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A few wooded streets named California, Madrid, Paris and London outline, along with the Rio de Janeiro avenue, one of the richest districts of the city Baruta, in the state of Miranda, part of the Metropolitan District of Caracas. Las Mercedes, as the neighborhood is called, is known to have the best restaurants in town and an active nightlife, as well as gorgeous residential buildings.
The least unequal country in South America, Venezuela is a scene of strong political debate
Chavist constituency is concentrated in the poorest population
There live the Venezuelans that belong to classes A and B, or 3% of the total population. Differing from the humble areas, within these neighborhood walls, there is not a single mention of Hugo Chávez, Che Guevara or Simón Bolívar. Here, the revolution proposed by the Venezuelan president is not present.
Its inhabitant’s rejection of the government becomes evident in every election. It was thanks to the votes of the 2nd circumscription of Miranda, which includes Baruta and three other municipalities, that Maria Corina Machado, a government’s opponent deputy, received an impressive 235,259 votes (41.93% of the total), a record in the law-making council election, according to the National Electoral Council (CNE). Luiz Dias Laplace, from the government sub-party PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) obtained only 43,550 votes (7.76 %).
Baruta is also the of the government’s opponent candidate in the presidential elections, Henrique Capriles, who is running for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD) party, which ruled the city from 2000 to 2008; Capriles later became the governor of Miranda. “He is going to get the majority of the votes here, but it won’t be enough”, laments the businessman Luiz Rodrigues, 29, while he drinks a glass of Prosecco in the nightclub Sabu, one of the fanciest in the capital. “Unfortunately Chávez managed to put a spell on the unprivileged, turned them against us.”
His friend Ana, a fashion stylist, 28, goes even further. “I hope that, even if he wins, he isn’t able to rule for a long period”, says the brown, long straightened-haired girl, while she pulls the hem of her super tight black dress towards her knee, which she matches with a pair of shiny black high heels. “In a little while he will die of cancer and open up space to the others”. On her lips, she applies a new layer of gloss.
Constantly interrupted by the high volume of the electronic music, Ana says she thinks life is worse after Chávez came to power. “There’s more violence. Kidnappings and robberies are part of the routine now. I’ve lost three BlackBerrys”, she says. A trend in the country, the Canadian brand’s mobiles, that cost around 400 dollars each, are used by more than 1.9 million Venezuelans, which marks the company’s world record on sales per capita.
Rodriguez soon joins his friend and declares he is afraid of walking down the city streets. “When someone gets to the door of Sabu and sees the monkey there, he already thinks he is about to be kidnapped”, says the businessman, not holding back his thoughts, referring to the nightclub’s security guard, a black man who is more than 6 feet tall. Surrounding the businessman, five 20-year-old young adults about, dressed in social shirts and with their hair brushed to the back of their head, dance enthusiastically. The most excited of them is holding a glass of Buchanan’s, an 18-year-old whisky, 150 dollars a bottle at the dance club.
Whisky, by the way, is also experiencing a consumption boom in Venezuela. According to the international association of the beverage, the country is the sixth biggest consumer of whisky worldwide and the biggest in Latin America, buying 9.3 million liters a year. But if rum is considered the typical Venezuelan beverage, why do people prefer whisky? “Because we can”, answers Rodriguez, bursting into laughter.
At the nightclub, the first seconds of “Gonna get your love”, sung by Italian Jenny B., set the dance floor on fire. Walking almost invisible through the costumers, the waiters have a hard time taking the orders. “Yes, we’ve always had a vibrant nightlife”, says the businessman. “It’s very similar to Miami’s, do you know what I mean?” He capitalizes on the conversation stating that he frequently travels to the States, but has never been to any other Latin American nation.
The new middle class
Rodriguez and Ana are part of the 3% of the population that consider Chávez as the worst of their enemies. This share of the population fights with the president to gain influence over the other 17% that comprehend the lower middle class stratums, grouped by the researches as class C. A lot of these Venezuelans benefited directly from the social politics of this government, but are no longer attracted, for example, to housing programs or alimentation programs. They are borrowing the expectations and the values of those on top of the pyramid.
According to the INE (National Institute of Statistics), the segment of the population that is considered to live above the poverty line rose from 49.6%, in1998 (11 million citizens) to 68.1%, in 2011 (19,5 million), an increase of almost 8.5 million Venezuelans. The poverty line is left behind by those who have a house income that equals or surpasses 3,600 Venezuelan bolivars (US$ 837).
In those 68.1%, 3% represent the wealthier population, 17% those who are right underneath them, and almost 50% are composed by members of the lower middle class that usually support Chávez’s project. One of the reflections of the new middle class uprising is the increase of 198% of college enrollments between 1998 and 2011, turning Venezuela into the second country in the world with the highest number of students in superior education.
The government lists other changes that served directly the middle class. The real estate business stands out the easy access to buying properties, with the introduction of a real state credit line with low interest rates. Chávez also removed the value added tax (VAT) from car purchases, and amplified access to credit: the number of credit card clients doubled from 1999 to 2010, with an annual interest rate inferior to 30%.
In the food business, the fight was against the basic products price speculation, such as soap and corn flour. According to GIS XXI (Group of Social Research XXI Century), 70% of the Venezuelan middle class claim to have benefited from Mercal, a public chain of supermarkets. Moreover, 1.5 million Venezuelans become beneficiaries of the Social Security, a 400% leap from 1999 to 2011.
“The wealthier people do not care about which president is in command”, shays Jesse Chacón, former minister of Communication and director of GIS XXI. “To tell the truth, they kept making a lot of money and they know that, if something doesn’t please than, they can get on an airplane anytime they want. The thing is finding out how the new middle class, that ascended during Chávez’s government, will behave; it’s ideologically disputed between the rich and the process. This fight decides the constitution of a solid majority for the progress of the revolution.”
Translation: Kelly Cristina Spinelli