— The courts? Closed most days. The bureau to start a business? Same thing. The public defender’s office? That’s been converted into a food bank for government employees.
Step by step, Venezuela
has been shutting down.
This country has long been accustomed to painful shortages, even of basic foods. But Venezuela keeps drifting further into uncharted territory.
In recent weeks, the government has taken what may be one of the most desperate measures ever by a country to save electricity: A shutdown of many of its offices for all but two half-days each week.
But that is only the start of the country’s woes. Electricity and water are being rationed, and huge areas of the country have spent months with little of either.
Many people cannot make international calls from their phones because of a dispute between the government and phone companies over currency regulations and rates.
Coca-Cola Femsa, the Mexican
company that bottles Coke in the country, has even said it was halting production of sugary soft drinks because it was running out of sugar.
Last week, protests turned violent in parts of the country where demonstrators demanded empty supermarkets be resupplied. And on Friday, the government said it would continue its truncated workweek for an additional 15 days.
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“There’s been plenty of problems, but one thing I haven’t seen until now is protests simply to get food,” said David Smilde, a Caracas-based analyst for the Washington
Office on Latin America, a human rights group, referring to the demonstrations last week.
The growing economic crisis — fueled by low prices for oil, the country’s main export; a drought that has crippled Venezuela’s ability to generate hydroelectric power; and a long decline in manufacturing and agricultural production — has turned into an intensely political one for President Nicolás Maduro. This month, he declared a state of emergency, his second this year, and ordered military exercises, citing foreign threats.
But the president looks increasingly encircled.
American officials say the multiplying crises have led Mr. Maduro to fall out of favor with members of his own socialist party, who they believe may turn on him, leading to chaos in the streets.
Old allies like Brazil
, whose leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, was removed this month pending an impeachment trial, are now openly criticizing Venezuela. José Mujica, the leftist former president of Uruguay
last week called Mr. Maduro “crazy like a goat.”
The regional tensions came to a head last week when Mr. Maduro went on television to chide the Organization of American States, which has criticized Venezuela’s handling of the economic and political crises. Mr. Maduro took aim at Luis Almagro, its secretary general, calling him a “longtime traitor” and implying he was a spy.
Mr. Almagro responded with an open letter blasting the president, calling on him to allow the recall referendum his opponents are pushing this year to remove Mr. Maduro from office.
“You betray your people and your supposed ideology with your diatribes without substance,” Mr. Almagro wrote. “To deny the people that vote, to deny them the possibility of deciding, would make you just another petty dictator, like so many this hemisphere has had.”
As the sparring continues, Mariángel González, a 32-year-old mother of two, is most worried about the retreat of the government from daily life.
Venezuela’s public schools are now closed on Fridays, another effort to save electricity. So Ms. González was waiting in line with her elder child at an A.T.M., while her husband watched over the other one at home.
“Right now, my older girl should be at elementary school and the little one in kindergarten,” she said. “My husband and I have been inventing new routines.”
Ms. González, a freelance lawyer, lived a middle-class life until recently. But she says the government shutdown has left her without work and her family without food.
“The older girl, who understands what’s going on says, ‘What is there, Mom: bread, arepas or nothing?’” She said that on a recent night, the family ate a dinner of pasta and ketchup.
For Vanessa Arneta, who lives with seven relatives in an apartment on the outskirts of Caracas, it’s the disappearance of the city’s water that is causing the most pain. Water arrives just once a week, on Thursdays, to her neighborhood of San Antonio de los Altos.
That day, they quickly divide up the chores. A nephew gets into the shower while another one washes the dishes, Ms. Arneta says. One of her brothers washes up the bathroom, while someone else fills buckets with water for later.
But Ms. Arneta says the water is now a brownish color and is making her family sick. Many Venezuelans say they have gotten skin irritations from showering or from the inability to bathe and wash their sheets and towels.
“Her body is filled with small bubbles and they sting horribly,” Ms. Arneta said of one of her sisters.
Venezuela’s government says the problems are the result of an “economic war” being waged by elites who are hoarding supplies, as well as the American government’s efforts to destabilize the country.
But most economists agree that Venezuela is suffering from years of economic mismanagement, including over-dependence on oil and price controls that led many businesses to stop making products.
Some Venezuelans are channeling their frustrations into demonstrations against the government. Mr. Maduro’s opponents, who now control the National Assembly, have been staging weekly protests in support of the recall referendum.
Last Wednesday, protesters clashed with police officers who fired tear gas at the demonstrations and were attacked with bottles and rocks.
“The economic situation of this country is collapse,” Pablo Parada, a law student, who was participating last week in a hunger strike in front of the O.A.S. office in Caracas. “There are people who go hungry now.”
Mr. Parada said the purpose of his hunger strike was to pressure the O.A.S. to push Venezuelan officials to allow the referendum to take place this year, the only way he felt the country could recover.
There is often little traffic in Caracas simply because so few people, either for lack of money or work, are going out.
On a recent day in the downtown government center, pedestrians milled about, but nearly every building — including several museums, the public registry office and a Social Security center — was empty, giving the appearance of a holiday.
Only the guards were at work.
“It’s in God’s hands now,” said one, Luis Ríos, echoing a common phrase heard here.
Some point out what they see as the absurdity in shutting down services to save the government energy.
“I don’t see them saving any energy this way,” said Youheinz Linares, a 38-year-old divorced mother, who was taking care of her children, ages 6 and 8, on a recent Friday when there was no school.
“At school you have 40 kids under one light bulb in one classroom,” she said. “Now you have 40 kids at home with the lights on, televisions, tablets, consoles and computers turned on all day. It’s illogical.”