Saturday, February 22, 2014

Venezuela is Burning

Mucuchies, Mérida, Venezuela (March 18, 2006)

Venezuela has some of the best beaches in the whole Caribbean sea, as well as outer-worldly island-mountains surrounded by the greenest rainforest. It is in the Andes in the west of the country, however, where I feel more at ease. Maybe because I came from a mountain region myself, and there is an affinity of character that comes with geography. Gente di montagna, as we say in Italy.

Mayli's family also comes from the mountains. Her grandfather was born in Santa Lucia de Mucuchies, the "Place of the Moon" in the ancient language of the indigenous people living in the area. Mucuchies is a small town at 3,000 meters elevation along the carrettera del Páramo, the road that from Mérida de los Andes leads to the vast plains in the east after crossing high mountain passes. From Mérida is Mayli's grandmother, of the family that 150 years ago gave the city its most famous historian, chronicler of the disappearing ways of the Andes and collector of indigenous tales and legends. The same scholar that refused to serve in the government of the caudillo of his times, because he didn't want to have anything to do with tyranny. The Andean region is centered on the states of Mérida, Táchira and Trujillo, and provides the western border of the country with Colombia. It is also the center of the current revolt against the government in Caracas.

The revolt was sparked in San Cristobal, the capital of Táchira, when a young woman was raped in the campus of the local university. The students protested, as that was just the latest episode of a growing insecurity that is affecting everybody in the country. Students protests have always been common in Venezuela: the students take the streets, burn tires and block the traffic, throw rocks and incendiary bottles at the police, which responds with fire hydrants and tear gas. After a few hours both sides are satisfied to have made their point, and go home for dinner. I have seen that happening many times since I first visited the country: this is the Venezuelan equivalent of a peaceful protest. What was different this time was the reaction of the security forces: the students were rounded up, some arrested, abused and transported to a prison in a different state. This was unprecedented and generated more protests. It was the spark that ignited the rage in the general population of the andean region.

The Andes give way to the Llanos
The population of the Venezuelan Andes has a reputation for being quiet. Mérida is seen as an intellectual center, a city of culture and studies, and revolts in Venezuela do not usually start in the Andes. The situation this time was however ripe to explode. Years of economic anarchy in the country, triggered by ill advised government policies and widespread corruption, have driven to the ground internal production and raised insurmountable obstacles to the import of foreign goods.  This has led to the scarcity of essential products, including basic food and everyday items. This scarcity has been felt mostly in the andean region, the border with Colombia, where the government has further restricted shipments of goods in the fear that they would be smuggled to the other side of the border. Furthermore, the government knows well that scarcity in Caracas would mean a much bigger problem that in the smaller towns in the countryside: the province has been suffering to keep the capital well fed. You can still find, for example, toilet paper in Caracas; an item that in the Andes has disappeared since months. Mayli's father, that lives in the capital, tried to ship a few rolls outside the city: the shipment was refused by all postal couriers, under government decree. The student protests, first in San Cristobal, in Mérida next, found fertile ground in the exasperation of a general population that felt forgotten by a central government seen as distant, incompetent and corrupt. This brought the people to the street, joining the student protests, and inviting an even stronger reaction by the security forces (with national guard units, and their tanks, sent to San Cristobal to quell the revolt).

Is this a repeat of the 2002 coup attempts, during which a coalition of the financial elites, the Church and foreign agencies (the CIA) tried (and almost succeeded) to topple the Chavez government and install a neoliberal dictatorship? It is not. For once, today's protests have penetrated the Venezuelan society deeper into lower income strata. The insecurity, criminality and shortages that the government in Caracas is unable to address are affecting everybody, especially the population of the slums, which cannot pay security guards to keep away the bands of thugs that are terrorizing the population, unchecked. This has dramatically cut the chavista support even in its traditional, hard-core constituents: the government is well aware of this issue, and this could explain the unusually strong response to the protests, aimed to nip them in the bud. At the time of the 2002 pre-coup opposition marches, the division between opposition and government supporters was much more clear, along the line of income and ethnic background (even in a country that prides itself as the idealized melting pot, economic class is still strongly correlated with the amount of skin pigmentation). This line is blurred in today's protests, as the unrest is propagating to poor neighborhoods in Caracas that are suffering levels of chronic street violence much worse than the andean cities.

The second difference with the events in 2002 is that the current protests started spontaneously, and were joined only later by some opposition leaders. The arrest of Leopoldo Lopez that gave himself up to the police, surrounded by the sea of his supporters in Caracas' central square, has been widely shown by the international media. Lopez however joined the protests only after the streets of San Cristobal were on fire, and his very public arrest was an ill-advised move by a government that gains nothing by creating martyrs in the opposition side. The 2002 marches were called by a much stronger and organized opposition that could count on powerful privately-owned media and entrenched allies in the security forces and the army. Nothing of this is still true today: the opposition parties have lost all political power and are divided; the armed forces have been purged; the private media have been closed down or otherwise neutralized.

The last difference is that the government has been preparing for years to avoid a repeat of the 2002 coup. The government has been quietly arming bands of supporters organized in paramilitary units that enjoy almost sovereign power in areas of the Venezuelan cities where the police and national guard would never dare to set foot. Colectivos, motorizados, tupamaros, they have different names but one common characteristic: they control their urban territory with the brute force of gang violence.  Since the beginning of the anti-government demonstrations these hordes have been unleashed to quell the protests. They attack middle-class neighborhoods at night, enter their buildings setting apartments on fire and smashing the cars parked in their garages. They have established a reign of terror aimed to suppress the will of the protesters. This is happening while the national guard stands by, or helps by shooting tear gas canisters through the windows of private apartments. Despite all this, the protests continue. As a former chavista supporter, of working class extraction, declared to The Guardian in the article linked above, "I am scared, but I am also scared of violence on a daily basis" (he said referring to the multiple robberies he has suffered), and "I am sick of not imagining a better future".

As the public's attention is focused on another tragedy unfolding half a world apart in Ukraine, Venezuela is burning. I am not referring to the fires lit by the demonstrators, or the middle-class apartments set ablaze by the tupamaros. I am referring to the internal hate that is consuming the soul of a divided people. Venezuela today's demonstrators are fed up by the level of degradation in the society, the bread lines and the constant brownouts, and more importantly by an ever rising level of insecurity that makes you risk your life every time you dare to set foot in the street. Government supporters still believe in Chavez promises and are ready to defend at all costs the real gains in their standard of life that resulted from the "bolivarian revolution" social policies. Each side is blind to the reasons of their opponents, and doesn't acknowledge that the problems of a country so divided could only be solved through dialog. It is not going to end well.

Valencia, Venezuela (December 30, 2007)

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