That time I marched to the CNE and made it

A story about Julio Borges and the CNE, back before protests, the student movement or guarimbas were even a thing.

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15-5In the beginning… everyone was chavista.

In 1999, as the referendum to change the Constitution came upon us, I flirted with political activism. Some friends and I decided to take on the Revolution and organize a protest against Chavez’s initiative to make a profound institutional change to the country. We needed guidance. Two prospective politicians welcomed us at the offices of their NGO-soon-to-be-political-party. Leopoldo López, with his vibrant speech, amped up the group, which was mainly composed of student leaders from a handful of universities. In a back room, working the phones, among piles of papers, was Julio Borges.

Today, Leopoldo sits in jail and is viewed by many as the chosen savior of the Republic, and Borges, who still plays in the back room, is one of the most important figures in the MUD.

On Thursday, as Borges approached the electoral authority (CNE) to urge them to comply with the signature gathering process, which is across the street from his office, he and other 44 National Assembly deputies were attacked by colectivos (or whatever we are calling the pro-government urban guerillas these days), and once again he received a brutal beating.

This image took me back to 1999, and our squalid attempt at a protest. We decided to assemble in front of Teresa Carreño and we would march for a few kilometers to the CNE (then CSJ), where we would deliver a statement explaining our nonconformity with the constituyente process, and the concept of poder originario which we believed a Supreme Court Judge had pulled out of his/her ass just to accommodate Chávez’s whim to put the country upside down.

We had been giving away “No” badges in UCAB and UCV, to encourage people to vote against the new Constitution in the referendum. I still have some of the badges, it was hard to have people take them or even understand why we were saying they should. Some took them, a few had the balls to wear them.

So we were there, standing near Ateneo, perhaps 60 knuckleheads looking completely disoriented, not knowing whether we should hop on the Metro and go home, start our pathetic little march, or wait for a miracle.

That’s when a school bus drove by and parked on the other side of the Avenue. We started hearing wild, unrecognizable college chants, they sounded sort of like the now very popular rugby hakas. We were terrified.

Then, 40 men ready for war emerged from the bus. My people hesitated. We couldn’t recognize a single person. As soon as they saw us, they started running across the pavement, screaming, wielding sticks and flags, faces painted in red, yellow, and blue, the eyes of mad men leaking adrenaline. Just about two meters from us, just as we were bracing our tails for impact, they stopped. And then, it was exactly like that Braveheart scene when the Scots and the Irish share a fraternal embrace in the middle of the battlefield. It was a group from UDO in Monagas, to whom we had been sending smoke signals for weeks and never believed would actually show up.

With our renewed morale, we started our march to the CNE. We stopped traffic with a huge banner, as wide as Avenida Universidad. The UDO guys, most of them getting acquainted with the capital, ran wild all over, painting graffitis, and picking fights with the vast majority of bystanders who screamed at us in support of Chávez. I stood the whole time by a truck that was lent to us with large speakers, where one of my friends stood imitating the politicians of yore, and singing the anthem of AD over and over again. There was nothing in his political repertoire, but that.

As soon as it started raining, the truck died. We were still only halfway there. I started pushing with 4 or 5 of those UDO guys who were as strong as 10 caraqueños each. By the moment we reached the end of the road, I was one of those guys. They painted my face with their colors, and asked me to lead them on, since they had no idea where in the hell they were standing.

If you know Caracas, you know that Avenida Universidad doesn’t take you to the CNE. We had to walk down through alleyways and narrow streets in a single file line. Our numbers started dwindling, the chanting started dying, and the sight was ridiculous. A bunch of 19 year olds with posters against Chávez, faces painted, all in silence, trying to glide inconspicuously through el centro de Caracas.

We reached Esquina de Pajaritos, where Borges’ office currently is, and crossed the street to reach our destination. A small chavista mob was waiting there, we were flanked, and they beat the crap out of us. The squalid few. But we held our fight, enough to deliver the document, and talk to the media. I gave a short interview, surrounded by my new UDO mates, screaming like a maniac, repeating words which I didn’t really understand, talking about freedom and unconstitutionality.

That night, as I watched the news, and realized that the media (ALL OF IT) had turned our heroic jest into a meaningless brawl by a group of tirapiedra brats looking for a free lunch, I came to the enlightened conclusion that no one gave a crap.

No one except people like Leopoldo and Borges. That’s the image that I left with the day I visited their office. It’s an image that has stuck with me and which I revisit every time I want to strangle either one of them.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Good writing, Raúl. It’s understandable that the small band of disorganized youth failed to attract any of the media’s attention, at the time Though I would have been interested in knowing how Leopoldo and Borges made a difference

    Otherwise … In the beginning… everyone was chavista
    Not. Not even before the beginning.

