Venezuela: a novel (part 2)

“Héroes de la Libertad”, by Oscar Olivares. Each one of the people drawn in this illustration was killed in a protest. Since the painting was presented (on July 15, 2017), that number has more than doubled.

Links are in English unless noted with an (*).

You don’t need to, but if you wish, please read part 1.

Uncertainty is even worse to deal with when you have a full-blown allergy attack. Last night, I went to bed having spent an afternoon sneezing my head off. Before I go to bed, I stare into the bathroom mirror at a pale, raccoon-faced clown, my nose an angry red not unlike that of a much-hated red beret that has been simultaneously absent and omnipresent the last 100 days. As if on cue, I slam into the latest sneezefest, firing up eight consecutive blasts in a few seconds, the next to last one so strong that it briefly cuts off my breath.

My aunt, with whom I’ve lived for the past three-and-a-half years since my divorce, looks at me with concern from her bedroom door. She was also getting ready to bed and coming to say good night. “Ay mijo”, she says. “You’re getting better”. Even in the face of mucus-filled chaos, there is a chance for sass. I grin, and hug her good night.

As I turn off the light, I stare one last time, like Lot’s wife, to my computer screen. It’s, of course, open to Twitter. Tweetdeck, to be more specific. Gotta catch everything at a glance. And I glance at uncertainty. I read for two minutes before I realize how masochistic I’m being. What a way to go to bed.

Or wake up, for that matter. I’m one of those chums who open two things almost simultaneously when I wake up: my eyes and my email. The very first story in the Daily Brief, Quartz’s newsletter of the day’s most important news, opens with this cheerful bit: “Venezuela does away with democracy”. It leads with a link to NPR’s story about Sunday’s election for a National Constituent Assembly, a Government project that, to put it bluntly, seeks to screw it tightly onto power. Never mind that for the last 110 days there have been near constant protests against it, that have cost over one hundred lives (depending on who you ask), most of them kids between 16 and 20 years old; not even a dog could be spared of National Guard brutality. Never mind that even among traditionally pro-government areas of the country, the project is widely rejected, as proven by a July 16th referendum organized by the Democratic Unity Table (MUD in Spanish), the coalition of opposition parties, organized in less than fifteen days, where over seven million of us said we don’t want the damn thing. Never mind reports of internal strife within the government, augmented by sanctions the Trump administration slapped on 13 major Venezuelan officials, in the face of such wide rejection

Never mind all that. The government is determined to plow ahead with its infernal plans. Especially, its most radical wing, which are the ones with the most to lose if Maduro leaves the Presidency. And Venezuelans will suffer.

Four years ago, there were similar protests against a budding Nicolás Maduro administration. I read what I wrote back then with a mixture of wonder and depression; it’s like I wrote it last night. Things have simply gotten worse, but they haven’t changed that much. The dead are far more, compared to “just” 43 back then. But the rhetoric on both sides is the same. Average Venezuelans are snapping at each other almost constantly, over how to protest, over what to protest, whether we should even bother to protest at all.

To be in a WhatsApp group here can be a nightmare. New York-based Venezuelan comedian Johanna Hausmann made this perfectly clear in one of her hilarious YouTube videos in 2015. You got your cousins, your friends, your immediate family, your family’s family, your neighbors, your friend’s neighbors and, in my case, a group that I never understood how the fuck I got to it. But these days, the laughter has slowly been silenced. Except for three of the ten groups I’m in, all I read is hatred and fear. Two people got into this lovely exchange just last night:

— How are we supposed to get by if the MUD keeps ordering protests? How am I going to buy food, go to work?

— Where the fuck have you been for the last 100 days? Find food? Work??? Do you KNOW what will happen on Sunday? There will be DICTATORSHIP, man!

— Tell that to my kids, who haven’t left their houses in three days.

— Some kids step outside and are shot.

They’re both right, unfortunately. But more on that later.

Back on Twitter, you don’t read despair, you see anger. One of the opposition mayors in Caracas rejected a brutal National Guard attack(*) on Terrazas del Ávila, a suburb in eastern Caracas, that left six wounded, including a 13-year-old boy. The responses to his tweet disgust and frighten me. From the government side:

  • What, no calls for the streets? Suck it up”.
  • Speak the truth you asshole, it’s not repression, it’s imposing order, enough sabotage, death and destruction, that’s why the Constituent goes ahead”.
  • Suck it”.

