Protests Highlight Crime Problem, Division in Venezuela

Violence rarely brings people together, and this past weekend in Venezuela was no exception. Caracas residents mourned the death of the Faddoul boys but, as on most days of protests, there were two actions, one of the opposition, and one of government supporters.

Caracas, April 24, 2006—Saturday morning, opposition and government protesters held two separate actions condemning the rampant violence in Venezuela.

From the upper class Los Palos Grandes to Chacao, a key gathering point for opposition rallies, thousands of protesters drew chalk white outlines and wrote their names inside of them, filling a main avenue with symbolic dead bodies, as imitation gun shots, broadcast through loudspeakers, sounded through the neighborhoods. Afterwards, the organizers broadcast Taps through the mid-morning air.

The participants were a diverse bunch, mostly belonging to Venezuela’s middle and upper classes, and for about 15 minutes elderly women lay down in their outlines blocking the main avenue next to perfectly coiffed 20 somethings. Some protesters were moved to tears during the action, while others seem to take it more lightheartedly, giving their outlines smiley faces.

“Basically we want people to see magnitude of people murdered all together and that they’re not numbers, they’re people, they’re human beings,” said Carlos Zárraga, an organizer of the march who helped draw the outlines, and an Information Technology student at Venezuela’s Catholic University.

But some in the pro-government action, who generally lived in poorer and more crime ridden neighborhoods, did not see the wealthy opposition symbolizing their own deaths as necessary to humanize Venezuela’s high murder rate, which, in 2005, was six times that of the United States. They saw the opposition action as a cynical attempt to capitalize on recent murders to further their own political agenda. “The opposition always has this mentality, to take advantage of situations to destabilize the country,” said Joyner Seguera, a participant in the pro-government march, and a student at the Experimental University of the Armed Forces, talking about the 2002 coup and the months long oil industry shutdown.

The murders, which appear to have struck a chord among Venezuela’s wealthy opposition, are those of the Faddoul brothers, aged 12, 13, and 17, who were kidnapped after being stopped at a fake police checkpoint while being driven by their chauffeur to school. The ransom demanded was so exorbitant that the parents could not pay, and the children, after over a month being held hostage, along with their driver, were shot to death earlier this month. The opposition did not single out any of the scores of deaths that have happened in the barrios since then in the protest.

The organizers of the opposition protests denied that they were political. Zárraga said that the nation was divided and that there was little confidence in the government but that, “it’s not a question as much of the state, as it is of the citizens, who need to educate children in primary schools, in the family, in order to motivate people.”

Another organizer, Omar Arenas, a student at the Central University of Caracas, said that the protest was only political in as much as the government was in charge of dealing with delinquency and security, and they were not doing so successfully.

Many at the protest, especially the youth, did not politicize the event. “We all need to come to an agreement in where the country is going,” said Jessica Pautt, a high school student, when asked how the problem of violence could be solved.

Others at the protest, especially those who were not students, were more overtly political. “The only solution is for Chavez to go,” said Margarita Perez, a homemaker.

Participants in the action booed the government helicopters which occasionally flew over the protests, and said that press helicopters were not allowed to fly over to cover the march. 

Opposition political paraphernalia, including seven star flags and buttons reading 350 (the article in the constitution which gives Venezuelan citizens the right to disavow a government that violates the constitution), were being sold along the street. A button vendor rolled his eyes when asked what he thought of the pins he was selling.

In turn, participants and organizers of the opposition action appeared disappointed that the pro-government marchers refused to join the action. “They’re students like us…We told them, combine with us, we’re protesting without a political agenda…we want everyone to participate, all Venezuelans equally, it doesn’t matter if you’re government or opposition, because this fight is worth it, this is a fight for all of us,” said one organizer.

Perez was visibly angry at the pro-government march. “Whenever we, the opposition, have a march they copy us; it shouldn’t be this way…they shouldn’t have involved themselves in this,” she said.

“We came because of the insecurity in the country, but also because there was a group of students from the private universities, and many of the students from these universities say that the president, that the society is too dirty…We’re with the [Bolivarian] process… we’re with the president,” said Endrick Rodriguez, a student at the free Bolivarian University and a part time government employee, sitting with a group of friends.

The visibly pro-government march, clad mainly in red—the color of the pro-Chavez movement—marched, chanted, and sang from Plaza Venezuela to the Justice Ministry.

The participants at the pro-government march had a broad view of what constitutes violence. “We’re against violence. We’re against imperialism. We’re for peace. Like they said at the World Social Forum, another world is possible,” Rodriguez said. The solution to the problem of violence, he said, was to continue funding the government’s social missions, and give people more opportunities to study and work.