2002: The Ugly Sound of History

Those who went to that march to Miraflores, like me, or those who saw it happen on TV, didn’t know back then what we know now: that April 11th, 2002 was going to benefit chavismo, ironically enough, and change the country in profound and perhaps irreversible ways.

Original art by @modográfico

Did Rucky save our lives?

We all have that friend from high school: big, voracious, colorful of speech, chaos-inducing. That day, April 11th, 2002, we had to stop in front of the Museo de los Niños to wait for him. We’d been walking at the vanguard of the march from PDVSA Chuao and, at noon, he called and begged us to wait up because he wanted to join us.

We waited half an hour, and we saw general Lameda – wearing a grey suit, as the second passenger on a bike, his conic head shining under the intense sun of that beautiful day – cheering the crowd, pointing west. Once Rucky finally arrived, we resumed our path towards the Palace, and on the north side of Centro Simón Bolívar we faced a wave of people in panic running back from Avenida Baralt. What was happening?

Then, Cyn’s cellphone rang. It was our boss, Sergio Dahbar, calling from El Nacional. “Where the hell are you guys? They’re killing people. Come quickly!”

Later, I would wonder what could have happened to us if we hadn’t waited for Rucky at Parque Central and we had been under Puente Llaguno 30 minutes earlier. But at that moment there was no room for speculation: Cyn and I had to go to work, which meant going across the death zone ahead or around it, because back then El Nacional was still in its old building between Puente Nuevo and Puerto Escondido, a few blocks south of Miraflores. Territorio comanche, we called it.

Rucky and the rest of our old friends turned back east. I took Cyn’s hand – we had been dating for a month – and we walked cautiously, leaving the crowd behind and navigating quieter streets, down to Avenida Lecuna before heading west again, by our favorite Chinese restaurant and the Andean bakery, to pass the Avenida Baralt. Some blocks away: the rain of bullets.

I clearly remember that sound, as we ran across la Baralt.

“Where the hell are you guys? They’re killing people. Come quickly!”

The echo of firearms stumbling among the blunt corners downtown, scaring the pigeons, scratching the palimpsest of posters from years of previous elections on the dirty walls. The ramble of santamarías being shut in a hurry by shopkeepers who remembered the Caracazo all too well. The chain reaction of voices shouting “están disparando”, “hay plomo”, “hay muertos”, with a mixture of pride from being informed, fear disguised with humor and naked panic. The honking and stomping of those fleeing the epicenter of horror, the interception of two avenues named after illustrious zulianos: Baralt and Urdaneta.

We didn’t know, Cyn and I, when we jumped towards la Baralt hoping to be out of the gunmen’s reach, that we were about to become so familiar with that sound: the one our little world was making because it was painfully morphing into something else.

My memory crammed the days that followed into one, divided in frantic scenes of sunlight and darkness. Sergio’s crowded office, for the remaining hours of April 11, where we watched the split screen and the pronunciamientos, and chief designer V. H. Rodríguez suddenly saying “bueno ¿y este golpe es seco?”, knowing, of course, where the scotch was stashed. The silence in the deserted streets that midnight; the silence among the confused commuters on the Metro, on the morning of the 12th. My beloved team at Primicia magazine realizing that we had to redo the issue we had just closed the night before. Carmona’s hand. Evacuating the newsroom when we were all working on Saturday morning, fearing that violence would erupt again downtown, and then the rumours about the contragolpe when we regrouped in a house in Prados del Este. That Sunday of confusing versions about looting in Catia, and Chávez descending from the sky thronged by excited young soldiers – a fascist wet dream. My parents telling me over the phone that Chávez would take revenge on journalists, so I should leave the country, which I firmly discarded. The frenzy with which we made the third, final version of the most successful issue Primicia ever published, the one where Gabriel Osorio, our photoreporter, described in an unforgettable essay the tiny, yellow flowers floating in the fresh blood coming out the body of a young man killed with a FAL bullet near El Silencio station. The cover designed by Javier Rodríguez that showed a Venezuelan flag with seven bullet holes instead of stars and the splash: Nada será igual.

Though we felt that things were going to be different from then on, we couldn’t go beyond that vague sense of unstoppable transformation. We had no idea what was going to happen. We were all young, at the magazine – I was 29 – but we weren’t more perplexed than the veterans, or more vulnerable than them to the risks of infatuation. Reality was becoming more elusive than in the ’90s, and that decade had brought two intentos de golpe, one impeachment followed by a massive banking crisis, and the rise of Chávez and his constitution. We didn’t embrace uncertainty: it went through the fabric of things, unravelling almost all our preconceptions of who we were or what kind of country we had.

We were about to become so familiar with that sound: the one our little world was making because it was painfully morphing into something else.

