The “Night of Terror” that the Chavistas had been talking big about never happened. Supporters of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been promising to run through Caracas assasinating members of the opposition and blowing up tv stations last night. But they backed off and it seems the OAS had been able to exert some pressure on the embattled Chavez to calm things down a bit. The country is in the grips of a crippling two week old strike and oil production has dropped from 3 million barrels per day to just 200,000. And the populist leader took yet another hit today when more than one million people took to the highways to call for his resignation.
All the way to the horizon on this highway, ringed by lush green mountains with storm clouds overhead and a setting sun, is a stream of waving Venezuelan flags and a rythmic roar of “Fuera!” Out. There’s not a square foot on either side of this six lane highway that isn’t occupied as far as one can see.
The generals, officers and foot soldiers who’ve defected walk on the overpass and are greeted like rockstars. Everywhere they go in Caracas people ask them to autograph flags, photographs and news clippings. But the one who makes the biggest impression on me is someone I photographed from the Coast Guard Auxillary. He seems humbled and overwhelmed.“They call me The Walker,”he says to me. “I walked 150 kilometers from my post in Chababo to join the opposition. It took me more than a day straight.” Someone whispers in my ear that it nearly killed him and he was rushed to a hospital when he arrived at Altimira Plaza last week.
Caracas is alive now with stories, heroes and myths: “The troops where firing on everybody and she held out a rosary. The soldier in front of her stopped firing and she lowered his rifle down by his side!” And, “This one’s son was murdered by a trained killer.” Over there is the president of Globovision, whose offices were destroyed. "Those two are pop stars...wait ‘till the crowd sees them. The girls go crazy!” And...”Everyone was making their way to the cemetary. It was very solemn.” Jorge Para recounts on the funeral of a 17 year old girl gunned down at Altimira plaza.” It was so quiet. Then out of nowhere that man there climbed a tree and played the national anthem on his trumpet. It was very moving!”
Around 9:30 pm security spotted several armed Chavistas moving among the crowds and everyone, amazingly, peacefully and politely dispersed. Can you imagine it? More than a million people!
I started the morning up the street at the internet cafe, whose owners have given me some promises to stay open long and often enough for me to file my pictures. But before I could finish moving pictures of the hundreds of people who wait in line at banks each morning, I hear the news coming from a tv across the room. Crowds of Chavistas and opposition are heading towards each other along the Prado del Este. Each faction had barricaded streets across town and now had the highway to themselves. I grabbed a motocross taxi and headed over.
It was a standoff. The Chavistas, often paid in cash and booze are bused in from around the city and countryside, seemed coiled for a fight. And the opposition, many whose upscale apartments lined the highway felt they had the hometown advantage. Scuffles were breaking out and there was lots of pushing and shoving.
By noon the Chavistas and the opposition start throwing rocks back and forth. That's when the Chacao Police open fire on the crowds with tear gas and shotguns. In minutes the highway is cleared. And from a local photographer I hear that across town there’s bigger news.
Chavez has ordered the federal troops to disregard the Supreme Court. And in Caracas the oppostion leaning local police force is being comandeered by the National Guard. It's about halfway up one of the mountains that ring Caracas and gives a great view. I arrive at the northern end where hundreds of opposition are arriving. There’s a bullhorn reminding everyone that the opposition are here in peaceful protest and that these men and women of the National Guard are only following orders. It starts to look like a non event when suddenly to the south the Chavistas are making their way up the hill.
They’re punching their left fists into their right palms. Chavez is left handed and during his campaign would employ the move and say, “I’ll beat them all!” There’s also the more ominous pistol finger they give the opposition.
Things get really hot really fast. People are shouting and pushing. The National Guard, armed with rifles, automatics, tear gas and swords, take up defensive positions. Some of the Chavistas are trying to break the barricade by driving their cars into the troops. I was moving in on the side of the Chavistas photographing a guy in a red berret who looked like Tyson. Luis is screaming and shaking his fist. “International Prensa?” he asked. The importance of those two words aren’t lost on me.
The media here in Venezuela are completely polarized. With the one state owned television hammering the government line and the rest all running 24 hour a day opposition coverage. The private media’s stance has landed them in trouble on a number of occasions and are now being targeted. The most seroius so far being the shootings of two photographers and the murder of one by federal troops during April’s brief coup. And more recently the destruction of Globovision’s television station here in Caracas.
