From behind their riot shield barricade, Venezuela’s National Guard cooly surveyed a scene of frustration.
Dressed in white t-shirts representing their pacifism, protesters waved their national flags, pledged their commitment to peaceful protest and banged cooking pots in time to songs of government downfall. Saturday’s “empty pots march” had commenced.
Beneath the scorching Caracas sun, one man held up a banner to those who blocked their passage west to the centre of the Venezuelan capital: “If we all have the same problems, then why are we so divided?”
The man’s message was not aimed at the authorities, rather the pro-government chavistas who suffer under the same rampant inflation, chronic shortages of basic goods and massive murder rates that form daily struggles on both sides of Venezuela’s political divide.
After plotting a route to the Ministry of Food in the city center, Saturday’s “empty pots march” stopped short as protestors entered the pro-government Libertador municipality.
In an “adapt or perish” bid to spur momentum into a fourth week of protests, Saturday’s demonstration was the first of its kind to emerge from the opposition districts.
“We’re testing the water,” said one masked protester, who held his country’s flag upside-down over the lower tier of a freeway that ferries two million vehicles daily along the Caracas valley. “We want to reach out to those who don’t hear our message so that they can see we aren’t the fascists the government says we are.”
The protesters carried empty pots and pans to illustrate the shortages caused by government price controls, as well as to form the cacerolazo — a peaceful protest popular in Latino countries in which culinary tools are used as instruments of dissent.
The protest was not permitted by the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, so the Bolivarian National Guard formed a blockade stretching north from Plaza Venezuela, a fountain-filled landmark from whichchavista marches always begin.
Forming only a single line, the riot troops numbered enough to deter any demonstrators who felt their restriction unacceptable. Dressed in full body armor, the troops recruited from Caracas’ poorer areas made little effort to hide their tear gas canisters, riot guns and disdain all were plainly visible through the riot shield wall. Staring out impassively, they had nothing to do but ignore the insults and wait for the midday sun to exhaust the furious protesters.
Behind their line, a bulky machine was recognizable from its outings at the nighttime riots: a powerful laser that temporarily blinds those whose retinas it cuts across.
“The march ends here,” said Ramon Muñoz, a lawyer who has attended every opposition march thus far. “We aren’t going to fight the police.
In the past month, however, the streets of Caracas have not always seen such restraint.
Nightly rioting in the opposition district of Altamira has included flaming barricades, tear gas clouds that suffocate those caught within their smog and armed groups of pro-government motorcyclists on the prowl for stray demonstrators. So far, 20 have lost their lives.
“Those riots don’t represent our message, that’s why we are here peacefully today,” said 75-year-old Andrea Suarez, who had brought her grandmother’s battered saucepan to the demonstration. Relishing the chance to bang the charred relic along the line of police, she hammered the heirloom with the gusto of one 50 years her junior.
Outnumbering government forces 50 to one, the protesters still remained pacifistic. Many made light of their struggles; one group of teenage girls came dressed as the “Regime Beauty Queens,” playing on Venezuela’s Miss Universe successes as “Miss Corruption” and “Miss Censorship.”
Others took the backseat, preferring to socialize with those who shared their hopes and frustrations to raging at an authority deaf to their complaints.
Holding placards that displayed messages of dissent and their corresponding Twitter hashtags (#SOSVenezuela has become the defining catchall), all chanted their frustration with a government they claim acts more and more like a dictatorship every day.
“No to the dictatorship, exactly like the Cuban one!” (In Spanish, this phrase rhymes elegantly.)
As more protesters arrived, their mass forced the braver members onto the lower tier of the capital’s artery, where a sketchy-looking police line had rushed without riot shields and ammunition to block their way.
A group of students, arms joined to form an unbroken line across the eight-lane carriageway, advanced to within five meters of the police. Spurred on by cheers from the sprawling crowd above, the 30 students fell to their knees and stared up — unblinking — into their oppressors’ eyes.
An explosion of applause came from above. The clash of wooden spoon on tin, the deafening blare of air horns and the squawk of the commanding officer’s megaphone demanding that his men stand their ground were not enough to drown out the kneeling demonstrators insistent chant: “He who tires loses! He who tires loses! He who tires loses!”