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Published: Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 1:06:26 AM
Updated: Thursday March 20, 2014 MYT 1:07:46 AM

Venezuela slums shun protests for community work

Aerial view of Venezuela's biggest slum of Petare in Caracas September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Aerial view of Venezuela's biggest slum of Petare in Caracas September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition activists in the slums of eastern Caracas hope to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, but not by blocking streets or burning tires. They plan to build parks and fix roads to show that the opposition can do more for poor neighbourhoods than the ruling socialists.

The capital's slums have seen hardly a trace of the smouldering barricades and violent demonstrations that have engulfed middle-class areas for over a month in the South American OPEC nation's worst unrest for a decade.

In the sprawling Petare slum, a hillside maze of red-brick homes and humble shacks that was once a stronghold of support for late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, opposition organizers say the rock-throwers are missing the point.

"We don't want violence or blocked streets, that's not how we're going to get rid of this president," said Junior Pantoja, a municipal councilman who works in Petare with opposition party Justice First.

"We've won over more 'chavistas' than you can imagine. How? By working. That's more effective than marching."

In Petare and other slums that dot the hillsides on the far east of Caracas, many see the unrest as a revival of street protests that began 12 years ago as a failed effort to dent the appeal of the charismatic Chavez, who died of cancer last year.

Petare, made up of hundreds of neighbourhoods that run from groups of zinc shacks to humble but ornate homes, has been an example of how the opposition can use clear-headed public policy to challenge the government even in poor areas.

An opposition mayor won the district in 2008 by tapping into discontent with the socialist incumbent and consolidated support by paying attention to problems in poor communities.

That marked a change in approach for the opposition after years of attempting to force Chavez from office with a bungled coup, a two-month oil industry shutdown, and virulent verbal attacks on the president and his supporters.

Many poor Venezuelans say they support peaceful demonstrations against soaring inflation and chronic product shortages. But they also say protests have intruded on their daily lives and are doing little to weaken Maduro.

Food shortages have worsened as blocked roads and constant public order disruptions have crimped deliveries.

As barricades close streets and protests shut or re-route bus services, slum residents who already face formidable commutes now find themselves spending more time in transit.

MODELS OF COEXISTENCE

"For me, the opposition is damaging its own people with all these barricades," said Jose Guevara, a 44-year-old repairman in Caucaguita, a hilltop neighbourhood of tall but dilapidated apartment buildings up the hill from Petare.

Guevara said that despite being an ardent Maduro supporter he backs opposition mayor Carlos Ocariz because he has worked to fix street lamps, collect garbage and improve roads.

Though protests have unleashed partisan animosity in middle-class areas, slums such as Petare are often models of coexistence where neighbours treat political differences as no more significant than being fans of rival sports teams.

Residents reached a colourful compromise when painting the steep staircase leading to Pantoja's house, alternating between red and yellow to include the colours of both the ruling Socialist Party and the opposition Justice First party.

"I don't understand all this confrontation. I don't think it's necessary," said Pantoja, who plays on a neighbourhood bocce ball team that crosses political lines.

"Do you think those people are my enemies because they think differently?"

Maduro supporters and government critics in his neighbourhood also occasionally square off for friendly games of "chapita," a form of improvised baseball in which a batter with a stick tries to hit a bottle cap pitched by the opposing team.

"WHAT'S THE POINT?"

Petare, originally a 17th century colonial hacienda, steadily filled with squatter settlements during the 20th century until it became a dense maze of narrow streets with a population that ranges from working class to destitute.

While the more affluent parts have paved roads and abundant commerce, the more recent settlements are little more than shacks and dirt paths where power lines hang precariously from logs or pruned trees.

"I don't agree with them doing all those marches out there in the street because, in the end, what's the point?" asked Rosmely Florian, 39, a housewife, standing at the door of her humble home in a particularly poor settlement called Mariscal Sucre.

She said the only help the community has received is a concrete bridge being built by the municipality across a gully to the neighbouring community.

Opposition hardliners such as Leopoldo Lopez, who was jailed last month for spearheading the national protests, say street demonstrations are the only option because state institutions are so degraded as to make democratic change impossible.

Maduro's supporters say the opposition is seeking to destabilize his government through violent disruptions of public order that have damaged public spaces and endangered lives.

The protests kicked off in earnest in mid-February after three people were killed after an opposition rally in Caracas.

Since then, they have been a combination of peaceful marches and violent melees with hooded youths throwing Molotov cocktails, barricading streets, and burning trash.

Police and national guard fire back teargas using what the government says is great restraint, but critics denounce as brutal repression, citing countless cellphone videos of unarmed protesters being beaten or roughed up.

The nightly demonstrations in the plaza of the upscale Altamira district appear to have eased after the National Guard took control of the area this week. The clouds of tear gas have been replaced with peaceful gatherings and even performance art.

Many still view this as a distraction from more pressing issues including shortages of staples such as corn flour, cooking oil and milk that government critics say are the biggest threat to socialism.

"The store shelves are bare, people can't find food and they spend all day in lines - why do we need so many protests if people are realizing by themselves that the system doesn't work," said Ana Castro, 33, a municipal worker in Caucaguita.

"I don't agree with this violence that's destroying the few good things we have left."

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