On Friday morning, residents of San Felix, a city in Venezuela’s southeastern state of Bolivar, overturned a bus and looted various markets, in a mass reaction to rising prices.
San Felix is a working class city across the river from Puerto Ordaz, a wealthy industrial city filled with shopping malls. The neighborhoods of Puerto Ordaz were designed in the 1960s by the American company US Steel to look like quaint US suburbs, with cookie cutter homes and patterned lawns. On the other side, San Felix stretches, chaotic and congested, punctuated with abandoned warehouses and colonial-era buildings in decay.
The latter is also a stronghold of chavista grassroots movements.
Many residents of San Felix rely on buses to take them to work in Puerto Ordaz, often leaving home around 4 or 5 AM.
The routes are serviced by bright red ‘Bolivarian’ buses, imported by the government as part of an initiative to make make public transport more effective and affordable for workers. The companies that drive these buses are supposed to charge only 10 bolivars, but drivers have been known to ask for 50, even 100 bolivar per person.
On July 31st, at 7 AM, a group of passengers became indignant at the speculative fare being charged and took the driver out of the bus by force. They then proceeded to break windows and turn the bus over.
In the midst of this, eye-witnesses said, somebody noticed spaghetti (a scarce food staple) on sale for 600 bolivars at the bachaquero market across the street. Bachaqueros are vendors who purchase staple items at regulated government prices, often cutting deals with distributors and causing the items to go scarce, then selling the goods at outlandish prices.
The heated passengers then began looting the street market in San Felix, as well as the Chinese-run supermarket nearby that is said to supply the market sellers, according to sources.
“They found milk, diapers, butter, oil…EVERYTHING!” emphasized one bystander on Facebook, angry at seeing a hoarded abundance of goods that are so difficult to find.
A truck arriving to unload cereal at the supermarket was also looted as police arrived on the scene. In the chaos that ensued, one young man, Gustavo Patinez, was shot and killed, and 27 people were arrested, and dozens more were injured.
Jesus Rangel Gomez, governor of Bolivar state, told reporters on Friday, “A group of armed motorcyclists arrived and said they were going to loot certain establishments…I’m sure it wasn’t spontaneous but rather planned with a political motive.”
President Nicolas Maduro corroborated these statements by promising to send the OLP, a new police offensive against organized crime, to investigate the situation.
The local chapter of Venezuela’s trotskyist party Marea Socialista have criticized the government for not seizing the occasion to address the root of the conflict; namely the “abysmal” transport system upon which San Felix residents depend.
Yrali Lopez, a chavista militant who works in San Felix, thinks there was an “orchestrated effort” to cause chaos.
“Men rode by on motorcycles shouting Riot! Riot!” she told venezuelanalysis.com. “They even spread panic [across the bridge] in Puerto Ordaz, making every shop owner close their doors.”
But, she conceded, the current discontent in the area is enough to have stimulated spontaneous response.
“I think the people should take the goods from the bachaqueros and the Chinese market. Those are items that have been stolen from the people! I just don’t understand why one of them was shot.”
Lopez cited conflicting reports between the media and the victims’ family as to who was to blame for the young man’s death; the rioters or the National Guard.
She expressed hope in the OLP offensive, who just this morning raided a warehouse filled with precious and hard-to-find construction materials such as cement.
“As long as the police permit the bachaqueros to have their market- they are complicit in that mafia. I know many of the vendors from the barrios, and I’m not encouraging a raid on the people,” she clarified, “but the mafia needs to be collapsed.”
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