Sabaneta (Venezuela) (AFP) – Deserted streets and closed stores surround the imposing statue of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in his birthplace of Sabaneta, 20 years after the enigmatic figure launched the country’s revolution.
Sabaneta, in Barinas State, has not forgotten its most illustrious son and commemorates him with almost fanatical devotion, marking out important sites from his life in much the same way as Holy Land tours paying homage to Jesus Christ.
The “Route of Conscience” visits the house of Chavez’s grandmother Rosines, where he was born on July 28, 1954.
It includes the house he grew up in, his school and a tree under which South American liberation hero Simon Bolivar once camped — and from where Chaves launched the campaign for his last election.
Yet Sabaneta has not been spared the crippling financial crisis that has left millions of Venezuelans in poverty.
More than five percent of the population has fled the country due to shortages of basic necessities such as food and medicine.
And life just keeps getting harder in this town of 28,000 inhabitants.
“If I told you, you’d cry, buddy. Here in Sabaneta, in west Venezuela, there’s been a tremendous toll,” Jose Pacheco told AFP.
Almost everything in the country has become too expensive for the general population, while there are frequent public service failures in transport, running water and electricity supply.
Nonetheless, this 42-year-old who works in a car wash near the six-meter (20 foot) tall statue still views Chavez as “a great leader.”
– ‘It hurts’ –
“It hurts me how my town is suffering. Families that don’t have anything suffer, and if they have (the means to buy things), one day there’s a price, the next day there’s another price.”
Hyperinflation is a major reason behind the hardships endured by most of the population.
The International Monetary Fund predicted it would surpass a staggering one million percent this year.
And the global financial institution’s outlook for 2019 is even worse, with a mind-blowing 10 million percent inflation prediction.
The cost of goods is rising so quickly that prices change throughout the day.
Sabaneta’s misery contrasts sharply with the grandiose bronze and granite statue of Chavez, donated by Russian state-controlled energy company Rosneft at the behest of Russia President Vladimir Putin.
It shows a standing Chavez, his left arm raised with clenched fist while the base depicts scenes from his childhood.
The former leader’s image is emblazoned all over town, with murals of both his failed 1992 coup d’etat and his 1998 electoral triumph.
After his death from cancer in 2013, his hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro, assumed power before winning two successive elections — the latest earlier this year granting him another six year term from January.
However, that election was widely criticized with the opposition, United States, European Union and Organization of American States all branding it fraudulent.
“I voted 16 times for Chavez and for Chavismo, but I won’t vote again for these people,” complains 42-year-old farmer Nelson Zapata.
“There’s no food, no gas, no light.”
Protests here are frequent, especially due to the shortage of gas cylinders.
The Chavez statue was vandalized in March with rocks and flammable materials. There is a crack in one bas-relief called “illustrious son.”
– Progress despite fights –
But while there is much discontent, United Nations figures show significant support remains not just for Chavez but also his socialist revolution.
“People are fighting, they are outraged by the gas (shortages), but we’re progressing,” said Mary Ramos, a 56-year-old government-employed street cleaner.
She considers Chavez “a father,” lives in a house provided by the government after massive mudslides in the northern Vargas state in 1999 left thousands dead.
“I don’t blame (Maduro) but a lot of people do,” she added. “He’s given us what he could.”
Chavez’s family have long since left Sabaneta, but his detractors claim they still own extensive livestock farms in the surrounding Barinas state.
Rosneft has ensured his hometown presence remains highly visible, building the Supreme Commander Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias sports center, adorned with photos of the former leader, Putin and Maduro, as well as the flags of Venezuela and Russia.
But life just gets worse, 35-year-old teacher Carmen Castellanos says.
Her husband fled the country for Peru but the money he sends home “doesn’t help much.”