sábado, 26 de mayo de 2007

Vinegar and Toothpaste

About a week ago, I meet an American who came here interested on studying the political process that my country is living in someway. The night before, I looked in a drawer a tiny box where I been saving some special objects related to several political events I have lived: leaflets, pins with messages such as “yo ayudé a sacar a Chávez” (bad translation “I helped to remove Chavez”) or with the logo of my formal party or the old seven star Venezuelan flag, there’s also bullets I picked up after violent events at the streets and a pellet cartridge; some pictures and even a piece of a handkerchief that once had an incredible strong vinegar smell. It hasn’t been a lot of time since the protests of the Strike and the ones that followed; and it already looks like a frozen piece of recent Venezuelan political history. I put in one small envelope a few of those objects in order to show them to the American in an attempt to bring the issue closer to him; but in the middle of our coffee talk I realize it wasn’t necessary or perhaps it was just too weird to put out those objects in a public space in front of everybody. So, after the coffee, I took the bus back home with the weird envelope inside my handbag. Of all those objects, there are two (and none of them it’s a bullet or a pellet cartridge, by the way) which are especially meaningful to me: a picture and the handkerchief.

1) THE PICTURE

When the Strike (the strike was between December 2002 and February, 2003) started, a few protests took place at the famous “Plaza de la Meritocracia” (“Meritocracy square”), witch it’s not actually a square but just a street. The people were very used to gathering in that place. It was the place were they gathered every night from April, 9, 2002 till April 11, was almost like a sacred place for opposition demonstrations and I used to feel safe while I was there… All that until the Strike, and ever since the Strike, I can’t remember going, again, to any demonstration at those streets.

It all started with some president’s decree, I think, of naming some areas in Caracas as “Zonas de seguridad” ("Security Zones”). They were areas surrounding military installations or government institutions. And they were incredible big areas. Since those areas stopped being just some streets and were named as Security Zones; demonstrations were not allowed at those areas, or at least not opposition political demonstration because more than once, I saw, in front of my skeptical eyes; how many pro-government mass demonstration took place at the same place were opposition demonstration were not allowed with that “Security Zones” argument. The streets called “Meritocracy Square” are located near by an air force airport called “La Carlota”. Therefore, our “sacred” place to protest wasn’t so “sacred” anymore; it was now a “security zone”.

The people, openly challenging this government’ measure decided to go to protest at the “Meritocracy Square” anyways, as soon as the General Strike began. And they faced a strong government’s welcome: soldiers armed with tear gas bombs, pellets, and a “peinilla” (couldn’t find the word in English) witch its some kind of large machete that only works for hitting, but doesn’t cut. The violence extended for about two or three days and were part of the reasons of the Strike conflicts became more radical and longer. One of my uncles was there one day and a soldier or a police man, now I can’t remember properly; hit him strongly with a peinilla. After watching the images of military abuse on the TV, and hearing my uncles horrible stories; my dad decided it was enough. A few minutes later, in a very unconscious act, I found myself at the car, with my sister and my parents going who knows where to protest; knowing already that the military were on the streets and they were ready to attack in case of any “public disorder”.

We couldn’t get farther than a highway which it’s just above the “Meritocracy Square”. A few cars where parked on the highway (the highway was almost empty since people didn’t attend to their jobs that day and the oil shortage as a consequence of the strike was just starting), and there were some people with flags, as crazy and mad as us; just looking at the events down the highway. Seemed like the military had just ended a protest because I could feel an intense smell in the air that I know now was because of the tear gas bombs but for that time, I haven’t smelled tear gas before so I only knew it was that because of the comments my mom was making about it.

I didn’t not saw what was happening under the highway because as soon as I was starting to approach the border, all the doubts about “how a tear gas bomb is" were clear when one of those just fell right next to me. Luckily, it did not hit me. An explosion sounded and the people started running back to their cars or wherever they could. I wasn’t quite aware of the situation: for a second it was just a weird gray thing next to my foot; and then it started to give off an intense white smoke. My dad screamed at me: “Come back to the car right now! Don’t you see that? There is a tear gas bomb right next to you!” – “That’s a tear gas bomb?” – I asked, still unconscious of the danger – “Of course! Come back now!” - I made my family wait for a few more seconds: I had to find my cam, prepare the perfect witness picture and shoot; this was serious and I needed proof of the military abuse. While I was doing that I started feeling dizzy and my eyes began to tear. That’s when I ran and I just pressed the bottom of the cam without even knowing what I was taking. On the way back home I was complaining a lot about the burning I felt all over my face. My mom ordered me to not touch my face since it will make the effects so much worse; while dad, visible frustrated landed his feelings on the steering wheel, asking him self why did we went out to the streets in the first place.

