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.


Leopoldo Lopez with a dash of Bolivar

I wrote this article for the Latin American Herald Tribune three years ago, give or take. It ran, but not in this version. Now that President Barack Obama has asked that Leopoldo Lopez be freed, I think it is pertinent to republish this version, warts and all. Enjoy!

Imagine if John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been a descendant of George Washington. Now meet Leopoldo Lopez: A patrician, marathon-running, early-forties “Caraqueño”, a Harvard-educated philosopher and economist who is married to a former (and gorgeous) professional athlete/media personality and who, to top it all off, is also related to Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Venezuela, the Liberator of Colombia, the personal idol of President Hugo Chávez (who renamed Venezuela into “The Bolivarian Republic of…”) the freedom fighter after whom they named a country (Bolivia). Yes, Lopez is the Venezuelan version of a George Washington-related JFK.

Lopez is getting ready to challenge Hugo Chavez for the Venezuelan Presidency come October 7, 2012. For three years Lopez was barred from seeking elected office on charges of corruption, but only last week the Inter American Human Rights Court ordered Venezuela to lift the ban. Now Lopez is free to run more than just marathons.

The Latin American Herald Tribune managed to get a sit-down, face to face interview with Lopez in his Caracas office, to talk about street crime (Lopez said it will be his first priority), but also about increasing oil production (using a remarkably different approach to the one being implemented by Chavez), his relation to Simon Bolivar and how being barred from seeking a mayor’s office in 2008 has now resulted in a viable Presidential bid.

– Latin American Herald Tribune: Well, the Inter American court said days ago that you can run for office in Venezuela. What is now the next step for you?

– Leopoldo Lopez: The next step is to win the primary elections. And the next after that is to beat Chavez. I have been legally enabled by the Inter American Human Rights Court, which is the highest ranking court in the continent, after exhausting every instance in Venezuela.

– LAHT: Would you say barring you from seeking office in 2008 was a strategy that backfired for the Chavez administration?

– LL:  Well, I just wanted to be the mayor of Caracas, you know? To do for Caracas what I did for Chacao (Lopez is a former mayor of Chacao, an affluent Caracas borough).

– LAHT: But the government prevented you from running and now you are here…

– LL: But yes, they were afraid of an electoral victory, since in 2008 I had 70% popularity. So, instead, I ended up travelling all over Venezuela, articulating a fresh political party that is Voluntad Popular. (In January, Venezuela’s electoral authority CNE recognized Voluntad Popular as a political party).

– LAHT: And do you think the Chavez administration will just take that sitting down?

– LL: Well, the only thing the government can do is comply.

– LAHT: What is your relation to Simon Bolivar, Liberator of Venezuela?

– LL: Well, it is a known fact that the Libertador did not have any sons, at least they haven’t been recorded in history, but I am related on the side of Juana de Bolivar, one of the Liberator’s sisters, I am seventh generation.

– LAHT: In the primary elections, scheduled for February 12, 2012, a single opposition candidate will be chosen to run against Chavez, so, you will be competing against six other candidates. Let’s say you win the primary elections. Then what?

– LL: If I win the primary elections I will assemble a team that will take us to victory come October 7, 2012, in the Presidential elections. And once we win on October 7, we will assume the citizenry’s safety as our first priority.

– LAHT: So, fighting crime is the priority for Leopoldo Lopez

– LL: That is the priority for all Venezuelans, everybody is saying it but the government does not listen.

– LAHT: Murders shot up from some 4,000 in 1998 to more than 19,000 last year…

– LL: And that’s a tragedy for Venezuelans, it is something that has taken away their hope and their capacity to dream. And the government is responsible for the explosion in violence of the last few years. ¿How can I not say that , if the government has generated a violent discourse and has not developed a public safety policy?

– LAHT: The incoming government will have to deal with 26 arbitration procedures against Venezuela, the most prominent of which have been caused by nationalizations in the oil industry.

