CARACAS, March 6, 2004—Venezuela’s opposition forces culminated a week of street clashes between supporters of a recall referendum for Pres. Hugo Chavez Frias and the Guardia Nacional with a peaceful march today. The burning barricades and the violence that has played out on the streets of Caracas and elsewhere in the country since February 27 were replaced with placards, whistles, and speaker after speaker after speaker.
Beginning in the affluent suburb of Altamira and five other locations throughout the city, marchers walked to the rhythm of whistles and chants of ‘fuera Chavez’ (Chavez out), eventually gathering in the city-centre along Avenida Libertador. The mood was generally upbeat and calm, what confrontation there was between opposition marchers and chavistas was limited to spirited heckling.
|The opposition’s demonstration to “defend the signatures”
Photo: Jonah Gindin
A large, calm Metropolitan Police presence kept protesters along the licensed route, but the violence of the past week appeared to be behind the city, for the moment. In an effort to avoid more violence while tensions remain high, Defence Minister Jorge Luis Carcia Carneiro announced a temporary ban on firearms throughout the country effective as of 6pm Friday to last until 12am Sunday, 14th March.
Not far from the chants and inflammatory speeches of opposition protesters was a political gathering of a different nature. Along Avenida Bolivar stretched the green and white pavilions of the Mercado Central or MegaMercado. The Mercado, part of the controversial ‘Plan Bolivar 2000’ is an amalgam of services provided by Venezuela’s armed forces as part of their mandate of National Development, as defined in the Bolivarian Constitution of 2000. Services provided in the Mercado range from a ‘farmer’s market’ offering produce and meats at a minimum of 40% below the market price, to medical services, and a barbershop.
Photo: Jonah Gindin
Lieutenant Oswaldo Capriles, Coordinator of Plan Bolivar 2000 in Caracas explained the motivation behind the Mercado Central, noting “this market is for the poor people here. Many of them, they cannot afford to go to the doctor, or the dentist, or even to get a haircut. Through Plan Bolivar, we provide these services free of charge.” Behind the coordinator the beneficiaries of the Plan waited patiently for their turn to see a cardiologist, a paediatrician, a dentist, or to fill a prescription at the pharmacy.
The facilitators of the Plan are all soldiers in Venezuela’s Armed Forces. However, the military presence here had a very different feel than the soldiers clad in bullet proof vests, carrying standard issue rifles, or the Metropolitan Police, similarly attired on hand mere blocks away. At the Mercado, uniformed military officers checked blood pressure, gave vaccines, and butchered meat, to the tune of pro-Chavez Venezuelan hip hop wafting over the crowds of people from a bandstand set up at the end of the street.