- But dad, we were not even at the protest, we were just looking from above and the highway is not a “Security Zone”, I think – My dad looked me back like saying “Do you think they care?”. Now the reader might think that it was a lot of time between the moment where the tear gas was dropped and landed right next to me and the moment I finally took the picture, heard my dad’s screams and came back to the car; but it was just a matter of a few seconds indeed. A few months later, I developed the pictures (I didn’t have a digital camera back then) and found that picture witch cost me the most, and it was the worst of all pictures I took. It’s just a blue car and a white smoke. If I don’t explain it, people won’t think that it is a tear gas bomb. That’s why its just part of my box of memories instead of being sent to the press or something.

2) THE HANDKERCHIEF

It was a demonstration like any other political demonstration during the strike. The original plan was to get to the State’s Attorney building (in Spanish “Procuraduría General de la República”, I don’t know if I’m making a correct translation), but like always it was prohibited because it was a “Security Zone” or any other excuse. So we could only get a block before the building. We were a little bit tired of those measures because at the end seemed like our demonstrations didn’t had any purpose, since we could only go to certain meaningless places. This demonstration in particular was only a month after the “tear gas on the highway” event and for that time, we got used to being “prepared” in case the military dropped tear gas bombs. Each one of the people attending the demonstration had among common things like their ID, money and water; a tiny bottle of vinegar and handkerchief and/or a tube of toothpaste. The plan was simple and we had done that many times before: as soon as the military dropped tear gas bombs, we smelled the handkerchief filled with vinegar or put toothpaste like a cream under our eyes and nose. By doing that, you could easily resist to the effects of the tear gas smell and keep protesting.

That day, I went with my whole family and started walking till the end point of the demonstration. We heard rumors of pro-Chávez supporters “waiting for us” there, among with the military. But we did not listen to them and kept walking. Back then, we didn’t know much about fear; unfortunately, we learned that with time.

I think we were almost the first to get to the end of the demonstration. There was a lot of confusion in the atmosphere: in front of us, I could see a lot of military tanks and soldiers; on the left side there was a gas station empty and closed, obviously and on the right side, at a bridge above, the rumors were true: there was a group of Chavez supporters screaming at us. If I’m not mistaken they threw one or two stones but I was at the other side and, in the middle of the confusion, I was not quite aware of the whole mess. I decided to sit right next to a military tank with some people who were doing the same and just stay there for a while. My mom followed me. A lady approached and gave a rose to one of the soldiers. After seeing the soldier smiling I thought that nothing was going to happen that day. Clearly, I was mistaken.

I’m not able to tell from where, but I heard the sound of a lot of tear gas bombs being dropped. It could be the military or even the Chavez supporters (there was a lot of stories of Chavez supporters groups that got, who knows how, tear gas bombs that should belong only to the military or police force). If I’m not mistaken I think I heard some gun shoots too.

We found ourselves in the middle of a very difficult situation: in front the military tanks, on the left side the gas station, on the right side the Chavez supporters and back, the whole demonstration: loads of people walking (the ones who were getting to the end behind us) and running in different directions. We were trapped like a bird in a cage: we had no place to run. My mom, my sister and I got up; my mom ask us not to run, use the toothpaste and/or the vinegar, and just walk on the way back, as far as we could. But I never knew what happened. For some reason, the vinegar and the toothpaste didn’t work with me: there were a lot of tear gas bombs; the smell was way too intense and the people way too close to each other. In the middle of the crowd I got confused and felt like falling. That was the last thing I remember.

Sometime later I woke up inside an ambulance as I could see the vehicle later: a man was pressing an oxygen mask against my face and asking me how I was. My sight was very dizzy and my head hurt a lot. I quickly realized the situation and thought that there most been a lot of wounded people around. “I’m fine now” – I answered and got out of there. I could hear some people screaming in the back: “¡Valiente! ¡Valiente!” (Spanish word for “brave”). I laughed, didn’t feel so brave: after all I fall and the rest of my family were just fine, my mom told me that some man had to pick me up and ran to the first medical care improvised place he found. Did I use the vinegar and the toothpaste in a wrong way, or just too late?

