You could see it in their faces. Scratch that, most people were so far away from the makeshift stage their faces were reduced to tiny, sweaty blurs. And the hastily put-together sound systems barely carried speeches across the vast expanse of highway, packed tight with bodies, so you can’t say you could hear it in their voices either.
And yet, you could feel it. Something in the demeanor of MUD’s leaders betrayed a kind of panic. “What the fuck do we do now?”
Two dozen MUD leaders stood before hundreds of thousands of eyes, the very people they’d summoned, the people they were supposed to lead. But the crowd was in no mood to be led yesterday: it was very much into doing the leading.
First of all, it was emboldened by its sheer, belief-beggaring size. Nobody expected this kind of turnout in Caracas. We’d just come off of days of deeply confused messaging: an invocation of rebellion from the floor of the AN one day (from Julio “2019” Borges, no less), followed by contradictory announcements about a priestly dialogue the next, all mixed in with a muddled call for a highway takeover with zero media promotion and mere hours of logistical planning in between. The odds were stacked against a successful 26-O street mobilization.
But boy did people turn out.
Arriving around noon, I had a privileged view from the top of Distribuidor Altamira. Rather than bothering with MUD’s rallying spots, like most people I just went straight out to the Autopista, feeling suitably subversive. Hey, it’s not everyday you get to overrun the highway in protest.
Perched atop the overpass, I had an unobstructed view of the entire western stretch of the highway, and also, as I would soon find out, of the hard-to-make-out tarima where, everyone assumed, important political figures would eventually assemble when things got going.
To call it a tarima is to glorify it, really. There was no proper stage, there was just a semi-truck flatbed, one of the many telltale signs that this was not your run-of-the-mill prefab opposition rally.
Let me pause on this point a second. It’s been forever since the opposition managed a spontaneous event of such magnitude. And the scrappy, improvised factor definitely added to the rebelión vibe. The September 1st protest might have had more people, but today was not about numbers, it was about ethos. You can’t replicate this stuff in a lab.
Soaked in defiance, everyone around me watched as the highway kept filling up with people, with La Carlota Military airbase as background. Nobody really knew what we were there to do, but it didn’t matter. We were there. And for the first time in a long time, the lack of agenda made it all the more raw.
“Check out the group coming in from Santa Fe!”
“Holy shit there’s more people pouring in from Baruta!”
“Ahí llegaron los Adecos!”
Every once in a while, the giant blanket of people would part and a MUD leader would make his way to the tarima amidst cheers and groping and selfies, like some demented procession. If this had happened in the U.S., the secret service would’ve had a conniption. But we’re tropical. It’s all good.
When the speeches started, they almost seemed like an afterthought. Everyone was so exhilarated to feel part of a massive, unplanned release. But the collective need for instructions on how to proceed eventually eclipsed the party. We were in rebellion, yes, but even rebellion needs direction.
The crowd was in no mood to be led yesterday: it was very much into doing the leading.
You could feel people were in no mood to be pontificated to by slick politicos the moment Chúo Torrealba, fresh off his Vatican fiasco, tried to address the crowd. He was booed off the stage, really: he couldn’t even finish his statement. He cut one lonely figure as he weaved through the crowd of mortals in his beige shirt and solemn, downcast gaze. I felt bad for Chúo. But not that bad. I had a rebellion to get back to!
The crowd hushed as speakers, crammed onto the tarima like confused sardines took turns with the mic, in ascending order of importance. Freddy Guevara, Enrique Márquez, Henry then Capriles. Every time they spoke of elections, the mob would jeer them: a massive, collective “de pana, don’t you know that ship has sailed?” kind of jeer. It wasn’t quite the brutal hazing Chúo got, just enough to let them know this crowd had its red lines and they’d better be mindful of them.
Chants of “Miraflores! Miraflores!” would break out, to roaring cheers from the crowd. And if you’re imagining the Miraflores proponents as gas mask-wearing guarimba-loving zealots, then you are wrong. It was normal people. Like the young couple smushed next to me with their eight month old daughter in tow. Or the motorizado who clung to a lamppost, feet dangling above the sea of people, complaining that he was sick of hearing speeches. A man behind me, his sunglasses sinking into his gaunt cheekbones, was indignant. “O llaman a Miraflores o yo no regreso pa’ esta vaina. I have nothing to eat.”
