Times of protest
By Jorge Silva
April 12 marked two months since the first people died in a wave of unrest that hit Venezuela this year. The day sat between the April 11th anniversary of the 2002 coup against then-President Hugo Chavez, and April 13th – the day that he managed to return to office. Those dates still serve as a reminder of the political division and sense of confrontation that has long existed in this country.
Last year I was part of a team covering protests that erupted following the 2013 presidential election, which was called after Chavez’s death. The clashes finally subsided and we put away our riot gear – gas masks, flak vests and helmets – confident that we wouldn’t need it again so soon.
But this year demonstrations started up again, initially as regular as any stage performance. Protesters, police and journalists would all arrive in the upscale neighborhood of Altamira at the same sort of time, in the same place, each afternoon.
The protests continued, routine and repetitive. But as casualties mounted, it became clear this was a serious wave of unrest. The spectacle became violent and now over 40 people have died, among them protesters, security forces and bystanders.
The protests normally begin peacefully, but descend into violence by the end of the afternoon. Some demonstrators are arrested and the scene fills with clouds of tear gas. At night we can often hear gunshots and we prefer to keep our distance, photographing from windows or high balconies.
The demonstrations have had their surreal moments. At one point, the National Guard used loudspeakers to blast out Venezuelan folk music of the type that was favoured by Hugo Chavez. For that entire afternoon, demonstrators and police exchanged volleys of gas and rocks against this strange musical background.
The protests have involved a lot of students and people from the middle and upper classes in East Caracas, but they are not homogeneous, maybe because the problems in this oil-rich country are so diverse. Venezuela has one of the worst homicide rates in the world, the region’s highest rate of inflation, and has experienced a soaring shortage of basic goods.
Covering this hasn’t been easy. For those of us who actually live here, the combination of the demanding work and the effects of the protests on our own daily lives has been difficult. We have to depend on motorcycle-taxis to get us swiftly to the places where news is happening. The drivers have to navigate pavements covered with oil, broken glass and pieces of burning barricades, while also keeping an eye out for cables stretched across the streets.
On the streets themselves we have really needed eyes in the back of our heads. Some colleagues have been injured and had their equipment broken or stolen. Gas grenades, shotgun pellets, stones, and slingshots with glass marbles are the order of the day. So too are objects dropped from buildings – once someone even launched a sink out of a window.
The future will surely show us that this isn’t theatre. It is a truly real problem, with many people’s lives at stake if the violence outpaces dialogue and tolerance.
For my part, I hope to be able to put my riot gear back into the cupboard very soon.