Monday, August 11, 2003

Tiempo de marchas
“a time to march” (*)
August 11, 2003

Sometimes one gets one of these moments where we can reflect on what certain episodes of our life meant. I did get one of these moments Saturday when I attended the premiere of a documentary on some of the events of last years, namely the huge popular manifestations that happened so regularly in Caracas.

The world became aware of the marching ability of Venezuelans on April 11 2002 when Chavez resigned (temporarily) after the huge march of the opposition was ambushed downtown Caracas, resulting in dozens of dead and injured. But Venezuelans have been doing long marches as a form of political action for a long time. Even Carlos Andres Perez built his own successful 1973 bid for the presidency with the leitmotiv “ese hombre si camina” (that man really walks).

Chavez, in the best populist tradition, rated his success by his ability to mobilize people in huge rallies, or lengthy marches. And at least until December 2001 he claimed that the opposition was unable to match him in the streets. Indeed the efforts from the opposition until the first one day general strike of December 2001 were noticeable but still weak. The video which title I use today shows clearly how Chavez lost the street and the public support through 2002.

Tiempo de marchas is an edition of hundreds of hour of film footage, from news clips to amateur videos of the sometimes gigantic mobilizations that the opposition carried through 2002 when it still believed that a reasonable ruler would hear the complaint of his people and act accordingly.

As a polished documentary one can see all these critical moments that marked the political evolution of the country. The video starts with the January 23 march, held while chavistas had their own one a few blocks away. The opposition march at the very least matched the chavista one in numbers, and with a thrill we realized that we could dare take on Chavez in the streets. This defining moment certainly contributed to lead to the second general strike.

The April 11 march was the fateful march where everything changed as the country was broken in two. Still, Chavez seemed to have the upper hand. But this was going to be an illusion as the rest of the year unfolded. The May 11 night rally was noteworthy if anything because with barely one month after the April 11 catastrophe, the grieving opposition was undaunted and back on the saddle.

The October 10 march was the first one in Venezuelan history to pass the 1 million marchers. The thrill of that march was, for me anyway, unmatched. Perhaps its size was impressive but what struck people more then was that for the first time the cameras could show that all sectors of Venezuelan society were marching together, in peace. Black and white. Rich and poor. Leftists and rightists against a wanna-be authoritarian ruler. Chavistas never recovered from October 10. They did attempt to mobilize some but clearly the heart was not in it anymore. By November the marching alleys were for the opposition and the stage was set for the December general strike.

Among the many marches that are shown through the video there is one which was particularly important, Saturday December 14 2002, when in the middle of general strike, while gas had run out in Caracas, more than a million people marched from all corners of Caracas to converge at Altamira exchange on the central highway, to gather in the most spectacular rally that Caracas had ever witnessed. The image, and impressions, of the sea of flags as nightfall fell went around the globe and showed that Chavez speeches were mere propaganda. From then on international opinion who tended to be legalistic, and thus rather pro-Chavez, started having second thoughts. It became clear to many that Chavez had a problem, of his own doing.

But the video also works at an emotional level. It is a very moving video, at least for those of us that did participate to some of these marches. It makes us understand that all the effort was not lost, that we learned something about ourselves and our love of freedom, and our wish to fight for it. It shows what was truly an epic moment in our history, a popular fervor that is rarely seen. Chavez might still be in office but he has lost the heart of most Venezuelans.

(*) “Tiempo de marcha: un a?o dando la cara” (A time of marches: a year facing up) is as of Saturday 9, 2003 available in Venezuela, and I trust that soon on internet excerpts will be found. It is a 50 minutes documentary showing the highlights of the main marches that took place in Caracas in 2002, including hard moments such as the shootings of April 2001, as well as some of elating moments of civic pride, and comic relief, that dotted these marches. It is promoted by an NGO, Ciudadania Activa ; contact contacto@ciudadaniaacctiva.com

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