As soon as I got down of the ambulance, a boy quickly gave me his handkerchief filled with vinegar. The air was still unbearable so I smell it and continue walking with my family till we got to an aunts house that is near by. There, my dad prohibited me to get to the end of any demonstration. Since then I was allowed to protest, but I couldn’t get in danger, it didn't make sense because I was obviously not strong enough to stand the tear gas smell like others and I was going to fill a space at some ambulance that probably other wounded needed more than me. “Never again” – He repeated almost to himself in a mix of sadness and anger, sitting with me at the main entrance of my aunt’s house. I think that demonstration brought as a result one death and many wounds, but I would have to look for the news of that time again. I played with the hankerchief that boy gave me, the one I still keep in that box.

(Part IV) A life cut in two half: The loss of the General Strike

I did not sign during the very first “firmazo” (read the previous entry) and could not sign afterwards, on the several pick up signatures events like that were made because the CNE (Electoral Organism) rejected the signatures over and over again.The reader might remember that my ID was stolen in a political demonstration just three months before the strike.

No matter how hard I try, I couldn’t get a new ID until almost two years later (the “Mission Identity”, a governments program who gives Venezuelan IDs in just a few minutes on special events; one of the very few government programs I support although not fully because it has a lot of defects, didn’t exist when my ID was stolen), so therefore I couldn’t sign up in the electoral register as a voter like a lot of friends of mine quickly did when they turned 18.

Maybe that was one of the many reasons that explain why I worked so hard as a volunteer during those days. Was also a matter of conscience because I couldn’t do what it was more necessary for that time: to sign; so I focused on working to get other’s signatures.

Therefore, I was no victim of any political discrimination. For those lists that government supporters kept for identify people against Chavez, I did not exist; so without even wanting to, I was luckily saved. Not all had that luck, and some did not even had to sign. I’m talking about the people who join the strike, and sacrificed their jobs and even their lives as a result, people who had jobs that were somehow related to the government.

A few days ago I met a friend of mine in a hallway of the university and we talked for a while. For some reason or another, the strike was mentioned in the middle of the conversation. I was distracted talking to her about demonstrations, violence, tortures, and many other things that happened during the strike and that people didn’t care now or simply forgot. Then she told me her story, quite different from mine even counting that we are both middle class and we are both against the government.

Her mom worked for the state oil company: PDVSA when the strike started. For some reason, she did not agree with the strike. She was openly against the government but for her, it wasn’t just logical to stop working in order to break down a president. That wasn’t the right way for her.

She was in the middle of many rivers, if she went to her job as she wanted to; she would have her friends at the office who were against the government, against her as well. And if she decided to not attend she was in risk of losing her job, the major income of her family. At the end, trapped into many contradictory options she joined the strike and lost her job. My friend found her several times crying in her bedroom, frustrated by the situation.

My friend’s parents didn’t allow her to go to any demonstration, at the same time my mother was encouraging me to enroll in a political party. “Your mom lost her job” – Her father told her – “We sacrificed enough for this country”. My friend simply became indifferent to the political situation. She went to a demonstration with a group of friends, in secret, just to “have fun and see how it was”. And she told me: “I wasn’t obviously the only one who was just having fun, the people were dancing samba there” – The scenario of the demonstration made her think that the people were not taking the issue as seriously as it required.

But I disagree with her: after all we are from Venezuela, a tropical country and we laugh even (and specially) on funerals. Our smiles don’t always means jokes, sometimes they mean “smile for not cry”. “At least I know that I went to every single demonstration with conviction, don’t know about the rest” – I explained to her. But despite of that, I understood why she locked in her own sphere while I was pretending to save the world; we had been raised in very different ways politically speaking even counting that we belong to the same class.

My family is made of idealistic intellectuals that would rather live under bridges before working for something against their beliefs; and that is not always good since many times we have spent incredible rough economical situations that we could perfectly avoid if it wasn’t for our beliefs. My friend’s family is probably more realistic.

A guy at the bus yesterday, in front of my passionate idealism told me: “Well, my wife works for the government and she hates Chávez; believe me she does, more than me. But she has weared red shirts and attended several pro-Chavez demonstrations. And what else she could do? Otherwise she would lose her job…. After all, “en la vida, uno tiene que bailar al son que le toquen” (bad translation: “In life, one most dance the song that’s playing”)”.

My friend’s mom couldn’t even found a song to dance to, to be saved. And I’m no one to judge that since no one from my family worked for the state oil company when the General Strike started so we didn’t have to face the trouble personally and it’s far more easy to fight when the issue is not touching the door of your house and the bread in your table. “Sooner or later it will touch us all. My mom worked for PDVSA during the strike and now your aunt works for RCTV” (the TV network that Chavez will close tomorrow). – “Yes” – I answered- “But probably my aunt has ever fewer options to save her job that your mom ever had”. Doesn’t matter, my friend is right, it touch us all anyway.