We were just starting to talk about the perils of living interesting times, while historians and investigative reporters began to prepare the books that would shine some light on our mayhem in the years to come. But that would come later; in the weeks and months after April 11th; many of us were stranded in that state of constantly agonizing over what the hell happened, as I guess millions of Britons and Americans after Brexit and Trump experienced more recently. Around the ones with that urge for understanding, grew the illusions that would sustain such nonsensical enterprises in the next two years as the two month-long oil strike – which would eventually kill Primicia – and the perezjimenista Woodstock of Plaza Altamira, where dissident military officers camped out among their civilian followers for weeks on end. In 2002, we were still in shock at the new way of things. All the way through that year and 2003, bizarre events would jump against each other, like hardcore Desorden Público fans slamming against each other at the climax of a concert.

Polarization and fanaticism exploded. Words, moral principles, historical consensus all rushed to the edge of an abyss of darkness. It was the beginning of a euphemism-charged TV jargon full of  “situaciónes irregulares” and “se escuchan detonaciones”. It was a feast for rumors and fantasies, for delirious propaganda and expendable pseudo-leaders, the ecosystem of irrationality that chavismo needed to spread the seeds of fake news, newspeak, and hate speech.

Back then, we didn’t need social media to throw ourselves into the bonfires of collective hysteria.

Chavismo showed us how it could kill the truth just as well as it could kill people. In spite of the efforts made by investigative journalists like Sandra la Fuente, Alfredo Meza and Francisco Olivares, among others, there are still too many unanswered questions about those events, an opacity which has come to benefit many, inside and outside chavismo. The Comisión de la Verdad was useless and the hearings at the National Assembly were nothing but a very long rite of vengeance. Iván Simonovis and the other scapegoats were the first victims of the punitive judicial apparatus that completes the repressive practices of the security forces today.

April 11th, 2002 was the outcome of months of tension, a hidden conspiracy and a bunch of cruel coincidences. It made evident that those in power can shoot to kill and have the military on their side. For the capacity for abuse that chavismo would unleash on Venezuela ignited that day as it couldn’t even on February 4th, 1992, when they had only guns and tanks, not state media, institutions and the police as well. Also, it exposed the extent to which the opposition overestimated its influence over the military and ordinary people, and underestimated Chávez and his allies.

Polarization and fanaticism exploded. Words, moral principles, historical consensus came all to the edge of an abyss of darkness.

However, the meaning of those four days is richer when we remember what started or was enhanced that horrible Thursday, a day full of ominous signs that many decided to ignore.

11-A ended up as a sacred date for chavismo, in the first place because – as the failed invasion of Bay of Pigs served Castro’s regime –, it gave the Revolución Bolivariana its epic: the champion of the poor, victim of old money, who is rescued from the prison island by the patriots in uniform. But especially because that day also launched a pattern of miscalculation and self-destruction that we, the opposition, have been repeating for over 15 years: to provoke a crisis that would force a split in the Army and therefore the end of chavismo. That crisis could take the form of a recall referendum, a presidential election, a general strike or a sort of Intifada, but the truth is that both radicals and moderates in the opposition have made the same bet: to push the military to unplug its support to Chávez or, now, Maduro.

That method has always failed, but its source of inspiration, its foundational myth, is resilient: April 11th. Venezuela lives under the ghost of the Caracazo, the trauma or dream of uncontrolled looting with the potential to oust a government and our country still feels the shadow of that other spectre: 11A, the trauma or dream of a march to Miraflores with the potential to end a regime. I am not sure that the defeats of 2017, with a death toll over 10 times higher than 11-A’s, have erased from our imagination the hope on those creatures that some still call militares institucionalistas.  

We will see if the April myth survives. Meanwhile, almost the span of a generation, 15 years, have gone by, and we face a gigantic challenge in taking stock of so many loses. People. Lands. Industries. Ideas. Institutions. Our place in our world and our time. Our democracy. Our future. Our lives.   

Just above that burnt-out landscape, the sound we heard that afternoon is still beating. Not only in the tangible, everyday struggle of people in Venezuela, but even among us who left. It resonates in the young families aboard some bus to Lima, trying to not fall asleep lest they be robbed of their few, essential dollars. It is the soundtrack of some of our many nightmares, in the long nights of migration, about our beloved ones who are still there. It vibrates along the invisible lines of memory, affection, grief, dread and sadness that today constitutes the real structure of a nation imploding within its boundaries and diluting beyond them.

Here and now, far away from there both in space and in time, I close my eyes and remember, neat as the sky of that blue day turned red, the hand of who is now my wife, the faces of my friends, and that noise carving into my lost city, with its load of ominous signals and its reign of demons.