Overcoming the Guarimba Instinct

There's an undeniable high that comes from blocking off your street and showing GNB who's boss. But guarimbas are now arguably as big a threat to the protest movement as repression from the state.

Venezuelans have been marching, praying, playing music, and even striking against the government for over 50 days now. The dictatorship’s response? Sustained repression to silence us.

Most of us are peaceful. Venezuelans want to preserve life and civil rights. We’ll march anywhere, anytime. That’s the kind of protest we’ll be a part of: peaceful, organized and purposeful. But a nasty ghost is haunting our peaceful protest movement: the spectre of the guarimba.

In los Altos Mirandinos and in San Cristóbal, in Táchira and Mérida, the use of barricades and roadblocks is back in full force, as neighborhood youths shut down entire cities to “protest” the regime somehow in a dismaying repeat of the 2014 experience.

Why are we walking down this road again?

I’ve personally been shaken down for money in order to get past a guarimba.

I think I get it, kind of: a guarimba makes you feel like you are actively helping bring the regime down. Burning trash and blocking the roads with debris, taking down light poles, traffic lights and trees, vandalizing police stations after you’ve been repressed and tear gassed… these things feel good. They feel good because they went there first, the regime started it and it only seems right that we punch back.

But we know how this goes. Unscrupulous people have already started to take advantage of the situation, fishing in troubled waters.

Whenever tires get burnt and streets get blocked, violence makes its entry. If you try to get past the Guarimbas there is a good chance you’ll get mugged or your car will be damaged. It’s 2014 all over again.

I’ve personally been shaken down for money in order to get past a guarimba. And I didn’t leave my house for the fun of it. I’m a doctor. I need to get to my workplace.

But some people don’t have a choice but to show up for work everyday.

“Some people do, though,” a guarimbero friend says.

“They’ll try to pass through the barricade in their cars and you can clearly see they’re just trying to live as if this was a normal country and nothing is going on. It’s upsetting; they’re just listening to music while driving and trying to get to the malls and do some shopping.”

When asked why he believes in guarimba as way of protesting he says “MUD has let me down so many times, this is a way for the people to show how upset they are with this dictatorship, to stop people from not caring, to make sure everybody realizes this is not a normal country.”

This last week, MUD’s marching agenda suffered due to the blockage of pretty much every street in my city. People protested every single day, but they did it in their own terms. Why? Because MUD is falling short. Sure, they’ve finally come to realize as long as there are reasons to protest, protesting should not stop. But they’ve failed to read the crowds they lead — and you can’t lead a crowd you can’t read.

The guarimbas double as the regime’s best chance to actually crush this protest movement.

There’s no such thing as “normal” anymore. Nobody should feel like this country is normal. When that’s the mental space you’re in, the guarimba follows on, logically.

But the guarimbas double as the regime’s best chance to actually crush this protest movement: they’re tactically senseless, strategically bankrupt and lead straight into the ghettoization of protests. If anyone should be all-out mobilized to stop them right now, it’s MUD.

MUD doesn’t seem to grasp the urgency here. Calling out a “plantón” while claiming it’s not a “trancazo” is confusing, at best.

MUD’s message should be crystal clear: empowerment. It should remind all of us that freedom is within our grasp. That the country is ours to save. That the blood shed by our brothers will not be in vain, and that every time our voices are raised, it should be in their honor.

It should also remind us that protesting is our right: we are right to demand that children stop dying from malnutrition and sick people stop dying from medicine shortages. We are right to demand elections. And fighting for democracy is always right.

MUD needs to raise the bar. We need strong, visionary leadership so badly now. Anger is no strategy, spleen is no tactic. Just imagine the stakes if this movement fails. We’ve all been down this road before but this time around crisis is hitting so hard that it seems this might be our last chance to get our country back.

I’m not saying it doesn’t feel like a victory when pictures of protesters claiming GNB shields and helmets as price show up.  Seeing those pictures feels… awesome.

The thing is that it could all can get out of hand real quick in an environment like that. But is the sugar rush of humiliating some poor guardias really worth risking the movement for?

We need to keep protesting. But we also need protests to work. We need every Venezuelan on board for the long run if we expect to build the inclusive, fair and democratic nation we are protesting for. And you know and I know that guarimbas play no role in that future.

Astrid Cantor

Head of the Church of Martha Stewart: I bake therefore I am. Táchirense: Almojabana and quesadilla lover, "toche" and "juemadre" user. Pastelitos de queso con bocadillo fanatic and overall gochadas supporter. Also doctor —as in proper MD— and pobresora universitaria too.