There were maybe a hundred of us: med students wearing our white lab coats, carrying signs demanding democracy and freedom, intermittently blocking traffic in front of our Universidad de los Andes med school. Within ten minutes, the motorcycles turned up, a whole bunch of them. These were not the usual police bikes that dissolved university riots when they got ugly.

 
This all happened a couple of years ago — on February 11th, 2014, to be exact — but I remember it like it was ten minutes ago.

Tupamaros, ¡corran!- someone yelled as the pro-government armed colectivos stormed into the school waving red flags, shooting in the air in defense of the revolution. We all knew Tupas  meant bad news. They are the closest thing to a Boves’ Lancero you will ever see, just on Beras instead of horses.

Mayhem ensued. Some people hid in the classrooms, others like me and a freshman from San Cristobal ran to the parking lot and stayed behind a patch of tall grass while we saw how four of these thugs left their chinese bikes to beat a running student to the ground.

When they got distracted, we ran off through a hole in a fence. As we ran, a random samaritan offered to let us hide in his house. He prepared a guayoyito and my phone started ringing. Most part of my classmates were still trapped, Tupamaros were shooting at the doors, Viva Chávez!- They screamed, while threatening to kill everyone.

This all happened a couple of years ago — on February 11th, 2014, to be exact — but I remember it like it was ten minutes ago. ULA had just lifted a six month-long strike to demand higher salaries for its workers when sudden reports of small riots all over the country swept through whatsapp chats and twitter feeds.


It’s not that we hadn’t known chavismo was trouble: we had. It’s that none of us was expecting something quite so inescapable.

Until that day, I’d always dismissed talk of armed chavista gangs as so much conspiranoiac hot air: the plot to some Whatsapp cadena your aunt from El Cafetal lifted straight out of a Reinaldo Profeta post. But that day, I saw it happen. And I won’t lie, it was surprising.

It’s not that we hadn’t known chavismo was trouble: we had. It’s that none of us was expecting something quite so inescapable. Some of us even  thought (naïvely) that we could surf it out, somehow sidestepping the major cogeculo. We were like that lawyer from Jurassic Park, hiding in a wooden outhouse as a freakin’ T-Rex destroyed the whole place.

But the revolution has made a real effort to bring those skeptical about its reach into its grip. No matter how many bullets, beaten students, burnt buildings or even destroyed bathrooms it takes, you won’t be left alone.

We merideños were particularly automojoneados: a good university, parks, clean streets, stunning nature, european tourists and a fairly lower crime index than the rest of the country had earned us a good reputation. Especially in our own heads.


Man, you could even buy a Happy Meal in McDonald’s  and get a decent toy back then.

The Revolution had touched Mérida of course, but lightly. Buying food hadn’t been the same in years: the city’s iconic CADA supermarkets were replaced by government-owned Bicentenarios in 2010, towers of cookies and sodas piled on every hallway trying to hide the absence of more basic products such as whole milk, cooking oil or Harina PAN. Walking at night downtown was dangerous, but if were you brave enough, you could have arepas at midnight in the Plaza Bolivar; or, as a med school freshman, hang around nightclubs on Friday nights after taking an especially hard anatomy test. From time to time, a friend would tell you how some malandrito stole his phone while riding a bus home, but it was still surprising. Man, you could even buy a Happy Meal in McDonald’s  and get a decent toy back then.

Socialism was there, and you could feel it, but it wasn’t the monster that now constantly stalks everyone. The government even did a couple good things around here: a brand new Metropolitan Stadium, a not-so-useful Trolebus or the long postponed, recently re-inaugurated Mukumbarí cablecar at least beat the endless lists of unfulfilled promises most of the rest of the country got.


Mérida is the best place to live in Venezuela, because it’s not like Venezuela at all, I used to say back when I thought the Sierra Nevada could somehow keep the chaos at bay.

Even the Universidad de los Andes (ULA) seemed to be pulling through relatively well: professors were not rich, or even well-paid; but they could afford a range of basic needs, from food to a yearly vacation. I could buy the books I needed to study, when my schedule was tighter than usual I had lunch at any restaurant near our med school and if budget was running low the university’s free dining halls were always there to feed you.