My friend’s mom isn’t the only case that I know or heard about, of someone who worked for PDVSA during the strike. I know a guy who passed from having a very rich and comfortable life to counting the coins for maintain his family by giving some random lessons at one university. From being an expert engineer, he passed to be almost no one, but he survived little by little and enjoyed his classes even knowing they were less than enough.

Another friend of mine moved to the north (means USA) a few months ago. He didn’t gave us a lot of explanations, except going after his father who was also a PDVSA worker and had to leave the country; probably because he was supposed to end up as a political prisoner.

But I have to tell in detail my friend’s mom case because it’s the only one I know of a person who didn’t choose that horrible destiny. My conviction’s tells me that she should choose it but my democratic belief also tells me that she should have the right to choose if she wanted to join the strike or not. But the gravity of the situation did not let her.

In times of such a strong and radical political crisis rarely our individuals choices count, despite on which side of the political spectrum we are. We just find ourselves in the middle of the madness, in the game of “if you are not with me, you are against me”, in the game of calling such as “antipatriots” or “the ones who do not take it seriously” and the strike basically consisted on those contradictory, radical and unbearable games; that cut our lives in half parts, which the memories find now, impossible to rebuild.

PS: I just thought this song could relate. Wise up by Aimee Mann (don't pay attention to the video, just the song and the lyrics)

