This Time, It’s Different

Se siente en el aire. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, the murmurs, the questions, the hype, the trepidation, the dismissals, the fear; an inescapable wall of reminders of a looming….what, exactly? A  historical milestone? A defiant point of no return? An anticlimactic bust?

Nobody knows.

1S is evanescent, there’s a void there where your proverbial finger would go if you could put one on it. Maybe that’s part of the point. Deliberate uncertainty could be a novel ingredient in the stale repertoire of opposition protest recipes.

Around breakfast tables, in taxi cabs and supermarket queues, in hotel lobbies and newsrooms, embassies, Facebook walls, and public bathrooms all around the country today, the 1S conversation becomes not just necessary but inescapable.

 
The reckless giddiness, the checked expectations, and sheer paranoia that 1S has conjured makes a typical Venezuelan election eve look positively subdued.

That hyper-Venezuelan disregard for boundaries has reached new, unabashed heights. There’s an unspoken license to randomly inquire from perfect strangers you meet on the street, partly out of curiosity, mostly out of tacit complicity: “Will you be going?” “¿Qué va a pasar?”Cómo la ves?”

It feels like the night before a big election. And not even.

The reckless giddiness, the checked expectations, and sheer paranoia that 1S has conjured makes a typical Venezuelan election eve look positively subdued. The night before an election, you know you’ll be watching a TV-feed of a baranda for a couple of hours and scanning twitter like a junkie 24 hours hence. Today, we have no clue what we’ll be doing late tomorrow.

 
There’s a pervasive sense, both in government and opposition circles, that this is different.

Even for the few that would rather remain indifferent, it’s no use. 1S is a mandatory tollbooth for anyone wanting to get anything done.

“Will you be open on Thursday?” (No, señorita, la calle va a estar muy peligrosa mañana.”) “I’m calling to confirm my appointment for tomorrow” (Lo siento, le dimos el día libre a todos nuestros empleados.”) “I’d like to book a cab to the airport, please” (”Le sugerimos que llame a una posada en Galipán.”)

Rumors of roadblocks and militarization make it imperative to plan ahead — but also impossible. By mid-day Wednesday, Foro Penal reports 37 new political detentions just in the last 48 hours. Diosdado is on a repressive bender. Cooked up evidence against YonGo is presented — a belt. Somebody’s been watching too many spy movies. Reports of looting in Petare. Venezuela freezes diplomatic relations with Brazil. A leak in La Patilla claims GDP contracted 19%. Nineteen. The air is heavy. 1S has surpassed shortages, inflation, and crime, as the thing that binds all our lives right now.

There’s a pervasive sense, both in government and opposition circles, that this is different. Different enough that even opposition skeptics, such as myself, are willing to suspend our disbelief and show up to a MUD protest, even though we’re fully aware that MUD has no idea what it’s doing. Different enough that the government is willing to gamble whatever shred of self-respect it’s got left if it means improving its chances of saving its gangrenous face from embarassment. Different enough to overturn that musty old adage about how “poor people don’t protest for ideals,” while also binding the structurally incompatible visions of MUD’s parties around a non-electoral event.

All of this has to mean something. In a country that can pretty much write the book on learned helplessness, in a society hardened by seventeen years of high polarization, all of this has to mean something.

So what does it mean?

It means that the government knows its time is almost up, and they’re having a reeeeeeally hard time coming to grips with it. Last December’s astonishing opposition victory amounted to a colossal blow to chavismo’s political capital, one that they never saw coming. Having badly underprepared then, they’re intent on overpreparing this time. That’s why Chavismo will stop at nothing in order to prevent the dreaded foto of an unprecedentedly huge anti-government show of force.

And really, nothing is off the table: Aside from Diosdado Cabello’s balls-out unleashing of political persecution,incoming foreign journalists have been systematically deported, the Ministry of Defense placed a ban on photography drones, Interior approved the use of weapons for riot control, and Maduro even announced a convenient asphalting plan for the city of Caracas on September 1st. Apparently, none of these tactics have managed to dissuade people from protesting.

Because, it’s different this time. It’s hard to explain it. But if you’re here, you know.

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