On April 11th, 2002,
close to one million protesters marched on the palace of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez. Photo: El Universal
Emocionada. Malvina Pesáte was very excited.
How could she not be? If there was a place to be in Venezuela today—in all of Latin America, for that matter—then it was here. Right here. In this march. Never had she seen so many people, and scarcely could she have imagined so many if she’d tried. There had been big marches before, plenty in the past year, but nothing like this. An awesome river of people, filling both directions of a four-lane highway and stretching for kilometers. People with portable radios were saying that it was more than a million people—almost a third of the population of Metro Caracas. She believed it. And this was no somber procession, it was a huge rolling party, Venezuelan style. People were blowing whistles, playing guitars, beating drums, chanting political songs, and, of course, doing cacerolazos. Cacerolazos, or casserole strikes, were the popular form of protest where people banged their biggest ladle against their noisiest pot like a drum. In recent months, at a predetermined time—usually in the evening—everyone opposed to Chávez would come out of their homes and do a cacerolazo, and the sound could be heard all over the city, echoing into the hills. As the march moved through the street, people in the high-rise apartments were cheering them on with cacerolazos, making an incessant, unremitting clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang. Malvina looked up and saw one apartment where the residents had dispensed with the laborious task of actually hitting their pots and pans together, had placed loudspeakers on their patio, and were blasting the cacerolazo CD at airport decibels. Malvina loved it. All that noise. It reminded her of being a kid again. Here you were supposed to make as much noise as you could. It was allowed.
Around her people were chanting:
Esta es la ruta,
esta es la ruta,
esta es la ruta
pa’ sacar este hijo de puta.
This is the route,
this is the route,
this is the route
to kick this son of a bitch out.
“The Massacre of The Silence.”
—Opposition title given to the events of April 11th.
“A Confrontation Between Brothers.”
—Government title given to the events of April 11th.
Undulating above this sea of bodies, bobbing like buoys, were thousands upon thousands of homemade signs and banners. Up ahead Malvina saw one with a picture of a toilet with President Chávez and Fidel Castro sticking their heads out. It read, "Same shit." Another read, "Long live Chávez!!! . . . in Cuba."And then there were all the political parties with their banners and matching T-shirts—big clumps of red, green, yellow, and white. There was Bandera Roja, one of the communist parties; MAS (Movement to Socialism),a socialist party; Acción Democrática and Copei,the two parties that had shared power before Chávez; and Malvina’s party, Primero Justicia,or Justice First. Of course, Malvina had diligently donned her bright yellow Primero Justicia T-shirt for the rally.
Today, Thursday, was the third day of a nationwide strike that had paralyzed Venezuela, and Malvina was in the midst of the largest civic protest in the history of the country. Around her were Venezuelans of every shade, make, and model. There were old people being pushed in wheelchairs, toddlers in strollers, teenagers with Limp Bizkit T-shirts, middle-aged couples with matching fanny packs, fat people, skinny people, light-skinned people, dark-skinned people, rich sifrinos (snobs) from neighborhoods like Chula Vista and Country Club, and poor caimánes (rednecks) from the shantytowns of Petáre and Bolívar. People whose lives would normally never intersect were talking, singing, and playing music together; political rivals who just three years ago would have spit at each other now laughed and chatted. They had all been brought together by their venom for one man: Hugo Chávez. They had put aside their ordinary lives in order to get rid of him, to exorcise him, to purge him from Venezuela.
Malvina, forty-six, a very tall architect with short blond hair, came to all the marches because she felt the country had made a terrible mistake in electing Chávez. Malvina was Jewish, the daughter of Romanian immigrants. In fact, her father had survived the German concentration camps before coming to Venezuela after World War II.
Marching beside her was Gorka, her boyfriend of seventeen years. Gorka Lacasa was a stout, barrel-chested man with light skin and a kind face. His parents were originally from Guernica in the Basque country of Spain and had come to Venezuela after Franco bombed their home in 1937 (inspiring Picasso’s famous painting). Gorka was also, like most Venezuelans, Catholic, which is why he and Malvina had never married . . . not officially anyway. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to, but because whenever the subject came up both their families erupted in protest over the proposed Catholic-Semitic union.
“Miraflores! Miraflores! Miraflores!” people chanted. All morning pockets of the crowd had been taking up this chant—the call to take the march to Chávez’s doorstep, the presidential palace of Miraflores. Opposition marches were not allowed near Miraflores, and Chávez often deployed the National Guard around it on days like today in order to emphasize his point.
