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Reclaiming the streets of Caracas through art By Caro Rolando for IFEX

Hambre.

The word is stark, like the fluorescent light of a barren refrigerator.

Hambre. Spray-painted across Caracas. Over and over again. On the highway, across the windows of foreclosed storefronts, through the muted cul-de-sacs of abandoned neighbourhoods. I try to take a photo of the word outside a dry cleaner’s, but the shopkeeper quickly runs over. “They’ll mug you in an instant,” he whispers.

The once-bustling streets of Venezuela’s capital city are now consumed by an eerie silence, interrupted by the occasional vroom of motorcycle gangs and the thump of families rummaging through garbage bins.

Venezuelans are hungry, and the evidence is beyond anecdotal.

A survey released in February by Simón Bolivar University, Andrés Bello Catholic University and the Central University of Venezuela found that 64.3% of those surveyed had lost 11 kilograms in 2017. And 61.2% of those surveyed said they were going to bed with an empty stomach.

Venezuelans are also scared. In June, the once thriving, oil-rich nation was named the most dangerous country in the world for the second year in a row, according to a Gallup survey. The survey found that almost 25% of Venezuelans had been assaulted, and 42% of those surveyed had had money or property stolen in 2017.

This is all happening against the backdrop of what could become one of the worst cases of hyperinflation in modern history.

In July, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that the country’s inflation rate could top 1,000,000 percent by the end of the year, and recent reports show that the country is well on its way, with its annual inflation rate accelerated to 833,000% in October, according to the Wall Street Journal.

It’s no wonder the streets are quiet, and the graffiti solemn.
“We’ve started to become a city where people go out for just a few hours a day – only when it’s light out. We barely socialise. It’s like a form of self-imposed exile.”

- María Isabel Peña, architect, urban designer, and professor at the Central University of Venezuela.

Luckily, Venezuela – once ranked the world’s happiest country by the Guinness World Records – is still home to optimists, and people seeking creative solutions.

Peña is one of them. Alongside other architects and urban designers, Peña leads an initiative called CCSCity450.

Launched in 2017 to commemorate the 450 years since the founding of the city of Caracas, CCSCity450 is a project that highlights the importance of public space and architecture through a series of activities, and urban interventions. These include historical tours of buildings, community gatherings, performances, and street art.

The intent, Peña says, is to “reclaim our power as citizens, to use the street for what it's meant to be used, a place where you can see others, and meet a diversity of people.”

Unsurprisingly, the project has been faced with real challenges from the beginning.

The first, and most stark, were the country-wide anti-government protests that started in April 2017 and left over 120 people dead, and thousands reportedly injured.

“In July last year, we were set to celebrate Caracas’ 450th anniversary, but we couldn’t, because of the very serious conflicts in the streets,” Peña recalls. A 2017 report by Human Rights Watch and Penal Forum – a Venezuelan group – found that Venezuela “systematically” abused anti-government protesters during last year’s demonstrations, including through beatings and firing tear gas canisters in closed areas.

The climate of fear was further exacerbated by a self-imposed curfew, of sorts. Most caraqueños wouldn't leave their homes after dark.

“Only the brave went out at night,” Peña says.

Once the protests subsided, some Venezuelans ventured out post-sunset. Cautiously, of course. In the industrial neighbourhood of Los Cortijos, architect Josymar Rodriguez discovered an intersection where some youth liked to park their cars on Friday nights and listen to music.

But even then, their presence on the street was limited.

“We found this dynamic very powerful, but at the same time, we thought that it could be immensely improved,” Rodriguez said. “The typical caraqueño remains anchored to his or her vehicle. We wanted to somehow move that activity to the street, right at that intersection.”

As part of CCSCity450, Rodriguez and a team of architects designed a one-day intervention in July that transformed the street for a day.

They worked with authorities to block off the street for pedestrians. They organized a free tour of El Nacional newspaper’s building – an iconic construction, right at the intersection – and then made the sidewalk a fun place to hang out. They set up chairs, lit up the area, and brought in a local band and street acrobats to perform for the community. Here's a video of the intervention:

By doing so, Rodriguez hoped they could shift the dynamic, even just for one night.

“We tend not to occupy public spaces, and this generates a vicious cycle,” Rodriguez says, “We get scared, we stay in, and the streets become increasingly empty and more dangerous,” she adds. “This is why we must break the cycle by occupying the streets.”

Art also has the power to transform the streets of Caracas.

Just ask photographer, graffiti and mural artist Fabián Solymar, also known as Dagor.

The Caracas local was asked by members of CCSCity450 to create a mural in honour of Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, most known for his design of Parque del Este – an 82 hectare park that is arguably one Caracas’ most famous landmarks.

Solymar’s mural was to be painted on a wall that locals often referred to as “la pizarra de Caracas” – Caracas’ chalkboard.

It ranged from a canvas on which anonymous love declarations were made, to an unruly landscape of protest slogans and expletives.

Solymar initially started painting the wall in bright colours, in a true homage to Burle Marx’s style. But locals soon started to approach Solymar, reminding him that the wall was much more than “Caracas’ chalkboard”. It was also witness to the 2017 protest movement.

In fact, it was in front of that wall that 20-year-old Juan Pablo Pernalete - a basketball player, student, and anti-government protester - was killed by a tear-gas projectile fired by a member of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB).

According to Human Rights Watch, officials initially blamed Pernalete’s death on other protestors, until an investigation by former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz found that a GNB officer, had, in fact, fired the projectile.

The perpetrator has not yet been brought to justice.

A 2018 report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states that “...the GNB systematically refused to provide the list of names of GNB members who had participated in the security operations resulting in the killing of protestors,” among them, Pernalete.

Taking the community’s concerns into account, Solymar decided to change the tone of his artwork.

At its mid-point, the mural becomes more sombre.

“It’s a way of mourning. I wanted to do so out respect for [Pernalete] and everyone else,” Solymar says.

And just as the artist was receptive to conversations, inhabitants of La Floresta were also keen to connect. “The neighbours invited me to a meeting, and it was incredible how grateful they were for the mural,” Solymar says. “Many people who have walked by the mural have written me with very positive comments, and I think that shows that it generated a change in the street.”

In fact, Solymar says that residents from other neighbourhoods are now requesting their very own murals.

CCSCity450 is continuing its work as 2018 comes to a close. The project is currently holding a writing contest, encouraging caraqueños to submit articles, essays or stories that reflect on the city’s public space, geography or reflect on its history and its potential for the future. Submissions are due on 21 February 2018.

Caro Rolando is a Venezuelan-Canadian freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @Caro_escribe

Photo Credits (in order):

  1. CCSCity450/Facebook
  2. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  3. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images
  4. Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images
  5. Mauricio Lopez/Prodavinci
  6. CCSCity450/Facebook
  7. Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
  8. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images
  9. CCSCity450/Youtube
  10. CCSCity450/Facebook
  11. CCSCity 450/Facebook
  12. CCSCity450/Facebook

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