Venezuela: A prayer revival in the midst of chaos
As the unrest in Venezeula continues, one Christian worker in the country shares his fears, frustrations and experiences with Christian Today.
"We have been seeing this crisis coming a long ways off," explains the Christian, who does not wish to be named for security reasons.
The authorities continue to act as if the situation is under control and have been forthright in countering any suggestion to the contrary.
At a meeting of other Latin American leaders, marking the first anniversary of the death of Hugo Chavez, President Nicolas Maduro announced that he had decided to break political and diplomatic ties with the government of Panama and freeze all trade and economic relations with immediate effect.
It came shortly after Panama suggested that there should be a meeting of the Organisation of American States to discuss the ongoing unrest in Venezuela.
In an official statement, Panama said it was "astonished" at Mr Maduro's decision and that his rhetoric towards the country was "unacceptable".
"Panama only hopes that this brother nation finds peace and strengthens its democracy," tweeted the Panamanian President, Ricardo Martinelli.
The Christian we spoke to lives in the eastern part of Caracas, which has become an enclave of the opposition. He has a great vantage point, living high up on a mountain top that overlooks the city.
He is a safe distance from where the main clashes are taking place but the neighbourhood has still been impacted and is doing its bit with pot banging protests, called cacerolazos.
"These protests are very common in time of high tension and a way to express the discontent that is reigning in a good portion of the population," he explains.
Barricades put up across the eastern part of the city to block the movement of traffic are creating "havoc".
In the last two weeks, there have been several instances where he has been unable to get to work, as all four of the routes out of his neighbourhood have been blocked
"Neighbours have blocked the streets with trash, trees, tires and anything that they can get their hands on. The bus service has been stopped and so domestic employees and workers at a local mall have not been able to get to work.
"We are fortunate in that we are not in the area which is at the centre of the protests and the site of the daily protest marches, and clashes between the National Guard and the more radical protesters.
"A friend of ours who lives in the area describes her area of town as a war zone."
Talking about why the protests have escalated recently, he says there is anger over the "heavy-handed" reaction by the government security forces to what were peaceful protests.
"Their response has actually added fuel to the fire. There does not seem to be any type of conciliation on the part of the government," he says.
He places the blame for the current break down squarely at the feet of late president Hugo Chavez, who he said had "disenfranchised close to 50 per cent of the population".
While there is a new president now, our contact does not think they have made the situation much better. Over the last five years, inflation has been above 20 per cent, rising sharply to 56 per cent last year, and the result has been ruin for many Venezuelans, especially the poorest.
Violent crime is also an issue. There were 23,000 violent deaths last year and just a few weeks ago, a former Miss Venezuela, Monica Spear, and her British husband, Thomas Berry, became the latest victims when they were killed in a roadside robbery, orphaning their 5-year-old daughter.
Many Venezuelans simply do not feel safe and that feeling is compounded, says our contact, by the lack of justice.
"Out of a hundred murders only five are investigated and only one is actually solved," he says.
"Life has become very cheap. Caracas is one of the most violent cities in the world. This wave of protests actually got started in western Venezuela when university students protested the rape of a fellow student."
Add to the mix the scarcity of every day items like milk and it is easy to see why the anger has erupted.
"Economic policies have led to a shortage of basic goods such as milk, meat, chicken, toilet paper, cooking oil, butter, flour, and other goods.
"The government has destroyed the national production and thus high percentages of consumer goods have to be imported."
Anti-American feeling is fuelling this, with restrictions on currency trading. "The government has had to cut back on the amount of dollars that can be exchanged which is leading to shortages of all sorts of basic items, plus raw material for their production. The country is grinding to a halt and the government does not know how to take care of it."
In addition to this, there is general bafflement over where the country's oil money has gone. Despite huge levels of production, Venezuela remains in debt to China.
"Most recognise that the oil bonanza has been squandered, stolen, given away to other countries such as Cuba."
Cuba is also a target of the protesters' wrath, with the Christian we spoke to being amont those who believe that Castro's island nation is in control of much of what happens in Venezuela: "Cubans are in all levels of the government and military."
Despite the unrelenting nature of the protests and the pervasiveness of the problems, the government's attitude remains unchanged.
"There is no indication that the government is trying to solve these problems and thus the protests will continue.
"Most think that the economy will continue to deteriorate and will crash. When it does crash completely the poor people will really start protesting en masse.
"Right now there are people from the barrios [slums in the outer city], but not in great numbers. They are being held in check by fear. The government has its motorcycle gangs that are instilling fear in the general population."
The Church has been unable to escape the deep divisions penetrating Venezuelan society.
"The Church like the rest of the country is highly divided. There are those believers who are very much in favour of the socialist government and then there are those who are very opposed.
"This was especially true in the first eight years of Chavez's presidency. The leaders of the churches had to learn how to focus on spiritual things and try and keep the politics out of the daily life of the Church.
"Now with the protests there is a deep concern and worry for the wellbeing of the nation and its future. Church leaders are seeking wisdom to know how to guide the believers so that they do not get sucked into the prevailing attitudes of the general public."
Talking about how Church operations have been affected, the churches in Caracas have had to change their schedules or cancel activities altogether because of the insecurity.
"Our church which meets very close to the epicentre of the protests has had to cancel many activities and ministries," he says.
Yet in the midst of all this, there is hope, as new church meetings in people's homes are spreading through the neighbourhoods.
"The pastor announced that prayer meeting was not going to take place in the church building, but it was to take place in the homes of the believers. He encouraged each to gather neighbours, friends and family to pray for Venezuela.
"They have also invited their folks to go prayer walking around the area where the greatest problems are occurring. One other congregation that I am aware of has set up down in the area where the protesters have been congregating and have led preaching events."
Describing one especially brave move, our contact noted how one pastor was calling for volunteers to join him in going to the National Guard headquarters to pray with and for the National Guardsmen.
"The most positive thing that I have seen is that this has driven people to deeper prayer and intercession for Venezuela," he says.
"I am encouraged by the fact that there has never been so much prayer on Venezuela's behalf as now. It has also made a lot of non-Christians see that they do not have the spiritual resources to face crisis as they are living now.
"The challenge for the Venezuelan believers is to keep focused on their relationship with the Lord and to be instruments of peace in a very divisive situation."