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Crossing Divides: When Chavistas and 'Escualidos' bang the drums of peace

Venezuela's political landscape is among the world's most bitterly divided. But can shared passions inspire opponents to put differences aside for the common good?If anything can unite two Venezuelans, it's the rhythm of salsa.The country is in the grip of an economic crisis and suffering severe food shortages. Last year more than 120 people were killed as anti-government protests led to violence, amid claims of police brutality and illegal detentions.So it might seem unthinkable that music could bring together a Chavista - a member of a group named for their fervent support of the late President Hugo Chavez - and an activist determined to oust the ex-president's socialist successors.But high in the capital, Caracas, political opponents Pedro Garcia and Leandro Buzon are dancing to the same beat in a bid to shape a better future.
"A drum opens your heart. It unites even enemies," says Mr Garcia."We're from the same country, and in its time of need we're going to reach out our hands and work together."
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The ongoing economic crisis has deepened the problems in San Agustin
Mr Garcia, a musician and former drug addict known as Guapacha (hot dancer), was born in the slum neighbourhood of San Agustin 57 years ago, and proudly states he has been "clean" for the past 30. The son of a Cuban musician, he grew up amid poverty and violence, and has six gunshot wounds to prove it.These days, through his percussion school, Guapacha tries to steer youngsters away from trouble. "Going through all that I have makes me understand these boys," he says. Like many slums in Caracas, the world's second most violent city, San Agustin has a history of gang violence. And the current crisis has deepened its problems.The relatives of some he works with have been involved in shootings. But Guapacha points out: "The kids are here."
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Anti-government demonstrations turned violent last year
He campaigns for Primero Justicia, the opposition party led by Henrique Capriles - who was narrowly defeated in the bitterly contested election of 2013. Mr Capriles, who led calls for business to play a greater role and had demanded a presidential recall referendum, was seen as the opposition's best hope of gaining power.But he was banned from the electoral process last year over "administrative irregularities". His sidelining triggered street protests and claims of dictatorship.Despite this, Guapacha says: "Leandro is my pana (friend); it's like he's my son."Mr Buzon founded the social organization Caracas MiConvive to work with victims of violence, promoting peace and driving change within communities. This shared motivation for improving the lives of ordinary Venezuelans prompted a mutual friend to introduce them five years ago.Mr Buzon had heard about Guapacha's youth work and remembers telling the older man: "Look, Guapacha, I like what you do. I do community work too, let's sit down and talk."These days, five afternoons a week, they can be found together, concerning themselves solely with salsa."Guapacha is still a romantic, he still believes in [Chavez's] 'Revolution'… but he is a man with the biggest heart," says Mr Buzon.
Crossing Divides: When Chavistas and 'Escualidos' bang the drums of peace

Sitting alongside the boys tapping out a rhythm at the San Agustin percussion school, the men glance at each other and enjoy the effects of their work.Oraiker, 12, improvising with a classmate, shares their vision. "I want to play music and help children who are on the street," he says.But his tutors' alliance was not initially welcomed. Mr Buzon says fellow activists labelled his new friend an infiltrator."People thought it was offensive when he went about wearing a shirt with the slogan: 'Chavez, the heart of the people'."Guapacha, who even today sports a shirt decorated with an image of Mr Chavez's eyes, faced the same problem."They asked me, 'Are you going to work with these Escualidos
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But in this neighbourhood, with its steep streets and tin-roofed houses perched one on top of another, Chavistas and their opponents suffer the same problems.Their friendship came to be accepted."I could not have entered with the same strength, acceptance and affection in San Agustin, and Guapacha could not have gone into other areas where I am well-accepted," says Mr Buzon."The story of Venezuela that some politicians try to tell us is only meant to divide us." Through their work, the friends try to spread a message of unity to allow the country to move forward.As Mr Buzon puts it: "There is no eastern or western salsa, there is only one salsa." Photography: Wil Riera
Crossing Divides
Crossing Divides: When Chavistas and 'Escualidos' bang the drums of peace

Crossing Divides: a week of stories about people creating connections in a polarised world.
Creating connections - a series overview
Europe 'more divided' than a decade ago
Encouraging tolerance in a divided town
Difficult conversations: a survival guide
Crossing Divides on BBC World Service
About Crossing Divides
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