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The Venezuelan Referendum From the Back of a Pickup Truck

Barcelona, Estado Anzoátegui, Venezuela.

On the afternoon of Friday 13 February, my friend Amelia and I found ourselves in the back of a pickup truck in the Venezuelan city of Barcelona with several members of the Partido Comunista de Venezuela (PCV), two loudspeakers, and our Lebanese-Palestinian companion Hassan. The loudspeakers treated motorists and pedestrians to a cycle of three short songs regarding the need for the enmienda constitucional, the proposed constitutional amendment enabling public officeholders to run for reelection indefinitely, scheduled to be voted on in a referendum on Sunday 15 February. The pickup truck’s designated spokesman occasionally interrupted the musical cycle to urge solidarity with Hugo Chávez’ Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela (PSUV) and to warn against anti-revolutionary maneuverings by the opposition.

Friday had been established as the final day of the referendum campaign for both camps, el Sí—supporters of the enmienda—and el No. Amelia and I had first become acquainted with the terms of the struggle 10 days earlier, when we crossed from Colombia into Venezuela during a hitchhiking expedition originating in Quito. From the Venezuelan frontier onward, competing slogans such as “Vota Sí” and “No es No” monopolized the sides of buildings and the rear windshields of cars. The competition sometimes assumed even more straightforward forms, such as “Sí Sí Sí Sí” and “No No No No,” with the Sí campaign enjoying a decided aesthetic advantage based on the fact that the “I” could be dotted with a star.

Amelia and I met our first representative of the No campaign when he picked us up hitchhiking a few hundred meters after passport control. Diego was a 25 year old from the nearby city of San Cristobal who had just purchased a sofa on the Colombian side of the border at a favorable exchange rate. As we had just very unfavorably exchanged dollars into bolivars—due to a refusal to comprehend that the rate on the Venezuelan street was more than twice as favorable as the official rate—Amelia and I congratulated him on his enterprising nature.

Diego denied that opportunities for enterprise existed in a country whose leader insisted on declaring every other day a national holiday. As evidence he explained that the previous day (2 February) had been the 17th anniversary of Chávez’ attempted golpe de estado and that the following day (4 February) was the 10th anniversary of his ascension to power. He failed, however, to address opportunities for enterprise in forced holidays that were financially compensated; his subsequent announcement that chavismo was undemocratic was then slightly contradicted by his declaration that the enmienda would not pass due to the democratic character of the Venezuelan political system. Diego dropped us off in San Cristobal, wagering that Chávez’ conception of George Bush as the devil was slightly contradicted by the fact that the US was the primary recipient of Venezuelan oil.

Having learned while hitchhiking through Colombia that military officials could be tasked with procuring rides for us, Amelia and I approached a checkpoint of the Venezuelan Guardia Nacional outside the city, where the Guardia addressed us in a conspiratorial whisper: GUARDIA: We are voting for el No.

The Guardia acknowledged that they had at one point been convinced that only el Sí could be associated with el Comandante but had been won over when the Venezuelan opposition—supported by the United States—co-opted a quote by Simón Bolívar regarding the dangers of leaving the same man in power forever. (Not taken into consideration by proponents of the unchanging applicability of historical ideals was whether George Washington had ever been of the opinion that countries should be allowed to govern themselves.)

At the Guardia checkpoint a truck driver named Benjamín was conscripted to transport Amelia and me as far as the state of Barinas, homeland of Chávez. Benjamín began by asserting that Barinas ranches belonging to the Chávez family were not examples of equitable property distribution, but over the course of our six hour drive became increasingly boastful of the fact that it cost him less than a dollar to purchase 83 liters of diesel fuel for his truck. He then moved on to gleefully quizzing us on the price of vegetable oil and flour in our own país.

Amelia and I enjoyed our first personal encounter with supporters of the enmienda at another Guardia checkpoint in the state of Guárico in central Venezuela. Upon our arrival at their desk the Guardia offered us not only the greeting “¿Cómo va la revolución?” but also two cantaloupes and the monetary denomination required to use the bathroom at a nearby gas station. They outlined their political stance by pointing across the street to a billboard featuring multicolored repetitions of the word Sí, and did not object when Amelia and I utilized their official stamp on our upper arms.

After reaching the coastal city of Barcelona east of Caracas, we were joined by our Lebanese-Palestinian friend Hassan, whose choice of countries in which to vacation was determined in part by Chávez’ willingness to expel representatives of the state of Israel. The three of us were hosted at the Barcelona home of Hassan’s friend Ali, whose insistence that Chávez was his second father was determined in part by the ease with which Ali had acquired Venezuelan residencia; he nonetheless continued to assure his Venezuelan girlfriend that he would be voting no in the referendum.

Most of our time in Barcelona was spent on a street in the center of town with a high concentration of clothing stores and markets run by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants. On this street we acquired such knowledge as that:

tahini was also produced in Venezuela, presumably as part of Chávez’ quest to achieve autonomia alimentaria and to combat the notion that Venezuela’s only resource was oil. a great deal of noise was caused by puntos rojos, the innumerable red tents in charge of disseminating information in favor of el Si. Three days prior to the referendum, Amelia, Hassan, and I visited one of the local puntos rojos with the intention of acquiring red T-shirts bearing the slogan “¡Uh! ¡Ah! Chávez con el pueblo sí va”—on which the outline of a military beret functioned as the accent over the “A” on Chávez. Although it was at first claimed that there was a national shortage of T-shirts, we eventually persevered thanks to the intervention of a woman with several missing teeth who introduced herself as Del Valle.