– LL: Yes, well, we need to generate trust, and that can only happen if the rule of law is fully observed. For instance, we have the aim of doubling oil production over a six year period. And what we need to increase production is trust, which will allow us to seek out the best societies, national and international, to develop the oil potential. Trust means to democratize opportunities inside the oil industry and to end uncertainty in oil contracts.

Sex and violence: Venezuelan women take point in anti-Maduro protests

By Carlos Camacho

Caracas.- This happened on Monday, during a violent protest against the government of Nicolas Maduro in “La Isabelica”, a middle-class neighborhood in the Central Venezuela city of Valencia: A body-armor clad member of the National Guard wrestled a protester to the ground, then proceeded to administer a beating that included using a helmet like it was a mallet.

Par for the course, one would think, after three weeks of violent protests that have left 50 dead (government figures), 731 arrested (opposition figures) and dozens injured, right? Well, here’s the kicker: both the Guard and the demonstrator were women. After beating her opponent, Marvinia, badly in the face, the Guard woman, who answered to the name Josneidy, dragged by the hair to jail, where Marvinia was kept incommunicado for two days .

Venezuelans of both sexes were not surprised by the female-on-female, violence: women here laugh when husbands and boyfriends call them “Cuaima”, a particularly touchy type of poisonous snake, meaning they are jealous and possesive, and have adopted the handle proudly.

Opposition politician María Corina Machado was also assaulted by a pro-government woman. She is a national lawmaker at the National Assembly, the attack happened at work, and the perpetrator was a coworker: a fellow lawmaker from the ruling party. And she is beautiful and fierce, when she talks politics she looks like a “telenovela” (soap opera) protagonist that just had her boyfriend stolen by her nemesis: she blushes, her eyes glint and her nose perks and flares. But she talks dead serious.

“First you have to recognize the contributions of women during these 15 years of anti-Chavez struggle. Women, during protests, offer more of a protective presence The first mass protests this country saw against Chavez, in 2001, were organized by women and labeled “Con mis hijos no te metas” (Don’t mess with my children) and were aimed at stopping the introduction of pro-government political notions in education”, Machado said during a phone interview. Those protests, it must be remembered, resulted in Chavez being relieved of power and placed in prison for three days in 2001. What does it all mean? Machado tries to sum it up: “Women here, we love our children, we love our country”, she muses laconically, suddenly a female version of a Clint Eastwood character.

It will soon be a year from the time of her own assault,  Machado reminisces. She says she has been in touch with Marvinia’s family and that, as soon as she can talk to the victim herlself, she will tell her: “Every second of pain will make you stronger”.

“Cuaimas” and First Combatants

Even embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s wife eschewed the traditional title of “La Primera Dama” (The First Lady) and opted instead to label herself as the more aggressive “La Primera Combatiente”: The First Combatant. And the present protests began largely because of “kitchen” issues: Food shortages. But when push comes to shove, anti-government women take the cake, a veteran observer noted. “Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

However, Machado notes that the government is also putting women on point, from National Guards women to the Attorney General. “That is not casual, they are using women against women”, she says. And then takes a stab at the men in government in this Latin country: “That’s just hiding behind women, they are shielding themselves behing women”.

Victim to activist

More and more, women are at the front of anti-government protests in Venezuela, and they are not always getting beat down by female National Guards. From a political stand point, Marvinia Jimenez (the victim’s full name) emerged as the winner: a throng of reporters was waiting for her at the jail when she emerged from her cell to talk to her family after two days. Pictures of her badly battered, yet still defiant face, quickly became a Twitter staple and even traditional Venezuelan media defied a tacit news blackout surrounding the protest to carry her pictures. The newspaper “Tal Cual” devoted Wednesday’s editorial to her including, yes, pictures of the now famous helmet beating.

