In a working-class barrio high above downtown Caracas is a dusty patch of land, no bigger than a basketball court, with a small stand of bedraggled pine trees. It is the namesake for a neighborhood, Los Pinos. From here you can see the glimmering skyscrapers below, where private supermarkets charge $13 for a box of Cheerios. The minimum wage is $12 a month.
Such inequities have helped spur successive waves of protests in Venezuela, and less than a year ago, the country was a tinderbox. Thousands marched against what was widely seen as the illegitimate re-election of increasingly dictatorial President Nicolas Maduro, successor to socialist revolutionary Hugo Chávez. Last April, opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who’d declared himself the legitimate president, called on the armed forces to rise up against Maduro. They didn’t. Since then the situation has settled into an uneasy standstill, with the opposition seemingly out of cards to play, and most Venezuelans too consumed by the daily task of survival to protest.
“They don’t want to hear about politics anymore. They’re totally disillusioned,” says Natalie Keyssar, a photographer who regularly covers civil unrest and inequality in the Americas and spent a month documenting the 50 or so families of Los Pinos in the wake of Guaidó’s failed coup. The community, largely led by women, “is incredibly tightknit,” she says. “People really depend on each other to get by. Venezuela is often described as this clash between political powers and ideologies, but to me these people are the real story.”
Their economy is in an astounding state of collapse. Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, the export of which paid for a slate of social programs started by Chávez. But corruption, mismanagement, and plunging oil prices sent the economy into a black hole beginning in 2014, now exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. The currency has lost 99 percent of its value, rupturing any rational relationship between wages and the price of goods. Ten percent of the population has fled. Ninety-four percent live in poverty. Children are dying of malnutrition.
“I used to have dreams, but now everything is for food,” says Idelis Gutierrez, a 22-year-old from Los Pinos who fled to Colombia in July. She joined her husband there, who had been sending her money so she could save $20 to make the journey, but she kept giving it to her parents so the family could eat.
“I remember one time Idelis’ mom came back with a few yucas,” says Keyssar. “And everybody’s trying to play it cool. But there’s this vibrating energy in the room because it’s getting to be two o’clock and nobody in the family’s eaten yet.”
Every day, families are making heroic efforts to survive. Kids are trading shifts at a local factory for food, and parents often go without meals so their children can eat. In Los Pinos, some of the young men started cleaning and clearing the patch of land with the namesake pine trees to make it usable for the neighborhood, which got the attention of Alimenta La Solidaridad, a nonprofit that selects communities to support that are already taking initiative themselves. In July, Alimenta helped the mothers in Los Pinos open their own soup kitchen, guaranteeing their kids at least one nutritious meal a day. “People work really hard to make opportunities for themselves,” says Keyssar. “This is a story of watching people very much take control of their destiny.”