Monday, December 08, 2003

REQUIEM FOR PLAZA ALTAMIRA
Or Chavez and his opposition get rid of a burdensome PR problem

Monday 8, December 2003

Today I just feel like putting a short note on the fate of Plaza Altamira, our tropical version on Tien An Men square.

Plaza Altamira (Officially known as Plaza Francia, by the way), is one of the landmarks of Caracas. Four years ago it was even chosen to have at one of its corners a Four Seasons luxury hotel. The mile to the East on the Francisco de Miranda Avenue is even semi-ironically called the Golden Mile as the residence of some of the most prestigious corporate names. Obviously, Plaza Altamira in the wealthiest municipality of Venezuela, Chacao, is a natural for a rallying point of the Chavez opposition.

Originally Chuao owning a PDVSA major site was the main rallying point for the opposition, the one from where the fateful march of April 11, 2003, started. But Plaza Altamira became the focus center when a few dissident military took over the handsome square to set up tent in October of 2002. The night images of these days were just spectacular as perhaps 100 000 people gathered nightly with candles, flashlights and what not. A stage was set up where pretty much any opposition leader went to say a few words, in between commoners using this as a new Speaker’s Corner.

The high point was on November 4, 2002 when the first petition drive was taken to the Electoral Board for a consultative referendum on Chavez rule. The success of that delivery should have been a good opportunity for the dissident military to give up Plaza Altamira, but they made the foolish decision to stay, adding even an electronic clock to count the hours since the dissidence started. The fiery speeches emanating from Plaza Altamira greatly contributed to the paroxysm that led to the General strike that started on December 2 2002, even though some Cassandra voices were already questioning the presence of right wing nuts manipulating the Plaza Altamira grand stand.

The most memorable event in Plaza Altamira was the shooting of December 6 leaving 3 deaths and several injuries. This event happening live on TV galvanized the opposition and almost single-handedly held the strike together for weeks!

During the December-January strike Plaza Altamira was the main rallying point for the opposition, in particular the ones wanting Chavez out at any price. People came from all around the country to visit it as a shrine. Even yours truly went as a bemused observer to get a first hand knowledge of the collective folly that embraced our country from both sides.

But the strike eventually faltered. It might have failed at ousting Chavez but it left for the world to see where the people were, who were the ones with the true democratic bent and who was the authoritarian side. From then on Chavez started losing his martyr aura unjustly gained on April 11.

By the end of the strike the dissident military had been “camping” in the underground parking of the Plaza Altamira for already 4 months. In reality it quickly became a group of feuding rivals, some of them setting up residence on the now disaffected Four Seasons, torn by a legal rivalry between the owners and the managers. And the right wing connections became more and more apparent. Prudently the democratic opposition slowly but surely isolated the military dissidence, whose moment had come and gone.

By June Plaza Altamira had become as much a problem for the opposition as for Chavez, a problem that nobody knew really how to extricate from. That is until last Saturday.

The rampage of December 6, 2003, not only broke icons of the Virgin Mary but desecrated the grounds of Plaza Altamira which was commemorating the massacre of one year ago. But the Chacao Mayor saw the opportunity he had been waiting for: with the excuse of Christmas he has decided that all political expression will be banished through December and promptly ordered the dismantling of the stage that had sat for over a year. The chavista drunken minority unwillingly might have helped the opposition in more ways than just giving them the image of a decapitated religious icon. The ironies of politics!

No word on the dissident military meanwhile. They have been quite absent lately, some of them apparently hiding, and justifiably so. But the soldiers with a future are the ones in jail today as political prisoners. It is sad to say but among all the people that risked it all, such as the striking PDVSA workers now fired and holding baking sales to survive, the Altamira dissidence are the group that most blatantly failed in their political adventure. If Chavez ever leaves, the PDVSA workers will come back in triumph. I doubt that the military dissidence will do so.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

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