#17M: Altamira in Olive Green

I wake up to the soothing sounds of a chopper; like a giant mosquito that you just can’t swat. Check my phone: Monday, 6:45 am. Insane tweets from...

National Guards cool off with a snow cone.
National Guards cool off with a snow cone.

I wake up to the soothing sounds of a chopper; like a giant mosquito that you just can’t swat. Check my phone: Monday, 6:45 am. Insane tweets from people I’ve been meaning to delete from my timeline warn of a looming suspension of constitutional guarantees. Others, more grounded, point towards the military takeover of Plaza Altamira, the focal point of student barricades (guarimbas) and Playstation-like combat with the National Guard for the past month. At 3:00 a.m. the military took control of Avenida Francisco de Miranda and, with great pride, conquered Altamira.

It’s mid morning and  I can’t resist the temptation to walk down a couple of blocks to Altamira Square and watch the occupation process, or whatever is left of it. As I approach, I notice a tweet. A man went by himself at 9:30 a.m. to protest the military takeover. This guy just showed up, amidst a bunch of government employees, Maduro supportes, and the National Guard, and held a banner that read: #SOSVenezuela.

I get there, and the SOS guy is nowhere to be seen. At the center of the square the National Guard has set up a display of the subversive material used in the protests. Shirts, bottles, barbed wire, light bulbs, hoses, nails, cloth, your regular insurgent army stuff. “A Museum of Violence,” a tall guy with a red shirt calls it.

IMG_20140317_111842As I walk among the National Guard they don’t seem to mind my presence much. Obviously I don’t pose a threat to the heavily equipped Guardsmen (or to the Guardsladies), however, a few feet away, three of them search a high school student’s bookbag. One holds a shotgun, remaining alert and resting his finger just next to the trigger. Meanwhile, an inflatable castle for kids is being set on the north side of the square.

Information Minister Delcy Rodriguez is reporting that public employees of Libertador Municipality —where her brother is Mayor— cleaned up the surroundings of Plaza Altamira. I’m sure the taxpayers of Libertador are happy that their Mayor used public resources to clean up a square on what is already the city’s already cleanest municipality. [Wasn’t a President taken out of office for a similar scheme?]

And yes, there’s Libertador’s cleaning crew, singing the national anthem as they scrub the floor. Another import from downtown Caracas is the good people of Bolivar Square’s Esquina Caliente (Hot Corner). A group of government supporters —from the beginning of the Chavez era— whose only purpose and occupation is to stand on the street praising the revolution and ranting against the opposition. And, of course, there she is, Caperucita herself. A longtime Chávez propaganda agent, Caperucita is an eighty-something-looking woman, with no teeth and died red hair who has been used in several campaigns as a poster girl for the future of Venezuela.

For a couple of hours the (now) madurista ranters have been trying to provoke pedestrians. To me, having spent several years walking by Esquina Caliente day in and day out, this is an all too familiar scene. I just watch. Those who actually engage these people end up frustrated, angry, and surrounded by all 30 of them screaming like crazy: “Chucky! Chucky! Chuck!” Yes, Chucky. The evil doll from your 80’s nightmares. That’s what they call guarimberos. Another insult courtesy of President Maduro.

Other comments spewed by the ranters: “Chucky, look at your face you are a gringa!;” “This is a clash of the classes!;” “Chuckylucky go fuck an ape!;” “Tupamaros are peaceful;” and my personal favorite “You should be humble, like Diosdado Cabello, who is powerful but remains a poor man.” All of them —especially that last one— incendiary comments looking for some sort of violent response.

Ernesto Villegas, the former Information Minister, former government candidate for the Metropolitan Mayor, and current Minister for the Transformation of Caracas (¿?), makes an appearance. He rescues a lady who is being swarmed by the ranters and engages in sincere and courteous dialogue. Cameras and reporters appear from nowhere and immortalize the moment. A guy standing beside me, who identifies himself as a radical opponent to this government —using those words exactly— says: “but que arrecho es Ernesto, this is the type of dialogue that we need.”

Villegas, Caperucita, the ranters of Esquina Caliente, Tupamaros, the National Guard, and inflatable castles. Disneyland for maduristas.

IMG_20140317_124026Lunch break.

It’s 4:30 p.m., around the time when the guarimberos usually takeover and start to skirmish with the military. Instead, a group of Doñas arrive at the square. “I left my Chucky at home but I’m here.” I don’t think that using words and phrases coined by President Maduro (who bashes the Spanish language as a matter of principle) is a good idea, but what the hell. Most of them are driving the National Guards crazy with peace-n-love talk.

I head down to the southeast corner of the square and find an old friend holding a rolled up banner: #SOSVenezuela. Yep, he was the crazy guy from the morning. He tells me that he stood there with the banner and his ID card in his mouth (because the ranters started shouting that he wasn’t Venezuelan) and was detained for an hour by the National Guard. Now, he led a large group of stubborn protesters —mainly people who joined while walking by— who insisted on winning the argument against the ranters. In a way, this is more civilized than the National Assembly.

A little-understood fact about the guarimbero movement in Altamira is that most of the students are not locals. I know this sounds like “fascist” talk, but anyone who dared get close to the battle/playground in Plaza Altamira these days can see it. Many neighbors have provided food and shelter (for several days) to the protesters, but most of them did not participate in guarimbas.

This afternoon, however, the guarimberos didn’t show up. The government ranters have been easily outnumbered by the neighbors who gathered to protest the presence of the National Guard. The Avenue is partially blocked. When the light changes the demonstrators open one lane to let the cars pass. Drivers don’t seem angry, most of them cheer upon them. Many busses stop and let the passengers off and they join in. Thousands fill the streets. It’s overwhelming.

image-18:00 p.m., the National Guard starts leaving the premises discretely. But the people who notice go apeshit. First time in the past month, hell, in the past year, I see a group of Venezuelans truly celebrate something. All the proud Doñas enjoy the victory as they bid goodbye to the National Guard. Some of them, with positive messages towards the men in green in an effort to, you know, have them join this peaceful flowerpower insurrection. A young couple in front of me shares a long deep kiss. The joyous atmosphere is infatuating. The war is over, and we won.

Well, not really. Not even close. But for all the crap Altamira has been taking for their “middle class” guarimbas, this is a good example of a different approach to the protests that is appealing to all sides of the opposition and actually reaches out to new people. This is not the end of anything, it’s just a good start.

And then, the thought strikes me. Just a thought. When the going gets tough, Chavez used to walk three steps forward, and then he would take one step back. A strategy that allowed him to retain power for 14 years.

Just think about it: What would Chavez do?