October 10, 2002

7 kilometers, packed solid...

I'm just about to step outside and go march, but one last update: it's huge. My boss just called me...he's at the end of Avenida Libertador, about 7 km. out from the starting point. Says there's asolid crowd there. The TV images show that there's a solid crowd stretching all the way back to the Parque del Este starting point: the people at the back haven't been able to even start walking, and those . That's 7 solid kilometers of wide streets packed solid with marchers (that's 4.4 miles, for the metrically impaired.)

As of 12:15 pm, the march remains fully peaceful. Fingers crossed.

World Mental-Health Day

An inside story in El Nacional tells us it's World Mental-Health Day today. How apropos. Mental health is not particularly on-show out there today, though...not in Venezuela, anyway.

In the early morning, two separate convoys of busses carrying protesters to the march in Caracas were basically ambushed: the roads were blocked, either with hijacked 18-wheeler trucks or burning tires, and then someone started shooting into the buses. One guy was killed in one of the ambushes, apparently an innocent by-stander, in Guarico state. The other ambush was on the main east-west highway, on the border between Aragua and Carabobo States, and left six people wounded with gunshots, three of them Carabobo State police officers. Once again, the events were carried live on the radio, as people on the scene got on their cell-phones and called news radio stations. It was eerie: you could hear the shooting in the background.

Significantly, the second raid happened just outside a highway tunnel, directly in front of a National Guard outpost. Some reports from the scene were adamant that the National Guardsmen did the shooting. Certainly, they stood by and did nothing for over four hours while the access to the tunel remained blocked in both directions by trucks. At about 9:30, they finally lifted the blockage and let people through.

I'm just now hearing there was a similar blocked-road incident in Sucre State also.

Three ambushes, miles and miles apart, with people shooting guns on busloads of opposition supporters, all at the same time. This just couldn't have happened without coordination. Ugly, ugly stuff.

Anyway, the TV images are quite eloquent. The march looks huge. Arial shots taken from a high-rise on Francisco de Miranda Avenue show the entire area from the Parque del Este metro stop to the Plaza Altamira packed solid. I don't know how many people that is, but it's a lot. Once again, it's obvious: the bungled "repression" from the last few days only provoked people more. After the Rosendo/Medina Gomez circus last night, nobody but nobody is intimidated.

The Revolt of Los Palos Grandes

Last night was a circus. First, Rosendo Struck Again. Major General Manuel Rosendo, in full military uniform, gave a fire-breathing press conference where, among other things he,

-Accused the president of war crimes, saying that on their final phone call on April 11th, after he refused to implement Plan Avila for the first time, the president told him he was "wearing his uniform with his rifle in hand and he was going to fight for this revolution that had cost him so much."

-Reminded the defense minister of 1991, when Rosendo was a student of the current minister, and Prieto taught him a course on the importance of countering urban guerrillas early-on rather than waiting for them to become full blown wars: "we have urban guerrillas now, Mr. Minister, what are you going to do about it? Why do you do nothing?"

-Warned that the president might issue the same orders today he'd issued on April 11th, but that this time all the military officers around him were unconditionals and would not dare defy him. He reminded the army's troop commanders of their responsibility under the Statute of Rome and reminded them that "following orders" is not an admissible defense in a case of crimes against humanity.

-Decried the hideous treatment of dissident army officers at the hand of their leaders, pointing out that while those who agreed to April's violence had been rewarded with plum ambassadorships, those who refused to shoot on the people were facing trial.

-Sprinkled various other harsh criticisms on the Vice President, the Attorney General, General Belisario Landis, and half a dozen others I can't remember right now.

Rosendo definitely missed his calling: he should've been a politician. He's good at it! Much of the reason his testimony is so damaging is that, until April 10th, he was a chavista loyalist, the head of the Unified Command of the Armed Forces, and as such was privy to a lot of high-level, very compromising discussions in those days. e's a turncoat, basically, and knows way too much. He's also a terrific public speaker.

But his statement was only the beginning. Just an hour or so after the press conference, a DISIP patrol tried to arrest him. The idiots tried to do it on the Third Avenue of Los Palos Grandes, the antichavista heartland of East-side Caracas, during rush hour. As they tried to nab him, an old lady who was driving next to Rosendo's car recognized him, got out of her car, and started shouting "It's Rosendo! It's General Rosendo!! They're trying to arrest Rosendo!" As more and more people in the traffic jam realized what was going on, they started pouring out of their cars, shouting "Leave Rosendo alone!" and "Rosendo! Rosendo! Aqui yo te defiendo!" (a clever on-the-spot rhyme: "Rosendo, Rosendo, I'll defend you here!") With traffic stopped, and a quickly gathering mob surrounding them, these DISIP agents saw which way the wind was blowing and high-tailed it out of there, barely on time. Meanwhile, neighbors were coming down from their apartment buildings in droves, March-Kits (TM) in hand, for another - but this time, much bigger - Insta-Protest. There must have been four blocks full of ecstatic people shouting anti-government slogans and cheering Rosendo. Eventually, somebody took the guy into one of the neighboring apartments to shelter him, while several thousand people stood guard outside, singing the national anthem and such. It was quite a scene.

