As chaos spread through Ciudad Bolívar, people dug in, locking themselves up to wait out the end of the world. My neighbor Daniel went to school in Ciudad Bolívar, so we spent some time calling through his old friends there and asking them “¿cómo está la cosa por allá?”
Our sample was far from random, our contact list only had are students and professors of the UDO (Universidad de Oriente), which is pretty middle class. The one thing they had in common? None of them were going outside if they could help it.
These are their stories…
Av. España, La Sabanita
Camila (not her real name) is a senior industrial engineering student, and on Friday afternoon she was riding a bus through El Paseo Orinoco, the commercial and historic center of the city on the banks of the mighty Orinoco river, and the place where the protests started.
After the bus driver refused to accept the Bs.100 banknotes, a woman complained loudly. Others quickly joined in, demanding the bus driver accept the only means of payment they had. Between the shouts, the bus driver said he’d had enough, and told everyone to get off the bus. There was no point in working if people are only willing to pay you in those worthless brown banknotes.
Camila managed to catch a ride with a friend to get home.
En Cdad Bolivar también se presentaron protestas en intentos de saqueo en el Paseo Orinoco pic.twitter.com/v9HP0zl54W
— Angel Medina Devis (@AngelMedinaD) December 16, 2016
Camila hasn’t gone outside since Friday. She’s spent the weekend obsessively checking social networks for updates and depleting her food reserves.
Looting has hit every part of town, and soon it spread to her middle to low class neighborhood. Like others who are too scared to leave, she only knows what the city looks like now from the pictures circulating online. Her neighbors have turned into looters too: “gente buena”, lured by the mayhem. She sees them bringing the catch of the day home from her window.
Even my own neighbors started looting. I could hear them getting organized, today they started at 6 a.m.
When we reach out to her on Sunday afternoon, she’s near panic. By now she’s heard the rumors of looters targeting homes, and people preparing to defend themselves with barricades and machetes. We can hear the helicopters in the background as we talk to her.
“We have no food, and no way of buying it,” she says “even my own neighbors started looting. I could hear them getting organized, today they started at 6 a.m. They say they were protected by the pranes, and the police wouldn’t intervene.”
Farther south, as stories of looters going into private homes spread, people in Los Próceres started getting ready for an attack with barricades and sticks.
Luisa, a nursery student told us “this is a war between the pranes and the government, and we’re just caught in the crossfire. We don’t have enough food, we haven’t been able to buy a thing. If someone tries to break in, we will defend ourselves”
Ramón is a senior medicine student at the UDO, he lives walking distance from the university and gets by on foot in Barrio Ajuro, which despite its name isn’t really a slum, just a hardscrabble area of stand-alone houses. Ramón depends on his local businesses to get by. It’s the place where El Baratón, the iconic supermarket looted Saturday night.
“Have you seen El Baratón? When I saw it, I felt as if they destroyed something of mine. That was my go-to place, I know the employees, I always greeted them when I go there. I only have a bit of mortadella and a plantain left, and I bought them there. I saw the pictures, but I don’t want to go back there.”
Right now all we can do is organize night shifts with the neighbors, in case someone tries to break in
Do you think classes are going to start in January?
“My mom already told me that she doesn’t want me to come back in January, I don’t even know if I want to go back, I’m trapped in here, but I will leave when I have the chance. Right now all we can do is organize night shifts with the neighbors, in case someone tries to break in.”
Later we call Luis, he lives in the same Barrio as Ramón. He is a senior Civil Engineering student.
“Sorry, can’t talk, we’re outside at the lookout, my friend told me that looters are trying to enter into her house in Cayaurima. Guards and tanquetas (Armored Personnel Carriers), come and go. We’ll talk later.”
We manage to get the phone number of Raiza, a university professor living in Cayaurima, the government-built residential complex at the south-east part of the city.
I saw people looting the tire stores on Avenida España, what are people doing with tires? Wasn’t this supposed to be a food crisis?
“Malandros came by the truckful, luckily the police and the national guard showed up and were able to scare them away.”
What else have you seen? How’s everything?
“I saw people looting the tire stores on Avenida España, what are people doing with tires? Wasn’t this supposed to be a food crisis? The whole city is destroyed, there are only 3 places still working: Traki, Central Madeirense and Diamante. I guess the owners are paying the national guard to defend them. But the rest of the city is destroyed, the city is done. There are always helicopters flying low overhead.”
Av. Germania, Buildings
Close to the airport, and the only McDonald’s in town, you find El Diamante, the fancy supermarket in town. We talked to María, a sophomore medicine student:
“Everything is quiet here,” she said.
María lives in a building near El Diamante.
“I haven’t seen any looting; everything is calm here, and the guards are always patrolling on motorbikes. El Diamante is one of the few places left unscathed, so looters have their eye on it. The shop owner is always bringing food to the guards, I guess to keep them on his side.”
I worked until Friday at the liquor store, and people kept buying rum.
She wants to go stay with her family here in Puerto Ordaz, but she heard private cars are now charging Bs.4,000 at the shut down bus terminal, double of what they use to charge. “Do you want to know the craziest thing I saw? I worked until Friday at the liquor store, and people kept buying rum. How can they be thinking of rum at a time like this? Ciudad Bolívar is the mirror of all Venezuela.”
Most of the people we talked to could inform themselves only via word of mouth and social media, so all kind of rumors spread quickly. The looting of private homes was not just a rumor, though, but it was clearly forefront in everyone’s mind: the thing keeping everyone scared.
One major rumour was that the governor of the Bolívar state, Francisco Rangel Gómez, had fled the country. Rangel had to go on live TV to show he was still around and still the governor. For the people dug in, waiting, scared, it sure feel like no one was in charge.