From the opposition side:

  • No, mayor, we need to go out shooting”.
  • Traitor! You’re part of the government opposition that’s negotiating with (former Spanish president José Luis Rodríguez) Zapatero and the narcodictatorship!” (Zapatero is part of a group of former presidents designated by Mercosur and Unasur to try and negotiate peace, but he has been seen as a bit too much on the government’s side, not to mention last time he was here the referendum against Maduro was suspended, so the opposition doesn’t really trust him*.)
  • You faggot, we want no dialogue here, we want to defeat the dictatorship and you’re there like a cooperating toad wanting to negotiate. You fucking toad, you witch”.

I felt that hatred myself last week. The refrigerator was empty, and my aunt was not feeling well, due to an infection. She has a pacemaker and whole throng of other ills. I’m basically all she has; her son and daughter live in the US, and send us basic goods (until the Government forbade that, too, thank you, although the National Guard was stealing the boxes that arrived, anyway). She needed to take some blood tests to rule out anything serious; last time she had an infection it was because of a bacteria lodged on the wires of her pacemaker. It was a truly delicate operation to replace it; she had a 30% chance of not making it. Read that again: my aunt, my second mother, had a three-in-ten chance of not waking up from the operating table. So she was understandably scared. That day there were no calls for protests, but people decided to protest anyway. And they built these abnormally huge blockades, making it impossible to leave.

I live in a suburb half an hour away from the highway. There is a slum about ten minutes away, but it’s mostly opposition. Blockades (now called “trancazos”) for what, I ask? I have forever opposed that form of protest. It’s only good when there is an open attack on the community, so I justify it on places like Terrazas del Ávila. But here? I tweeted out my fury: “To those who are blocking Manzanares, not letting anyone reach the supermarket or anything: when the government falls, it’ll be in spite of you, not thanks to you”.

A couple of seconds later, amidst a few likes and retweets, plus the expected asshole comments, I get a response, which I won’t link to (I would have that day, I was so pissed off). “Let Maduro fall, but don’t touch my little patch of land? Oh how nice! A ‘trancazo’ is a ‘trancazo’! Suck it up!” This coming from a supposed friend. I snapped back: “What am I supposed to tell my 78-year-old aunt that needs to have some tests taken and has an empty fridge?” My friend took a while to answer back, maybe reconsidering what had been said. “This is supposed to be until 4 pm. Be patient”. I left it at that; it wasn't her fault anyway.

Mostly I think that these “trancazos” are people desperate to let out steam. We have plenty of reasons to be angry. Hell, to be fucking pissed off beyond all reason. For over a year, it’s common to see whole families digging through trash searching for food. When I took my aunt to a doctor’s appointment last Tuesday, there was a cue in front of a tiny supermarket a block long, with National Police standing like the goons they are making sure no one breaks order. Many people die because they can’t find medicines. Many newly born babies die because of poor medical conditions, making infant mortality rates rise to 30%; the government fired the last Health Minister when she made these statistics known. Human Rights Watch paints a crisp and brutally clear picture.

Oh but the government thinks it’s a conspiracy aimed at taking over the oil resources. Well, fuck you.

And then there are these reasons to be summarily furious. (Warning: Graphic images.)

She’s 17. And all she was doing was protesting. She was later released, requiring seven stitches. (Credit: Alfredo González)
That white cloth under the wheels? That’s an 18-year-old kid. He miraculously survived. (Credit: Donaldo Barros)
That day, a 17-year-old was killed by a gunshot. This time, we know where it came from. (Credit: Christian Veron / Reuters)

And the video that particularly pisses me off the most.

Eight National Guards and three National Policemen beat up a young man in Lechería, in the eastern state of Anzoátegui, with kicks, helmets, shields and billy clubs. To make it worse, he wasn’t even protesting, just walking near one, and has Asperger’s. He was released two days later, badly bruised and even more traumatized.

That anger has had consequences, of course. To name just one incident, maybe the worse one, a retired National Guard lieutenant was lynched(*) in Lara during a memorial for another young man killed in protests, because people thought he was “infiltrated”, taking pictures of people there. Many National Guard tanks have been burned; at least one person has died because someone threw a frozen bottle to the police and landed on their head. Anger gets shit done, certainly, but that shit is not always the best.

So what now?

Well, barring a miracle, and I’ve never stopped believing in those, the election will go on Sunday as scheduled. There will be massive protests from today to then, of course, especially since the government banned any protests from here till Monday and the opposition responded with a resounding “Fuck you”. So there probably be more dead before Sunday. Hell, before dinner tonight.

So, again, what now?