The government however, did not try to build the victor, Josneidy, into an icon of anti-fascism (the government claims Marvinia and women like her a part of an ongoing fascist coup): according to local media she was transferred from Valencia to CORE 5, a National Guard regional command several hundred kilometers away, in the capital of Caracas and she has not spoken to the media. A Facebook profile under the name “Josneidy Nayari Castillo Mendoza”, which showed pictures of a woman identical to the one that beat up Marvinia dressed in a National Guard uniform, was shut down on Tuesday. Besides the uniform pictures there were pictures of the same woman, wearing a skimpy top, amplious cleavage and a pendant with the initial “J”, smiling for the camera. In those pictures she did not look like somebody capable of beating another woman in the face with a helmet, she looked like your average dark-skinned Venezuelan beauty queen with a tongue-twister of a name.

“Opposition women are fierce, while pro-government women, well, they just kiss up to the guys in government”, said Jose Luis Carrillo, a Venezuelan journalist. “Pro-government women, they make do when there is no bread. Opposition women take to the streets to set up barricades, burn tires and garbage”.

Of late, the mothers and wives had taken a bit of a back seat to students, Machado concedes, but that changed on Monday. “These latest protests were begun by students, but they are a social movement now”, Machado says. “I was at the funeral of Jimmy Vasquez”, Machado says. Vasquez was an opposition demonstrator killed also on Monday in San Cristonal, where the fiercest anti-Maduro clashes have occured so far. “And Carmen, his mother, told me “don’t give me condolences, just keep up the fight”. She made me swear I would not give up the struggle ”. Opposition women, you know how they are, she seems to be saying.

A woman’s touch

On Wednesday, two days after Marvinia was assaulted and still jailed and cut off from her family and the planet, Machado and thousands of other opposition women went to a National Guard headquarter in El Paraiso, a middle-class neighborhood in Caracas not unlike La Isabelica. The march was met with hostility, but no outright violence, as if something had changed after Marvinia’s assault. When Machado and her cohorts arrived, a detachment of guardswomen commanded by a Lieutenant Coronel, last name Capote, was awaiting, but not in riot gear this time: they wore their street uniform, a maroon beret, short-sleeved khaki shirts and green slacks. And instead of giving Machado another beating, they presented her with flowers. “I think I managed to convey to them, that they are mothers too, they have children. So I demanded that they protect our children”, Machado says Thursday, the day after that march.

The women’s demonstration ended well. Even Marivinia was released from jail Thusday, charged with five counts, including robbery, but alive and, according to Machado, a clear leader of the opposition. The sour note however is that, unfortunately, the world now knows that, in Venezuela, a woman’s touch can include being clubbed with a helmet in the face.

This is the dawning of the age of the “Selfie”

Nothing like a terrorist act to erase the distinction between infamous and famous. Take the Boston Marathon bombing’s aftermath: Rolling Stone magazine publishes a photo of the surviving bomber and well, all hell breaks loose. Boston mayor says RS is glamorizing a deadly terrorist act. But wait: RS didn’t dispatch Annie Leibowitz to shoot Jahar Tsarnaev: the picture than ran under the famous red psychedelic lettering (and yes, was thus glamorized)…was a “selfie”!

And what is a “selfie”? Well, first and foremost, a “selfie” is a teenage thing to do: even teenage terrorists do it. Even wannabe (read: old people) teenagers do it. It is a “Taxi Driver” thing to do: it freezes the moment the Robert De Niro character is talking to himself in the mirror. It is a self-portrait, taken with a smartphone and loaded over the internet to Instagram, Twitter or Facebook…because we can! We have the technology and we all wanna be famous. Even bombers, no wait, SPECIALLY bombers.

This is the first time in the history of Rolling Stone magazine where a selfie makes the cover (I checked) and check this out: The hallowed New York Times ran the picture several weeks before. But to no effect. That “selfie” in the NYT looks like news; in RS, under that Woodstock hippie red lettering, Jahar looked like the Jonas Brother of terrorism.

I guess now “selfie” stands for “selfish”, or worse. 