Malvina and Gorka soon came into Chuao, where the march was scheduled to end—at the headquarters of the national oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela S.A.; the S.A. is the equivalent of incorporated in English). In this wide-open plaza Malvina got a better sense of how immense the march was. She was looking at a square kilometer of people. A high stage had been erected in front of PDVSA with enormous speakers, and from here the leaders of the opposition were rallying the crowd. And when they did, when the crowd really let loose, the noise reached such a crescendo that Malvina had to cover her ears. All those pots and pans and whistles and drums and shouting, it overwhelmed the senses.
In recent weeks, the battle between PDVSA and Chávez had become the focal point of the public outrage against the president. For Malvina, it was not simply that Chávez was firing PDVSA officials and handpicking their replacements, it was how he was doing it. The president was making it into a spectacle. Just four days ago, on Sunday, April 7, Chávez had fired seven more PDVSA officials during his weekly TV show, Aló Presidente.
“Eddy Ramírez, General Director, until today, of the Palmaven division. You’re out!” Chávez had cried. “You had been given the responsibility of leading a very important business, Palmaven, a subsidiary of PDVSA. This Palmaven belongs to all Venezuelans. Anyway, SeñorEddy Ramírez, muchas gracias. You, sir, are dismissed.” The firings had been done in front of a studio audience who cheered wildly as Chávez announced each dismissal. “In third place, the Manager of Strategic Negotiations. I will repeat the title.” Here the president paused. “Do you see the title this person had, ‘Manager of Strategic Negotiations’? Well, that would be like a member of the military high command.” Then with a doubtful look the president asked, “This is a member of the high command?” Then with a thrust of his hand he cried, “You’re out! Horacio Medina, you were, Mister Medina, until today, Manager of Strategic Negotiations. Muchas gracias for your services, SeñorMedina.” Again the audience had cheered, and on it went through the list of names. “In seventh place is an analyst, a lady. Muchas gracias, señora. Analyst for PDVSA Gas Projects, Carmen Elisa Hernández. Thank you very very much, SeñoraHernández, for your work and for your service. These seven people have been dismissed from Petroleos de Venezuela, and this is going to continue.” Chavez went on to explain that he would not tolerate saboteurs in the ranks of PDVSA blocking the advance of the revolution. He then picked up a whistle from his desk and, in a nod to the upcoming soccer World Cup, blew the whistle and shouted, “Offsides!”
Malvina had been angered by the firings, which she felt were illegal: The president had no right to fire anyone within PDVSA save the company’s president. But she was also embarrassed that this man, this buffoon, was her president. Chávez was right on one count, Malvina thought, PDVSA did belong to all Venezuelans, which meant that the people had a right to defend it. She felt that Chávez had deceived them in so many ways with his “revolution.” She was not going to let Chávez take control of PDVSA, then raid its coffers to finance his Cuban-style reforms.
The energy of the crowd kept building as more and more and still more people joined them. Increasingly persistent now was the chant, “Miraflores! Miraflores!” Before long, the two leaders of the opposition took to the stage. The first was Dr. Pedro Carmona, the head of Fedecámaras, the national federation of private businesses. Malvina was a fan of Carmona. He was a short, balding, grandfatherly old man who knew how to channel the energy of the people and to get them into the streets. She felt that Carmona had made this march happen.
When Carmona finished, it was Carlos Ortega’s turn to speak. Ortega was the head of Venezuela’s massive labor union, the CTV, which represented over 1.2 million workers and was one of the strongest political bodies in the country As Ortega addressed the endless crowd, he told them he had a list of demands for Chávez and he was going to be certain that the president complied with every one of them. “No! No! No!” the crowd booed. Not because they didn’t want the demands met, but because it seemed that negotiating with him would only prolong his rule. Ultimately, Ortega, heeding the supplications of the crowd, dramatically ripped the list into pieces. The crowd went crazy: "Let’s go to Miraflores! Let’s go to Miraflores!"Finally, whether by acquiescence or design, Ortega announced, “And I say that this march, that this river of humanity, goes . . . goes to Miraflores! . . . You have squandered the state’s resources and now this river of humanity is going to Miraflores to get your resignation!”
The crowd roared, Malvina and Gorka along with them. This was an energy like nothing she had ever felt before, a euphoria. She laughed out loud. They would go to Miraflores and President Chávez would hear them. She would tell Chávez—to his face, if she could—that she wanted him out.