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Into Bizarro World

The Venezuelan Guarimba

by CLIFTON ROSS

Merida, Venezuela.

Your Spanish lesson for the day is guarimba, (feminine, as in ‘me voy a la guarimba’ I’m going to the guarimba) the blocking of roads, lighting of tires, and sometimes involving defensive acts of rock-throwing, a practice adopted by the Venezuelan opposition in response to elections they feel are unfair. Those who participate in the guarimbas are known as guarimberos. It is presently the season of guarimbas, and one can only hope, for the sake of the nation, that they will soon come to an end.

Interestingly enough, the first guarimba I encountered was the officialista(second Spanish word, in Venezuela, referring to the governing party of the PSUV, the Unified Socialist Party of Venezuela), the government guarimba, imposed at the Colombian border (I wrote about this in last weekend’s edition of Counterpunch.org). Without previous announcement the Venezuelan government sealed off the border on Tuesday morning April 9th at six o’clock and it remained closed until today, April 15th at six a.m. While Colombia and Venezuela are both known to close their borders during the day of the election, they ordinarily give prior notice, and the closing is usually only for the day of the election itself. The unannounced closing over the course of six days was taken by many on both sides of the border as arbitrary, an abuse of power and an unnecessary hardship on the people who depend on open borders to conduct business and make a living.

I recognize it might be difficult to get readers to sympathize with money changers, but let’s start there, since that was my first interaction of the day. Leaving my room at seven a.m. I went to the terminal in Cucuta to change money and prepare to cross the border. Although the prices vary significantly between the money changers, I settled on a friendly woman who took the time to explain the mathematical logic of the change to me; to write the numbers down and do the calculations a few times so even this mathematically-challenged poet would have some clue to what the numbers meant. In the end, I was satisfied with the clue and happily accepted the interaction that made me a millionaire several times over without a full grasp of the actual numbers.

I asked her how the border closing had affected her and she replied with anger in her voice, “well, imagine losing a week of work. You see from the calculations I make that we work on small margins. I’m not wealthy. And this closing really hurt bad. Thank God I was able to get over here today.”

I asked her what she thought of Maduro winning and she volunteered her opinion:

“Look, [the PSUV] is ruining Venezuela. People are afraid to invest there because they’re afraid they’ll lose everything, that the government will take it over. And look at what it takes over: it doesn’t take care of it. It runs industries like PDVSA in the ground. And people are suffering. Imagine losing nearly half the value of your money in devaluation, and then having the highest inflation in the world. My aunt was going to buy a house here in Colombia and she went to Venezuela and bought a business and two houses. It shouldn’t be that way. It wasn’t that way before. Venezuela was doing well. It’s gone to hell and Maduro is going to continue the destruction.”

I thanked her for her opinion and stuck a dozen million or so bolívares in my pocket and returned to my room to pack and head to the border.

The taxi was an old 1970s American monster from the Detroit days and it filled up fast. For thirty bolívares ($5 at the official rate, a little over a dollar at the parallel (black) market rate, I was driven to DAS, the Colombian immigration, where I had my passport stamped with an exit visa. I had expected a long line around the building, but when I arrived I was second in line and after the agent perused seven or eight pages of stamps, he found the correct entry visa, stamped the exit and let me go. I crossed the bridge and arrived sweating at the Venezuelan entry, mysteriously named “punto de control fijo. ” After waiting half an hour, during which time the window was inexplicably opened and closed numerous times, taking one or two people per opening, I got my entry visa and walked through to the familiar border town of San Antonio.

I caught a bus to San Cristóbal and transferred to a bus headed to Mérida, my destination.  The bus was already full, but I found a seat in the back where an animated and angry conversation about the election was underway. The five men and one woman all had purple little fingers, indicating that they had voted, and from what I gathered of the conversation, they were all in the opposition.

One of the travelers, the most angry and loquacious of the bunch, was animated and would have been fierce were it not for the smiles that appeared spontaneously as he spoke.