Y, además, tocaba las maracas: El Chávez que yo conocí

Por Carlos Camacho

A pesar de que soy periodista, pasé buena parte de los 14 años de Chávez evitando escucharlo: me podía permitir ese pequeño lujo, ya que nunca me tocó cubrir la fuente de política, al menos no directamente. Pero Chávez fue borrando, poco a poco, las fronteras entre la política venezolana y el manejo de la economía venezolana: es decir, ya no me podía dar el lujo de ignorarlo, cada vez debía cubrirlo más, y más de cerca, en determinado momento teniendo que ir todas las semanas a Miraflores para ruedas de prensa, firmas de acuerdos, visitas oficiales, etc.

¿Y cómo lo hizo? ¿Cómo logró Chávez borrar las fronteras entre política y economía, y, más adelante, entre labor de gobierno y show business? Fácil: Lo logró doblando las reglas del juego democrático…y tocando las maracas.

Dame pa’ matalos

El año es el 2008. Los periodistas estamos en el Teatro Teresa Carreño, esperando que aparezca Chávez: en el escenario, estaba tocando uno de los peores grupos de todos los que patrocinaba el gobierno por ese entonces, “Dame Pá Matala”. El ambiente, recuerdo, era infantil a la vez que militante: mitad “jamboree” de los boy scouts, mitad rally de la Juventud Hitleriana.

Escuchando los adocenados acordes de DPM -una especie de reggae con “influencias” venezolanas, y eso que son venezolanos- me di cuenta de una pequeña conmoción en el lado izquierdo del escenario: Chávez está conversando con el maraquero del grupo, y este, repentinamente, le da a Chávez las maracas. El público (y Chávez siempre tuvo público, nunca un electorado) empieza a reaccionar cuando Chávez llega al centro del escenario y es pandemónium: El Presidente de Venezuela está tocando maracas furiosamente y, debo admitir, con envidiable destreza. La música muta, DPM cambia su reggae-zuela por algo más parecido al joropo. Chávez sonríe: una vez más se ha robado el show. Ese era Hugo a swing completo.


Mis primeros encuentros periodísticos con Chávez fueron menos espectaculares y menos gratos, aunque más cercanos. Una vez, a pocos días de ser electo, en enero de 1999, me espetó: “esa pregunta es impertinente”, simplemente por preguntarle si pensaba ratificar a la profesora Maritza Izaguirre como Ministro de Finanzas, cargo que la profe -de quien luego me hice amigo- ya venía detentando con el saliente Rafael Caldera.

Me sentí ofendido primero, nunca un entrevistado me había increpado de esa forma, y luego amenazado, cuando un fotógrafo de la DISIP me tomó, sin disimular, una foto del rostro. A ese pobre hombre lo mataron el 11 de Abril, dicen que fue el primer muerto, en paz descanse.

Pero la verdad es que yo me las había arreglado para sorprender a Chávez, el maestro de la sorpresa: Izaguirre fue ratificada, como ya yo había predicho, y creo que sigue detentando el título de la única ministra de finanzas de dos gobiernos sucesivos, con Caldera y con Chávez.

Chávez odiaba que lo sorprendieran, que le adivinaran una jugada, pero amaba sorprender. Echó para atrás la designación de Francisco Faraco a un puesto clave del gobierno solo porque los periódicos la anunciaron antes de que fuera oficial. Por otra parte, se mofó de su ministro José Rojas, al que destituyó de improviso en un acto publico, diciéndole después del anuncio, y ya tras bambalinas, “¡y tu no lo sabías! ¡Y tu no lo sabías!” Brincaba arriba y abajo como un niño, y era difícil no sentir cierta simpatía por Chávez y cierta lástima por el incauto Rojas. A diferencia de casi todos los otros ministros de Chávez (le gustaba repetir ministros), a Rojas más nunca lo llamaron al gobierno.

