Near Venezuela summit, pots-and-pans protest showed domestic tumult
Photo: Girish Gupta

Near Venezuela summit, pots-and-pans protest showed domestic tumult

Girish Gupta
Reuters | Sept. 17, 2016 | Villa Rosa, Venezuela

Twenty minutes from the site of a global summit where Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro is proudly welcoming international dignitaries, a poor district of Margarita island has become a microcosm of the tumult the socialist leader is facing at home.

Convoys carrying visiting presidents like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Iran's Hassan Rouhani zoomed by Villa Rosa, where two weeks ago the unpopular Maduro experienced the most embarrassing episode of his three-year presidency.

Hoping to walk through crowds of supporters, Maduro was instead chased by dozens of protesters banging pots and pans, blaming him for the country's major economic crisis that has people skipping meals due to food shortages and spiraling inflation.

"People screamed, 'We don't want you,' 'You're the devil.' They shouted in chorus like a song!" recalled Yalitza Moya, 39, speaking outside her shop where Maduro had first gotten out of his car to walk next to a basketball court.

Grainy cell phone videos from that night show crowds shouting obscenities at the 53-year-old former bus driver and union leader, banging kitchenware in a rare show of public ire against the usually closely-protected president.

The images went viral just as the opposition is pushing to remove Maduro in a recall referendum.

Moya and many others were excited to see their grievances in the spotlight but authorities briefly detained over 30 people after the protest, including prominent journalist Braulio Jatar, who remains in jail on charges of money laundering.

Various Villa Rosa residents said they were too scared to be interviewed but anger continues to run deep here and the lavish summit down the road has further touched a nerve.

Of course, Maduro is still supported among some who fondly recall his predecessor Hugo Chavez's charisma and oil-fuelled largesse.

"I don't agree with aggression against the president," said ardent Maduro supporter Carolina Gomez, 58, who sells coffee on a muddy side street in Villa Rosa, which is dotted with murals of Chavez.

"The summit is fantastic," she said as she sought shade from the Caribbean sun, adding she was proud the island was hosting over 100 delegations.

But Villa Rosa suffers from the same problems afflicting the rest of the country: shortages of basic goods, lines at shops of hundreds or thousands of people, and violent crime.

Many say Villa Rosa is symbolic of Venezuela's shift away from 'Chavismo,' as well as the government's disconnect from angry streets.

"Maduro doesn't know what Villa Rosa is," added Moya, the shopkeeper. "Villa Rosa was once 'Chavista,' but not any more."

Editing by Alexandra Ulmer and Marguerita Choy