The Office of Hope

© Natalie Keyssar

When President Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela in 1999, he became notorious for his direct interaction and intervention for his citizens. On his weekly television show, and during his many public appearances, he often addressed the pleas for help from citizens in need. Many put their prayers to the socialist leader in letter form, and due to the volume of the requests, a special office was created to help process these wishes, for a new home, or a job, or medicine, or a refrigerator. This presidential department was called “La Sala de la Esperanza,” or “The Office of Hope.”

About a year after the death of charismatic and divisive President Hugo Chavez, a wave of political unrest hit Venezuela in February of 2014, sparked by violence at a University in San Cristobal, Tachira, a traditionally anti-Chavista area of Venezuela. The protesters were largely students from the middle and upper classes of Venezuela. They called for an end to the rampant levels of crime in the country, as well as solutions to skyrocketing currency inflation and shortages of basic goods like flour, milk, and toilet paper. Many called for "La Salida" the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro, the democratically elected, handpicked successor of the late President Hugo Chavez. Chavez was beloved by the working class majority of Venezuelans, revered as a savior of the poor.

At least 43 people were killed in protests across the country.

Maduro and his supporters called the protests a violent coup attempt by right wing elites, while the opposition called the President a murderer and continued to build barricades and burn trash in the streets of upper class communities, fighting with molotov cocktails and sling shots, against security forces who were accused of human rights violations. The sound of old ladies joining the protests by banging pots and pans in their windows was frequent for months. Die hard socialists wrung their hands as they watched unrest and an economic crash close in on their egalitarian dream.

Caracas seethed. Public transport was interrupted. Traffic was worse than ever. The lines for food and staples and anything and everything stretched for hours, especially in the poor neighborhoods, primarily loyal to Maduro's regime. Unlikely rumors flew on all sides. The crime, the kidnappings, the murders, continued unchecked. People tried to get on with their lives, go to work, see their families or attend birthday parties or go to school. Everywhere the political rifts were apparent, and each side blamed the other for the woes of the country. While the opposition continually asked their opponents, “how can you not fight?” the government supporters, and many who took no sides, wondered allowed, “how does this help?”

Since I first arrived in Caracas in February 2014, I've sought to photograph the unique beauty of the Venezuelan spirit and landscape, the bizarre paradox of an oil rich country on its knees with poverty. The pride of the working people from a socialist nation. The corruption on all sides that have rendered it on the verge of collapse, and the rabid polarization and class disparity that characterizes its politics.

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