Upon closer inspection of the tiny tarima, I realized that the speakers were addressing the crowd with their backs to us. Literally, la espalda. Was it fear of facing head-on, the electorate that put them on that stage to begin with? Was it a bit too much to handle? Hundreds of thousands of angry, expectant protesters with no music, no security guards, no artifice or glitzy production values to fall back on.
Maybe it’s the way the lack of a real tarima brought them down to our level, but there was something about this dynamic that was intoxicating: it was a real two-way interaction, poles apart from the traditional model of MUD handing down a pre-cooked decision from above.
MUD’s leaders were naked before their followers. They had no choice but to grasp that they’re nothing without this crowd, and that this crowd has a say over what happens next. The final say, actually.
And so, we saw something we hadn’t seen in MUD for far too long: accountability. Simple, raw, unmediated accountability. The kind I’m sort of obsessed with.
I’ve argued for a long time that MUD has serious accountability issues. The buck stops nowhere in this sprawling, multi-party political beast. When the political scene is as polarized as ours is, nobody is made to answer for even the worst decisions. For three long, volatile years, MUD has decided, unchecked, and handed down its imperial decisions to us, taking for granted that we will blindly follow their lead. And we always do because, really, what’s the alternative?
I say this as a bigtime MUD fan, and that goes beyond just being anti-chavista. I’ve devoted hundreds of hours to leading electoral efforts on their behalf, celebrated their technical and logistical prowess in the face of a tyrannical adversity, and I proudly talk up their titanic effort to work out internal differences as examples of what real democracy looks like.
Something about this dynamic was intoxicating: it was a real two-way interaction, poles apart from the traditional model of MUD handing down a pre-cooked decision from above.
Acutely conscious of the tension between desperately wanting MUD (and democracy) to succeed, and feeling enormously frustrated by MUD’s clubby, unresponsive leadership, I was exhilarated by what I saw happening all around me yesterday. A political leadership that so often feels so distant, so removed from the people it represents was anything but. They were face to face with a massive crowd that demanded action now.
Y tuvieron que mover el culo.
Initially, MUD’s plan was to announce a “juicio político” to be launched today, a general strike for tomorrow, followed by a declaration that the president had abandoned his post and then a march on Miraflores to hand Maduro his pink slip on Thursday, November 3rd. This was, already, far and away the most radical protest agenda MUD had unveiled in ages. It was already mindboggling to see Henrique Capriles, Chúo, Henry Ramos all these leaders long associated with moderate, incrementalist political action stand in front of a crowd and announce a march on Miraflores.
But it wasn’t enough. The crowd wanted more. Demanded more. They either call us out to the presidential palace or this is my last march. People — yours truly very much included — kept shouting (among other, more expletive-laden putdowns of dialogue and such) “¡A Miraflores!” And we meant it. November 3rd felt like an eternity away. We wanted action right now.
The feeling wasn’t so much expectation, it was empowerment. An all out license to feel emboldened and present, and a determination to make this one count.
MUD’s more radical leaders around the truck/tarima read this beautifully and pounced. Maria Corina Machado and Lilian Tintori grabbed that microphone and started freelancing new protest actions right then and there. For once they had all the leverage, and the moderates had none.
It was mindboggling to see all these leaders long associated with moderate, incrementalist political action stand in front of a crowd and announce a march on Miraflores.
Still, they negotiated. If they couldn’t get an “¡A Miraflores!” from them right then and there, they still wanted to march West. To the Assembly! But Henry pushed back: the Assembly was closed, what would be the point? The moment when they really would need people around the Assembly was the next day — today — when chavismo would be tempted to once again physically intimidate and takeover the building where Maduro would be tried.
Bueno, a la Asamblea on Thursday, then. The deal was cut right then and there, in front of everybody. It was amazing.
In the end, MUD was probably right, we can do bigger and better if we wait till November 3rd. And deep down everyone kinda knew it too. Which is why everyone went home in peace.
But not before having popped the MUD’s rebellion cherry. Man it felt good.