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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Christmas fear, not Christmas cheer in Venezuela

Less food, fewer gifts, no festive lights and the fear of being robbed sum up the crisis in the once-prosperous oil-rich nation

Carol singing in the dark in Caracas, Venezuela on December  22, 2017. Fernando Llano /AP
Carol singing in the dark in Caracas, Venezuela on December 22, 2017. Fernando Llano /AP

Marilyn Pitre recalls taking her family on evening strolls at Christmas time through Altamira Plaza in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, soaking up the dazzling lights and giant tree made of light bulbs in a display that once drew comparisons to New York City's Rockefeller Center.

That was before crisis struck Venezuela. Now the 40-year-old mother of two wouldn't dare set foot in the plaza after dark, fearing robbers. And this season, for the first time in years, no festive lights will bring it to life.

It's a sight that many say mirrors the mood in the once-prosperous oil nation. Middle class residents have cut back on gifts and struggle to afford even the basic ingredients needed to cook traditional Christmas dishes.

The poor have been hit hardest. Some have had to resort to scavenging in rubbish piles throughout the year to fill their stomachs.

Ms Pitre said she tries to look beyond the shortages and political strife to the deeper meaning of Christmas.

"As Catholics, we celebrate the birth of Jesus," she said. "But it's not the same as before."

Venezuela, a country of 30 million people, sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, but global crude prices crashed three years ago, sending the economy into free fall and sparking social unrest. Residents endure shortages of cash, soaring inflation and a lack of medicine.

Earlier this year, people took to the streets in anger over president Nicolas Maduro's government. There were daily clashes with riot police for four months in Altamira Plaza and in streets across the country. More than 120 protesters were killed and thousands injured.

Inflation is expected to hit 2,400 per cent by the end of the year, said Henkel Garcia, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm Econometrica. Minimum wage workers today have a fifth of the purchasing power they had nearly two decades ago, when the late president Hugo Chavez launched Venezuela's socialist revolution.

"This is the darkest Christmas we've ever had," said Guianfranco Perozo, 23, who holds two jobs just to get by.

Searching an open-air market in Caracas for cooking oil, Mr Perozo shrugs when asked if he's bought any Christmas gifts. Any money left after groceries will go to diapers for his eight-month-old daughter, he said.

"There's nothing to celebrate," he said. "Too many people are hungry. Too many people are eating garbage."

Unrest simmers across Venezuela in the days before Christmas. There are long lines in two states due to petrol shortages and one community on the outskirts of Caracas set piles of rubbish on fire one night in protest at food shortages. Water rationing is common, and a mid-day blackout lasting five hours struck millions in Caracas and two neighbouring provinces a week before Christmas.

Millions of others desperate for work have fled Venezuela. Antonieta Lopez, 35, will celebrate this Christmas for the first time without her husband, forced to find a job in Chile nearly a year ago when work dried up at home.

Money remains tight, and Ms Lopez said she could only afford only two gifts from her son's Christmas wishlist. Her mother, Evelyn Avellaneda, 70, said she could not afford special Christmas food this year.

There are plenty of people out in the shop, but few buyers. Long queues quickly form for any affordable items.

"There are lines at the banks. There are lines in the stores," she said. "There are lines everywhere."

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