“We’ve got to take this into the streets and let Maduro know that he’s president “por ahora,” he said, referring to Hugo Chavez’s famous words after his failed 1992 coup when he said he’d failed to take power “por ahora” (for now).

“We’ve got to let them know that we’re not going to tolerate their fraud.  They’ve got to recount, vote by vote.”

The bus started and the driver put on the road track, a non-stop series of cumbias. This is the borderland, and Colombian cumbia is something everyone here can dance, or in this case, conspire, with. Once the engine started, between the music and the rumbling diesel, I lost track of the conversation and pretended to sleep. I occasionally considered intervening but thought better of it since I had little to contribute and didn’t want to break up what seemed to me to be a friendly political conversation, even if I didn’t necessarily share the politics.

As we left the outskirts of San Cristóbal and moved further into the state of Táchira, an opposition stronghold with a Chavista governor, I saw the driver get on his cell phone. At some point, he took a turn off the road. The Spaniard sitting next to me said, “wrong move. This road is stancada (blocked).” He was also calling a number to find out which roads were not blocked by the guarimbas which were now rising up in nearly every city in the country.  The bus returned down the road we’d just left, made another turn and soon had taken three or four separate roads and, at the advice of someone on the other end of the cell phone, had changed direction.

We hit the guarimba in Coloncito, a little town on Highway 1, the Panamerican highway, near the border of the state of Mérida.  Up ahead was a huge demonstration and blockade, huge for a small town like Coloncito. We got off the bus and, while the driver conferred with the passengers about what to do, I went off to a small nearby shack to get my cup of coffee for the day, in hopes of killing a caffeine headache. I returned with my coffee and a brownie and quickly ate my breakfast as the driver insisted, in opposition to the entire bus, that they should return to San Cristóbal. The Spaniard interjected that the roads into San Cristóbal were also blocked, but the driver seemed to think he could make it back to the terminal. At last, after some discussion, it was decided that now was a good time to find a cafe to have lunch.

We drove past the guarimba down an open road, and stopped at a roadside cafe/filling station where I invited the Spaniard to a cafe marrón, an espresso with just a good shot of milk. My headache disappeared as the sweat drip off my nose. The Spaniard, it turned out, was a professor of chemistry at the University of the Andes in Mérida, and had once been a Chavista himself.

“I supported the revolution. It did some great things, like helping poor people get an education and come out of poverty. Those were some good programs. Several years ago I started to see how the inflation was destroying the country, how Venezuela was going in debt even with all its oil wealth. How is that possible? Such mismanagement, such corruption and impunity. I couldn’t support that any more. So I’ve gone over to the opposition.”

We walked back to the bus and I decided to stay and try to find a way to Mérida. A young man, who introduced himself as Luis, joined me and we watched the bus pull away as we turned toward the guarimba and the road leading to Mérida. The crowd was energetic, even angry, but not threatening. As we approached the other side, I  stopped Luis.

“Luis, would you mind if I got out my video camera to record some of this?”

“No. Go ahead. I’ll watch your stuff.”

I thanked him and walked into the crowd. I recorded the national guardsmen, facing off with the crowd, then turned for a pan of the crowd. Almost immediately a number of demonstrators approached me and asked who I was.

“I’m a gringo from the United States,” I said.

They patted me on the back and spoke into the camera. “We’re here to call for a recount. Capriles is President! He won the election.”

After a few minutes I returned to Luis and we continued down the road, interviewing people as we went, some Chavistas, some Capriles supporters. We tried to get on one bus that was turning around, but it was full. At some point a man in a jeep said something to Luis and Luis asked where he was going.

“I’m headed to Mérida,” he said. “You need a ride?”

Luis and I thanked him and as the conversation continued, he smiled and said, “I’m happy to have people from the opposition with me! Get in!”

The driver, whose name I didn’t quite capture,  passed everything on the road. As we entered El Vigia he found his way up hillsides on dirt roads and got us around the guarimbas as I interviewed Luis.