[Venezuelan readers will be amused to know that, for about the first 20 minutes of this whole thing, the only reporter anyone could get close to the General was Valentina Quintero, who apparently lives nearby. It was hysterical! She kept trying to act all serious and reporter-like, but couldn't quite carry it off and kept digressing on how nice Rosendo looked out of military uniform...very funny. [Valentina Quintero writes a fun, but very vapid, tourism column in El Nacional, and is about as far-removed from a hard-knuckled political journalist as you can possibly imagine.]]

That was the evening for Rosendo. Meanwhile, General Medina Gomez had a somewhat similar experience. He decided to start giving a round of TV interviews, starting in Globovision where he told Norberto Mazza of Grado 33 that he more or less advocates a coup (not in those words, of course.) Then he drove off to Televen for a chat with Cesar Miguel Rondon. DIM finally caught up with him as he was leaving Televen, but in no time at all the neighbors from around Televen caught un, grabbed their March-Kits (TM), and surrounded the TV station, copying the scene in Los Palos Grandes. That siege went on most of the night. Result, they couldn't arrest either Rosendo or Medina Gomez.

October 9, 2002

Ineffectual authoritarianism…

What a farce! The TV images from the joint Secret Police/Military Intelligence raid of Colonel Antonio Guevara (suspected coupster) looked like something out of TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. Something like thirty heavily armed intelligence officers, many wearing ski masks, poured into the apartment at 5 in the morning, blocking traffic around the neighborhood. Within minutes of their arrival, the colonel’s wife has managed to sneak out of the apartment and call several radio and TV stations to tell them what’s going on. As a result, when my radio alarm wakes me up I’m treated to the very surreal experience of a Secret Police raid being brought to me live, blow-by-blow, on the radio, as described by the raidee’s wife.

Eventually, the raiders realice that they’re on the air and go find the lady, but by then everyone in Caracas knows what’s going on. By six in the morning, the neighbors had started a huge cacerolazo, the very folkloric Venezuelan practice of protesting by banging pots and pans with wooden ladles outside your window. It was a huge cacerolazo, showing the people there weren’t the least bit intimidated by the DISIP/DIM presence. Significantly, the neighborhood (La Rosaleda in San Antonio de los Altos) is a military community where 9 out of 10 apartments is occupied by a military family. But then, it got even more farcical: angry at the raid, all these women from the nearby apartment buildings got out their protest “kits” (flags, pots, pans, whistles and such which they’d been doubtlessly preparing for tomorrow’s march) and put together an impromptu little street protest in the access road to the neighborhood. They got some cars out and blocked the access road, leaving the intelligence officers stuck there: once the raid was over, they couldn’t get out. The officers marched down to the streets and tried to scare the ladies into letting them through, but the remarkable thing was how totally unimpressed these housewives were…all the TV showed was a string of forty and fifty year old middleclass ladies shouting their heads off and jeering at these dressed-to-impress, heavily armed military dudes. It was really surreal.

Finally, showing just how misplaced the word “intelligence” is in these people’s job titles, they decided to disperse the mini-protest with tear gas. This was incredibly dumb, cuz tear gas will disperse the jeering women but not the cars parked right on your way. So it just made the marchers angrier without getting the officers unstuck. They looked so pathetic with their little machine guns slung over their shoulders standing there as these housewives gave them hell. It made for great TV footage, that’s for sure.

Eventually, at about noon, the opposition mayor of that area showed up, talked the protesters down, and negotiated an end to the "siege.”

That was two nights ago. Last night’s raids were, if anything, even more ridiculously bungled. First, they turned up at this apartment on a tip that this one colonel had been plotting a coup only to find out that the colonel in question had moved out of there six years earlier…yup, you read that right, Military “Intelligence” information on some of the nation’s most wanted conspirators is six years out of date. Christ! A different colonel was living there, and so they went around on this wild-goose chase looking for the fascist coupster’s current address.

Worse than that, they tried to raid the house of General Efraín Vásquez Velásquez, who was the top commander in the army during the April coup. Another swing, another miss: Vásquez Velásquez’ neighbors ringed his house in another little mini-protest and the DIM/DISIP teams couldn’t get anywhere near the place.

The message here is that nobody takes the government seriously here anymore. They’ve lost all respect, even fear of Chávez. They send these thugs out to prove how tough they are and just end up looking ridiculous, faced down by the fearsome fascist shocktroops known as housewives. They have 6 year old addresses for supposed conspirators. It’s really, really pathetic.

