Fear and Loathing in Mérida

Barricadas 1
The route of our reader’s walking tour, marked out in red.

While attention centers on the protests in San Cristóbal, few have stopped to notice that other Andean cities have seen similar, if perhaps not quite as extensive, protest movements. Here, longtime reader Reinaldo Chacón sends us his first-hand account of the situation in Mérida, Venezuela’s original Andean college town. 

Just recently, I decided to go see the barricades on Avenida Cardenal Quintero in Mérida, the town I’ve called home for eight years. As I set out, in my mind’s eye I’m picturing a couple of streets shut down, with some obstacles to stop cars and slow down motorcycles. But as I get there, along with two friends, I see my imagination has fallen far short.

What I see, instead, is a chaotic tangle of debris, wires, pipes, wood and old furniture all cobbled into a kind of structure, holding up metal sheets almost two and a quarter meters high with anti-government slogans scrawled across them.

This first big barricade conceals a series of obstacles spaced every twenty or thirty meters. You see bus stops toppled flat on their side to provide some sort of cover. You see partially burned piles of garbage with clouds of flies and maggots crawling all over them. You see metal wire strung across the street to stop motorcyclists, sometimes to deadly effect. You see burnt logs, piles of rubble, a half-buried pay-phone booth. And you see people guarding the entrance to the barricade. I can’t help but wonder if they’ve become anosmic from all the tear gas; the fumes coming the rotting garbage almost are making me gag.

Watching our steps, careful not to step on a forgotten caltrap – a sharp spike driven into the pavement to puncture oncoming tires – I notice most neighbors have boarded up the lower-story windows. The ones that neglected to do this have all had the windows broken.

Every corner is guarded by youngsters. I don’t believe the oldest one is a day over twenty. They look us up and down and decide to talk to us. They seem nervous at first but after a little chit chat they grow confident and we started asking questions: “Why do you built the barricades in the first place?”, “Why don’t you call the authorities?”, “How often have the colectivos been coming?”, “how many of them?”, “at what time?”, “what do you do when that happens?”, “where do you rest?”, “how do you eat?”, “how long do you plan to stay here”?

They tell us armed men on motorbikes come almost every night between midnight and dawn, in groups of five to ten bikes with two guys each, firing pellets and sometimes real bullets. They say it was only when they saw the security forces protecting them, launching tear gas into their communities and breaking down gates, that they started to build these barricades.

They say they try to sleep during day, but it’s hard to rest when you know the colectivos could come back at any time. It’s all so unpredictable. Sometimes they show up four times a day, sometimes five days pass with no sign of them. They don’t attack everywhere at once. One time they went to El Campito four days in a row, then didn’t show up at all for the next five days. Over this last week, the fights during the daytime have become more intense, because the government is trying to clear the blocks. They managed to get rid of one in an area known as Campo Claro.

The community has the catering all worked out, which seems to please them.  I’ve seen them munch “sanguchitos” for breakfast, pasta with tomato sauce for lunch. In El Rodeo one of the middle aged ladies helping organize the barricades told us how they’re set up to deliver breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late night snack. Sometimes the community sets up to make a “sancocho”, a big soup, to give out. Communal soup kitchens in the heart of the anti-chavista heartland? We kept hearing stories with odd chavistoid overtones like this one.

And they say they will stay here as long as it takes.

They describe the road-blocks in purely defensive terms, saying they’re doing it to protect themselves and repel the colectivos any way they can.They say that may mean using slingshots, or molotov cocktails, or throwing rocks. They don’t say anything about guns, but then, just last night, a woman who was apparently trying to undo one of the barricades was shot dead on Avenida Los Próceres.

Our walk continues through several of Mérida’s middle class residential areas, all near downtown: El Campito, Los Sauzáles, El Rodeo, Independencia, Monseñor Chacón. Avenida Las Américas, the main thoroughfare that connects these places, is closed to traffic. In total, we see almost 5 kilometers of roads shut by barricades. They all look the same, everywhere you get that  same nervy, anxious energy.

On Avenida Las Américas the silence is stunning. Imagine a normally bustling 4-lane main artery gone totally silent. We hear the birds, the crackling of glass under our feet, our own voices and almost nothing else.

The communities behind the barricades are busy organizing themselves, adjusting their daily routines to the situation. Some of them have set up schedules for using natural gas, some of them shut the pedestrian traffic at night. They’re watching all the time and they’re also communicating constantly. As we arrive at El Campito we talk to the guy in charge of the barricade. Almost the first thing he says to us is: “bueno, since you were in Cardenal Quintero, we knew you were around and would be coming here…”

Some tell us that almost everybody in the community is in favor of the barricades, that the whole situation has brought the community closer. There are exceptions, of course. The kids relate arguments they’ve had with neighbors who oppose the barricades – some of them pro-government, others anti – discussions that generally end with: “You want us to lift up the barricade? Fine, but if the colectivos come here to smash up your car, shoot at your windows and vandalize the buildings, who are you are going to call. The police? The police come here with them!”

They also tell us that not all of the kids tending the barricades are from these middle class neighborhoods. Some come from poor communities, barrios, where they can’t speak up so easily because any neighbor could be a member of a colectivo. For opposition-minded barrio kids, helping with a guarimba in an urbanización is the only way to protest (relatively) safely.

Speaking of guarimbas, the guys on the front-line despise the word. They don’t like people calling them guarimberos. They say that guarimba is when people put up roadblocks in the middle of the night and leave, which is just annoying. They see their barricades as a defensive tactic, and they aren’t leaving them unmanned: they are showing their faces. This was a point made emphatically, I think, because they see guarimba as a criminal activity that has little in common with what they understand themselves to be doing: exercising a right to self-defense.

By the end of this walking tour, we’re exhausted, physically and psychologically. And it was just one day. I’m a barricade tourist, at best. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live this for ten days, as they’ve been doing. Some of the young men and women guarding the barricades are sleeping outside, on large pieces cardboard. They spend their days just waiting to see what’ll happen next.

What’s strange is the sense that these radically anti-chavista communities are organizing into something that looks oddly like…comunas. They are organized with one or several leaders that make the key decisions, they barter with other communities, they share their foods, their medicines, the masons repair what they can, the welders help shore up the defenses, the doctors tend to the wounded. No money changes hand for any of this.  It’s the apogee of la economía del trueque.

In Mérida, the residents of these communities don’t trust politicians, they trust each other. People told us if Leopoldo López is released from jail and tries to call off the barricades, they won’t listen. The grievances they had that led them into this whole mess are all still there: inflation, shortages, corruption, crime, tanking purchasing power, media censorship, etc.

“We’re sick of it: every time we try to protest, the government sends out the tupamaros“, “We don’t have to ask for permission to exercise our rights”, “The constitution allows us to exercise the right to defend ourselves”, we hear these lines again and again.

Do they like the government? Not one bit. But if there’s one thing I understood on my walking tour of Mérida’s barricades is that, in their mind, this is not a protest. If these barricades annoy the government, good, but that’s not what they’re here for.

They’re a response to the attacks of the colectivos and the total lack of protection from the state. In their mind, if they’re doing what they’re doing it’s because they feel they have no alternative. They are protecting themselves.

With that, I leave with a selection of YouTube videos showing what Mérida’s running battles have come to look like:

First, this video produced by Mérida-based webzine Actualidad y Gente gives a bit more of the look and feel of the barricades:

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This one gives you a sense of what Avenida Las Americas has become:

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This one is from Avenida Los Próceres, which was not on our walking tour:

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Here we see the National Guard in action in El Campito:

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This one is from neighboring Ejido, which is sort of like Mérida’s Guarenas.

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