This apparent “normality” created in some of us a hard-to-get-rid-of mojón mental in which all the homicides, kidnappings and Dakazos seemed distant. Mérida is the best place to live in Venezuela, because it’s not like Venezuela at all, I used to say back when I thought the Sierra Nevada could somehow keep the chaos at bay.

Mariano Picón Salas once said that Mérida is a university with a city inside, and unlike me, he couldn’t be more right. Mérida and ULA are tightly wound up with one another, the problems of one invariably affecting the other. So when ULA went to hell that February morning, reality hit me in the face: Shit had just gotten real. My mojón had just been crushed by el legado.

The tupas eventually left, and so did the guarimbas that flourished all over the city like grass in the weeks that followed. But Mérida changed in 2014. That year the revolution sent a clear message that although weaker, still hovers around today: ask for a change in the streets if you want, but remember who’s got the guns.

As oil prices hit the ground, reality punched us even harder: inflation finally showed the teeth that government subsidies had tried to hide for years, shortages now didn’t just hit a few items but pretty much everything, and supermarkets started looking like dancefloors as empty shelves were put away.  Shocking lines  grew outside every grocery store, random  bachaqueros suddenly knocked at my door offering me some ridiculously overpriced shampoo, my mom got mugged two times in front of our house in the middle of the day; and even having a meal in a restaurant suddenly was a sifrino privilege.


Apparently Ché was right when he said that revolution turns the extraordinary into everyday stuff.

Today the decay is pervasive, penetrating: the once shocking lines have blended with the mountains as part of the landscape and bachaqueros became the only way to get actual food if you can’t afford wasting your day loafing outside a supermarket. Inflation swallowed the university’s budget and, along with it, the free dining halls on which up to a third of ULA’s students depend. They no longer demand democracy or freedom, just food.  Apparently Ché was right when he said that revolution turns the extraordinary into everyday stuff.

Mérida’s Venezuelization is in starkest display at the Hospital Universitario de los Andes (HULA): patients with perfectly curable conditions get complications while waiting months for treatment in overcrowded rooms. Leaving the hospital means missing their chance to get a surgery since only half of the hospital’s fourteen Operating Rooms are, well, operating. Collapsing roofs, underfed kids, armed robberies in the hallways, the f*ing itinerant Mercal now running inside the place…you get the picture. I mean, what could be wrong with selling poorly-refrigerated chicken in a hospital, right?

Shortages have also hit hard. From asthma medication to gloves, think about anything you might need if you get sick, you won’t find it at any public health center. Even the oncology service or the Intensive Care Unit, once considered the shiny tacitas de plata of HULA are now facing extreme difficulties to stay in operation.  You start to suspect things are pretty bad when a group of physicians go on a hunger strike asking for basic supplies to work with. When a bachaquero becomes the only way you have to resupply an emergency room with syringes or sutures, you start to grasp the depth of the shit we’re in.

Venezuela has gone on a full socialist holiday and Mérida has an all-inclusive.


Colectivos have become the lawless enforcers of the Revolución Bonita and they want everyone to know it, especially us students.

As the crisis radicalizes so does the government’s reaction: Colectivos came back to our med school this year, but this time I was lucky enough to leave the place a few hours before the riots started. The voice notes and images from my friends made it look like 2014 all over again: A protest in the street followed by the arrival of the chavista lancers. But this time while everyone hid, Tupas also siphoned fuel off a car’s gas tank, sprayed it over another nearby car, the 50 year-old auditorio 108 and then burned it all to the ground.

We tried to patch up the damage — some potazos and cleaning sessions were held — but a few weeks later Tupas struck again, this time mugging, beating and stripping naked a group of seminarians who dared to walk past by them during one of their so called “peaceful demonstrations”. The image of these guys running naked through the streets perfectly captures this regime’s true face.

Colectivos have become the lawless enforcers of the Revolución Bonita and they want everyone to know it, especially us students.

We merideños are still reeling from quite a coñazo. Or maybe it was a wakeup call to those who, like me, felt safe inside our wooden outhouses. Whether you are in Caracas or in Chururú, there’s no safe place in this tropical dystopia.

Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.