Caracas, January 17, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Several thousand street vendors, traditionally known as "buhoneros," marched peacefully to the Miraflores Presidential Palace in Caracas on Tuesday to hand over a document protesting a decree by the Mayor of Libertador, Freddy Bernal, ordering them off the streets.
The decree, which came into effect on January 1, ordered "the eviction of the informal economy in the historic centre of Caracas, Cuidad Universitaria, avenues Baralt, Sucre, San Martin, Urdaneta, Francisco Solano, and Casanova, with the aim of recuperating public spaces and improving the quality of life of the citizens."
Spokesperson for the buhoneros, Expedito Rivera, told private TV channel Globovision that if the situation was not resolved by Thursday, he would launch a hunger strike.
Rivero added he and his fellow vendors were "ready to leave the streets, but they have to provide us decent places to be able to work."
Lawyers representing the street vendors also lodged a complaint with the Supreme Court on Wednesday, claiming the decree violates article 87 of the constitution, which guarantees the right to work.
While the majority of street vendors have largely respected the decree, clashes with police broke out when several hundred protesters barricaded the streets and burned piles of rubbish near Plaza Venezuela on January 4.
Bernal, who has been holding meetings with representatives of the informal workers since January 7, assured that the municipal government was looking for solutions to the problem, such as relocating the street vendors into officially designated market areas.
Bernal also rejected a request by the street vendors to allow them to operate three days a week in Avenida Bolivar until the problem of relocation was resolved, saying if they set up their street stalls they would be arrested by the police.
While citizens have the right to work, they also have the right to free movement and access to public places Bernal argued. "They have a plan for the buhoneros, for those people that work in the informal economy, I have a plan for the city, for 3 million inhabitants," he added.
The majority of Caracas residents support the measure, saying the informal economy - where street vendors sell everything from contraband designer label clothes, to shoes, pronography, and cigarettes - promotes crime and rubbish and is dominated by the mafia.
Neighborhood groups, communal councils, and shop keepers in the parish of La Candelaria told the newspaper Ultimas Noticias they would defend the "liberated spaces."
Zulay Cacique, a spokesperson for a neighborhood group in the area said, "Lamentably the entire zone of La Candelaria was converted into chaos due to the proliferation of street stalls for many years."
Cacique called for the municipal government to resolve the relocation of the buhoneros quickly saying, "I understand that they are defending their rights, but we want our pavements clear."
Ali Martinez, president of the Caracas Association of Self-employed Workers said his members understand "that citizens want the sidewalks cleared, but one must get inside the reality that this is about more than 15,000 fathers and mothers who are left without sustenance."
While Bernal said that the majority of street vendors were "decent workers," he alleged there was a "matrix of political and economic interests" behind the protests and the mafia was trying to create disorder because the measure had hit them in their pocket.
He called on the street vendors not to fall for the manipulation of the mafia, saying "They have always lived off you, now they want to make martyrs of you, the revolutionary government will give you a dignified option. We are socialists."
Mario Silva, host of popular political satire show, The Razorblade, accused opposition groups of trying to manipulate the street vendors, noting that a number of speakers at the rally were from the old CTV union federation (which played a role in the military coup against the government and oil industry shut down in 2002) and opposition political party Accion Democratica and that the last speaker at the rally called for the overthrow of the Chavez government.
Bernal assured that the restructure of the informal economy would continue and said that after the relocation of the street vendors in central Caracas had been resolved the municipal government would address the issue in other areas such as Valle-Coche, Antímano, El Cementerio, San Pedro and Catia Boulevard.
He pointed to the successful relocation of 1,500 buhoneros from the Sabana Grande shopping precinct to a government built market in early 2007.
"Crime has been reduced by 90% in Sabana Grande Boulevard...and improved the quality of life for the habitants in this zone" he said.
Bernal affirmed that the construction of the San Martin Commercial Centre, with capacity for 820 stalls had been completed. However, the municipal government was still having discussions with representatives of the informal workers to determine exactly who would be situated there and how the process would be implemented.
Another officially designated market area, the Quinta Crespo Commercial Center, with a capacity for 1,100 stalls, would also be completed in three weeks Bernal added. However, he said temporary informal workers, who appear for several months every year in the lead up to Christmas, and the mafia, "some of which own up to 40 stalls," would not be granted places in the new official market areas.