“I used to be a Chavista. I mean,  there were great programs that helped the poor. But this process has polarized the country. It’s not possible any longer to have a dialogue. We’ve got to resolve this problem, but the oficialistas attack the middle class. I’m in the middle class. I work hard, but I get nowhere. We have the highest inflation in the world. With the devaluation, it’s impossible to live. Our salaries barely make our living expenses. And we’re all in this situation. The opposition is really growing for those reasons.”

“We help all these countries, building hospitals in Argentina and Bolivia and we spend all this money giving oil to countries while our own economy is being destroyed. This shouldn’t be happening. We have all this oil, but it’s being wasted, and being used by these corrupt people. And it has to stop.”

The others in the car wanted to know what I thought of all this, the election. I said I’m anti-imperialist and a socialist. They said they were too, but they were also in the opposition. I said I thought this was a Pyrrhic victory that very much reminded me of the US elections of 2000 when Bush won, but with no real mandate to rule. I thought it was going to be very hard for Maduro to gain legitimacy among the Venezuelan people, especially since another devaluation seems very likely.

At that point Luis interrupted me.

“They’re inaugurating Maduro now. I just got a text,” he said.

The driver turned on the radio. We listened to the spokesperson from the National Electoral Council (Luis commented, “it’s packed with four Chavistas with only one member from the Opposition). Then Maduro came on.

What struck me at that point is that everyone in the car listened intently to what Maduro had to say, almost without comment, even over the more disturbing statements. One such statement came in the form of his characterization of the opposition as “traitors” controlled and directed by “imperialism.”  I don’t know how the others felt about Maduro’s inaugural speech, but I found it disturbingly clueless, arrogant and devoid of any meaningful content. Having supported this process in Venezuela for the past nine years, having lived here and visited nearly every year, I felt as if I’d entered Bizzaro World where everything is backwards, so familiar, but so unrecognizeable.

The driver left us near a trolley stop where we hailed a cab and took Luis home first, then headed for Plaza Bolívar where I’d take a room before getting in touch with friends since I knew I called them, they wouldn’t let me stay in an hospedaje but insist, rather, that I stay at their house. Tonight I wanted to be alone, and ready to record more as the night went on.

We got within eight or ten blocks of Plaza Bolívar after moving around various guarimbas, and at last I let the taxi driver drop me at a place where I could walk the rest of the way. I passed two or three guarimbas where students were burning tires and waving flags, their faces covered with scarves. I moved through their midst and they raised the wire that crossed the lanes of the Avenue of the Americas so I could pass. They seemed to be having a good time, and the police sat in their jeep. Everyone obviously had the same script.

After dropping off my pack, I went back to Plaza Bolívar to record the cacerolaza and the Chavista demonstration. At the Chavista event I ran into an old acquaintance, Poeta Simon. We talked and several Chavistas came up to greet us. They were friendly and I felt comfortable in their presence.  It was somehow reassuring to know that these Venezuelans, Chavistas and opposition alike, were good, warm, friendly people by nature and culture. Despite their leaders, they seemed sincere in their desire to get along.

Later at the hospedaje I heard some strange squealing outside my room. A dog was chasing a little kitten and a tall, dark-skinned man was pushing the dog away with a stick. “No no! Go away!” he shouted. The dog and the cat were both residents at the hospedaje, but the dog seemed intent on tormenting the kitten that couldn’t have been more than a couple of months old. I shouted thanks to the man, and he came over to talk to me through my window.

I told him I’d been at the demonstration and I’d felt strongly that both sides really wanted to get along, but their leaders were “crap.”

“When will people figure out that politicians are the same all over the world and they have different interests than the people they govern?” I asked.

“Yes, I come from England, and it’s the same there. You’re right. It’s a problem all over the world. And all over the world people are the same. They’re good. But their governments are, as you say, ‘crap.’”

He put his hand over his heart and bowed his head to me, smiling broadly.

Clifton Ross is the writer, director and producer of the feature-length documentary, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” (2008 PM Press) and co-editor with Marcy Rein of “Until the Rulers Obey: Voices from Latin American Social Movements” due out in November 2013 with PM Press. He can be reached at clifross1(at)yahoo.com.