Caracas – While most Venezuelans struggle to buy food and make ends meet, a small group still manages to eat sushi and sip cocktails in exclusive discos and country clubs.
The country may be stricken by poverty and political violence, but a rich minority acts like they are untouched by the crisis.
Case in point: Caracas, one of the world’s most violent cities, is the first in South America to open a branch of the trendy Buddha Bar international nightclub chain.
– Stone-throwing, bar-hopping –
In a country where basics such as flour and sugar are in short supply, Buddha Bar guests can order tuna steak, pork ribs or fish tacos — as long as they have dollars to pay.
“You can have as good a time here in Caracas as in New York, Dubai or Saint Petersburg,” says one of its owners, Cristhian Estephan.
Eight pieces of salmon and shrimp sushi here cost 55,700 bolivars, or the equivalent of more than a quarter of the country’s official monthly minimum wage.
Scenes of flames, tear gas and water cannons in the streets have dominated foreign coverage of Venezuela during the recent months.
While the mass protests against President Nicolas Maduro show that Venezuelans’ anger at their hardship is boiling over, the well-off are still managing to have fun.
Behind tightly guarded and fortified walls, posh bars and eateries are full. The Buddha Bar opened in 2015, when the economic crisis was already well underway.
One customer, Ahisquel, says she joins in the protests herself but still comes to the bar once a week with her husband, an oil executive. Like most customers interviewed, she declined to give her full name.
“By day we throw stones and by night we come here,” she says.
“After the protests it is good to have a moment to relax — though we’ll never relax until this government is gone.”
Even rich Venezuelans are affected by the country’s soaring inflation rate. But protected by their US dollars, they are better off than most.
For ordinary Venezuelans, “it’s very difficult,” says Ahisquel’s husband.
– Socialist millionaires –
“In this country, if you are not paid in foreign currency, it is impossible to live.”
Many rich Venezuelans have left the country for Miami, Los Angeles or Madrid since Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez launched his socialist “revolution.”
But some of them like Lorenzo Mendoza — Venezuela’s richest man and the owner of Polar, the country’s largest food company — are content to stay.
Some are known as “boli-bourgeois,” champagne socialists who grew rich from Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution.”
“We run when we see the boli-bourgeois. We can spot them a mile off,” says Carlos, a 49-year-old lawyer, sitting beside the tree-lined swimming pool near the golf course of the Caracas Country Club in the north of the capital.
The rise of the Chavistas changed life for traditional rich families like his.
– Distribution of wealth –
“Everything is really expensive and only they can afford to live around here.”
New money talks in a country where Maduro is striving to continue Chavez’s “revolution.”
Venezuela’s economy logged strong growth before prices for its crucial oil exports started a downward spiral in mid-2014.
“Wealth in Venezuela is generated by state revenues that depend on the oil sector,” says Colette Capriles, a sociologist at Simon Bolivar University.
“The state redistributes that revenue. The Chavez government used it with preference for those who needed it most,” with social welfare spending, she says.
– Show must go on –
But it also offered an opportunity for those close to power to line their pockets.
“This form of socialism has produced some very powerful millionaires,” says Capriles.
“Most of them are government officials or people close to them — and currently they are one of the main things holding up the government.”
The streets of Caracas are empty after nightfall. Locals are too scared to go out for fear of being robbed or killed.
Venezuela has one of the highest annual murder rates in the world: 70 for every 100,000 people last year, according to UN data.
But out of sight in the bars and restaurants, some are still having a good time.
“The upper classes have not stopped going out,” says Estephan.