We plow ahead.

People are understandably disheartened. Almost four months of protests, all those dead, all those injured, all those arrested and tried illegally, the Government will get what it wanted. The bad guys won this time, it seems. The Constituent Assembly will do away with the National Assembly, overwhelmingly controlled by the opposition since 2015. It will do away with the Attorney General, who in a wholly unexpected move started opposing the government last may. If they have their way completely, they’ll do away with any opposition. Cuba 2.0.

If they have their way.

There is one piece of text being toiled around in WhatsApp that is one of the few things I have been reading. It calls asking to silence “those apocalyptic voices” that think that after July 30th, Venezuela is done for.

Over seven million people beg to differ.

At this point, one of four things can happen.

  1. Said miracle happens: Maduro decides to withdraw his Constituent, and agrees to go ahead with the scheduled 2017 regional elections to pick state governors and the 2018 presidentials. He, to be extremely colloquial, gets his ass handed to him. This happened in Nicaragua in 1990, when Violeta Chamorro defeated incumbent Daniel Ortega, in a move no one expected. Of course, in this case, Maduro would certainly hope things go exactly like in Nicaragua: in spite of a recovering economy, the opposition governed so badly that Ortega was back in power in 2006, and has been in power unchallenged ever since, because the economy has maintained a high standard. Heck, the International Monetary Fund left Nicaragua in 2016 saying “the job was done”.
  2. Maduro goes ahead with his plan for Sunday, but he is not unchallenged from within. Many of those sanctioned by the United States are generals with assets there — massive assets. It may even include sons and/or daughters studying in top schools (heck, it’s not like it’s a secret). So perhaps one of those generals has enough, and decides to throw a coup. He is succesful, and promises elections in six months, presenting himself as a candidate. Yes, this happened in Egypt, where Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former Minister of Defense, overthrew elected president Mohammed Morsi and became president himself at the next election in 2014. And he has his fans — one in particular — but he has been mostly intolerant of dissent. And before you scoff and think that we’d never elect another military man, after Hugo Chávez: last June, a helicopter piloted by an active police commander threw two grenades to the Supreme Court, and the man is now a national hero to some. Oscar Pérez, who once also acted in a little-seen movie here, occasionally reappears and vows to take actions against the government. Nothing concrete, so far, but who knows.
  3. Maduro goes ahead with his plan, and the United States, the European Union and other countries refuse to recognize anything that comes out of the Constituent, which is illegal on all fronts. We enter a Cuban-style blockade — complete with Russian and Chinese support for us. I think this one is the unlikeliest scenario, mostly because it wouldn’t fare too well on American economy either. But when there’s a guy like Trump in power, who knows.
  4. Maduro goes ahead with his plan, and one of two things happen: either local army commanders rise against him, Libya style, or the opposition starts to act like a parallel government, supported by the fact they have the majority support of the population (remember: more than seven million of a 12-million voting population said we did NOT want this constituent assembly last July 16th). They start asking for recognition, for foreign support, and the one thing the Government has that they don’t: weapons. And it’s all out civil war. And now we truly are fucked. We’re the Syria of South America. And there are already two million Venezuelans worldwide, most of them college-educated and young. Yes, many airlines have left, including Delta and Avianca just yesterday, but people are leaving anyway, be it on foot or boat. Nick Casey’s piece in the New York Times about this exodus chilled me to the bone. His entire coverage here was astounding; no wonder the government banned him out of the country.)

I read back at everything I just wrote. My sinuses have cleared up almost completely, save for the occasional sniffle. It’s an overcast day, an unusually chilly wind blowing into my room. I think of all the plans I had just two years ago, when I fell in love with a woman living in New York after her marriage fell apart. I think of how hopeful I was in 2011, when I married the wrong woman, and in 2013, when I finally moved out of the apartment we shared. I think of all the hope I had in 2008, when I got my degree in journalism. I think of all that, and again watch Tweetdeck and WhatsApp, as people get ready for the protests called for today.

I think of how uncertain the future truly is when you seemingly have nothing guaranteed.

And I especially think of my aunt, with her failing health; my brother, who celebrated his first wedding anniversary last May, to a wonderful, wonderful woman; my parents, whom in spite of their good health are nevertheless starting to show their old age.

I think of the dark clouds casting their shadows over Venezuela.

And I remember: clouds are never permanent. The wind always shifts directions. The Sun invariably shines.

I know — know — that the bad times will pass. Just like they always come around, they invariably always pass.

But Goddamn it… why does it have to take so long?

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