Chavez closes opposition TV station RCTV…May 2007…
At RCTV headquarters, I make a portrait of Miguel Angel Rodriguez.
A talk show host who is one of RCTV’s main Chavez critics, Rodriguez is perhaps best compared to Sean Hannity of Fox news or Jon Stewart of Comedy Central. He is outrageous, not necessarily a liar, but also not some someone who reports facts in a balanced way.
He will also not stop talking. My camera comes out and he goes into character. He stands erect, pointing and posturing, rolling his words and pointing and squinting as if he is talking to his audience.
“Is that enough?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
Rodriguez disappears into a meeting of executives. One of the most visible Chavez critics, he has come to the front of the demonstrations, claiming that he is not political, but rather an “artist.”
He is also criticized by Chavistas for receiving communication training in the US. They think that the US government is trying to encourage the opposition to unseat Chavez through media presented by talk show hosts such as Rodriguez.
In a way, the depth of the international propaganda wars encourage me to believe that people’s opinions do, actually, matter.
RCTV producer Luisiana Rios walks me around the station.
“After the closure we will continue to work normally,” she says. “There are still many things to do.”
She does not know if the channel will go to cable after the closure. The executives are currently holding meetings to decide. Few people will lose their jobs immediately. Most workers I speak with say they have some hope that the closure will not happen. Others say they are already looking for new jobs.
“We do not know what will exactly happen when the station is closed,” Rios says. “We will stay in the headquarters. The military will take control of the satellite. Perhaps they will come here. We do not know. We will stay.”
Next to a RCTV microphone and video camera there is a sign reading, “We want to work. Don’t close RCTV.”
Thousands of opposition demonstrators are in the streets. People are chanting “liberty” and “this is not democracy.”
MINCI sends out an e-mail to journalists claiming that US backed destabilization plans are going into effect.
At the rallies, opposition members say they are demonstrating because they are worried about the future of free expression in Venezuela.
MINCI sends out another e-mail saying that the demonstrations are attempts by “olicharchs” to destabilize Venezuela. But this will only mean the deepening of the already “unstoppable” revolutionary process, the e-mail claims.
Opposition demonstrators stay in front of RCTV headquarters, cheering anyone that comes in and out. A mournful old man sits in a chair with a Venezuelan flag draped over his knees. He does not move except to shift his eyes around the crowd.
“The pueblo of Venezuela should do to Chavez what Peruvians did to Fujimori,” opposition organizers yell into loudspeakers at a rally in Palos Grandes.
They march from Palos Grandes through Altamira, Chaco, and Chacaito. These are opposition areas and the march grows as it moves. Soon it has swelled to a mass of thousands. Though there is everyone from children to the elderly, most of the marchers are university students and middle aged.
In Las Mercedes they make a turn and are stopped at a narrow part of the road by a mass of metropolitan police.
The police stand behind a waist high metal barricade, unarmed, but wearing bullet proof vests and kevlar helmets. A massive water truck is behind them, ready to fire its water canon over the police officers’ heads and into the crowd.
I squeeze my way to the front with two other photographers. People are hitting the wooden poles they are flying Venezuelan flags from against the fence. Another photographer comes to the front. He has on a Kevlar helmet and sweat is pouring down his face. He tensely grips his camera, looking up at the surrounding buildings.
A terrified squat woman in her early fifties suddenly grabs me and points to the rooftops.
“Guardia,” she yells.
I see the top of a green helmet.
National guard soldiers are attempting to stay hidden on the roof tops.
Demonstrators begin to pull at the barricade.
March organizers push to front and call for people to remain peaceful.
An angry man wearing a backwards baseball hat keeps pushing forward to shake and kick the barricade. Each time he is pulled back as organizers try to negotiate with the police.
Suddenly, a small woman with died blonde hair slips her way through the crowd and pulls violently at the barricades.
“YES, YES, that’s it!” shouts some of the marchers.
The man in the backwards hat leaps forward and wrenches at the barricades.
Some of the demonstrations try to turn and flee while others surge forward to pull at the barricades. The police pull the barricades back as the water truck rolls forward.
I begin retreating as the demonstrators succeed in pulling apart one of the barricades and at the same time are hit by a heavy volley of tear gas, rubber bullets, and water.
Some people fall shrieking on the ground.
Others throw rocks and beer bottles at the police.
A group of police officers with shotguns loaded with rubber bullets take up positions blocking a side street. They exchange volleys of rubber bullets for bottles and rocks with the demonstrators.
While I am dressed in a t-shirt and jeans I see that many of the other photographers are better prepared. They are wearing kevlar helmets, gas masks, and bulletproof vests.
After fifteen minutes everything calms down and the demonstrators again gather around the barricades.
