On rubbish-strewn waste ground in Caracas, Fr Jesús Godoy grasps a large wooden cross and preaches to men who survive by finding food amid the garbage. Fr Jesús is part of the Catholic community bringing aid to some of the 80 per cent of Venezuelans who live in poverty in 2019.
Venezuela has been in crisis since the price of oil plunged in June 2014. Last month came a possible ray of light: on January 24, 35-year-old opposition politician Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself de facto president and was recognised by the Trump administration. Guaidó bears scars from rubber bullets that struck him while he was protesting against President Nicolás Maduro.
The bishops have remained relatively quiet so far, in order, some say, to prevent the expulsion from Venezuela of Caritas, one of the few providers of food and other aid to a poverty-struck populace.
“We have children fainting in classrooms because they are so hungry,” Fr Jesús tells me. “Families I care for have just the bare basics: one meal a day, instead of three. But now it feels like we are involved in an unstoppable movement. Guaidó seems like a serene, egalitarian man. He is untarnished by corruption, which is important for Venezuelans.”
Fr Jesús describes an attack that took place the day before we speak, when government henchmen entered a church in the city of Maracaibo and injured several people, including a priest. Three million Venezuelans have left the country in the biggest exodus South America has ever seen.
Guaidó’s proclamation of himself as president may seem to be flimsy. He lacks the vital support of the military, despite US backing. But in the current volatile atmosphere, all bets are off.
Fr Jesús is backing him and so are a growing number of Venezuela’s 32 million citizens. Guaidó has become an emblem for a movement that, for now, seems to be gaining momentum.