Built in the 1940s, Caracas’ Plaza Altamira has long been a focal point for opposition protests. In 2002, those against the government of Hugo Chávez set up camp for months here. It was then that the president, who died a year ago this month, was ousted from power for 36 hours.
Barricades made from trash, debris and even tables and chairs looted from a nearby office block now surround the square. In the early evening, protesters set them alight before the more radical of them launch petrol bombs and rocks towards waiting National Guard.
The smoke from the burning roadblocks quickly infuses with the sting of tear gas, as it and water cannons help to clear the streets. That is until the following day when the same story plays out.
And that story has played out in in this square nearly every single night for over a month. Protests have swept across the country and left 28 people dead. It’s the biggest challenge yet faced by Chávez’s successor President Nicolás Maduro.
Maduro, a former bus driver, has struggled during his year in power to fill the boots of his predecessor. He lacks Chávez’s charisma, ability to resonate with the people here and generally hold things together. With Chávez’s death last March, Venezuela’s social and economic problems have come to the fore.
The economy is in tatters. Prices have risen 57% over the last year. There are severe shortages. People, especially outside Caracas, are forced to wait hours in line outside supermarkets to buy basics such as flour and milk.
In the western state of Tachira, I met Andres Gonzalez, a 42-year-old school caretaker. He had stood under the sun outside a local supermarket for seven hours. “I’m losing a day of my life,” he told me, “but I need to feed my kids.”
There were more than a thousand people in that queue.
Crime is the other issue. According to NGOs here, seventy people are killed in Venezuela every single day. That figure is more than double the murder rate in Iraq.
In fact, it was crime that sparked the protests. In Tachira’s capital, San Cristóbal, some delinquents allegedly attempted to rape a 17-year-old girl in the local university’s Botanical Gardens. Campus security fended off her attackers however, students began to protest at the continuing lack of security.
Some were arrested which sparked others to take to the streets of San Cristóbal and other cities in the coming days.
Politicians jumped on the bandwagon. Leopoldo López was once touted to be the country’s next president. Following student protests across the country, he called for the opposition to march in Caracas on Feb 12. It was that day that the violence began in Altamira and three people were killed.
For that, the good-looking and charismatic politician was ostentatiously arrested a few days later, surrounded by thousands of protesters. He had hoped to become a martyr.
Yet, the protests go on and López, and other members of the opposition’s leadership including Henrique Capriles who fought against both Chávez and Maduro in presidential elections, have largely been forgotten.
“This country is not going anywhere right now,” 34-year-old José Pérez told me, as we walked together towards the burning barricades in Caracas one night. “Whoever, Capriles, López, it doesn’t matter. We need a change.”
While the protesterss want change, they’re not sure exactly how to achieve it. Electorally, they have no hope for at least a couple of years until the opposition can call for a referendum. There is little change that Maduro will resign and the words fascist and genocide being banded about by both sides, there is little hope of serious dialogue.
Yet, the protesters have vowed to stay on the streets and Plaza Altamira looks to be in for tear gas and burning barricades for a while yet.