence of the opposition either. They are full of hate.”
As the protests continued, Maduro added several extra days off for the traditional pre-Lent carnival holiday this weekend, including one March 5, the anniversary of Chávez’s death.
Critics called the move an effort to dampen the protest movement, and some opposition-heavy cities and sections of the capital canceled carnival festivities, saying that with people dying in the protests, it was no time for celebration.
While conditions are often tough in poor neighborhoods like Hornos de Cal and La Televisora, which cascade down the sides of a steep hill near the center of Caracas, things are far better than they were 15 years ago, before Chávez was president and before oil prices soared, bringing greater prosperity after years of hard times.
There is improved water and electrical service, and many homes have telephone lines with broadband Internet provided by the government phone company. And there is a low-cost, government-built cable car that carries residents to and from the city center in minutes, a life-changing transformation from the past, when they had to slog up the hill or often pay taxis to drive them.
That has made many people reluctant to demonstrate against the government, even if they are unhappy with Maduro. “Who will protest if every day they can ride the cable car and be glad to have that as a form of transport?” said Medina, the restaurant worker.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.