Tear Gas & BBQ Sauce

A day spent in El Cafetal, the Home of Opposition Crazy, shows worrying signs of reversion to the most self-defeating instincts of 2014

Caracas isn’t normal. For a skyline we have a mountain, not buildings, our river is our sewer, and the bit of town with the best educated is also the place where the most aggressively ill-informed people live.

I spent the day driving around southeast Caracas, or trying to, as I sought to keep friends and family up to speed on which streets to avoid during yesterday’s trancazo. I found myself driving somewhere between brilliance and insanity.

The Greater El Cafetal Area — the east-side of Caracas south of the Rio Guaire — is easy enough to stereotype that “cafetalero” has become the instantly recognizable codeword for “recalcitrant and right wing.” Forget Altamira, this is where the opposition’s most fervent supporters live. The oppo vibe is so strong out here, it’s capable of harming the movement it supports.

With nothing but a bottle of water and a gas mask, I set out, dodging roadblocks and sending voice notes as I ventured deeper into the heart of Elcafetalness. Right away, barricades on Los Naranjos’ main avenue, around Plaza Las Américas and the intersection between El Cafetal and Santa Paula: doña land. But the further I drove, the less shocked I was: just cafetaleros cafetaling.

Once I realized the Bulevar de El Cafetal wasn’t an option, it was time to hit the backroads and caminos verdes. A different Caracas emerged. One where people were shaky and in a hurry to get home, but had no real obstacle getting there. The streets turned into a road-rager’s wet dream: empty avenues made for speeding.

I had a harder time explaining to an old lady in need of a ride why my car had no crucifix or estampillita of Jesus than I did finding my way back home.

To many, yesterday was all about gaining spaces and blockading roads. The latter was done effectively, but at the expense of the former. A neurotic sub-set of cafetalero types couldn’t help but repeat the same mistakes they made back in 2014, when #LaSalida stumbled, deflated, and resolved itself into a self-defeating, self-imposed siege.

Tuesday was also the first time since the current crisis began that El Hatillo, the furthest removed of Caracas’ five municipalities, experienced repression right on its doorstep. It never made sense for the National Guard to crawl its way up the steep hills on which El Hatillo rests. Other than the Mayor’s office, the biggest political target is the Danish Consul’s house.

But in a war chavismo has a slim chance of winning, a show of might in the opposition’s hardest core was a show worth putting on. And so they did. Armed with little patience, the National Guard didn’t wait long after the first stone was thrown to open a flurry of tear gas and rubber bullets at CIED, between La Boyera and La Tahona:

Locals decided to spend their late afternoon trying to spook the enemy away from their hideout at the CIED office, right on the border between Baruta and El Hatillo. In total, two protesters were injured and five were detained after a couple of hours facing off. It set off alarms in this outpost of El Cafetal.

The reaction was pitiful. More roadblocks, less brains. No burning tires, just piles of garbage and what few tree branches they could scrape together. Surely nothing to feel proud of.

Yes, El Llanito was violent, ruthless and relentless, with colectivos opening fire on neighbors who attempted to participate in the trancazo… chavismo at its finest, and the highway was, yet again, overtaken by protesters at Altamira. But the headline here is that, in the midst of the worst series of protests in years, chavismo was able to strike those who oppose them at home for the first time. Had these neurotic El Cafetal radicals stuck to the initial plan, a lot more would have been accomplished.

Then again, neurosis is an El Cafetal staple. It’s a neighbourhood where conspiranoia fueled by fake news plays a key part in the Whatsapp ecosystem and the social dynamics. It’s one of the main reasons why the opposition seems entrenched, almost as if it doesn’t trust the world around them and their ability to have an impact on it.

Once the sun set, less than a handful of barricades remained manned in the expected areas: the intersection of El Cafetal and Santa Paula, the Santa Fé highway and El Cigarral, a few hundred yards from the CIED office. Handfuls of guys “defending” a parapeto that meant nothing and does no good. It felt like a defeat, because it was.

The lesson for the opposition’s leaders is that they’d better avoid playing on home turf for some time, since its inhabitants have a habit of entrenching, no matter how well things seem to be going.

My day ended at a minimart, surrounded by pop music, annoyed cashiers and regular Johns queueing to pay for basic goods. I stopped to stretch my legs and buy something to munch on my way back home. To my surprise, they had the widest selection of BBQ sauce I had seen in this country for ages. I was ready for dinner.