Semana Santa, along with Carnavales, Christmas vacation, Indigenous Resistance Day and any other holiday that does not fall on a Wednesday and can therefore become part of a puente, are all venerated occasions for packing your coolers full of rum, calling up your fellows-in-suffering and getting the fuck out of Caracas for much needed respite at the beach.
Not that there is much difference between the two: beaches in high season are as crowded, noisy, and dirty as a weekday afternoon on Avenida Baralt. Just trying to get to one means spending the better part of a day in traffic, occasionally bribing the National Police at security checkpoints just because they feel like making extra cash. But yes, we’re that desperate: chaos-by-the-sea feels like a refuge from chaos, period.
Now, I work in political campaigns. There have been several of these a year for the past…several years. So it’s been a while since I spent Semana Santa as a proper vacationer. Most normal people, however, welcome the chance to escape from the political vortex that is daily life in Venezuela.
Let’s now add escapism to the growing list of luxuries we can’t afford.
The last time I went to the beach it was as a volunteer for the State of Miranda’s Carnaval 2009 plan. Capriles had just been sworn in as governor, taking over from Diosdado Cabello, so it was deemed absolutely crucial to his credibility as a proper authority figure and administrator that his first 100 days of government matched all the populist gimmicks the former had pioneered during his time in office, including the Holiday plans.
I arrived at Caño Copey, in Barlovento, the Saturday morning of the 4-day Carnaval weekend. A gobernación advance team had already been working on the field for days setting up first-aid tents and lifeguard stations, building stages, testing sound systems, and securing what would be our makeshift center of operations: a cinderblock and zinc-roof shack right on the shore, rented out for the week, which functioned as sleeping quarters for volunteers, a stockroom for materials, a conference room for morning briefings with gobernación and national guard officials, an empanada de cazón stand, and a cooling station for shade-seeking stray dogs.
I was furnished with a very official-looking Gobernación de Miranda shirt and a box full of crap-quality promotional swag to give away to beachgoers: Visors, waterbottles, fannypacks, keychains, hats, balls, t-shirts…all stamped with the new Gobernación de Miranda logo. As I made my way to the giant stage blaring reggaeton as part of the scheduled 11 a.m. dance contest, a large-bellied shirtless man holding a bottle of Polar beer stopped me:
“Mira, Capriles va a poner perros calientes gratis? Porque el año pasado Diosdado nos puso carritos de perros calientes, y bueno, tú sabes, donde están los perros este año?”
I told him I’d get back to him on that (and later found out that no, there were no free hot dogs this year but that the gobernación did plan on giving away fried fish). The whole 5 km. stretch of beach had not one single trash can that I could find, but tons of lebranche frito.
Clambering onto the stage, I gazed at the sight below. It was garish. A frenzied sea of pushes, shoves, arms reaching out to grab anything, screams of Aqui! Aqui! coming from all directions.
Somebody said to throw the t-shirts, hats and other goodies to the crowd, except the box of stuff was ripped from my arms by the mob of people who really wanted their free fannypacks. I saw a muscular dude knock down an older lady while trying to catch a flying bandanna, nevermind he’d already collected three, which he was visibly hoarding under his arm. Señor! Ya usted tiene tres, dele chance a los demás! No, mami, a mi no me han dado todavía! he yelled while bobbing up and down among the sweaty jam of faces.
I gave up after just 5 or 6 minutes. It just felt wrong and unscrupulous and I had to retreat to our shack to cry a little bit.
Not to be outdone, the National Government deploys its annual Plan Nacional de Recreación para Vivir Bien every easter. Under the premise that recreational activities serve as far safer alternatives to getting drunk and killing people, the Bolivarian Government hires over 6,000 organizers to lead 1,8 million beachgoers in bailoterapia sessions, volleyball matches, musical performances, group yoga, and all sorts of fun-in-the-sun games along the nation’s coasts. Invasive, to say the least.
This is all put forward under the guise of fighting crime as part of the Misión a Toda Vida Venezuela. Well, not only that: according to Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, the recreational agenda is “part of the strategic policy of our State, where the government plans out Venezuela people’s free time.” Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the volleyball nets are red, that organizers wear Maduro campaign gear, and that the PSUV party sponsors concerts at the beach, as well as free buses to drive you there.
And, who knows? Maybe there really are some people out there who might shoot you if the government didn’t distract them with mass bailoterapia instead. And maybe some beach-lovers like their easter laced with politics. But let’s not pretend the institutionalization of these Semana Santa plans is anything other than what it is: symptoms of petropopulism in its terminal, metastatic stage.