A reader who prefers not to be named sends in this first-hand account of yesterday’s march-and-melée at the UCV Campus.
It began with the usual confusion about the starting point and route; uncertainty has become a mainstay in recent weeks of street mobilizations. Sophisticated production and days-in-advance mass publicity for these events are a thing of the past: there is no time or money to build tarimas or rent audio equipment. Instead, we run on tactically-convened, stripped-down, home-made rallies that tend to change at the last-minute.
Art. 43 of the Law on Political Parties, Public Meetings and Protests clearly states that every resident of this Republic has the right to free assembly, and need only notify the municipal authorities of plans to hold a public gathering, 24 hours prior to said event. To notify, as you may have gathered, is quite different from to ask for permission, which is why, on the one-month anniversary of the fateful march that claimed three lives and left dozens wounded, the students of Caracas once again called on civil society to take the streets and march to the Ombudswoman’s office, calling for her resignation.
From the start, the rumors were flying:
“Maduro says we can’t go through Plaza Venezuela,” “The chavistas just announced a gathering in Plaza Brion.” “Someone told me they shut down the subway system”
This march had a definite tone of somber defiance about it. “We will get through,” was the general feeling.
Around 11 a.m. we began walking through the very alternate and not-at-all-direct route that would eventually take us to the Defensoría del Pueblo: posted along the way, students with walkie talkies and megaphones led us from Bello Monte to Los Chaguaramos, and through the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV), a legendary bastion of youthful rebellion.
About halfway through the UCV, the march came to a halt. “We have been blocked by the riot squad,” informed a student who was rallying information from the frontlines. “We are negotiating with the police chief, and we will continue our trajectory. Please sit and wait, we will be let through.”
While protesters waited, I decided to make my way to the heavily fortified blockade. The cast of characters changes as you make your way up to the front of the crowd: senior citizens, housewives and students clad in white and bearing flags give way to more war-weary types, sporting home-made anti-tear gas paraphernalia like breathing gear made of snorkels and facemasks fashioned from plastic bottles.
Backpacks held inside a treasure trove of antidotes for tear-gas effects: handkerchiefs soaked in vinegar, spraybottles containing a Maalox solution, gardening gloves for flinging back the canisters. None of which seemed necessary at this point, since the confrontation between students and security forces was limited to exchanging words.
“You know full well that our cause is just and that we have a right to walk these streets,” said a young girl to a policeman behind his thick plexiglass shield, one of about 400 who formed a human barricade spread in front of 7 armored riot light tanks ( rinocerontes, in protest-speak) and a water cannon (ballena, for the uninitiated).
Student organizers were doing a great job of keeping the resistance peaceful. The call was for us to stay there until we were let through, and so we did. Notes of the National Anthem were being sung.
And then, in slow motion, I saw the perfect arc, the perfect parabola, of a glass bottle gliding through the air. For a microsecond, time seemed suspended, as the object gracefully made its way against el Ávila and the gleaming Caracas sun, into the sea of helmets and shields.
It’s over. Forget being let through.
In an instant, tear gas canisters are raining from the sky, bursts of water gushed from the cannon.
What ensued was a violent pas-de-deux between riot forces and students, a somewhat pointless but relentless back-and-forth in which carefully-dosed repression was met with a brief retreat, and a just as brief regrouping of student resistance. Engulfed in a stinging cloud of bitter gas, students would run, heaving and wheezing, into the campus and lie facedown on the ground to catch their breath, while others relieved their shift, tossing back the canisters that were being fired at us. At any given time, there was an active guard of students, protecting those that were behind, on campus.
Everyone on this side of the fight was immediately a brother. “Maalox! Quién tiene Maalox!” shouted a medical student, blinded by tears. Immediately, dozens of protesters came to his aid, offering sprays of the soothing solution, as well as advice hard earned through experience (don’t breathe through your mouth, it makes the pain worse). Several shields were snatched from riot police, and carried back to campus as trophies among cheering students.
Daring press photographers on the roof of the UCV entrance made a haunting silhouette against the gray gas haze, it seemed as though the riot police were playing tear-gas target practice with these unfortunate bystanders. One was knocked down before my eyes. A fire broke out close by.
There was a method behind this apparent chaos. As I stumbled about sightless, after a canister whizzed by my face, I ran into a production line of sorts: students had a quarry of concrete slabs, which others smashed into smaller pieces and proceeded to meticulously heap into communal rock arsenals. Others gathered trash and debris and formed makeshift shelters for the active throwers.
Still indignant about not being allowed to march, and fascinated as I was by the battleground around me, I realized that this was no longer my arena to fight in, so I began to leave. But as I neared the exit, along with the large crowd of protesters that was not involved in combat, colectivos on motorcycles and red hoods poured into the UCV Campus – a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lest we forget – and started chasing students, who fled in terror from their sticks and bats. I did not hang around long enough to witness the outcome of this siege, but I can attest to the fear and helplessness that we all felt while watching these goons frighten and hurt with impunity.
To say that the students defending themselves were not, at times, violent, would be a disservice to truth. Yes, thy threw rocks, yes they burned trash, and yes, some asshole hurled a bottle that started this whole mess today. But it is also true that the government, in their shameless strategy of denying our legitimate rights to protest, revels in provoking violence by stoking this very frustration. It remains to be seen what runs out first: the citizens’ will to take back the streets, or the canisters of tear gas that, uniquely these days, never seem to run into supply shortages.