TAMPA — He stood just 5-foot-4 and weighed a slim 140 pounds, but two Tampa men consider him one of the strongest men they’ve ever met.
“Mentally strong,” clarified one, Jose Toledo, who with fellow businessman Itamar Martinez recently returned from a humanitarian trip to Venezuela, where more than 25 have died in anti-government protests.
Cuts and bruises from a severe beating were still on the small man’s hands from a beating he received at one of the protests. They met him on the streets of the capital Caracas as he took part in another protest, knowing a second beating would be worse.
“I wish everyone in Venezuela had a fraction of his courage,” Toledo said.
Instead, what the two men took away from their visit to the South America trouble spot was surprise that half the people they encountered seemed disinterested in the protests that have grabbed world headlines for the past five weeks.
They traveled to Venezuela March 1-4 to show support of opposition party demands for the resignation of President Nicolas Maduro or a change in his government policies. Maduro’s leftist administration has been blamed for the nation’s violent crime, high inflation and crumbling economy.
Toledo, an attorney, and Martinez, who runs a lawter referral business, both of Cuban heritage, brought humanitarian aid — a few boxes of toiletries and flour — along with the message they would help any way they could. The handouts went quickly and they scheduled another aid drive 1-3 p.m. Sunday at Toledo’s office, 5645 Hoover Blvd. There were no takers for the offer of broader involvement from Tampa.
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Many citizens, while admitting they have little, still support the government. Any number of reasons could explain their view — ignorance, government trickery, fear, or the belief that socialism works, say people who following the developments from Florida and across the nation.
“We went there thinking it was a black and white issue,” Toledo said. “It turns out there is a lot of gray.”
He described Venezuela as a “tale of two nations.”
In cities such as Caracas, Chacao and Altamira, the protests are a fact of daily life. Debris was everywhere. Military troops stared the opposition down, guns at the ready.
Just few miles away from the protests, though, life went on as though nothing was out of the ordinary. “The areas are as close as downtown Tampa and South Tampa,” Martinez said. “Yet they could have been different worlds.”
The streets were peaceful. People were calm and had little desire to speak out for change.
Venezuelan native and Tampa resident Norma Reno said this breaks her heart.
The nation’s inflation rate, she noted, is 56 percent, highest in the world. Basic necessities are limited and the average citizen can scarcely afford what the stores do carry.
“According to official figures, more than 9 million people, a third of the population live in poverty,” added Raquel Aché Leonard, a contributor to Centro, the Tribune’s weekly Spanish publication. She is also a native of Venezuela and is currently visiting family there.
“Nearly three-quarters of public sector workers earn wages below the cost of basic goods.”
Reno speaks regularly with relatives in Venezuela: “I hear from some people who only eat once a day.”
For many, though, times are better than ever.
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There was once a great economic divide between the rich and the poor, noted Frank Argote-Freyre, a Latin American history professor at Kean University in New Jersey.
But under the late-President Hugo Chavez and now Maduro, the government spends money it earns from oil sales to fund social programs that provide the lower class with housing, medical care and education — some or all of which were not available to them before.
There remains an even split in Venezuela among the opposition and government supporters, said Argote-Freyre, similar to the political landscape at the time of the most recent election in April 2013, when Maduro won with 50.6 percent of the vote.
“Not everyone in Venezuela is going to be in favor of the opposition because they are afraid of losing what they have gained under Venezuela’s socialist system,” he said.
Tampa’s Martinez and Toledo view the economic divide differently — not as the haves vs. the have-nots but as those who see no options other than the present system and those who want a better future.
“The opposition is mostly students that don’t think the form of government provides them with the type of future they want,” Martinez said. “They want more than they think they can obtain in the country.”
Many of those who support the government do so out of uncertainty over whether the opposition will look out for their interests, said Sarah Kinosian, a Latin America program associate for the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank Center for International Policy.
“It’s not that there is no disillusion among those who favor the government,” Kinosian said. “Inflation is high, basic needs are scarce, they have to wait four hours in a line for milk and flour. But if the opposition wins, what if it gets even worse, they wonder.
“They don’t necessarily have a favorable view of what the alternative would be.”
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Tampa’s Reno acknowledged that Chavez and Maduro endeared themselves to Venezuela’s lower economic classes.
“These people were forgotten for over 40 years,” she said. “And now they have a government that talks about them. They are hungry and have no jobs but at least someone is pretending to care about them. But that is all they are doing – pretending.”
Mistrust of the opposition, Toledo and Martinez said, is fostered by government propaganda under the guise of legitimate news. Venezuelans are told that if the opposition wins, they will see social gains evaporate.
They also saw examples of how the Venezuelan government is creating the illusion that the U.S. is to blame for the protests.
“The television journalists played on national paranoia, saying Obama was behind these protests and was trying to overthrow the government and if the opposition won Venezuela would be infiltrated,” Toledo said.
“When it is all you are told it seems like the truth,” Reno added.
And the two Venezuelan visitors saw the message backed up with the threat of force in the form of a heavy military presence in protest areas.
“It was uncomfortable,” Toledo said. “I kept wondering if the armed military was watching me particularly.”
“The National Guard keeps the demonstrations at bayonet point,” agreed Leanard, the Tribune correspondent. “There is terrible mistreatment and physical abuse.”
Toledo and Martinez did not witness violence. They know only what they were told. But they took to heart stories like those of the brave man with the injured hands — even as they shake their heads at the overriding complacency of many they met.
“They just did not seem to care about democracy,” Toledo said. “As long as their needs were met, they did not care.”