Be Part of the Change
By Helena Carpio
The trees that stood around the Francisco Solano Avenue in Caracas had always been beautiful. Perhaps their beauty derived from the sharp contrast between the dirty and stump-like buildings surrounding them; I can't specifically recall. All I know is that the foliage stemming from those majestic living beings gave the long forsaken concrete structures new life.
That afternoon, my seating arrangement on the back of a white pickup truck allowed me to feel the breeze's swift passage. It could lighten the weight on anyone's soul.
Driving through that avenue, I felt the past vestiges of better times in Caracas. The Urrutia Restaurant, dedicated to late Sunday family brunches, and the neglected art deco buildings from previous époques when Villanueva and Gio Ponti were masters of the Caracas horizon, made my heart ache for a past I didn't know or live. That afternoon, the white pickup truck was my own time traveling machine –what nobody told me was that there's an inherent danger in romanticizing the past: you think the present will never be good enough.
Once the residential portion of the avenue was past us – and with it, my platonic affair with the 50s – we slowed down to resume our assignments. I was working at the political rally as a logistics aide for Leopoldo Lopez' mayoral campaign. Our job was to distribute blue and orange shirts – not a hard task.
That morning I had arrived at the campaign headquarters at the usual time, nine o'clock. Maria, Manuel, Daniela and I sorted the materials and grabbed a new pack with a few dozen shirts just in case we ran out. We spent most of the morning loading packets into the pickup truck, and going through the logistics of the rally. Maria was a middle-aged mother with the spirit of a child. She prided herself on her bluntness, honesty and seemingly infinite energy. I always suspected she took inhuman amounts of coffee, but never arrived early enough to prove my theory. Pressure and tight deadlines were her greatest weakness; she loved the madness. Manuel was a poor kid with the kindest heart I've ever known. For him, the worst kind of poverty wasn't the lack of money, but the lack of spirit. I always loved him for that. Daniela was a sweet child, pregnant at twenty-two. She wore thick glasses, but I saw tears hiding between her eyes more than once. The drops of salt made prisms and she bore rainbows on her face.
That afternoon, handing one-size shirts to strangers, with "Be part of the change, Leopoldo Lopez" written in cursive, felt so insignificant, but at the same time so transcendental. I remember people hovering next to our white truck asking Maria and me for our merchandise, as if these multi-colored pieces of fabric would in fact make them part of any tangible change in Venezuela.
At around two in the afternoon, our driver got word that the National Guard had arrived at the National Electoral Commission Building. They were waiting for us just a few blocks ahead. The National Guard was famous for its exaggerated contingent; the government always sent more guards than needed to peaceful opposition rallies, as an intimidation tactic. Manuel and I joked about the number of guards and water cannon trucks the government probably sent. I bet chocolates on four hundred, he bet a soccer match on six hundred.
As we got closer to the front of the protest, Maria, Manuel and I got out of the truck, and walked – the mass of people was too dense for the pickup truck. I remember feeling grateful for having brought my mom's "lunchbox." There was no breakfast or lunch inside, just vinegar, a scrap of fabric and Crest minty toothpaste. They mitigated the effects of teargas. I reached my left back pocket with my right hand, just to assure my nerves that the packet was still there. I could hear my mother's voice echoing in my head, "The vinegar cannot stop the bullets – don't get too close to the guards; don't look for trouble. If anything happens, just run." I felt a sharp bulk on the pocket; the vinegar and toothpaste were there.
At a quarter past two, we started feeling the tension in people's steps – they became slower, heavier. I felt as if we were all suddenly afraid. The multitude has a powerful ability to make you feel safe, as if vulnerability didn't exist in numbers, but you had to always keep in mind that when fright takes over, being in a multitude is the worst situation possible. My parents taught me that.
I learned that lesson on April 11th, 2002. My mother and father almost died that day – many people almost died. "Totolino," my then 89-year old great grandmother, was staying with us because of her recently fired nurse. She cried with me as we saw the blood running through the streets of Caracas on the news. A trail of red tears covered Venezuela that day. Every corner, every house; every family was stained, if not by death, by the fear of it. I had never been so overwhelmed; I didn't know if my mom and dad were alive. The phone lines went down, Chavez took over the entire television signal; there was no way of knowing where they were. All we could do was cry together and pray – that was the only day I've believed in God.
