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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Marilyn Pitre recalls taking her family on evening strolls at Christmas time through Altamira Plaza in Venezuela's capital, soaking up the dazzling lights and giant tree made of light bulbs in a display that once drew comparisons to New York City's Rockefeller Center.
That was before crisis struck Venezuela. Now the 40-year-old mother of two wouldn't dare set foot in the plaza after dark, fearing robbers. And this season, for the first time in years, no festive lights will bring it to life.
It's a sight that many say mirrors the mood in the once-prosperous oil nation. Middle class residents have cut back on gifts and struggle to afford basic ingredients needed to cook traditional Christmas dishes.
The poor have been hit hardest, some scavenging trash piles year-around to fill their stomachs.
Pitre, pausing in Altamira Plaza on a bright afternoon after leaving work, said she tries to look beyond the shortages and political strife to the deeper meaning of Christmas.
"As Catholics, we celebrate the birth of Jesus," she said. "But it's not the same as before."
Venezuela, a country of 30 million people, sits atop the world's largest oil reserves, but global crude prices crashed three years ago, sending the economy into free fall and sparking social unrest.
Residents endure shortages of cash, soaring inflation and a lack of medicine.
Earlier this year, protesters upset with President Nicolas Maduro's government clashed daily with riot police for four months in Altamira Plaza and in streets across the country. More than 120 protesters were killed and thousands injured.
Inflation is expected to hit 2,400 percent by the year's end, said Henkel Garcia, director of the Caracas-based consulting firm Econometrica, adding that minimum wage workers today have a fifth of the purchasing power than nearly two decades ago, when the late President Hugo Chavez launched Venezuela's socialist revolution.
"This is the darkest Christmas we've ever had," said Guianfranco Perozo, 23, who holds two jobs just to get by.
Searching an open-air market in Caracas for cooking oil, Perozo shrugs when asked if he's bought any Christmas gifts. Any money left after groceries will go to diapers for his 8-month-old daughter, he said.
"There's nothing to celebrate," he said. "Too many people are hungry. Too many people are eating garbage."
Unrest simmers across Venezuela in the days before Christmas. Gasoline shortages in two states left long lines at filling stations, and residents in a community on the outskirts of Caracas protested food shortages one night, setting piles of garbage on fire, according to Twitter accounts.
Water rationing is common, and a mid-day blackout lasting five hours struck millions in Caracas and two neighboring states a week before Christmas.
Millions of others desperate for work have fled Venezuela. Antonieta Lopez, 35, will celebrate this Christmas for the first time without her husband, forced to find a job in Chile nearly a year ago when work dried up at home.
Still, money is tight, and Lopez said she could only afford to buy her son, Matias, two items from his wish list — a Captain American action figure and a pair of Star Wars masks.
Sitting next to her on the steps of a quiet plaza, her mother, Evelyn Avellaneda, 70, said she's not able to buy things she'd normally put on the dinner table for Christmas. That includes a bottle of red wine.
Plenty of people are out walking past shops, but few buy things, Avellaneda said, adding that when they do find affordable items, there are long waits.
"There are lines at the banks. There are lines in the stores," she said. "There are lines everywhere."
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