Victor Bustillo is a barrel chested Chavista organizer who locks me into conversation while people try to push through the line of soldiers. On the verge of hyperventilating he catalougues what he describes as the lies that Venezuelan media were heaping on the Chavistas and the ultra violent paramilitary Bolivian Circles. Riding two to a motorcross bike the Bolivian Circles spread terror in drive by shootings. “But isn’t this true,” I suggest. “Well yes,” he concedes,” but they are defenders of the constitution.” A constitution that any Chavista will glady produce, in pocket size, and begin quoting the relevant passage of conversation.
Ultimately the Chavistas say the man was democratically elected and the constitution must be defended. It's here that the opposition needs to look hard at the massively underwhelming voter turnout. But voter apathy can’t justify the grotesque crimes committed on April 11 when scores were gunned down by Federal troops and when three were slain less than two weeks ago.
As events continued to unfold at the Metro Police station two large vans unload scores of officers armed with weapons they had hidden from the Feds. The National guard balk and flee to the relative safety of a fenced incompound, while negotiations continued into the night.
Out near Simon Bolivar Plaza, on the anniversary of the death of the founder of this country, two people on an opposition march were hit by snipers and hospitalized. But inside the El Cid restaurant there are Christmas lights blinking. “Feliz Navidad” hangs in a crescent across the bar and there is gold and green and red garlands of tinsel hanging from the dark wood walls. It's here that the ringmaster works his magic.
El Pibe’s black mustache is pencil thin like a salsa band leader’s. He has close cut gray hair and is elegant in his late sixties. Tonight he wears a gray suit, black shirt and has a neat maroon handkerchief tucked into his jacket pocket. It's just as he appears on the menu, just below a rendering of El Cid himself, riding high and victorious in battle.
Pibe works the room and is in it for the applause. People shout his name and shake his hand and introduce their wives and cousins and girlfriends, “THIS is El Pibe!” The clientele is middle class and includes many of the opposition’s stars. Like the attorneys from Preimero Justicia.
The dissident military officers at Altimira Plaza rely on Preimero Justicia to make sure their actions are constitutionally sound. Their defections, in fact, are defended by a Venezuelan’s right of civil disobedience, they say. And with unemployment now at 27 percent and climbing Preimero Justicia is also sketching out new economic plans that target the Chavez strongholds, the barrios and slums.
In fact a new proposal would turn a western Caracas slum into a Montemarte of South America. With small business loans plentiful and a host of restaurants, cafes and shopping plazas to be built amongst the neighborhood. A plan that could turn the non taxable subsistence economy of the barrio, they press, into an active member of the city.
Most of the clientele arrive before I get there and stay long after I leave. I decline an offer for coffee and desert. Carlo from my agency Reflex News will call at 11:00 pm to discuss the day and I need to be upstairs. But El Pibe brings me a second glass of tinto vino, and he insists, “On the house.”
“Tu Pamaro Presente!” graffitti covers the walls and storefronts around Simon Bolivar Plaza. This is the home of the feared pro Chavez paramilitary. Some say they are trained and armed by the Chavez government, but it hardly matters. The Tu Pamaro are staunch Bolivarians and will defend Chavez to the end.
Antonio Farias is 28 and dressed in black. “Simon Bolivar rode a horse,” he says.”Now we ride motorcycles.” Like most Chavez supporters, Farrias sees Venezuelan’s problems as a class struggle. A battle of ideology. Farias looks forward to the day when Venezuela will be like Cuba, he says. Farias contends all of Venezuela’s poor, some 80% of this nation’s 24 million, support President Chavez. He rejects the analysis that Chavez has wrecked the economy of the world’s fifth largest oil producer.
Just up the road from Simon Bolivar Plaza is Miraflores, the presidential palace. Surrounded now by tanks and soldiers and some of Caracas’ poorest residents. The families squatting, some 100 meters from Miraflores, in these decaying and collapsing buildings say they are willing to defend the Chavez movement too. Thats why they are allowed to stay in these abondoned buildings free of charge a mother tells me, all the while combing out her daughters hair. “If the opposition marches on Miraflores,” as they plan to do this week, she says, “We will defend it and the opposition’s little party will be over.”