5) Rallies & Marches

April 11, 2004, marked the second anniversary of the fateful events that began the famous two-day coup of the Chávez government. The deaths that the Opposition organizer told CNN to expect did in fact occur at what is now forever marked in Venezuelan history as "The Puente Llaguno Massacre". Anti-Bush sentiment, pervading and visible amongst Chavistas, reaches even this event.

Both sides claim the day as a memorial for their own human rights abuses in the form of murdered compatriots. Both sides mark the anniversary with a street rally. This year, the Opposition conducted a "car rally" (as opposed to a foot march), and the Chavistas held a memorial service on the LLaguno Bridge, where the murders occurred.

This also happened to be Easter Sunday, and so a traditional Venezuelan religious rite was combined with political activism for the "burning of the Judas". For the Opposition rally, the Judas bonfire was provided by burning an effigy of Hugo Chávez. One of our group members tried to question an Opposition woman about what Chávez could do to satisfy her objections to his presidency. The woman spoke English, as many of the upper class do, so there was no misunderstanding of the question. It had to be asked three times, however, to get an answer other than, "He can get out!"

Eventually, the (very empassioned) woman told us that her husband was one of the Opposition members who no longer has a job because, she said, he signed the Chávez recall referendum. She said that there have been 700 attacks on Opposition companies, a claim I had not heard before. She said that those who went on strike in the oil stoppage are prohibited from buying exchange rate dollars, and therefore, their companies have had to close up business. I am assuming what she means is that they are forced to buy dollars on the black market where they cost a good deal more. I have not confirmed that these people actually are prohibited from buying exchange rate dollars, a claim that seems suspect to me, but I don't know. [Note 06/17/04: Here is an article I have come across explaining the controls on dollar sales, and claiming: When he introduced the controls, Chávez said he would use them to punish the companies and workers who had sought to unseat him through the walkout. "Not one dollar for coup-mongers.'': Venezuela Currency Chief Favors Controls Investors Want to End]

She said that the Justice Department and the General Assembly are controlled by Chávez, a common Opposition complaint. However, as I understand it, the justices are appointed by the General Assembly, and the General Assembly is an elected body; therefore, the complaint would rate like ours might in complaining that Bush controls Congress. He doesn't really, but the Republican party has the most Congressional seats in concert with Bush's presidency - so, in effect it may seem like the same thing.

Another common accusation, which this particular woman repeated, is that Chávez does not tolerate any anti-government activity. It fails to register with her that this charge is an obvious lie, since there she is in the street rallying against the government. The Opposition constantly charges that Chávez is a tyrant who will brook no dissention. I am at a loss to find any defense of that one, since he hasn't shut down the five anti-Chávez television stations, the major press, which is also anti-Chávez, or any public protests.

The woman claimed that Globovision TV had been attacked. (Recently, I have read reports of National Guard attacks on anti-Chávez reporters. Considering the events on April 11, 2002, and the ongoing attempts to oust the president, I find myself suspicious of Opposition reports, which were obviously fabricated and disseminated during the coup, but these claims may well be true.)

In typical elitist racist style, the Opposition rally had an effigy of Chávez created with large donkey ears, and a woman had a little monkey on her shoulder urging it to poke and slap at the face of the effigy. The references are unmistakable. The elites refer to Chávez as "el mono" (the monkey) and to the mixed-race poor class - the Chavistas - as donkeys. They seem to consider the Chavistas sub-human, which probably goes a long way to explain Chávez' harsh rhetoric when talking about "los esqualidos". There is a deeply psychological component to Venezuela's politics, one of an ingrained racism based in its colonial history.

Opposition effigy
Elizabeth Oram photo

Hugo Rafael Chávez Frias
French gov't photo
On the other hand, it is true that there are a surprising number of dark-skinned, poor Venezuelans who are also opposed to the Chávez government and who are visible in Opposition rallies. I have the tendency to think of them like America's own slaves who remained loyal to their masters in the Civil War. But there is also truth in the complaint that the people are not seeing as much of the government's promises as they were looking for. This is a tough situation for Chávez, as he has to expend so much energy and resources combatting Opposition activity that it reduces his ability to carry out the programs he promised. How much better he would do with their cooperation is anybody's guess, but certainly there would be some improvement. The Opposition people do not seem troubled to take any responsibility for the lack of progress, even though they have fought the government tooth and nail and even set back the economy to no small measure during their oil stoppage scheme. In fact, it would appear to be their intention to block progress in an effort to destroy the Chávez government, even if it means unemployment and instability for themselves. They seem to be their own worst enemy.

On our way to the Llaguno Bridge memorial rally on foot, while waiting to cross an intersection, we were caught up slightly in an arrest. Our understanding of what was happening was that a street vendor had been ordered by the municipal police to move and refused. The arrest was actually quite brutal, and the force seemed excessive. It included a pepper spraying of a bystander who approached the skirmish in such a way as to discourage anyone nearby from getting any closer. In fact, it discouraged us as well, as our position was close enough that we caught some spray. Our Venezuelan guide, Antonio, got a pretty fair blast in the face, my roommate got some drift, and I only got a few molecules up my nose. We moved on.

The actual memorial rally itself was quite calm and went without event. A live speech by Chávez was broadcast over loud speakers, and vice-president José Vicente Rangel attended the ceremony.

Puente LLaguno Bridge, April 11, 2004

Bob Goodsell photo
Chavista memorial rally at the LLaguno Bridge, April 11, 2004