miércoles, 23 de mayo de 2007

(Part III) A life cut in two half: The political work I made during those days

In the middle of the madness of the strike, people started to wonder what to do since the days kept passing by and no one could see an end. And this way of living wasn’t bearable for anyone.No one ever thought that the strike would last that long. There was a lot of hope in the environment. Hope that I deeply now, when no one sees a way out, a different Venezuela. When the strike on December 2002 started, people believed that it was just a matter of a few days before we could see Chávez desperate because of the situation and asking for ways of negotiation in order to finish those protests. Those tactics, eventually, could guarantee his way out, since that was the wish (we used to believe) of the majority of Venezuelans. Invite to negotiations was the thing to expect of any normal democratic president, or any man with democratic principles at least; but for me Chavez is neither. He knew that the strike wasn’t as general as we wanted (although it was pretty strong for many) and that sooner or later since after all we are not warriors but common human people with things to do and needs, we were going to get tired of that. So the days kept passing by and the repressive events such as the one I told about on the previous entry kept repeating. And then, the people started talking about other ways to “get out of Chavez”. The word “referendo” (Recall) was heard seriously perhaps for the first time as a possible way out of that terrible situation.
Months before the strike, on the days after April 11, a pro-government teacher at school told us “I honestly think the people of the opposition haven’t read the constitution. Stop protesting on the streets and pick up signatures and use the recall figure present in the Constitution. Did any of you guys saw anyone at any of the protest of April or the ones that followed picking up signatures?” – We all answered “No” in a sad chorus with our heads down, we all thought that she was right, that the “Chavista” teacher that we couldn’t stand sometimes, beat us with that argument and won.
When, during the strike, the people started talking about a possible recall, I noticed that we needed people to work in order to pick up the signatures. I quickly reached to the conclusion that just going to political demonstrations wasn’t enough, and so I talked to my mom about the possibility of working in politics more seriously: – “Perhaps I should join the Citizen’s assembly” – I told her. “No!” – She argued – “If you are going to work in politics, the way to do it’s through a party” – “But politics party these days…” – “If they are not good enough, then make them good enough. Without political parties, there’s no democracy”.
Therefore, she invited me to an assembly of the party she was involved at that time “There’s a youth group there. You might like it”. I went there and in fact I quickly made friends of the members of the youth group of a new party called “Primero Justicia” (In English: “Justice first”). Years later I resign from that party for reasons I might explain on some other entry. But that day I strongly believed that I was supposed to work there for many years to come. I filled a form, they explained me how the party was founded and that it was called like that because they belief that justice was a primary condition to build a respectable democracy. The party was identified with the right wing, but as an 18 year old girl filled with illusions of change, and since I did not see the blue color anywhere; I never knew or never worried me about the ideology of that party, and since then, belonging to an ideology has been far from being my concern. As long as they give me a space to work on that goal of putting Chavez out of power and learn about politics in the end, I did not cared about the rest.
But the party wasn’t the only organization I joined. I also attend the Citizen’s Assembly (Asamblea de Ciudadanos) that gathered once or twice a week in my neighborhood during the strike and once a week after the strike. My mom did not argue about this decision and I was the only one of my family who attended. I think they consider it as a waste of time, and only good for people who had nothing else to do. But I knew that was the beginning of something important and as a future thinker (cause I didn’t had more than a few months of university) I had to see it.
The Asamblea de Ciudadanos consisted on a group of neighbors who reunite in a circle in a park for discussing the most recent political events and ideas, planning safety strategies in case the neighborhood was in danger during those days of confusion (people feared attacks of Chavistas, I heard that happened in other neighbors but I couldn’t be sure of that since it didn’t happen in mine, we were only attacked by the military as I mentioned on the previous entry).
On some days, some politicians were invited to talk to the Asamblea and we (since I was not only an spectator but I talked to the organization team and got very involved) kept the track of the neighbors who assisted. Some days, we could even count a hundred, and some other days we stayed waiting for the people.
So, during the last month of the strike, my days were filled with an intense political activity that passed beyond the mass demonstrations and the “cacerolazo” (events that I kept attending as well): A lot of meetings, discussions, plans, and so on from both the party: “Primero Justicia” and the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos”. But the conflicts between two groups soon made me felt like I was swimming in the middle of two rivers. My mom was right. Most of the people at the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” used to call themselves “Anti – Políticos” (Against politics or against politicians, works both ways). They saw the struggle against Chavez as a struggle for values, family, a better country and so on and for them “politics” meant “politics party”, or even so “old bad politics party and corrupt politicians”.
Since the “old politics party” were “bad”, then “all politics party are bad”. Then, even considering that what they were doing at the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” was clearly political, using that word was implicitly prohibited and that bothered me since the very first day. As a classmate and a good friend of mine once wrote “la política no puede ser algo que se haga ni con asquito ni con grima” (bad translation because I can’t make it literal: “the politics can’t be something done with repugnance nor disgust”).
So as a result of this “politics disease”, I couldn’t show up in the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” with lets say, a yellow t-shirt of “Primero Justicia”. And the disagreements between the parties and the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” are quite obvious now for the reader. So more often than not I felt like working with both god and devil, but since I was interested on working, I tried to forget the disagreements between one and another and focused on the things that we were doing. And I succeed, at least for a while.
We originally thought on the posibility of finish the strike with a "referendo consultivo" (consultive recall) on February 3rd, of 2003. But the CNE (Electoral organism) didn’t allow such activity, if I’m not mistaken that was the first time that this - not so respectable for me - institution, refused a few signatures for whatever reasons. So the day of the “referendo consultivo” changed its title to “firmazo” (from “firma”, Spanish word for “signature”). And a big pick-up signature event was carefully planned and organized, for some odd reason by the “Citizens Asambly” under the standards of a non profit organization called “Súmate” (which recently has been accused of receiving US money, and their executive board has been judged, I think, with no other serious argument than being against the government), instead of being the parties the ones in charge. This was probably because most of the people just hated the idea of being identified with a political party, that, as I have been showing, it is a big mistake. Or maybe it happened because the parties didn't work enough on that side, who knows.
In my neighborhood the “firmazo” took place in a shopping mall, with the shops obviously still closed so for me was a weird place to do it: the feeling of going to a shopping mall not for buying stuff but for putting a signature that might be the seed to put an end of this madness. I got up early in the morning of February 3rd, 2003. A lady from the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” gave some kind of ID with the three colors triangle which makes the logo of “Súmate”. My job was quite simple: to organize a special area of the mall dedicated to the old people and people with disabilities. A few others from the youth group of the “Asamblea de Ciudadanos” were commanded to go in bikes with the forms in order to pick up signatures in hospitals, retirement homes and so on.
I was amazed to see all those old people faces, some could barely walk or hold their pens so the process of picking up the signatures was incredible slow and the rest had to wait for some hours even, gently smiling at me and the rest of the volunteers. I miss the feeling in the air that day, the people signing with no fear, strongly believing that they could make a change. After two months of protest, violence, lack of gasoline and food, no Christmas, no normal life; they were smiling.
They didn’t suspect even for a moment the disgrace that came afterwards. They never knew that signing a form asking for a recall could mean for many to lose their jobs, or not being able to get one, or even had to leave the country or don’t have access to certain public service (since the signatures were quickly distributed everywhere, and you can still find them on the net under the name of “Lista de Tascón”). They thought that Chavez was going to be part of a terrible short nightmare in the history of our country, leaving without time enough to make possible such a terrible political discrimination.
How naïve we were back then!
PS: The image is a picture of the "ID" I used the day of the "Firmazo" next to a small pin with the logo of "Primero Justicia"

