In Petare’s Village of Hope, the women cooking for the barrio’s hungry children are praying that this time will be different.

Scraping together meals in a tiny breeze block room where the tap ran dry a year ago, Arielies Ospino and Mariangela Yanis say change is desperately needed.

“Things have got very ugly,” said Ms Ospino, a 62-year-old grandmother who has lived most of her life in this corner of Latin America’s biggest shantytown. “It wasn’t like this before, now the situation is critical.”

Many families could no longer afford food, she told The Telegraph as she picked spoiled grains out of rice.  A bag of this, she said, gesturing to the bowl in front of her, cost 4000 bolivars – almost a quarter of Venezuela’s monthly minimum wage.

The soup kitchen is now feeding over 140 children, for many of whom it may be the only meal of the day. “We have children who are in a state of malnutrition,” said Ms Yanis, 39.

Ms Ospino and Ms Yanis spoke approvingly of Juan Guaidó, the parliamentary head recognised as Venezuela’s legitimate leader by 65 countries. "We hope he’s going to resolve this problem," said Ms Ospino, though she admitted that her hopes had been raised by others before him.

Arieles Ospino and Mariangela Yanis say the situation for residents of the barrio is critical, with many families unable to feed themselvesCredit:
Hannah Strange/The Telegraph

Like many poorer neighbourhoods, Petare, a sprawling barrio of up to one million people perched precariously in the hills of Caracas, was once a bastion of support for the revolution begun by Hugo Chávez.

But as the wheels have come off the Socialist project, it has spiralled further into violence and hardship. Amid hyperinflation and crippling shortages of basic goods and medicines, protests once unimaginable in such areas have erupted against the Maduro government. Here, just as elsewhere, many are now looking instead to Mr Guaidó to save them from crisis.

It is more than two months, however, since Mr Guaidó swore himself in as interim leader in front of a rally of thousands in Caracas on January 23, sparking a leadership standoff which has divided the international community.

Despite ever-tightening financial sanctions, international warnings and catastrophic nationwide blackouts, Mr Maduro remains in Miraflores Palace, isolated but resolute.  With the military top brass standing firm behind him, his challenger’s next move seems unclear.

Mr Guaidó has denied that his movement is losing steam. On Thursday, as another blackout across much of Venezuela stretched into a fourth day, he prepared to announce what he called "Operación Libertad" (Operation Freedom). Scheduled for Saturday April 6, the operation would involve "the greatest popular uprising the country has ever seen", he said.

The soup kitchen feeds 140 children, for some of whom it is the only meal of the dayCredit:
Hannah Strange/The Telegraph

But the more time that passes, the more likely it seems that Mr Maduro will once again reassert his grip. Last week, Mr Guaidó’s chief of staff, Roberto Marrero, was incarcerated and accused of leading a terrorist plot. And while the government has not dared arrest the opposition leader himself, on Thursday it said it was barring him from holding public office for 15 years – a ban Mr Guaidó immediately rejected. 

Meanwhile Moscow, a key backer of the government, has dispatched around 100 Russian servicemen and 35 tonnes of military hardware to Caracas. Washington has railed against these moves, again waving the possibility of intervention, but such action appears increasingly unlikely.

Earlier this week, Luis Vicente León, a Venezuelan political analyst who heads the polling firm Datanalisis, cautioned that Mr Guaidó’s window of opportunity was closing.

"If a lot of time passes, and the offer of change does not materialise, there could be a moment in which the population starts to blame the leader that offered them change and didn’t give it to them," he told a Caracas radio station.  Mr León said something had to give in the crisis-battered country, but warned of a "scenario of total destruction."

"Guaidó has a finite time to produce that change," he cautioned.

The soup kitchen has seen numerous cases of malnutritionCredit:
Hannah Strange/The Telegraph

Mr Maduro has mocked Mr Guaidó as doomed to the same failure as previous rivals. Since inheriting the presidency after Chávez’s death  in 2013, he has seen off challenges from opposition leaders Henrique Capriles and Leopoldo López, the latter under house arrest since 2017 for heading a wave of protests under the slogan “The Exit”.

Many of Mr Guaidó’s supporters believe that this time, however, the moment has truly arrived. The charismatic 35-year-old with a talent for searing oratory has won hearts and minds across the Latin American nation, and is greeted like a rock star when he appears in public.

“He is our guide now,” Nelson Rendiles, an 80-year-old pensioner, told The Telegraph at a Caracas rally. He had faith that the government was on its way out, he said. "I don’t know how long, but they are going to go.”

Mr Rendiles said he believed that Mr Guaidó would bring change, adding “If not, we don’t have a hope”.

Edward Cazano, a 20-year-old student born as Chávez ascended to power, was slightly more circumspect. He said Mr Guaidó had more favourable conditions than his predecessors, pointing to international support and sanctions.

But, he acknowledged, people could lose faith if they did not see progress soon. “The moment is coming when we’ll get tired,” Mr Cazano said.“I think that there has to be movement now, fast.”

The country has suffered two days-long blackouts in the last three weeks, leaving many struggling to access food and water Credit:
Cristian Hernandez/AFP

Many were dismayed by the failure of February’s attempt to bring in much needed humanitarian aid – even before the blackout that plunged the country further into crisis. As the outage, which began on March 7, stretched on in many areas this week, Dr Julio Castro of the NGO Doctors for Health reported that up to 90 percent of Venezuelans were now struggling to access clean water. The shipment that was barred entry had contained items such as chlorine tablets to purify water for drinking, he said, adding: “It is a tragedy”.

Back in Villa Esperanza (Village of Hope), Ms Ospino lamented that Mr Maduro had rejected the assistance. "We need that humanitarian aid," she said. "He could have accepted it for the people that need medicines, because here there is no medicine."

Desiree Barrios, coordinator for Fundación Pasión Petare, which operates the soup kitchen, said she had never believed that it would be allowed to enter. “This is a repressive government, nothing matters to them”.

Nevertheless, "it was the worst that could have happened, because these people were counting on it getting to them," said her colleague, Emilia López.

Some fear Mr Guaido's window of opportunity may be closing Credit:
Hannah Strange/The Telegraph

Despite previous false dawns, Ms López said she was optimistic Mr Guaidó would succeed where others had failed. But she added, "After January 23, we gave the government 10 days, and now we are in March,  two months on, and once again, nothing.”

As he presses for more street protests, Mr Guaidó has eyed one particularly high-risk gambit – a march on the heavily-guarded presidential palace. He has yet to set a date, hoping first to persuade the country’s security forces to stand back.

Ms Ospino and Ms Yanis said they did not know how the leadership showdown will play out. One thing was certain, Ms Ospino said: Mr Maduro "does not look like he’s going to resign".

As they served up plates of plaintain, beans and rice for the children queuing up outside, the pair said their worst fear was that it would end in conflict, one that would cost all sides dearly and claim innocent lives. But, Ms Ospino said resignedly, it was what she was coming to expect.

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