It’s obvious that the raids are meant to intimidate, it’s even more obvious that they aren’t working. If they were really police raids, you’d think they’d have done them all at the same time, no? Imagining for just a second that there really was a conspiracy afoot, what sense would it make to raid the conspirators one at a time, on successive nights? Isn’t it blindingly obvious that if you’re a member of a conspiracy and you see your co-conspirators being raided one after the other on successive nights you’re going to either move, burn, shred, hide or eat any compromising documents you have before it’s your turn? As a policing strategy, the successive raids are totally absurd, as an intimidation strategy, they’re totally ineffectual.

October 8, 2002

The rumor mill on overdrive...

Well, Ana and Pedro, if you read this from Rome, I hate to alarm you but Caracas was spooky today. The rumor mill is on overdrive. We heard all kinds of crazy things...the old stand-bys like the State of Exception and the coups and such, but also relatively new ones like a definite deployment of the Batallon Bolivar, which is a heavy tank batallion (not tanquetas) in downtown Caracas. The ongoing little soap opera in Cotiza between the chavista PM officers and the "Peñista" PM officers continued and worsened: at some point someboy pulled out a baseball bat and started swinging and some officers were hurt. Tear gas, too. It's an ugly scene and there's a torrent of speculation about an imminent intervention of the Metropolitan Police. But if the government takes over the PM, who'll guard the march on Thursday? People see it as a ploy to depress march turnout...

Of course, the new rumors might not seem so credible if it wasn't for the new stuff that's not a rumor. Those 18 year old soldiers with giant machine guns standing at every metro stop are certainly not a rumor: everyone saw them. The light tanks outside the GN headquarters are not a rumor. The reports of a large number of soldiers being sent out to Mecedores, where the radio and TV broadcasting towers for Caracas sit, well, those are kind of in a gray area between fact and rumor, but apparently are fact. And it's also a fact that Stratfor cites inside sources saying a coup is hours away - I know, I know, Stratfor's gotten things like these before, but I talked to Jack and he insists he has people on the inside who know what's what.

As though all of that wasn't enough, an email is making the rounds claiming that the big, evil, chavista plan to sabotage the opposition march on Thursday is to infiltrate it with undercover street hawkers, who'll sell the marchers water and ice cream that's been spiked with laxatives, giving 800,000 opposition marchers the runs all at the same time and thereby clearing out the streets...it's crazy, but everyone I know has gotten it, and people are paranoid enough to actually believe it, or if they don't quite totally believe it, to be wary enough that they won't buy from buhoneros at the march. Poor guys, I feel bad for them...they rely on march-days for little spikes in business, and this won't do them any good at all.

So, there it is. A very very jittery city. Very jittery.

Stay tuned, more to come.

October 7, 2002

Closer and closer to the edge…

Soldiers in the metro, soldiers at the big east-side shopping mall (the Sambil), soldiers downtown. Tank and APV movements around Caracas in the middle of the night over the weekend. A president convinced that a conspiracy is a foot. The mayor of greater Caracas warning that the order to put a tank batallion on the streets has already been handed down. Over the weekend, the Secretary General of the most moderate of the opposition parties (Unión) was picked up off of the streets, roughed up, and dumped back out again, in an episode that’s too reminiscent of the Estrella Castellanos incident, (though unlike Estrella, Esculpi was also robbed, so it may not have been politically motivated.) Raids on opposition figures’ houses, yielding evidence that looks blatantly trumped up. Chávez saying flat out that more raids are coming. More threats against opposition leaders. And to top it all off, a mass-march, called for Thursday, that will probably bring out tens of thousands of people into the streets, into this suffocating nerve-wracking atmosphere…

Things have been tense in Caracas for so long you’d think we’d have gotten used to it by now. But the tension is palpably rising now, reaching suffocating extremes. The big headline in El Universal, one of the big opposition-run dailies, today is “The Armed Forces have an obligation to intervene,” it’s a quote from an interview with Tejera Paris. Meanwhile, General Medina Gómez syas he has a secret bunker that military intelligence hasn’t found yet and that he’s leading the military resistance from there. That, however, is no insider tip: it was quite shamelessly published in El Nacional! The rumors keep on coming, thick and fast. Total militarization is imminent, they say, stoking that old favorite, the fear of a State of Exception (our very own euphemism for a state of emergency, which allows for constitutional guarantees to be temporarily suspended.) The Metropolitan Police is on the cusp of being taken over by the central government. Chávez will declare Thursday’s march illegal and bring soldiers out on the streets to block it. The government has a secret plan in case of a coup, and it’ll be bloody as hell. The rumors keep coming, intermingling with the truth in a complex soup that’s increasingly hard to pick apart.

After reading Ibsen’s Sunday piece, all of the above is freaking me out in a way that I’d never been freaked out before. Until recently I’d found it all vaguely ridiculous, laughable. I was sure it couldn’t last, it was too stupid. But now…