Caracas, December 11, 2004. Street vendors and police forces clashed violently last Wednesday in the Municipality of Libertador in the Venezuelan capital, leaving over 20 in hospital. Buhoneros, as the street vendors are called, opposed police attempts to relocate them in an attempt to give some order to the chaotic stands that have taken over large sections of the downtown area. In the ensuing confrontation, buhoneros fought police with sticks, rocks, and bottles, while police used tear gas, rubber bullets and allegedly also used live ammunition. No deaths have yet been reported, however at least 15 people—including several innocent passersby—were wounded by police fire.
|Rioting street vendors were violently dispersed by the Caracas Metroplitan Police.|
Credit: Ultimas Noticias
Between the beginning of the police crackdown, and the eventual restoration of order, some streets were the scene of violent acts of vandalism and rioting. Two buses were reportedly set ablaze, and a popular downtown department store was emptied. The large men’s and women’s clothing store Korda Moda has had shaky relationships with street vendors in the past. According to store manager Esteban Hofler, the buhoneros “should respect our space, we have our space—that is well marked since it’s a large store—and they have theirs, which is the street, limited by the regulations of the Municipality of Libertador.”
The conflict between street vendors in the informal economy, and formal stores (particularly when selling similar merchandise) is not a new one. Since Venezuela’s economy took a turn for the worse in the 1980s after the oil bubble burst, increasing levels of unemployment have pushed many families into the underground economy. The informal sector, made up of buhoneros selling pirated cds, dvds and software, clothing, and books, has increased exponentially over the last two decades. Current estimates by the Ministry of Labor note a small decrease in the percentage of the workforce ‘employed’ in the informal sector, but the number has hovered around 50% for the last 10 years.
Every year during the christmas shopping rush police clamdowns on what are otherwise loosely inforced regulations governing the informal sector provoke clashes with buhoneros who are finding fewer and fewer spaces to ‘set up shop’. Plans to appropriate idle urban land to convert into outdoor shopping malls have yet to bear fruit. Libertador mayor Freddy Bernal has steadily isolated Chávez supporters in his so far unsuccessful attempts at regulating the informal sector. The use of the notorious Metropolitan Police to ‘restore order’ has only exacerbated what many Chavistas describe as a deep-rooted dislike for Bernal. “He’s a terrible administrador,” notes Victor Nava, a social worker in the west-end of the municipality. “There’s no question about his loyalty to Chávez,” he continues, “but as a mayor he’s a complete disaster. We’re considering a recall referendum to replace him with a more competent administrador.”
|Scenes from last week’s violent protests by Caracas street vendors were reminiscent of anti-neoliberal riots in 1989.|
Credit: Ultimas Noticias
In the recent October 31st elections Bernal received 73% of the vote, yet many attribute his popularity at the ballot box to his close association to Chávez. Rumors circulating last weekend that Chávez was privately critical of Bernal could not be confirmed.
In the wake of last weeks violence at least one police officer was fired for his failure to handle the incident in a peaceful manner. The Metropolitan Police have historically been seen by Caracas’ poor residents as corrupt and excessively violent, rather than as a protective body. In April 2002 a short-lived coup forced Chávez out of power until he was restored by loyal elements of the military and massive popular mobilizations. As many as 60 people were reportedly killed during the 48-hour coup, mainly in clashes with the Metropolitan Police. Several members and ex-members of the police are currently being investigated by the Attorney General’s office for their alleged involvement in the coup and the ensuing violence.
New Metropolitan mayor Juan Barretto, elected in last October’s regional elections on the Chavista ballot, was strongly critical of the Metropolitan Police during his campaign. Barretto was elected by a wide-margin, receiving 60% of the vote. While many attribute Barretto’s popularity to his close association with Chávez, it is also likely that his critical posture towards the Metropolitan Police was a contributing factor.