They stand there yelling and chanting, but do not try to pull apart the barricade again.
Returning to my apartment after the demonstration, the building manager grabs me in the hall and reminds me to double lock the gate.
“Things are very unsafe,” she says.
I hear RCTV describing the demonstrations on the TV in her apartment.
At ten o’clock people again come to their windows and bang pots for over an hour, yelling angrily at Chavez.
RCTV is closed on May 27th, 2007. After the closure the older demonstrators largely return to work. It is left to the students to continue demonstrations that they consider to be not only about RCTV, but about the entire future of freedom in Venezuela.
Each day, however, the demonstrations reach a certain point and then do not continue. The students are several thousand strong, but when they are stopped by the police they are careful not to pass the point which will bring heavy violence.
“There are groups that keep thinking that with riots, with Colombian paramilitaries, with rumors and media campaigns against the National Armed Forces that they will destabilize the country, but they won’t do it, we won’t allow it,” Chavez says.
The repercussions of an escalation of the protests might be severe. The Caracas’ Metropolitan Police Force is known as an autonomous organization. It is not clear how much instruction they have been given from Chavez for how to handle the student demonstrations.
Most likely, there has only been some loose command to keep the opposition demonstrators away from Miraflores.
Amnesty International spoke out against the conduct of the police over the last few days. One hundred and eighty demonstrations have been arrested. Police are routinely criticized by Amnesty. What is disturbing is that
Chavez must know what kind of brutality can be expected from Caracas police.
One day, I hear opposition students massing near my apartment in Chacaito. They sit down in the middle of the road for about thirty minutes. There is a long line of police with shotguns ready in front of them.
For a long time, it does not look like anything will happen. The students simply sit in the middle of the road.
“I’d rather be napping,” says one photographer.
Suddenly, the police raise their shotguns. An officer pulls the cap of a canister of tear gas and launches it into the air.
“Here we go,” says the photographer.
He pulls down his gas mask.
The police fire into the students.
For the rest of the day the police chase the students through Chaicaito, bathing the streets in rubber bullet cartridges and tear gas canisters.
I alternate photographing the students, the terrified bystanders hiding in alleyways and the spaces between buildings, and the police.
When I am photographing the police, extra caution is necessary as people high up in the tall buildings try to drop bottles on them.
At one point, while running across the street, I see a police officer pull up in front of a cameraman who is filming a demonstrator being beaten on the ground by a group of police. The police officers shoves the cameraman aside and then grabs the reporter, a woman with long black hair, turns her around and discharges a shotgun full of buckshot into her back.
The police officers then begins firing at me and another photographer who are running up. The other photographer peels off. Not thinking, I keep running forward and stand half shielded by the corner of a building, looking at the police officer firing at me…mesmerized.
This curiosity lasts only a moment. Some of the buckshot brushes the side of my head and I turn and run.
Later, as rain begins, the students are face to face with the police, who are again lined up across the road.
I have all the photos I need.
When I return to my apartment, which is only around the corner from where this riot has taken place, Raine smells the residue of tear gas and points, “Into the shower…”
As I am toweling off there is a loud volley of rubber bullets.
We go out onto the balcony.
Below, a group of students run down the street.
They are followed moments later by police officers running…stopping…aiming…. firing….and running after the students again…
Then a water canon truck rumbles up.
The truck stops just below our balcony and a police officer opens the door, leans out, and throws a tear gas canister at the students.
We go inside.
Like so much of the Venezuelan opposition who are not out on the streets, Raine and I are safe inside our tall building.
The demonstrations become smaller and smaller, but do not stop.
Two days later the Metropolitan Police Force are riding through Caracas two to a motorcycle with shotguns and bags of rubber bullets hanging by their sides.
A student was killed in front of the Universidad Catolico earlier in the week. She had been leaving the university and walking to the bus when she was knocked to the ground by a passing motorcycle. Unable to stand, she began yelling insults at the driver and the female passenger.
The driver turned the motorcycle around and began circling the student. Two additional motorcycle drivers also began makes circles around the student before the female passenger shot her with a .38 caliber revolver.
Students blamed the murder on Chavistas from a nearby barrio for the murder. In response, the Chavistas declared that the opposition had hired people to kill a student to provoke more demonstrations.
MINCI emails journalists saying homicides in Caracas are common and the murder was not political.
This is the likeliest scenario.
The area outside the university is dangerous and murders are frequent. Despite this, opposition students rally around the murder as an example of retaliation from Chavistas for the recent demonstrations. They gather in front of the university’s gate and announce that they are going to march on the National Assembly building in heavily Chavista capitolio.
I am in capitolio when I hear of the student’s plans. The streets in front of the government buildings are covered in guardia and police who are ready to stop any march that comes.