sábado, 19 de mayo de 2007

(Part II) A life cut in two half: The "cacerolazos" during the General Strike

During the strike, some days, special political demonstrations were planned: the biggest ones that I have ever been so far. But other days, I had no choice but wait with illusion the current “cacerolazo” at 8 Pm.A “cacerolazo” is a form of protest very common in South America, I think you can track back its origins to the Argentinean crisis of 2001 but the origins are not important for this story. The “cacerolazo” consist on making noise by hitting metal made kitchen tools. It mainly symbolizes hunger, because we are hitting empty tools instead of cooking with them. But it can further symbolize the lack of other things too. So to symbolize mainly the lack of freedom, I went out walking every night, till the main avenue of my neighborhood, hitting a spoon against a sauce pan under the rhythm of a famous consign for those days “Ni un paso atrás” (Not even one step back)
The cacerolazo could extend for one or two hours. The number of people attending every night varied. Sometimes, since the people have nothing to do but worry about politics during the strike, the cacerolazo turned into a street party; and the houses around the street where the people were gathered, used their electricity to play some music. But other nights, especially if we had heard of violent events in other areas, the sound of the kitchen tools expressed an anger that made your whole body trill with it and you could feel your eyes almost swelling into tears. The people used to become absorbed with the sound of the hitting without even looking or talking to each other.
My neighborhood is located a little bit distant from the city madness and is very quite and calm. When someone asks me how it was possible to live incredible violent events on those peaceful streets; I point out to the people some marks in the main avenue that are still there, no one has touched the paving ever since. You can still see some defects, which are the result of some stuff we burned there to “defend ourselves from the Chavistas” (Chávez supporters). An action I do not have a choice but to admit that it was more part of a crazy paranoia than a real danger. Those marks speak to me about the days when my neighborhood was not peaceful at all.
One night, after a horrible military repression of another political demonstration in Caracas; my neighbors decided to make a “cacerolazo” at the doors of the house of a guy from military that was pointed as responsible of that repression. The military defended himself from the actions, I think, in a very strong and not justified way. The soldiers, who were commanded to guard the house, dropped many tear gas bombs in this residential area, without measuring where the bombs were falling. I heard many shots. Not exactly gunshots: A different sound tells you that a tear gas bomb has been dropped.
Two seconds later the smell came. It’s right there when you have to do something or you’ll lose control: the bombs makes you feel tired and dizzy, I usually have headache and my throat also hurts after smelling one but I’m not sure if they are the same effects for everybody. In addition, obviously you have the main effect in the eyes: a deep burn that makes your eyes jump into tears.
I could not keep the count of how many bombs were dropped because before I noticed the people were running away next to me and screamed asking me to do the same. Everyone used to go to the “cacerolazos”, kids and grownups, and old people that could barely walk and they all had to manage how to run from the terrible tear gas smell. The kids ran holding the hands of their parents who were trying to relieve them, by giving them a handkerchief filled with vinegar or just tooth paste (those things calm the effects of the tear gas smell).
One of my neighbors holds the most terrible story about it, she ran with her mom and some soldiers followed them to her house. When she and her mom entered, the soldiers throw tear gas bombs upper the roof, to the front yard of the house. What those guards didn’t knew was that my neighbor had twin little brothers, of only 7 months of age for that time, who were seriously affected by the gas and they had to take them to the hospital. If I remember correctly, her grandmother or her grandfather (I do not remember well), also lived with them and were damaged by the bombs.
I also saw a man wounded because of gum bullets (pellet) all over his body. Those wounds look pretty much like measles: many red points. It was common that the military did not use the pellet, as they should, I think, shooting to the ground, just to scare people a little. They did not throw the bombs to the ground either. They throw both things, as they were real gunshots: directly against the people.
My house was located a few blocks away and when I finally get there, tired as hell not only because of the running but because of the smell, I could still sense that unbearable smell. For me to sense that smell from such distance there had to be many tear gas bombs dropped.
A few hours later a scandal began: the people picked up the tear gas bombs in the streets; they checked the expiration date of those bombs. They were expired. Who knows what that gas contained. A gas everyone in my neighborhood smelled that night.

