Tear gas and I

By Carlos Camacho in Caracas

Going into Wednesday’s demonstration (the biggest in anti-Maduro AND Venezuelan history, as it would “turn out”, pun intended) I knew they were going to use the expired stuff, the bad stuff, the last batch, bought by Chávez in 2011 when oil prices were still high and him dying of cancer a still distant possibility.

I expected repression: Edgar López reporter extraordinaire from El Nacional told me at 11 a.m. “They shot a kid, 17, in the head in San Bernardino, he is not expected to make it”, Edgar told me, as I was taking pictures of kids in strollers being pushed into what looked like a million-man walkathon-cum-pic nic at that sunny point.

Cause, let me tell you, it was sunny: besides itchy eyes and lungs, we came back home with quite a farmer’s tan.

We started marching at 12 and were going at a good clip when the crowd solidified at 1. National Guard was cutting off all lanes of the Francisco Fajardo highway, the big one, the L.A. looking one, the one that takes you from Western to Eastern Venezuela giving you the full Caracas tour first.
At first, tanks were just sitting there. Then I saw the first plume of white, telling, tear-gas grenade smoke. Very few things in life are as telling as smoke. In “The Searchers”, “Star Wars” or standing on hot asphalt watching scheming cops from a distance, when you see smoke, you just know something (bad) is up. I took high (ish) ground, climbing, clinging to one of those fences that run parallel to highways but no one knows who actually put there. I could see the patio of someone’s house: occupants were going about their business, oblivious to the fact that a milion people and some tanks were just some chicken wire away.

“Cops, man! They stationed themselves on the roof of that building and are just tossing grenades over the edge”, one dude told me, some admiration surviving in his outraged voice. He was right: cops were barely throwing tear bombs into the first line, two blocks from where I was, it looked silly.

But then the tanks joined them: Chinese-made, painted incongruous white, capable of firing 9 grenades in a single volley. And between the tanks, Guardsmen on motorcycles, two to a bike, one driving, the other firing at the crowd, without warning or provocation.

I wasn’t the first to run: I took some shitty vídeo (you have it) and then I started hoofing it. My biggest fear: being trampled to death. Second biggest? Getting arrested by a dictatorship. My girlfriend told me I was “rounding up strays” (pushing old ladies out of the way) when the first grenade hit the asphalt besides me. I had managed somehow to become a front line demonstrator: guess I didn’t run as fast as the rest of the people. “They are right behind you!”, Ahiana of “Panama Papers” fame shouted. “They are aiming at you!” Another grenade hit. I was already fleeing at full tilt when I realized I couldn’t breathe: it’s hard to forget and I am reliving it as I type this. Then my eyes went extra-watery. My nose, too. I spat an inordinate ammount of saliva out. Running. Trying to outrun professional soldiers half my age. Then we stopped:”I don’t give a good goddamn, ain’t running no more!”, I told Ahiana. She smiled that womanly “oh honey, you are so cute and stupid” smile. And another grenade hit. I could breathe again, I realized. “This expired stuff ain’t shit”, I told my band of snotty, teary brothers. And another grenade. Time to run again. The cops chased us for 4 blocks. I learned that with your girl by your side you can outrun tear gas, professional, 20-something soldiers AND a dictatorship.

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