By Andrew Cawthorne
LOS TEQUES, Venezuela (Reuters) – Like many Portuguese immigrants to Venezuela after World War Two, Manuel Fernandes spent a lifetime building a small business: his bread and cake shop in a highland town.
It took just one night for it to fall apart.
The first he knew of the destruction of his beloved “Bread Mansion” store on a main avenue of Los Teques was when looters triggered the alarm, resulting in a warning call to his cellphone at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.
Fernandes was stuck at home due to barricades and protests that have become common in seven weeks of anti-government unrest in Venezuela. So he was forced to watch the disaster unfold via live security camera images.
“There were hundreds of people. They smashed the glass counters, the fridges. They took everything – ham, cheese, milk, cornflakes, equipment,” the 65-year-old said, as workmen secured the shop on Friday with thick metal plates.
“I’ve dedicated everything to this. My family depends on it,” said the distraught businessman, on a street where most neighboring stores were also ransacked in a frenzy of looting in Los Teques this week.
Unrest and protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government since early April have caused at least 46 deaths plus hundreds of injuries and arrests.
They have also sparked widespread nighttime looting.
When a mob smashed its way into a bakery in El Valle, a working class neighborhood of Caracas, last month, 11 people died, eight of them electrocuted and three shot.
This week, Maduro’s government sent 2,000 troops to western Tachira state, where scores of businesses have been emptied.
In Los Teques, an hour’s drive into hills outside Caracas, locals spoke of up to half a dozen more deaths in looting and clashes this week between security forces and young protesters from a self-styled ‘Resistance’ movement.
There has been no official confirmation of those deaths.
Reuters journalists visiting the town on Friday had to negotiate permission from masked youths manning roadblocks and turning back traffic at the main entrances.
Mostly students, the young men said they had put academic work on hold and were determined to stay in the street until Maduro allowed a general election, the main demand of Venezuela’s opposition in the current political crisis.
‘NOTHING TO LOSE’
“We are from humble families. We have nothing to lose. I don’t even have enough for a bus fare or food. That tyrant Maduro has wrecked everything,” said Alfredo, 28, who stopped studying to man barricades and says he runs a unit of 23 “resistance” members.
Armed with homemade shields, stones and Molotov cocktails, the youths build barricades with branches, furniture and bags of trash, scrawling slogans like ‘No Surrender’ on nearby walls.
They turn back traffic and wait for the inevitable arrival of security forces. Some have scars and wounds from intense clashes this week.
Oil has been spread on the ground to deter armored vehicles used by the National Guard. Barbed wire is also used.
On Friday morning, one man walked up to the barricade with a woman in a wheelchair, and was granted special permission to pass. Some women, trying to visit relatives jailed in a nearby prison, also managed to talk their way through.
Mid-morning, some neighbors delivered arepas, a cornmeal flatbread that is Venezuela’s staple food, to the youths, offering them words of encouragement and thanks.
“You see, they all support us,” said Micky, covering his face with a red bandana at a barricade. “We are not coup-mongers like Maduro says. All we want is a general election.”
The 54-year-old president narrowly won election in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez who died from cancer.
But without his predecessor’s charisma, popular touch and unprecedented oil revenues, Maduro has seen his popularity plunge as the economy nosedived, helping the opposition win majority support in the OPEC nation of 30 million people.
He accuses foes of an “armed insurrection,” with the support of the United States, and blames “fascist” protesters for all the deaths and destruction in Venezuela since April.
In Los Teques, however, youths at the barricades hotly deny any involvement in looting, pointing the finger instead at local pro-government neighborhood groups known as ‘colectivos.’
The unrest is exacerbating an already appalling economic crisis in Venezuela. There is widespread scarcity of food and medicines, inflation is making people poorer and hungrier, and standing for hours in shopping lines has become a norm for many.
“I’m closing. So the same people who did this to me now won’t have anywhere to buy their food,” said Fernandes, running his hands through his hair and surveying the once-bustling commercial street of now boarded-up shop fronts.
“Why are we all hurting and fighting each other?”
(Editing by Girish Gupta, Toni Reinhold)