Special to Rebel Youth
Venezuela -- the only country in the world where the rich are barricading their own communities and obstructing traffic!
Venezuelanalysis.com has said that protests are occurring in no more than just 18 municipalities of the country, out of well over three hundred municipalities. From my experience in Caracas and Valencia it is also true that they are almost only happening in rich and middle-class neighborhoods -- but certainly not in the poorer areas.
Visit to Chacao
I took a walk through the city of Chacao the other day, in the mid-eastern portion of the Caracas Valley and capital district, coming across one of these "popular mass protests". Chacao is one of the wealthiest parts of Venezuela (if not the wealthiest), and all of South America as well. It is also the only area in which I have seen an opposition demonstration in my five days here.
I exited the Chacao metro stop and arrived at a busy intersection in a peaceful city center at around 3:30 PM. I then walked uphill towards the zone called "Country Club", where the millionaires of Venezuela live and where every house is hidden behind high concrete walls topped with barbed wire or electric fencing. It was, unsurprisingly, quiet and peaceful.
About an hour later I returned to the intersection. Now, a few dozen masked youth were setting up barricades and blocking streets. Their first action was to cut the electricity to some of the lights at the intersection. After blocking traffic for about twenty minutes, the National Guard (GNB) arrived. The protestors immediately retreated a few blocks. The GNB subsequently also stood down, and the protestors briefly pursued, throwing rocks and bottles. Clearly, these protestors were the ones starting the physical violence.
Two minutes later the GNB pushed back, taking up positions at the intersection. A standoff followed for the next forty-five minutes or so before I left, with about one block between the two sides. The GNB never advanced from their positions. Neither did the protestors, except to get within throwing range of the GNB and to quickly retreat.
The GNB used tear gas from their positions while the protestors used noise making explosives, rocks, Molotov cocktails, their own tear gas, as well as empty bottles and marbles shot from slingshots and, one observer told me, homemade launchers. Neither side seemed to use guns. I was standing with the observing crowd, tear gas reached their side sometimes. I also had the good fortune of being very lightly struck by one marble on the leg and now have a physical proof that the "peaceful protestors" are not actually peaceful. Given the violent nature of the protests, I saw no disproportional use of force from the GNB. Apparently protests in some other areas are more violent.
Close to 200 anti-Chavistas were watched with me from the other side of the intersection. They cheered on the protestors, singing and shouting chants at the GNB. Favorites included "Vaya al barrio con tu madre" (ie. Go to the ghetto with your mother, or go back to the marginal place where you and your mother are from) reflecting the class hatred of the middle and upper class crowd. They also shouted-out variety of anti-Cuban chants, reflecting the level of anti-Cuba paranoia among the opposition.
Next to the intersection is the building of the Ministry of Popular Power for Land Transport. This building had many broken windows and some burn marks from molotov cocktails. The Ministry took a few very minor hits at the protest I saw, but almost all damage was from previous days.
When objects began to be launched from my side of the intersection, the GNB rushed over and dispersed the on looking crowed, who had previously been on the sidelines of the action. We were ordered back a few blocks and I saw one guardsman grab onto man but I saw no excessive force used. I returned to the downtown Caracas area of Sabana Grande after this.
Apparently at this is a daily occurrence at this intersection for the last month. As one observer told me, people come here if they want to enjoy themselves and see a bit of a show.
All white action
A couple of days later, on Monday, March 18 I took a walk to another area of Chacao, Altamira, where in an effort to end the violent barricades, 60 people had been arrested a couple days before.
Almost all of the arrested in Venezuela have been released very quickly. Upon exiting the Altamire metro station I immediately encountered a peaceful opposition protest. Two things struck me rapidly.
One was that everyone was dressed in white. The other was that the skin color almost matched the shirts themselves. I had noted an increase in the number of people with a lighter skin tone at the first protest that I saw in Chacao. However, in Altamire one could be forgiven for almost thinking they were in an entirely different country. This was my first experience in Latin America where I actually looked like I was a member of the community. And by misfortune, I happened to be wearing a white shirt as well!
Early that morning 1000 GNB had been deployed in Chacao to end the guarimbas (barricades). They were heavily present in this plaza in Altamira and in the area around as well but made no interference in the protest as those in white shirts made large lines and circles by joining hands. This follows the consistent theme from what my eyes have scene, where truly peaceful protestors have been left alone.
Leaving Altamire, I walked to the sight of the first Chacao protest that I saw. Here I witnessed a similar scene. The GNB was deployed and a much smaller group of protestors in white were holding signs at the intersection, though not blocking it.
For me the strangest part of it all may be the preponderance of the leftist symbols and slogans I keep seeing. I have twice heard the classic leftist chant "El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido" (the people united will never be defeated) chanted at opposition gatherings, here in Chacao and once in Tachira.
I have also seen a few Guy Fox masks among the protestors. Unused to having to struggle for anything and unable to come up with enough original forms of expression, it appears to me that the right has simply adopted a number of classic leftist slogans.
In reality, the majority of deaths in the country have come from collisions with opposition barricades by motorists and people being shot deconstructing the barricades. One more death of a National Guard was added to the toll the other day. In the few cases where government security forces have been implicated, investigations are underway and many arrests have already been made.
As I wrote about before, the head of the secret intelligence agency SEBIN has also been sacked in relation to two deaths on February 12.
I photographed two large murals in Caracas for SOS Venezuela, which is an international anti-Chavista movement, formed during the last 5 weeks of riots and protests. As my photos show, the names of most of the dead from the clashes are listed, with the implication clearly that all are from government or at least pro-government forces.
These murals even contain many names of people shot by opposition members, people who crashed into the opposition barricades in vehicles, two motorists who died having their throats sliced by barbed wire intentionally placed a neck height at the barricades and some who died in other ways not related to government security forces. A comparison of my photo with this Venezuelanalysis.com article detailing the deaths specifically is revealing.
In one more example of appropriation of leftist vocabulary by the right, below the mural, on the sidewalk, there is painted a line of famous revolutionary Venezuelan folk singer Ali Primera, "Los que mueren por la vida no pueden llamarse muertos." Meaning, those that die for life can not be called dead.
But even the most fervent anti-Chavistas I meet are divided over whether these protests should be allowed to continue. In fact, a majority of anti-Chavistas whom I have spoken with actually have said the riots have gone on too long, they are annoyed with the barricades and that the protests are directionless -- though they do support protests against the government in other forms and very often would like a coup detat (which they also acknowledge as something that almost certainly wont happen).
Antoine St Marie is an activist with the Kamloops Socialist club. In late December last year he traveled to Ecuador as part of the pan-Canadian delegation to the 18th World Festival of Youth and Students and has been traveling in Latin America since then. He is looking forward to writing in more depth when he gets home. Thanks to Bario Nuevo who helped with translation and explanation of the sexist chant slogan.