Chávez Death Creates Anxiety Among Middle Class Venezuelans

PHOTO:  Customers wait in long lines at the Excelsior Gamma supermarket in the neighborhood of Sebucan in Caracas, Venezuela.

Immediately after it was announced that Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez had passed away from cancer, some people in Venezuela set off fireworks and honked their car horns in excitement. But after half an hour the euphoria ended and massive lines started to form at supermarkets as people stockpiled canned foods and water out of fear.

For anyone who knows the ins and outs of Venezuela, it should come as no surprise that scenes like this occurred in the Caracas middle class neighborhood of Sebucan, one of the few anti-Chávez strongholds in the city.

Venezuela's opposition has its largest base of support among the country's middle class, and for 14 years it has tried to remove Chávez from office through elections, oil strikes and even a short-lived coup. But now that he is gone, what many thought would be a cause for celebration in neighborhoods like Sebucan has instead brought renewed anxiety.

Beatriz Valareno from a similar neighborhood named Palo Verde acknowledged that most of Chávez´s supporters are peacefully grieving for their fallen leader. But she is also worried that armed gangs loyal to Chávez might express their frustration over El Comandante´s death by attacking her neighborhood.

"In Venezuela there were never so many violent groups," she said. "Now everybody is armed and we are worried there might be a confrontation."

Throughout the Chávez administration there has been a proliferation of arms, especially among revolutionary motorcycles groups based in the numerous shantytown communities. That has made anyone who opposed the former president fearful.

Some of these fears are justified. After Chávez´s death on Tuesday night, armed revolutionary groups loyal to Chávez rode through Sebucan and shot their weapons in the air. Then later that night, other Chávez supporters violently burned beds that students used to blocked access to a bureau of the country's Supreme Court. The students wanted to get the court to demand more information about the president.

According to Caroline Abrusci, a political science professor at Venezuela's Central University, these violent acts have caused the middle class to believe that order can very easily break down.

In just 24 years Venezuelan democracy has been tested by a massive urban riot, two attempted coups and a three-month oil strike.

"It is a fragile democracy. There is not a lot of faith in the institutions anymore and that is why people are nervous," Abrusci said. "The democracy we have had for the past 14 years was always led by one man."

While the poor have benefited greatly from Chávez's social welfare programs and the upper class have been able to do business by cutting deals with him, the middle class claim they have lost their economic freedom thanks to the currency exchange controls imposed by the Chávez government.

This, and the recent devaluation, prevented many in the middle class like Alirio Hernandez, an English translator for the Nigerian embassy in Caracas, from being able to study or even travel to countries like the United States.

"I would have to work nonstop to be able to pay for a ticket," he said. "I see people who have my profession in other countries and they are able travel and go to places".

With presidential elections scheduled in thirty days, many in Venezuela's middle classes believe that Henrique Capriles Radonski, who lost to Chávez in last October's presidential election, will be the best candidate to beat Chávez's handpicked successor, Vice President Nicolas Maduro. He is seen as the candidate who is friendly to business and some predict would ease currency exchange controls. But as Beatriz Valareno knows, a lot of things can happen in thirty days in Venezuela.

"I think we have to be very calm and careful," she said "and wait to see what happens next."

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