Inside Chavismo’s May Day March

There’s a legend opposition members like to repeat to themselves: that public employees have to be dragged kicking and screaming to rallies in support of a government they despise. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

For María, May Day meant a true journey. On Sunday night, she was in Zulia state getting on a Caracas-bound bus along with her three year-old son, a Spiderman blanket and a big red bag. It’s not the first time she’s done this. Just a few days ago, on April 19th, she made the same trip for another demonstration.

“This time I didn’t have anyone to take care of my son,” she told me as she gave him water from a big yellow thermos on a corner of Avenida Urdaneta in downtown Caracas.  “He’s pretty quiet, he slept the whole way,” she told me proudly. The kid looked tired and half sleep, he was trying to hide in his mom’s chest. He wasn’t the only kid I saw. Some moms even walked around with months-old babies in their arms.  

The bus she came in brought all her co-workers from the Consejo Comunal, mostly women.

María is 29 and she’s been working with the Consejo for two years: delivering CLAP bags, helping people in the community and, sometimes, turning up to pro-government rallies. “We have breakfast when we arrive, they give each of us a sandwich, water and some oranges. I also bring a couple of arepas in my bag… do you want one?” she offers as she grabs her red bag with the map of Venezuela, that matched her red shirt with a picture of Chávez with his fist in the air.

She said that nobody “forced her” to come to Caracas, but everyone in her Consejo came. For her, it’s unremarkable, “just part of the job.”

I’m part of the group that organizes the building, to receive help from the Misiones, and we want to make sure that they know that we are chavistas

“On the bus, they take attendance to make sure everyone is there, then we try to stick together because we go home on the same bus. I never get the chance to visit Caracas, I come just for the rallies. I would love to go to see the Ávila but I can’t. As soon as the demonstration is over, we need to be back on the bus to head back home. Luckily, Tuesday we have the day off,” she explained as she got herself ready to walk for hours with her kid in her arms.

The streets off of Urdaneta avenue were closed to traffic; they looked pretty empty. The same old trucks were playing the same old songs from Chávez’s last campaign, but this time, just a handful of people were dancing. Most just walked round and shouted out slogans: “¡Viva Chávez! ¡Viva Maduro!”

A couple of blocks away, Jesús was enjoying some minutes under the shade of a small tree. Sweat ran under a red cap emblazoned with Chávez’s eyes. He’s around 50 years old and went to the rally with his neighbours, all from a Misión Vivienda apartment complex in downtown Caracas. “We got together this morning and walked here,” he said.

“It’s not like we went out and forced people to leave their apartments, but we made the decision to come during a meeting on Saturday. I’m part of the group that organizes the building to receive help from the Misiones, and we want to make sure that they know that we are chavistas,” he explained.

Nobody pays me for being a chavista and now we have to show that we are stronger. ¡Vamos a ganar, carajo!

Jesús told me that he “didn’t get food or money for coming here. I just bought a papelón. Yes, there are some buses of people from other states but there’s nothing wrong with that. They come because they want to see the President and show their support. Nobody pays me for being a chavista and now we have to show that we are stronger. ¡Vamos a ganar, carajo!” he screamed.

A “band” plays tambores on the street as a small group of young people dance, while some older men shout slogans: “Fuera Yankees (….) la OEA pa’l carajo.” People watch from the surrounding buildings, and a few record on their cellphones, no cacerolazos this time.

Next to a buhonero, there is a 30-something year-old lady with blonde hair under a 4F hat, a red polo shirt, dark sunglasses, still wearing her Corpoelec ID. She tells me that a group of five coworkers had agreed to come by car, avoiding travel on the “designated bus.”

“We came from Aragua and we got together with the rest of the office early this morning, so they can check that we all got here. I’m going to walk for an hour longer, and then I’m going home, my boss already saw me, so I can go,” she explained.

“Sometimes they make you sign a list, today they just saw us and made sure we made it here,” she told me, remembering past demonstrations.

“Nobody told me that they are going to fire me if I didn’t come, but they told us it was really important that we march today. If you don’t have a car, they provide a bus. I think each boss is expected to bring his team. Probably I don’t have to work tomorrow,” she said.

I never got the chance to visit Caracas, just for the rallies, and I would love to go to the Ávila but I can’t.

“Some time ago,” she told me, “they would gave us a special ‘bonus’ if we went to a rally, but not anymore: we just get the next day off. I think it’s pretty fair. I don’t like coming here, with the sun and the crowds, but you know how the things are, you have to look out for your job,” she said as she went off to meet with her group.

In the opposition, we tell ourselves this comforting tale about the people chavismo “forces” to protest. In fact, no one I talked to out there actually resented having to come. They may not be burning with ideological fervor, and for sure many wouldn’t be there if their jobs weren’t on the line. But they welcome the chance to show their allegiance. Reality is always messy like that.

Whether you do or don’t take attendance, some will dance and enjoy themselves. Some chavistas still believe in the tale of the “guerra económica” and they really do blame Venezuela’s tragedy on  the yankees, the opposition, private businesses, or anyone else the government points to. They shout: “Con hambre y desempleo con Maduro me resteo.” [Through hunger and unemployment, I stand with Maduro!]. And they mean it.