Six Nights in the Heart of Darkness

During six days of blackout, Merida, the most important city of the Venezuelan Andes, braced for the end of the world. Ordinary citizens geared up to defend streets and stores from looters, while the state disappeared. What can we do to survive if this happens again?

Photo: Omar Rondón.

At the time of writing, it’s been six days since electricity was “restored” in my area, and we don’t seem to be recovering from the catastrophe of living in darkness for a week.

Trauma runs deep. Fear returns every time light bulbs flicker or appliances shut down with energy fluctuations. Commerce is still paralyzed, people continue to swap goods or use foreign currency to get what they need. Collecting information and testimonials about how citizens survived the blackout has been though, since most people I’ve interviewed are scared of speaking beyond the general version that vanishes amidst the political vortex and chains of rumors.

I take notes, ask questions and wait. The people I talk to have the same spirit of those surviving a natural disaster: ideas flow thick and dense, words overlap, horror mingles with grief and shame. “On Friday afternoon, people from the slums started coming up to Merida. They were all gathering there, happy, going door to door and I won’t lie to you, most of the neighbors went to the city aware that they were going to loot,” says 32-year-old Eduardo Salazar. “At 8:00 p.m., people started coming back with their bounty. Some were stealing from each other, while others stored the goods at home and went back for more. Many resold their products, and when the police came, they joined the looting.”

I remember fog covering the streets that night with a dreamlike, mystified aura. When you can’t see anything, you pay attention to your other senses: you listen to gunfire, pot-banging, screams, drums, motorbikes, sirens. You smell the stench of trash and burning tires, tear gas, wood and gunpowder.

Trauma runs deep. Fear returns every time light bulbs flicker or appliances shut down with energy fluctuations.

Saturday morning was bitter; the rumor that it would all happen again at nightfall alarmed downtown merchants, who were discussing what to do with these groups of organized plunderers. “I’m going to get a shotgun and wait for them inside. They’ll have to kill me before they destroy my store,” said a foreign vendor, owner of a baking supply store. Others, visibly armed, took their merchandise to safer places.

Saturday night, however, ended with a different tone: people took to the streets to cook what they had, roasting meat before it went bad, gathering around makeshift barbecues made of debris and wood. It was the same in the countryside. The kindest gave away their meat to friends and neighbors, the greediest dug up holes to bury it and keep it from thieves.

“We don’t have any food, but we have miche! Let’s drink because this is our last supper!” some drunken men yelled in El Chama slum. It was the same in the La Milagrosa neighborhood: shop owners gave away food that could spoil and the street party lasted through the night.

In other sectors where people protested the blackout daily, barricades showed up and the pavement was covered in oil, so colectivos would slip on their bikes. In middle-class areas, these groups were expected. On the night of March 12th, I was walking to residential towers in that sector with a group of friends and, about eight meters away from the gate, a group of hooded men shot us at least eight times. Some of my friends dropped to the ground and hid behind a wall. In the dark, we yelled that we were locals and the group’s leader let us through after verifying our identities. They just thought we were another armed gang, and they all watched, with guns, baseball bats, knives and stones behind the barricades.

There was no security protocol whatsoever. “Soldiers are a threat for Maduro, that’s why they’re not deployed. These are lawless days, you can kill anyone and walk away just like that,” said Jesús, a 52-year-old taxi driver stuck in a queue for fuel in Los Proceres Av.

On March 11th, a bank agency was robbed, the dumbest robbery in history: armed criminals broke into a state-run bank about three blocks from the police stations of Glorias Patrias Sq. The only loot available? Worthless banknotes from the previous monetary cone, billions of bolivars that can’t buy you an empanada. The thieves carpeted entire streets with bills, burning packs, whose ashes blew in the wind.

About eight meters away from the gate, a group of hooded men shot us at least eight times. Some of my friends dropped to the ground and hid behind a wall.

I thought of Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness. Surviving a blackout was a terrible and desperate moral challenge. I’m sure that nobody in the city went to bed without wondering how far they’d have to go to survive if the darkness lasted a week, or months. Chavismo gradually destroyed layer after layer of civilization and pushed us to a point of no return where only the strong can survive, those capable of abandoning themselves to the primal instinct of violence, robbery and murder. This regime made it quite clear that they don’t care about vulnerable citizens in hospitals and those denouncing it would be silenced and persecuted; that everyone could do as they wanted because this freedom without restrictions was a gift from socialism. Living in Venezuela is a downward spiral into darkness. Keeping our wits and civilization is almost as difficult as staying alive.

Both my brother-in-law and my dad sharpened the axes and machetes they use when working in the fields. The plan of many Merida families if the streets turn into chaos, is to flee to the countryside and wait. On Monday afternoon, streets were deserted except for a preacher in a square and the sound of dogs squabbling over the garbage.

By March 13th, the general mood was dark and there was an astonishing amount of funerals. Liliana Rivas, a 19-year-old girl, lost an aunt with brain paralysis in Acarigua, Portuguesa. “The hardest part was bringing her to the city for the burial. There were too many protests and the guys in hoods didn’t want to let the car through. The priest had to do a mass in the dark by candlelight and cell phone flashlights. I had to tell my family home by home, because there was no mobile signal. I don’t feel sadness or grief, just a void.”

Reliving the events of those six nights of nationwide blackout is like rebuilding a gigantic crime scene. Many atrocities must’ve been committed in a society as eroded as ours, and years might pass before we have clear figures of the dead, wounded and missing. We discovered how long we could stand in an emergency: solidarity, cooperation and civil organization kept us together. Others were direct victims of the nightmare and lost what they loved most. Many became a baleful pack of hyenas capable of annihilating all in their path to sate their urges.

And that’s where the fear of another blackout comes from. We fear we’ll have to spend more long nights at the mercy of terror, doubt and twilight. We fear that, once again at the heart of darkness, we won’t find our way back.

David Parra

Mérida-based writer, who won the Monte Ávila Editores Contest for Unpublished Authors in 2014 with my book «La Coleccionista». Some of my poems are part of the poetry anthology «Amanecimos Sobre la Palabra, Antología de Poesía Joven y Reciente Venezolana» (2016). 'm interested in writing chronicles and make investigative journalism focused on the west side of the country.