The Book: Increasing control…
I walk from my Caracas apartment to a nearby restaurant. Today, normally bustling Chacaito Plaza is nearly empty. This is an opposition neighborhood of Caracas. R and I have rented an apartment in one of the tall buildings. The apartment is devoid of furniture except for a two beds and a plastic table and chairs, and some of the windows are broken, but it becomes home.
In the middle of the plaza there is a large TV screen that is broadcasting information about tonight’s commemoration of the 2002 coup against Chavez. I go over and stand next to the only other person in the plaza, a bald man who is reading the screen skeptically.
The slogan for the commemoration is “Every 11 has its 13.”
On April 11, 2002, Chavez surrendered himself to the military after a successful coup devised by opposition elites.
La guardia remained loyal to him however, rebelled against the coup plotters, and Chavez returned to power on the 13th.
“Every 11 has its 13.”
The TV screen also shows video from the coup. Many of the images also appear in the documentary “This Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The documentary, ostentatiously made by two independent Irish filmmakers, was almost entirely filmed by Venezuelan government cameramen who were recording footage of the coup for the country’s historical archives.
The footage was later given to the filmmakers to put together and release, creating a powerful pro-Chavez piece of propaganda that has since been viewed all over the world.
After breakfast, I retrieve my cameras and walk down Avenue Francisco Miranda from Chacaito to Capitolio. The walk takes me through much of downtown Caracas. TV screens are set up nearly everywhere. People are watching clips of the coup, which are heavily interspersed with images of US President George Bush.
It is all very Orwellian. Yet the coup heavily promoted Chavez’s image as a super human president. He is one of the few Latin American presidents ever to have survived a coup that would have served the interests of the US government.
Before the coup commemoration, I go to MINCI, the Information Ministry, and try to convince an official to give me more direct access to government events.
I find that new registration requirements have been made for foreign journalists. The requirements makes it easy for MINCI to revoke the visas of journalists that produce work that is too strongly anti-Chavez.
Leaving, I see a line of Chavistas outside watching the TV screens and receiving red T-shirts with “Every 11 Has Its 13” sloganed across the back to wear at the coup commemoration.
The guard pull tight his red shirt to outside a pistol stuck into the waistband of his pants.
Smiling strangely, he puts his face close to mine.
We are standing in a crowd of redshirted Chavistas on the Llaguno Bridge, an overpass near Miraflores. On the bridge there is a green statue depicting people falling, shot by opposition snipers during the 2002 coup.
It is also on this bridge that Chavistas were filmed firing pistols at unseen people on the street below.
Chavistas claim they were firing at police.
Opposition members claim they were firing at the arriving opposition march that had been diverted by its leaders into the heart of Chavista territory.
Though the opposition tries to insist otherwise, video taken from a different angle shows that the opposition march was not under the bridge at the time when the shooting took place.
All the same, coming to this place of violence at a time when Chavez is talking about increasing assassination plots against him have Chavistas attending the coup commemoration jittery.
The guard is protecting a leader of a Caracas barrio. I recognize the leader from TV and am photographing his arrival, but am not sure which barrio he is from exactly. Bystanders tell me various names.
“Its OK,” I say to the guard. I tap my camera. “I am only a photographer.”
The guard comes closer. He keeps his body between me and the barrio leader. His eyes dart around. I fire off a few more frames and back away.
Since returning to Caracas from the west of the country I feel an increasing tension. It is April. Next month the opposition television station Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) will be closed. Chavez ordered the station closed immediately following his reelection. During the coup, RCTV aired cartoons instead of showing the enormous pro-Chavez demonstrations outside Miraflores. Now Chavez is not renewing the station’s broadcasting license, which is set to expire. The opposition is planning massive demonstrations, which have Chavistas concerned. They do not want a repeat of the 2002 coup.
Chavez encourages them.
“Sound the alarm in the hills, neighborhoods, and towns to defend our revolution from this new fascist attack,” he says on Alo Presidente, his weekly TV show.
This makes the energy at the commemoration is predictably tense.
Suddenly, a woman lets out an inhuman shriek and I fear something horrible is about to happen.
But it is only Chavez.
He has arrived unannounced and come up onto the stage where the people speaking at the commemoration are gathering. Cameras zoom in on him sitting in a plastic chair, modestly listening while his image is displayed on a massive screen standing to the right of the stage.
One of the commemoration speakers is a Christian nun from Wisconsin.
“God Bless the people of Venezuela and their good president Hugo Chavez,” she says in heavily accented Spanish. “The majority of the people in the United States are with the pueblo of Venezuela.”
But the Chavistas are bored.
They laugh at her poor Spanish, mimicking her pronunciation. When she is done, a series of Venezuelan priests lead the crowd in folk songs. The Chavistas enjoy the songs, but again murmur and converse amongst themselves when the priests make speeches.
When yet another priest approaches the microphone he says, “I am not really the person you want to hear from.”
Chavez stands up. The priest steps away from the microphone.
The Chavistas wail and cheer.
“After the coup against Carlos Andres Perez in 1992 and after the coup against me in 2002 I wish I had died,” Chavez says. “I have caused so many deaths…”
“Chavez…no…no…” the Chavistas yell.
They snickered at the nun from Wisconsin and were bored with the priests, but listen to Chavez with tears in their eyes and looks of devotion.
The TV cameras zoom in on Chavez.
He, also, has tears in his eyes.
He leads the Chavistas in a chant,“Socalismo o muerte.”
Socialism or death.