Del Valle proclaimed it an absolute necessity that Amelia and I learn to wear our shirts like real chavistas, who had apparently learned to deal with oversized attire by tying the T-shirts in a 1980s-style knot. Once our appearance had been rendered satisfactory, Del Valle commandeered the microphone belonging to the punto rojo and announced with tears in her eyes that three foreign visitors had joined the revolución bolivariana. It was then decided that the next step in our revolutionary education would be flier distribution the following day, a decision which we were forced to review several times given that the punto rojo’s resident DJ did not skimp on decibel levels.

The soundtrack of the punto rojo covered Chávez-related themes in a variety of Latin beats, some of the numbers apparently performed by Chávez himself. The music enabled flier distributors to simultaneously distribute and dance, a combination we were instructed in upon returning to the punto rojo on 13 February, the final day of the referendum campaign.

Most passersby were receptive to our handouts, which stressed different aspects of the proposed enmienda such as that Venezuelans should vote Sí on account of the fact that Chávez loved them. Only a few intended recipients responded with phrases involving the word mierda or implications that the receptive passersby were simply being receptive in order to avoid blacklisting; the DJ meanwhile periodically paused his soundtrack so that punto rojo attendants could perform karaoke to Spanish pop songs.

When we ran out of fliers, we were supplied with business card-size photos of Chávez featuring the referendum question and the advised answer. One of the card recipients was a man who came to be known as “the Communist” based on his membership in the PCV and the fact that we forgot to ask his name; he greeted us with a “¿Como va la revolución?” and accepted a card despite being in the process of distributing a stack of the same cards himself.

The Communist invited Amelia, Hassan, and me to join a section of the PCV in the back of a pickup truck for a quick tour of Barcelona. The itinerary of the quick tour turned out to be as follows:

Drive five minutes from center of town. Stop so that Communist can address traffic jam on dangers of being tricked by opposition into staying at home on voting day. Drive five more minutes to barrio Rómulo Gallegos. Stop so that Communist can spend next two hours alternately dancing salsa on side of road and branding passing cars with variations on the word “Sí” in white marker. Listen to same three songs emitted on repeat from pickup truck loudspeakers.

The first song in the cycle somewhat resembled a nursery rhyme and began: “Qué buena, qué buena, qué buena está la enmienda,” before going on to explain that the enmienda had been requested by the pueblo. The other two tunes incorporated the “¡Uh! ¡Ah!” theme, with the catchier of the two stipulating: “Y todos con la enmienda, ¡uh ah! Y Chavez con el pueblo, ¡sí va!”

After the first dozen cycles, Hassan had mastered relevant portions of the Spanish language and Amelia and I had choreographed a simple dance routine in the back of the pickup truck, which we then performed for the next dozen cycles while Amelia intermittently flung Chávez cards through the windows of passing cars. As for the Communist, he and other supporters of the PSUV in possession of white markers continued to hinder the flow of vehicles through Rómulo Gallegos, in confirmation of Barack Obama’s contention that Hugo Chávez constituted an impediment to progress in the region. Freedom of expression was nonetheless upheld, and the driver of one hindered vehicle made a show of wiping the fresh “Sí” from his rear windshield.

Amelia’s and my dance choreography was rendered more difficult when the Communist and half a dozen new cohorts suddenly appeared in the back of the pickup and the truck joined a lengthy caravan of motorcycles, cars, and buses draped in red. As we wound through the barrio, we were cheered on from doorsteps and balconies; aside from a group of spitting children, displays of opposition generally consisted of finger-wagging and amicable declarations of “No.” Non-spitting children meanwhile rushed into the street to collect the Chávez cards that the Communist tossed over the side of the pickup truck.
By the end of the evening, the activity in the back of the pickup had effectively been reduced to limp waves of a red hat by the Communist and the occasional “Allahu Akbar” shouted by Hassan in time with the three-song cycle. When Amelia and I requested the symbolism of this act, he explained that Hezbollah caravans were also repetitive.
Once the caravan had dispersed, we extracted ourselves from the pickup truck and were unable for the rest of the night to speak or comprehend anything that:

was not a shout. did not somehow involve the words “uh” and “ah.”

The next morning, the day before the referendum, I went to one of the Arab-run markets in the center of town, now cleared of puntos rojos. The Syrian cashier offered me a papaya shake on the house and informed me that all Venezuelans were “por el no” but that their orientation was masked out of fear. I asked the Syrian if he had gotten this idea from the Diario Región on the counter in front of him—the headline of which read: “¡No voten con miedo!”—and if dancing was a common symptom of fear in Venezuela. He responded that people were liable to do anything under duress, just as Lebanese civilians had been known on occasion to throw flowers and rice at invading Israeli armies.

The Syrian had just returned from a visit to Damascus, where he had noted the prevalence of a certain keychain depicting Bashar al-Assad on one side and Chávez on the other, an arrangement which—according to his analysis—indicated inherent similarities between Bolivarian republics and Syrian Arab republics. In response I brought up a recent hitchhiking incident in which Bolivarianism had been compared to Italian fascism by a truck driver from Napoli.

Further exploration of the wealth of historical analogies made possible by the sizable immigrant population of Venezuela was cut short when a man entered the market from the street and greeted the Syrian with “¿Cómo va la revolución?” before requesting a charitable donation. The Syrian promptly consumed himself with the straightening of a sign on the wall prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages from Friday to Monday in honor of the referendum; the question of the status of la revolución was thus deflected to me.

My principal recommendation was that the revolution be accompanied by more than three songs—a proposal that was largely fulfilled the following evening when el Sí triumphed over el No and Chávez sang through part of his celebratory address to the people.

BELÉN FERNÁNDEZ is currently completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah, which chronicles the 2-month hitchhiking journey through Lebanon that she and Amelia Opali?ska conducted in the aftermath of the July 2006 war. She can be reached at belengarciabernal@gmail.com.

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Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso, and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon.

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