martes, 15 de mayo de 2007

(Part I) A life cut in two half: My General Strike memories

Since I started writing this blog, I have always wanted to speak of my memories about the General Opposition Strike that happened while I was just starting my university studies (December 2002 till February of 2003).I wasn’t ready to tell those stories before; I didn’t know how to put in a logical order a great number of events that took place during those months. This was more than just a day of going to the streets for a political demonstration: during the whole strike our lives consisted in nothing less and nothing more than politics. We lived a surreal couple of months in our very own way.
I must add here that the people lived the strike, naturally, in many different ways. On this story you can probably find many realities and not all the people lived it in such an intense way as I did. Many, specially outside Caracas didn’t even feel it at all because the strike was strong but never completely general and in some places life went on as normal. Yet, many lived the strike in a much more intense way than I did.
The case that impress me the most it’s the one that a girl of my university told me once. She lives in a place called “Parque Central”, some giant residential building complex located in Caracas downtown, a place that was labeled as a “chavista place” (Chávez supporters place) on those days. Her parents were so afraid that something bad happened to them that they bought loads of food before the strike and didn’t came out of the apartment (a tiny one) in two months. She and her sister used to go to the balcony to catch up a little bit of sun. And back inside to watch the horrible news.
But my case was just a little bit less extreme: My routine changed completely, I stopped going to the university since it was closed as well as many other places. With the oil shortage we were cursed to stay at home and the only thing that managed to get us outside our doors was, again, the political situation.
I don’t have much in the way of memories of Christmas that year, the general hope about the strike was to have a “Christmas without Chavez” and when December, 24 arrived, and we realized that Chavez was still in power and the situation kept going worse and worse, we didn’t feel like celebrating. Some shops opened specifically for those days and my family bought some stuff for my niece who was like 6 years old. I think she still realized the reality of the world she was growing up into, no matter how many presents my family could gave her in order to make her feel like everything was normal. And New Years Eve consisted on gathering on a highway to celebrate and keep the general mood of the “strike fighting”. Ironically, I remember that New Years Eve as the best as I ever spent.
I even had one of my very first romances during the strike. I think that short “love story” can give the reader an idea of how the life was like during those days. We didn’t meet in a party or by sharing a class at the university; we meet at a “citizen’s assembly” in a park near to my house. His dad worked for the state oil company and joined the strike and he was very worried about it. Our first date didn’t consist on going to the movies and dinner; it was basically to attend to another political demonstration taken by hand. Not even love could develop outside the overwhelming politics sphere. Indeed, the strike not only consisted on going to some place to make a political demonstration: it knocked on our doors in a way I thought no possible.
And when the fight started to decrease, and the hopes were dying as they have died so many times; the strike had no choice but coming to an end, because we couldn’t continue fighting, it was too much, and didn’t made sense anymore. We were tired.
After a major signature event asking for a recall against Chavez, in the beginning of February of 2003 (those first signatures were all rejected by the Electoral Venezuelan authorities, and that recall only could took place after the third time the opposition tried to pick up the signs, one year and some months later; but that’s part of another story), we woke up and saw all the shops opened for the first time in a little bit more than a couple of months.
We heard of rumors of many business being closed forever, but almost none of them were true. I remember being afraid after hearing the rumor of the closing of “Chip and Cookie”, I think it’s a Venezuelan franchise even with the English name and I shallowly love those cookies. A few friends and I took a walk through a mall near home to see nothing beyond ordinary: the shops with the doors opened, including “Chip and Cookie”. But that day, that stupid detail was something extraordinary for us.
A minute later I was ready to go back to the university, I had missed terrible the university but couldn’t really study a thing during the strike, as it was impossible to focus and the idea of suddenly coming back to class after everything we went through, when we lost many due dates of papers and exams, put me on some space in limbo. But as the professor begin his lecture on the first class after two months and some days; the emergency of putting the strength to restore my life took hold of me.
I quickly saw the faces of all my classmates. How did they change so much? Almost the same way people changes after summer vacations. Their faces were filled with a hundred stories. One of the guys was sad: he lost his girlfriend. The girl’s parents decided to move to the US in the middle of the mess and confusion of the strike and never return. Many others were frightened: their parents or relatives had joined the strike and now they were facing a life of unexpected economical difficulties since Chavez fired every single employee from the oil company who joined the strike.
And another friend from the university told me, in the middle of jokes: “I think, from this day forward, that my life can be easily divided in two parts: before the strike and after the strike”. He was right, even if we don’t talk much about the strike as we used to do, when the events were much more recent. My life it’s still cut in half and it is now, when I’m ready to tell the things, in detail, that I remember from those “scissors” events.

