The Battle of the Flea Market

The Maduro regime found a COVID-19 hotspot at Las Pulgas market in Maracaibo and took extreme measures. This is how they plan to handle the pandemic

Photo: Twitter vía @Edwinpri

As a newsman, most people would think that if you get to the place where something important took place one day after the fact, you’re late; that’s not at all the case in Maracaibo. There’s plenty to survey even after the main event seems to have passed, and if you know how to look, you’ll often see that things have a proclivity to be ongoing, that there’s life before and after the bang. 

Monday, May, 25th was hectic in downtown Maracaibo, after governor Omar Prieto declared the closure of Las Pulgas (The Fleas), the city’s biggest flea market, the place where the highest percentage of citizens buy and sell their food. The decision comes after Prieto announced last Wednesday that ten people with links to Las Pulgas tested positive for COVID-19. It was like Wuhan, according to this. The authorities haven’t provided any more concrete numbers, but the governor said on Sunday, May, 24th (without explaining or supporting his theory) that “the hotspot in Las Pulgas has a Colombian paramilitary link”like many bad things that happen in Venezuela, the Colombian government and paramilitaries are to blame, from killing Simón Bolívar in 1830 to sending Venezuelan migrants back to Venezuela turned into “biological weapons.”

Las Pulgas isn’t only the biggest market and informal commercial spot in the city, it’s also a landmark for Zulianos, a place of tradition. Everything and everyone goes through Maracaibo’s downtown and particularly through Las Pulgas, the equivalent of Chelsea Market in New York or Camden Market in London, just in their third-world version. It works just fine for sellers and buyers in this city, a place that for any foreigner might seem like a nightmare of chaos and uncleanliness, but for us, it’s where we buy and sell our food, and there’s no problem with the fuzz that comes with it.

The problem is that the closure of Las Pulgas was not known to thousands of Zulianos, since there’s no means for information to reach everyone on time (especially after the DirecTV debacle last week). This meant that, on Monday, huge numbers of people converged on the place, only to be greeted by the National Guard. 

The closure of Las Pulgas was not known to thousands of Zulianos, since there’s no means for information to reach everyone on time (especially after the DirecTV debacle last week).

Merchants usually left their goods in storage and most of them were there with the intention of gathering their products. There were even some who wanted to work, because the vast majority live on a day-by-day basis, so if they don’t work, they (and their families) don’t eat. All hell broke loose Monday around noon, with sellers trying in vain to get their products for fear of losing them to theftto the same authorities guarding it all. Tear gas and rubber bullets were all those merchants got. Las Pulgas, and all of Maracaibo’s downtown for that matter, was abruptly and completely closed. 

The Day After 

I visited the site on the 26th (the day after the battle), and there were already hundreds of citizens gathered around in front of the courthouse by 8 o’clock in the morning, with GNB soldiers blocking the way. To be honest, the faces of protesters and those of most soldiers didn’t differ too much. They all look tired, as if they didn’t want to be there, or at least in those circumstances. The higher ranked officer was giving some sort of pep talk and orders mix to a team that clearly didn’t have its heart in the game.

Just ten steps between the soldiers and the sellers, an informal restaurant is selling empanadas and pastelitos (in a place that should be closed due to the pandemic, by the way). I guess their rationale is “both oppressors and oppressed have to eat, and who doesn’t like deep-fried food?”. I use the term “oppressors” loosely in this instance, because those boys in uniforms aren’t really the ones who should take the big share of the blame when the smoke blows away, it seems to me that the people calling the shots are the ones who should answer to justice. 

Police officers on the site had a relaxed attitude (and weren’t wearing masks), shooting the breeze like they would on any other Tuesday. The same “normal Tuesday” feeling was palpable in the locals, which tells me a lot about the state of this country, when citizens of most places in the world that live a traumatic afternoon don’t behave so cavalierly just hours after things happened; in Venezuela, stampeding crowds and tear gas are no longer and extraordinary occurrence or much of a big deal. 

He said “Well, I try to sell bleach, but mostly, I try to trade it for food. Anything I can get, beans, bread, rice.”

Just a couple of blocks near the courthouse, the long Paseo Ciencias Ave. stood empty. The façade of houses and stores had a fresh coat of paint, which gave the emblematic street some allure, but considering that the rest of downtown Maracaibo is dilapidated, that coat of paint was comparable to the rich lady getting a facelift, while her underneath condition of being a horrible human being is ignored. The last commercial block (Centro Caribe Zulia), totally closed like the rest of things, gave me a sad and beautiful image: an old lady on the sidewalk selling cigarettes and lollipops, with the backdrop of Maracaibo’s Basilica and no sign of human presence in sight. Not even Edward Hopper could have painted isolation better than that. The old lady couldn’t fight habit and necessity.

But if there’s one person who explains why thousands risk disease at work is Juan. I saw him in Calle Carabobo, walking with five liters of bleach in one hand and five liters of disinfectant, yelling “CAMBIO, CAMBIO, CAMBIO” (which stands for “trading, trading, trading”). I stopped and asked him “What do you mean trading?”, and he said “Well, I try to sell bleach, but mostly, I try to trade it for food. Anything I can get, beans, bread, rice.”

He isn’t an isolated case. In fact, he’s among a majority that will fight COVID-19, repression or anything that comes their way in order to eat. That’s why Maracaibo today was business as usual, with no business to be made and nothing usual about it.