Feria Internacional del Sol: Mérida’s Weekend of Tropical Chaos

Dirty streets, risky driving, a penetrating stench of urine in the air, terrible music blaring from every corner and thousands of people getting drunk while watching a bull agonize: for four days every February, Mérida becomes the Capital of the Third World.

Drunks in cowboy outfits, driving their Merús way too fast, their doors stained with mud and vomit, loud reggaeton or vallenatos blaring from every public space and people, lots of them, trying to escape from the reality constantly stalking us.

Ah…Mérida during the Feria Internacional del Sol. The city is supposed to feel festive right about now, but the illusion of mirth is harder and harder to sustain. This year, it fell apart from the get-go.

The four-day-long carnival weekend is the heart of the Ferias, but in fact the event calendar takes up most of February. One highlight is the “Monumental Parade:” a great convoy of floats and school bands, marching through the streets of Mérida as people watch closely from the sidewalks before reuniting at some point to meet the candidates to become the next Reina del Sol.

It’s supposed to be a family-friendly activity in which people take costumed kids for a walk around the city, a rare not-so-bad bit of the ferias. It’s such a big deal that, three years ago, even after private investors decided to cancel the whole Ferias, chavista Governor Alexis Ramírez personally forced a few public schools to parade, along with what was probably the world’s ugliest fair float.

This year, the parade was different. It took place two weeks ago, on February 12th. It’s a significant date: National Day of the Youth, and the third anniversary of Robert Redman and Bassil DaCosta’s murders that sparked weeks of #LaSalida unrest.

To commemorate that, the local student movement decided to march along with the parade, taking the opportunity to demand the release of political prisoners. The state security forces were not amused.

A few hours later, the parade ended with gunshots, beaten students and a lot of tear gas.

I asked my friend Eduardo, who lives just off the parade’s end point on Avenida Las Americas, about it. “From my window,” he said, “all I could see were a lot of cars, and people drinking, walking in big groups, loud music all over the place. Then I heard three detonations.”

“BANG, BANG, BANG, three more detonations followed by screams… As I glimpsed out from my window I saw hordes of people running away from something I couldn’t see from my apartment,” he says.

“For a few seconds they stopped, but then I heard many more gunshots followed by the sound of motorcycles. People grabbed their kids and started running again, after them a bunch of motorcycles rushed by, I wasn’t sure if they were chasing the people or running away themselves.”

Eduardo tells me he couldn’t get any pictures of the scene… It all happened so fast and by the time he found a decent camera, only the acrid smell of tear gas remained. Others however, were quicker.

For a few seconds they stopped, but then I heard many more gunshots followed by the sound of motorcycles. People grabbed their kids and started running.

Apparently, after the candidates were introduced to the crowd, the act was declared over and people were instructed to leave. Some of the spectators, however, decided to stay on that spot and continue drinking. After the police cleared them out, things got tense, and eventually a confrontation started between a group of protesters and some GNB officers. One thing lead to another and some unidentified individuals started shooting at the air, sending the whole thing to hell before you could even say tercer mundo.

Not exactly the most festive way to end a desfile ferial, but in tune with the times if you ask me.

Things eventually settled down. The Carnival Queen eventually got elected, a week late. (Still six months less late than our state governors, but I digress.)

Actually, the queen thing is a distraction. The Ferias, only get going in earnest when the bullfights start. Random cruelty to animals is what this is about.

Corridas bring people from all around the country, who are happy to pay anywhere from 8,000 to 60,000 Bs ($11.40 and $85.70 at the Dicom exchange rate) for the chance to get totally wasted and then watch a bull die in pain. Quite a lot for a country facing shortages and hunger, but not that much considering how expensive it must have been to find the dollars to fly those toreros in from Spain and Mexico.

The bullfights take place in Mérida’s Plaza de Toros Monumental Román Eduardo Sandia, which can hold up to 20,000 people, most of whom get there by car, quickly surpassing the capacity of the Plaza’s small parking lot. The solution to this problem couldn’t be more representative of fair’s spirit:, malandros tend to storm into the nearby Universidad de los Andes premises, illegally use their parking lots, charging visitors to find room for the overflow, usually damaging the facility in the process.

To prevent that from happening this time, the opposition-controlled city government decided to ban people from driving to the bullfights. To Governor Alexis Ramírez, however the measure wasn’t justified, and in a classic demonstration of chavista respect for the rule of law, supposedly instructed the State Police and GNB to ignore the ban, also allowing several government-aligned groups to take ULA’s parking lots, as denounced by Mario Bonucci, ULA’s rector.

But confrontation between Mayor Carlos García and Governor Ramírez goes beyond the battle for the parking lots: Most part of fair activities (and the mayhem they bring with them) are organized and encouraged by the Town Hall; but this year, Ramírez is making his best effort to ensure these Ferias take their already iconic #TropicalMierda standards to unseen heights with his personally sponsored Suena Mérida “music” festival:

Can someone explain to me why we didn’t see this amazing piece of quality marketing during the last Superbowl? Guerra mediática, they call it.

Whether I like it or not, the Ferias are here to stay, and a lot of people actually enjoy them. Somehow.

I’m used to it, I’ve been living with this circus my whole life and yet every year that passes I find it more disgusting. It might be a tradition, it might even have been fun 48 years ago when it first happened, but today The Feria Internacional del Sol has turned into a monument to the worst in Venezuela.

The fact the country faces projected inflation over the 600%, the greatest economic contraction in years and hunger levels reaching African crisis levels just makes these particular ferias, and all the expenses they carry, even more distasteful.