lunes, 14 de mayo de 2007

Just another day

Another day starts. I wake up early in the morning and walk to the kitchen with my eyes opened halfway. Open the fridge and then realize that there’s no egg for my breakfast. My family commented that during dinner last night: It is not because we forgot to go to the supermarket; but because there is no eggs in any supermarket across the city.My aunt may bring us some eggs tonight as she promised (I did not ask how she found them or what she do to get them). In the mean time, I hopeless close my fridge and make some coffee in order to get ready for class.
I quickly forgot about the uncomfortable and angry feelings that go throughout my body every time a shortage affects me and try to keep with my normal routine.
At the bus there’s some people reading a very pro- government newspaper called “Vea”. I hardly try not to focus my sight on the red headlines who announces the soon process of signing up for the PSUV (Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, in English: United Socialist Party of Venezuela), the newest Chavez idea of putting all his people under one single party. I have to admit I’m already prejudiced about the rest of the articles from that paper; statistics’ that show nothing but success of the government program, less poverty, more health care and so on; the words “anti-imperialism”, “revolution”, “Chávez”, “people”, “Socialism of the XXI Century” repeated over and over through the diary as if they were the only language possible.
A few minutes later I’m finally in class. But my lessons are about to be soon interrupted by an unusual object that appears in the Caracas sky, and makes all my classmates turn their heads to the window to look at it carefully. It’s not an alien invasion for us. We have follow it on the news: the installing process of three big white dirigible airships with the big red logo of the Caracas government that has cams of the highest technology inside; intended as the mayor (pro-Chávez) said, to be helpful on the fight against common delinquency. Although those dirigibles could be helpful to the fight against other things that bothers the government. But since I don’t want to be accused of “middle class paranoia”; I only limit my reaction to the first live encounter with that dirigible to make an ironic smile and slightly whisper to one of my classmates: “Big brother is watching you”-. Since he’s also an Orwell reader, he moves his head down; in a resigned gesture that sends me a straight message: “Indeed”…
After class, a professor gives us a lift back home. We just have left the university behind when we ran into an unusual traffic, even for Caracas that it’s a famous city because of the traffic trouble it has. About a half hour later we realize the cause of such an unbearable traffic coincides with our first stop: at one side of the highway is located one of the entrances of another university. That entrance is blocked and we can see some people running and smoke everywhere.
My best friend lives just near by and she is determinate to get down of the car and continue her normal way: “Its probably nothing, I’ll walk to the other side quickly, until I get to the subway”- She says after my desperate request to ask her to come over to my house until that mess which looks like a protest is over. The professor doubts about letting her and other students abandon the car; but we don’t have much time to discuss and decide. My friend opens the door of the car and immediately we hear an explosion: - Don’t worry – She insists- Like I said, we are going to walk to the other side”. The professor and I give up, at least we know that the explosion we just heard its only from a firework (since our ears are trained now to discriminate if the sound of an explosion comes from a firework, a tear gas bomb or a gun shot); and that allows us to let them leave the car and walk fast to the subway while we continue our way.
The professor finally leaves me just a few blocks away from my home. My neighborhood looks calm but I’m still worried about what could be happening to my friend at the other side of the city.
I decide to put on my headphones and clear my mind for a little while I take my probably final walk of the day. One song is playing, and it amazingly seems to translate literally all my thoughts and desires from the moment. The song it’s called “Nada Particular” (Nothing in Particular), a 1993 hit from Miguel Bosé who has just been released in a new and better version with Juanes. Singers who got nothing to do with Venezuela and the revolution. The lyrics say things like: “I walk with the anger tired of walking…they have asked me to forget everything; anyway, nothing in particular...” and the chorus can be translated to: “Give me an island in the middle of the sea, call it “freedom”
I enter my home and a few minutes later got a sms from my friend: “I’m fine, there were just a few students burning some stuff in order to protest about Chávez decision of closing RCTV” (the TV network). My sister immediately calls her husband: he was supposed to go somewhere and that university where the protest took place was in the middle of his way. He decides to turn back.
The lunch is served. I will probably spend most part of the afternoon studying, maybe I even get to the movies if I finish on time. But there’s still no egg in the fridge and this, is just another day of the “pretty” Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela… It’s just another day of my life.

* SOUNDTRACK: Here's the song I was talking about, in its original version (means, not with Juanes)