Mercal Shooting Highlights Class Polarization, Psychologists Fear “Fractured Coexistence”

Over the weekend, a panel of psychologists convened to discuss the societal tension that has built up since violent protest broke out in Venezuela, in February. They determined that dialogue-friendly spaces and a feeling of general safety have been compromised dramatically. The fatal shooting of a woman waiting on line to buy food Saturday highlighted fiercely clashing responses through social media as each political sector interpreted the tragedy as proof of their own worst fears.


In recent weeks, groups of militant protestors have attacked public hospitals, universities, food banks and most recently- the headquarters of the public Housing Mission which has provided hundred of thousands of new homes for low-income families.

These choice targets seem to demonstrate a hatred of the state so potent, it extends to all public and social services. However, those on the receiving end of those social services interpret it differently. For many working class Venezuelans, it feels more like a threat- an attempt to sabotage and otherwise invalidate the product of 15 years popular struggle for equal horizons through the same institutions.

Fernando Giuliani, Professor of Psychology at the Central University of Caracas (UCV), noted that it’s quite normal for young people to call for more efficiency in government, but “to convince oneself we are in the midst of a civil war, under an atrocious dictatorship, that does not leave room for dialogue… this is why we speak of a fractured coexistence.”

Considering that president Nicolas Maduro was elected by a majority vote, through the same electoral system that brought leading opposition voices into elected positions, vilifying his leadership and rallying for a forced “exit” effectively isolates at least half of Venezuelans.

Those government supporters have been equally maligned. Venezuelan private media has been quick to apply the vague term “colectivos” to describe any act of violence in which civilians clashed with protestors, who have set up barricades and prevented the flow of traffic in many major cities. In Mérida, an Andean city to the West, residents have to pay “tolls” to get past the blockades, which have brought public transportation to a standstill.

In February, a number of barricaders strung galvanized barbed wire at the height of 1.2 meters across their posts so that motorcycle riders who tried to pass would be effectively beheaded. Two people, a young mother and a man, met this fate. The deaths were received by the opposition with varied applause and concern on social media platforms, but the universal assumption was that the victims were chavistas, most likely colectivo members. It seems the motorbike has earned itself a foul reputation, just by being the cheapest method of personal transport available.

On Thursday afternoon, 40 to 100 students marched on the UCV campus, armed with molotov cocktails and pipes chanting “We’re going to burn all the chavistas, we won’t leave a single one alive,” according to eyewitnesses. They left two severely beaten students in their wake, and then proceeded to pour gasoline on the ambulance who had come to take away the injured.

Of course, it’s a small minority who have actually participated in chavista-hunting. But there are always those who commit the actual crimes, and then those who cheer them on from the sidelines. In this instance, the “sidelines” are undeniably played out on Twitter.

Clinical psychologist María Antonieta Izaguirre showed particular concern for the moral disintegration portrayed by social media commentary. “Some of the comments regarding the value of life give me the shivers. There has been a trivialization in that respect,” she noted.

The most apt example of this trivialization was provoked on Saturday not by further protest violence, but by an ostensibly unrelated tragedy.

Over the weekend, while waiting in line to buy food through a government subsidized supermarket (Mercal), Nancy Pastora Ruíz de Ortega of Valencia was shot twice and killed. According to official reports, her killers drove by the queue on motorcycles, and opened fire upon those waiting. Four others suffered gunshot wounds.

The scene of the crime, Mercal, is a government program that distributes food staples and produce. The arrival of Mercal goods convokes infamously long lines that have been characterized as a distinct kind of social event. Neighbors wait together from the early hours of the morning to buy large quantities of food at prices subsidized by up to 80 percent. Grade A beef is sold at around $1 the kilo. Butter, beans, rice, and spaghetti can cost 5 times less than the standard supermarket price. On the Saturday that Ortega was killed, 3761 tons of food were delivered to different Mercal points around the country.

Unsurprisingly, it is both a venerated nutritional program for low-income families, and a target of much criticism from government opponents.

One would think that critics who came across this news would seize the opportunity to make a martyr of yet another victim of Venezuela’s high crime rate, as they did when the beauty queen and actress Monica Spear was killed in a highway robbery late last year.

But it appears that middle-aged women who wait on Mercal lines are not worthy even of being martyrs.

In the comments section of the murder announcement in online newspaper Ultimas Noticias, someone wrote,

“Poor woman may she rest in peace… For sure she was a chavista madurista castrista government-lover, damn trash of Maduro, I don’t have a single doubt.”

Another replied, “The majority of those who were buying in Mercal were Madurista, and the motorists, the monarchs of death, are also Madurista. Now there is no peace even within their group, what shame in my country!”

As the psychologist Giuliani remarked on Sunday, in moments of fear, there is a tendency to classify every isolated event as a manifestation of the same enemy.

He also warned that internet use is accelerating a dangerous process of disassociation. “It’s a serious issue, because [social media] has the singular quality that it does not permit reflection. There are millions of people sending and receiving all kinds of messages, and a willingness to believe any amount of rubbish.”

So far, there is no actual evidence that the shooting had political motives.

Some witnesses said that two men being chased by others on motorcycles tried to hide themselves among the line for Mercal. Though the motorists opened fire on the entire crowd, the Venezuelan Bureau of Criminal Investigation (CICPC) said the motive for the crime appears to be personal vengeance. They are currently conducting a full investigation.

A third commentator wrote, “How sad it is that her last moments were spent in a line. How sad it is that the government keeps these people under their thumb with the promise of a few bags of rice.”

This perhaps is the most revealing comment of all. Seemingly void of hate, it highlights a condescending pity that betrays total ignorance of the Venezuelan working class reality. Anyone who has stood on a line for Mercal can testify; it is often a hotbed of political discussion, an informal meeting space for the neighborhood matriarchs to debate their next proposal for the community council. Far from being under anyone’s thumb, these people make up the people’s government; they are the grassroots.

Little surprise then, that a “fracture” in coexistence is growing when one oppositional faction patronizes the chavistas as having no self-determination and the other fears them as motorcycle-riding fundamentalists.

Chavistas, for their part, are incensed by the vandalizing of public institutions, and are particularly wary of a distinct manner of speech that has hung over the Caribbean since the native people discovered they were “Indians.”

Setting history aside, the panel of psychologists concluded on Sunday that the best way to avoid further damage is by valuing friends and neighbors beyond their political ideals, and to refrain from using strong and hateful language in social media.

“That does not mean”, said Giuliani, “that we must concede our ideological beliefs, but we must allow more space for meditation.”