The Manhattan of Venezuela Parties Against a Backdrop of Crisis

In the courtyard of La Esquina, a eatery in Caracas’s upscale Chacao district, Alexandra Lovera lived the more pleasant half of her double life.

The 24 -year-old culinary student and frequent protester of Venezuela’s authoritarian government was among a birthday party that also included a television host, a baseball agent and a gaggle of business owners. They were smoking a hookah and knocking back sangria and whiskey.

” In the day, I’m in the marching or the barricades ,” Lovera said.” I come home, bathe and change and text my friends,’ What’s the plan ?'” she said.” It’s like a routine .”

In mornings and afternoons, protesters pack Chacao’s plazas and streets, erecting roadblocks and throwing stones. After the sun goes down, bars light up and the cocktail of selection isn’t a Molotov, but a Scotch. For a select few Venezuelans, the epicenter of unrest is also the best place to escape the country’s myriad woes.

Antigovernment graffiti in Chacao, with a hashtag that says in Spanish:” The totalitarianism falls .”

Photographer: Meridith Kohut/ Bloomberg

From afar, Venezuela’s capital appears to burn day and night. Protests against authoritarian President Nicolas Maduro have raged for more than 100 days, claiming ratings of lives as the economy disintegrates and mass go hungry. This month, the nation faces the prospect of a constitutional assembly that could hamstring democracy, a general strike and the possibility of fresh economic sanctions. But after dark, an elite class emerges to fill Chacao’s bars, strip clubs and marble-floored shopping malls.

” It’s the Manhattan of Caracas ,” Mayor Ramon Muchacho said.

Venezuela was once the continent’s wealthiest nation thanks to its oil riches, and its capital was renowned for its glittering nightlife. Today, Chacao, on the more affluent east side, depict expatriates, a mix of old and new money spending savings or the proceeds from a government contract — and those simply willing to jolt a paycheck to forget for a while.

” This is the country of magical surrealism ,” told Edgar Grossmann, 50, a transportation company owner who hunched over a bar at La Esquina as the birthday party bubbled behind him.” The country’s going to hell, but people keep going out — there’s no alternative .”

The capital’s smallest district, Chacao is also the wealthiest, boasting a fiscal zone, a half-dozen shopping mall and an elite golfing enclave called The Country club. The sliver-thin neighborhood is packed with low-rise apartments and gated mansions and stretchings from the Guaire River to the lush green mountain that separates Caracas from the Caribbean.

Long a bastion for foes of the socialist government, two former Chacao mayors contended with the late Hugo Chavez for the presidency. Now, the neighborhood is an arena for protests because it’s the most central district that the opposition controls, nearest to off-limits downtown ministries and the presidential Miraflores Palace.

After demonstrations, customers percolate in to La Esquina wearing the opposition’s white clothes and red-yellow-and-blue caps, told Juan Carlos Senior, 31, who opened the restaurant in 2015 with a partner.

” You protest in the morning ,” said Senior,” but that doesn’t mean you stop living .”

People sip cocktails on the roof of 360 Bar in Chacao.

Photographer: Meridith Kohut/ Bloomberg

Thanks to fear of crime, the district’s raucous overnight parties have largely dedicated way to afternoon brunches. But on weekends, lines of dark-tinted SUVs — some armored and protected by bodyguards — wait for partying passengers late into the evening.

Tomas Perez, a construction company proprietor at a lounge where disc jockey spun home music, said he had been kidnapped twice, so he hits the town in a bulletproof Toyota 4Runner.

” It’s not standard ,” he told,” but it is the standard for those who want to go out .”

In Chacao, fine dining can be had for the price of fast food. Chef Carlos Garcia tells a 10 -course meal of modern Venezuelan fare at his establishment, Alto, expenses the equivalent of $20.

” Here, you get luxury ,” said Garcia, 44, whose eatery is the country’s only one with a Michelin star.

That luxury is enjoyed chiefly by those who have access to hard U.S. currency. More than a decade of stringent controls engendered a thriving black market for dollars, which trade for hundreds of days their official worth. Many citizens have greenbacks squirreled away from flusher times, and some multinational companies pay in hard currency. Other Venezuelans have plum contracts with the government that allow them access to dollars.

Venezuelans without such resources also find ways to enjoy life amid a grinding conflict. On Fridays, crowd of locals pass around bottles outside Chacao’s liquor stores, while others pack its Spanish-style pubs to watch sport events.

” Everyone is looking for an escape valve — each at their own level ,” said Pedro Mezquita, a eatery critic and radio host.

Jose Cabrera, a 22 -year-old university student out at a rooftop bar, used to say when he’s not analyse he participates in every demonstration he can, but friends criticized him for going out.

” Look, I march, I protest, I do my responsibility for my country ,” told Cabrera.” But what are we going to do at night? Are we going to block a street? Are we going to march on Miraflores Palace? I’ll be back out on the street tomorrow at 7 a. m ., even with a hangover .”

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