  2. You just reminded me when in 1998 the, by then, candidates Hugo Chavez, Irene Saez and Henrique Salas Romer visited the USB to talk about oil and there was so many students trying to get into auditorium that most of us ended waiting outside trying to hear something. When the talk finished and Chavez went outside suddenly a small mini battle of chants, jostling and confusion happened where administrative employees where supporting Chavez and students where verbally kicking him out the university, that lasted for 1-2 minutes but got engraved in my memory as the moment I truly felt that Chavez represented a dark future for the country coexistence.

  3. Thank you, Raul, for your whiff of rationality. Back then, the Petro-State populist model had exhausted itself, with $8 oil, a growing increasingly-poor population, and fractured/corrupt dinosauric political parties. Chavez emerged as potential savior, with a rational Michelena-designed economic socio-political-economic plan, most of which was subsequently abandoned with the increasing price of oil/cognizant public push-back (April 11) to his ruinous dictatorial Communist tendencies. Today Venezuela is just a hollow shell of what it was pre-Chavez, worse yet, indebted far beyond its ability to pay easily, particularly with a dubious oil outlook going forward (U. S. shale producers increasing rigs at $50/Iran coming on stream/global warming imperatives/ruined Venezuela oil infrastructure/etc.) It’s an epic tale, still to be told, as is the epic resignation/acceptance of the Venezuelan Pueblo to its regression to pre-oil poverty/misery. Today, just as an example, there was no bread in nearby panaderias, no carne in the carnicerias, Any substantive recuperation would be long-term, and that only if not subject to latent Chavista/Communist subversion.

  4. The movement against Chavismo is interesting as a protest movement composed of many people who are not anti-establishment by nature, not protesters by inclination. People not used to being objects of official ridicule, not used to feeling unsafe. Not what the older generation here derisively calls do-gooders (and their foreign brethren, PSFs). People with something to lose.

    Caracas had for a long time these marches which, when I first saw one, seemed to me a little like the sunday crowds leaving a particularly contested baseball game. There is this notion of the opposition sifrino, partly true, partly a gross misunderstanding or oversimplification. At the worst, most of the time, the opposition sifrino could be an upper middle class dude who spent a critical year of his adolescence in some middle class high school in a north american suburb, and so seemed quite normal in that world and who could just as easily have been heading off to some blue chip consulting company in Seattle, but was tragically kidnapped and dropped in a banana republic and given the option of changing everything, or never getting out. That is to say, not an unsympathetic person, but not the peasant fighting in the hills outside Managua. Not that sympathetic. Someone like HCR, or LL. A tax lawyer and a I don’t know what Harvard grad, gone rogue.

    The day after I got married, while Chavez was still doing weekly 5 plus hour cadenas, we took some friends and family downtown -a sunday afternoon-, streets largely deserted, said hello to a guard and strolled into the AN building and walked around the gallery, completely disregarded, a group of loud hung over mostly north americans, then headed out as dusk settled in and down toward Miraflores (perhaps thinking we would stroll in there?), turned a corner and suddenly encountered a small group of protesters being brutally beaten. No press. No cops that could be called. No witnesses but us, a wedding party that no hablo mucho espanol. Chavez riding characteristically high levels of popularity.

    I don’t know why solidarity in the Venezuelan opposition has always been tentative at best, because from what I see, there is a lot of individual courage, persistence and genuineness of motive. Why it has not converted long ago to an indivisible and singular uniting force, I have a million theories, but I don’t really know. On the personal level, in thousands of instances, it is the real thing. It is not something just there for a sunday afternoon stroll on Libertador avenue, or something just there for the cameras.

    • Regarding your last paragraph, canuckles, I agree with your optics and like you, have theories on why the opposition has been so fragmented, rather than displaying ‘an indivisible and singular uniting force’. Whether these theories hit the target or not, is irrelevant. For the main issue is that the polarizing and demoralizing efforts of chavismo v. 1.0 and 2.0, along with armaments, continues to fracture individuals and families, thereby keeping the opposition at bay, more easily achieved without a consistently strong and coherent voice by a leader in that opposition..

  5. I strongly believe that the younger generations are very, very political ( esp. starting at those that barely lived before Chávez came into power onwards) – maybe naively and ignorantly so, but the interest is definitely there + a real willingness to overcome, to work for improvement, engage, discuss…

    also, pretty patriotic, actually –

    perhaps it will wear off as we grow and mature?? but I think that such a political disposition might yield greater efficiency, results, because the ganas are there, the interest (if the stamina and desires are ever allowed to be fulfilled, that is — ¿hasta cuando Maduro?)

    or at least that is what I hope, with all of my soul.

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