Two hours after the snipers started shooting into the crowd at the protest,my parents came through the door. They were sweating profusely, dirty and pale. My mom grabbed my brother, my sister and me and we lay down inside the bathtub. She told us we were playing hide and seek, but I was old enough to know what we were really doing. The bathroom's walls are the thickest in the apartment; the bullets would have the hardest time reaching us that way. Years later I understood it was a coup d'état, and at that point, they considered I was old enough to hear their story from that April afternoon. They were among the first protesters, and the man marching next to them with his wife was shot in the chest and bled to death in front of them. A few meters to the right, and it could've been my father.
Now it was two-thirty and Maria and I could already see the National Guard contingent. I had won my bet with Manuel. There were almost four hundred soldiers and three water trucks. My momentary happiness about the prospect of chocolates faded away as I heard the first gunshots. Deaf, loud and packed with hatred, the first rubber bullets pierced through the multitude. Panic took over. The peppery, acid smell of the teargas reached us, and with it, its characteristic white ghost – the National Guard had opened fire into the crowd. I remember the adrenaline took over my body like a military dictator, giving precise orders with timely consequences. I grabbed my lunchbox, soaked the fabric with vinegar and muffled my nose and mouth. The smell was barely bearable, but it was better than choking. I heard people coughing desperately around me. I gave my toothpaste away to a girl who painted her face with it – it was blue, both from the Crest minty paste and from the lack of oxygen. My eyes were teary, but I wasn't crying, the gas irritated my lids and eyes to a point where my eyelids closed in protest. I couldn't find anyone; the white pickup truck was gone, Mari was gone and so was Manuel. I was deeply alone, but surrounded by a multitude. I tried making sense of the blur, the running people, the green guards, the white gas, the loud piercing shots, the intimidating trucks, the screams, the rocks, the chaos, but I couldn't. In a split second, I felt a pull towards the right side of my body; it was Claudia, a family friend. "I promised your Mom you'd be safe. Come with me, now!" We ran through a few buildings, crossed a tunnel and there it was: the white pickup truck with Manuel, Maria and Daniela cheering me on. I jumped in and we immediately sped up
Once inside, once safe and once away from the protest, everyone started waking up from the nightmare. The adrenaline wore off, and without it, the rage emerged. I didn't feel like talking. I couldn't help thinking how we as humans can feel enough hatred towards one another to beat someone with a stick till their flesh turns pink and their veins bleed out, or how can we throw a bomb that could endanger many people's lives, people who have daughters, wives, parents, fathers. How can you hate someone enough to take away a life, without even knowing a name? That is a part of humanity that even today, as I write this, I fail to understand. There's something dark about human nature that I'd rather not question, not because of the difficulty of finding an answer, but because of the fear of what I'll find
There are many other things I can say about this day, but I fear that no thought or selective memory will ever do it justice. For those who haven't witnessed it, it's hard to put into words; for those who have, you know that words will never be enough, but unfortunately words are all we have. That summer taught me that no matter how many guards are willing to beat you up and make you fall, there will always be a bigger number of people willing to raise you up and walk you home. The people you meet, the names and faces you make memorable, are worth more than the gas that made you cough, or the guard who made you bleed. Manuel, Maria, Daniela and Rafael, people whose lives are defined by resilience and perseverance; people who see the things that made that protest horrifying every day as they leave their neighborhoods to go to work, and are still able to show you the best in them, those are the memories and names worth keeping. I've never met people more real, more inspiring or more passionate.
With regard to Venezuela, I have faith that things will change, with or without red and orange shirts. I have lost count of how many protests I've witnessed, how many tears I've shed, how many times I've been afraid, but something I do keep count of is how many victories we've had in the past twelve years: one – when Chavez lost his plea to reform the constitution in 2007. It doesn't seem much, but for me and for everyone else who considers hope the remedy to fear, that is more than enough. As long as I know there is a multitude out there, willing to dream about a better country, I know that no bullet can bring us down – because ideas will always be more powerful than a dictator or an army, and the best part is that they are intangible, so they cannot be oppressed.