Among them are also civilian men and a few women who are sitting and waiting, looking serious and angry.
“Those are Chavistas with guns,” says Francesca.
A friend of D’s, they have been walking around capitolio for the past few hours. When I see them, I jokingly walk into Daniel in an aggressive way and he jumps.
“You almost got your ass kicked,” he claims.
I can understand why he is tense. The implication that Chavistas are going to fight alongside security forces to stop an opposition march is unsettling. Capitolio is the district where the Miraflores lies. The Chavistas must be prepared to stop any possible repeat of the 2002 coup.
But a guardia commander tells me not worry.
“The march is not going to arrive,” he says smugly.
Indeed it is not.
At the university, the police blocking the students from marching are not agreeing to any negotiation.
The students continue to try to march for a few hours, but when a strong rain does not stop, they head back inside the university.
Defeated, they attempt to go home, but the university’s internal metro station has been closed.
The students bang on the metro station’s gate and yell for it to be opened.
Some break down and begin panicking.
Others go inside the university to wait in the classrooms for the metro to reopen.
With the police outside and the metro closed there is no way to leave. A rumor begins circulating that there are armed Chavistas outside the university waiting for the students.
After seeing the people waiting in capitolio, I find this a plausible and sharply unpleasant idea.
I attempt to find an exit that is not being blocked by the police, but students tell me not to walk along the fence.
“There’s been shooting,” a female student tells me.
There had been three spaced out reports which sounded like gunshots. But I hadn’t thought much of them. I believed that the murder of the student in front of the university had not been political. For anyone to shoot a student after a demonstration would be a serious escalation of the situation and detrimental to the Chavistas.
“You can’t leave because of the danger,” a female student tells me. She says this with a certain smile that seems to light up the fences of opposition members when they feel they have irrefutable proof of Venezuela’s Chavez induced insecurity.
It is getting dark and I do not want to wait around the university for the unknown time when the metro will reopen. Gunshots or not, I am not convinced danger waits outside the university walls.
The students seem to want to believe that there is danger, if only to feel in solidarity with each other.
D is lounging with his feet up on the back of a chair in an auditorium with Francesca. He sighs a bit when I tell him I want to leave, but gets up and we walk outside the university.
Students who have made it around the police are leaving on busses. Many of the busses have red flags flying on them and I decide to avoid them. I don’t know where they go and if there are armed groups around, or even Chavistas that might simply want to attack a group of opposition students, the busses are easy targets.
We walk to the other side of the highway, but all the metro entrances have been locked.
This will make getting home slightly difficult.
Even without the rumors of angry Chavistas, the area is unsafe. I walk towards a turn in the road where I think there might be a taxi, but before we reach it a squad of police officers roar up on motorcycles and yell, “Are you students? Students?”
Yes, we are students.
Even before D, for whatever reason, admits this, one of the police officers leaps off his motorcycle and grabs me. I fumble my press accreditations into his face. He releases me, takes hold of D, and begins going through his pockets.
I tell the police commander that I am going to MINCI and am looking for a taxi.
The commander scrutinizes my accreditation for a time while the rest of the squad looks on, shotguns at the ready.
“Ok, good. You need a taxi?” the commander hands back the accreditation.
He turns to the rest of the squad and points at the passing cars. “He needs a taxi.”
The police officers turn their motorcycles into the road and stop the first taxi that drives by. They open the doors for us.
“Here is a taxi,” the commander says.
“Muchas gracias,” I say.
The shocked taxi driver looks at us.
“That cop grabbed my balls,” D says.
As we drive through Caracas, all around us there are police riding two to a motorcycle, shotguns and bags of rubber bullets at the ready.
“They are out for the students,” the taxi driver says.
A few days after the RCTV demonstrations end, a massive Chavista march goes through opposition area of Caracas.
Before the march arrives, men are in front of my apartment building, keeping their eyes on the rooftops. They have pistols stuck into their pants and are scanning the rooftops.
“Gringo go home! Yankee go home,” is the chorus of the song that is played again and again.
The march is so long that it takes two and half hours for it to march through Chacaito to Bellas Artes. A statement is read declaring support for the nationalization of the telecommunications company CANTV.
The message the Chavistas send by walking through the opposition areas is clear.
The Chavistas are the majority and they are ready to protect their president.
In Bellas Artes, they fly a flag. “Its not RCTV. Its our oil.”
In his office in Chacaito, a member of the Venezuelan opposition who thought taking part in the demonstrations would lead to nothing says, “There is what is happening right now in this moment with the TV closure. But also Chavez is the center of everything. He is the executive branch. He is the judicial branch. He is the legislative branch. What happens when he is not there? Venezuela is going to fall hard.”