Venezuela crisis: What remains of the Caracas middle-class?

By Katy Watson
BBC South America correspondent, Caracas

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Image source, Bloomberg
Image caption,
The restaurant is a popular spot in the capital's Chacao district

There is little about La Esquina restaurant in wealthy eastern Caracas that screams crisis.

Music is pumping out loudly from speakers hidden in lush vegetation. The trendy bar nestled in the gardens overlooks a shallow decorative pool, the centre-piece of the restaurant. Inside, there is a wall of fine wines for diners who fancy a tipple, while the menu boasts items such as carpaccio, poke bowls and truffle oil.

This eatery is a world away from much of Venezuela - a country where around 90% of people live in poverty and the International Monetary Fund predicts inflation will hit an eye-watering 10 million percent this year. With the minimum wage hovering around $5 (£3.8) a month, most people struggle to pay for a dozen eggs or a simple bag of rice.

Across town, there is a small supermarket that sells imported products to those who can afford to treat themselves. Most of the clients are foreigners and wealthier Venezuelans. There are even so-called "Boligarchs" - the nickname given to the new oligarchy who have done well under Hugo Chávez's and Nicolás Maduro's "Bolivarian revolution" - who come in to get their fix of foreign produce.

There are shelves with gourmet cheese spread, mixed olives and caviar. There is also a leg of jamón serrano with a price tag of $1,800.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A view of Caracas during one of the recent blackouts

For a country that was once the most prosperous in the region - at one point, a destination for Concorde - few places like this remain. But even in the worst of times, it is remarkable that they still exist.

Dwindling privileges

Ronald Balza Guanipa, dean of the economics faculty at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, says business is down to two types of Venezuelans: those who receive money from relatives abroad, and those who receive salaries in other currencies. The result, he says of previous periods when oil revenues were high and Venezuelans could save.

But it masks a difficult reality even for the most privileged.

"Just because there are people who can eat in restaurants doesn't mean they can get all the medicines they need," he says. "They can't plan their kids' education, buy car parts or plan their future."

Since 2013, when President Hugo Chávez died, Venezuela's economy has shrunk by more than 50%.

Media caption,
Where mothers give away their babies

"For some it's shrunk far more than that, which is why there's so much poverty," says Mr Balza Guanipa. "Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans have left. The ones we see eating in restaurants have family living abroad. There are fewer of us who remain."

Increasing hardship

The recent power shortages across the country have made already difficult lives that much harder.

In the wealthy neighbourhood of Las Mercedes, I meet Carlos César Ávila, the owner of a chain of coffee shops called Franca. He has got 200 employees and four cafes and they are opening a fifth.

"The power shortages caught us off-guard," he says. "We were expecting that some day it might happen but never thought it would be this soon. The days we didn't have any energy, we had zero customers. The days we had energy at some of the stores, they were flooded with people - they were havens."

Image caption,
Customers browse the offerings at one of the Franca outlets

Despite the challenges and the number of Venezuelans who have left the country, he still thinks there is opportunity to cater for the 30 million people who remain.

"People who live here need leisure time, need to meet, gather, share a cup of coffee and that's basically what we offer, a safe-haven for that." he says. "To be able to support this sector, you need employees, you need producers. So even though perhaps our impact seems small, somehow we end up irrigating the lives of many," he adds, admitting that keeping the business up is tough.

"It's pretty much like riding a bicycle uphill. If you stop, you will fall. You have to keep on pedalling."

'We've all been hit'

Daniela Salazar, who works in marketing and earns $150 a month, is one of Carlos's customers enjoying a coffee and a slice of cake with a friend.

"If you're lucky enough to earn dollars, then you can live decently," she says, admitting that the food in front of her is worth a minimum salary in Venezuela. "I used to consume far more - it used to be cake, biscuits, I'd treat friends. But now it's just a coffee - today's an exception because it's my birthday!"

Nearby, Yuraima Cruz is celebrating her retirement with her sister Yajaira and some colleagues.

Image caption,
Ms Cruz (right) along with her sister

She used to work as a government-employed psychologist. She now works privately, charging for consultations in dollars.

Salaries are better but nothing is good enough to deal with inflation," she says. Her government pension is worth about $5 a month.

"With my government salary, I used to pay for my child to go to school, I used to travel to Europe, I bought a car," she says wistfully. "Me and my friends all have university degrees, we were middle class once but we've all been hit."

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