The Miraflores Show

Pero Chávez también podía ser un anfitrión deslumbrante: ya a sus anchas en Miraflores, en 2010, se oyó un toque de corneta: instrucciones para la Guardia de Honor, ya sabíamos. Pero Chávez se acercó a los reporteros y nos explicó que significaba exactamente el toque: “Atención mi capitán, que ya viene el coronel”, la melodía del trompeta imitaba esas palabras como una orden hablada. Luego Chávez fue un paso más allá para ilustrarnos: Hizo que el corneta tocara varias órdenes falsas y nos las iba explicando, generando un pequeño caos en Miraflores, con ayudantes y edecanes de todo rango acercándose a que les confirmara cierta orden. “No chico, es simplemente, aquí, explicándoles a los periodistas lo que significan los toques de corneta”. Fue un momento bastante íntimo: A Chávez realmente le gustaba la vida militar, y nos dejó asomarnos a su mundo por unos minutos.

Ya en 1999 me había llamado “impertinente” en cadena nacional, y en 2010, como para celebrar nuestro aniversario, tuvimos otro pequeño roce, también en cadena nacional. Una delegación de Belarús estaba en Miraflores. Los periodistas le preguntamos a Chávez que tipo de negocio venían a hacer. “Ellos vienen a traer unos camiones para exploración petrolera, para hacer unos estudios, como se llaman…Rafael!”, dijo, apelando al ministro Ramírez que no estaba por ahí cerca. En eso yo dije, no lo pude evitar, “camiones de sísmica”. A Chávez se le iluminó el rostro por un segundo: “Exacto!” dijo, pero luego los ojos se le achinaron y achicaron como a un malo de película para decirme: “Cónchale, tu si sabes…”. Dios guarde su alma, yo no le caía bien al Presidente, sobre todo cuando hacía mi trabajo más o menos bien.

Vi enfrentamientos más físicos y más violentos con otros periodistas, sobre todo con mujeres, como a mi colega Patricia Janiot, a quien acusó de tarifada, y a Beatriz Lecumberri, a quien, durante una rueda de prensa para discutir las acusaciones de Interpol sobre la supuesta computadora de Raúl Reyes, le puso la entrepierna en la cara (ella estaba sentada, Chávez no era tan alto ni Beatriz tan bajita), mientras gritaba y agitaba papeles. Pocas veces vi a Chávez (o a ningún presidente) tan agitado en público, aunque Lecumberri en su libro “La Revolución Sentimental” describe ese encuentro de manera decididamente menos confrontacional. Pero ahí está el video, y los testimonios de mis otros colegas.

El mismo día de la computadora de Raúl Reyes, minutos antes de su explosión ante Lecumberri, Chávez trajo un arma anti-tanque al salón Ayacucho, y yo temía una explosión, de otro tipo: Chávez a veces era bastante descuidado. El jefe de la guardia de honor era un oficial negro, gigantesco, a quien Chávez le preguntó “¿seguro que esto está desactivado?”. Los dos se rieron, y a mi no me quedó más que reírme también: Chávez empezó a pasar el arma entre los periodistas como quien enseña un libro o un disco.

La idea de traer el lanza cohetes era demostrar que unas armas capturadas a la FARC no podían haber sido provistas por Venezuela, pero Chávez lo que quería realmente era impresionarnos. Ese día discutimos el arma anti-tanque alemana “Karl Gustav”, que los alzados usaron en el golpe de 1992, y, una vez más, sorprendí a Chávez, pero de manera que le agradó: “Bueno, entonces tu sabes que el que usamos nosotros es recargable, mientras que el que le capturaron a la FARC es de un solo tiro, desechable, es decir, no pudimos haber sido nosotros”. Uso mi pregunta a favor de su argumento, pero con Chávez uno ya estaba acostumbrado a esas cosas.

Como dije al principio, con otros presidentes, la política y la economía estaban separadas, y las estrellas de Hollywood nunca iban a Miraflores (ahí conocí a Benicio del Toro y hablé un rato con el, esa foto si la tengo). Pero con Chávez todo era todo, y los periodistas tenían que acostumbrarse a cubrir de todo: Terminaban entrevistando a Benicio del Toro, cuando habían ido a buscar a Rafael Ramírez, por ejemplo. Con Chávez, todo era política, todo era economía, y todo era un show.

Y sigue siendo el único Presidente de Venezuela a quien yo haya visto tocando las maracas. Así lo recuerdo ahora.

En paz descanse.