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One Crowded Hour

ISSUE:  Fall 2007

It didn’t register that the noise was gunfire. Inside that maelstrom of sound and motion, Mike Merhi assumed it was only the reverberations of firecrackers set off by the other protestors.

The march was only a few blocks from the presidential palace of Miraflores, but the way remaining was barred by hundreds of the president’s loyal supporters—hard-core chavistas. They were barraging Mike and his fellow marchers with a hail of rocks, bottles, and Molotov cocktails. In between the opposing factions was an open space of about 40 meters, a no-man’s-land of debris and plumes of spiraling tear gas. The chavistas and the opposition surged back and forth against each other while the police tried desperately to keep the two groups apart with tear gas and water cannons.

Mike was standing on the curb of the Pedrera intersection—with his eighteen-year-old son Jesús and his friend Gustavo Tovar—when a photographer crumpled to the ground. The man had been trotting along, a telephoto lens cupped in one hand, and then he abruptly fell forward as if performing a somersault. As people rushed over to help, Mike watched the man’s forehead bloom into a bloody smudge. He must have been hit in the head with a rock, Mike thought.

He heard loud cracks in the air rising above the din—he thought it was the police firing their perdigones—shotguns with plastic shot—at the chavistas. A tall woman in a yellow T-shirt collapsed in a shock of cropped blond hair. It looked as if she had been hit with a rock, too. Up the street he saw another man stumble, and now, very loud, he heard the doom, doom, doom. Almost as one, he, Jesús, and Gustavo realized what was happening: bullets. They ran for cover.

*  *  *  *  

It was Thursday afternoon, April 11, 2002, the third day of a nation-wide strike that had paralyzed Venezuela, and Mike was standing in the midst of the largest civic protest in the history of the country. Around him were Venezuelans of every color, make, and model. There were parents who had pulled their children from grade school, college students cutting classes, workers forgoing wages, and business owners who had shut their doors. They had all put aside their ordinary lives to collectively express their hatred for one man: Hugo Chávez.

Amazingly, just three years earlier, in 1999, Chávez had sailed into office with overwhelming popular support. He had accomplished the unthinkable—he had snatched power from the two political parties that had incestuously shared power since 1958. And he had even done it legally; unlike in 1992, when he—as a lieutenant colonel in the army—attempted to overthrow the government in a bloody coup.

On the eve of the election there had been a new energy in Venezuela. People felt it. Chávez was something new, something exciting. A brilliant orator, he would flow effortlessly from Marx to the Bible to Pablo Neruda. He was the future; a powerful engine of change, openly calling for the complete restructuring of Venezuelan society: the “Bolivarian” Revolution, named after Simón Bolívar, the Great Liberator, the man who had expelled the Spanish from most of Latin America. For many Venezuelans, Chávez’s promised revolución eponymously tapped into a notion of renewal and rebirth, a rebirth that Venezuela desperately needed.

Despite the country’s tremendous oil wealth (it ranks sixth in the world in proven reserves—higher than any country outside of the Middle East—and is consistently one of the world’s top five exporters), at the time of the election Venezuela was reeling from almost two decades of unremitting economic collapse. Ever since the “roaring seventies,” when Venezuela had enjoyed windfall oil profits due to the OPEC embargo, the economy (and the country) had been in an unstoppable freefall, a seemingly endless cycle of increasing crime, inflation, and poverty. Year after year, Venezuelans watched their country—which had been so close to First World prosperity—sink deeper and deeper into recession.

In Hugo Chávez people saw a chance for a new beginning; an opportunity to break from the corrupt politicians who had been pilfering the oil profits for decades. So enthusiastically was he embraced that, shortly after taking office (and right about the time the young president said he intended to convert one of the presidential haciendas into a primary school), his approval rating reached 80 percent.

But the honeymoon was short-lived. Once in office Chávez aroused a storm of controversy. The new president threatened newspapers and tv networks with closure, attacked the Catholic Church (its leaders were “possessed by the devil”), and fired scores of federal judges, handpicking their replacements. All of this, the opposition believed, sprang from Chávez’s desire to install himself as a dictator on the model of his close, highly controversial ally, Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

When Chávez moved to take unilateral control of PDVSA, their fears seemed confirmed. PDVSA, or Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., is the huge state-run oil company that was created in 1975 when the international producers were nationalized. It was, without a doubt, the jewel-in-the-crown of this oil-dependent nation. It has always been an axiom in Venezuelan politics that whoever controls PDVSA controls the country. Not surprisingly, if anything was going to rile the electorate, it was a change to PDVSA. The strike and rally on April 11 was called in response to Chávez’s firing of high-ranking PDVSA officials and their replacement with his allies. That got people onto the streets.

Yet Venezuelans were hardly united in opposition to Chávez. While his popularity had dropped to 30 percent by April 11, those who still supported Hugo Chávez did so passionately. His social programs—the first to provide decent healthcare and education in many areas—were particularly popular among the poor. Chávez had taken advantage of this support by carefully fostering and organizing loyalists into local teams called “Bolivarian Circles.” The creation of the Bolivarian Circles was one of the most controversial aspects of the Chávez regime. The opposition claimed they were paramilitary units that Chávez used to do his dirty work, while the government claimed they were harmless community groups. The truth was somewhere in between. While most of the Bolivarian Circles were exactly what they said they were—groups of party members organizing to better their community and spread the word of the revolution—some Circles were modeled after the Dignity Battalions—the violent local militias used by General Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega in Panama—that had impressed Chávez when he was a military attaché there. Many Bolivarian Circles received military training and arms, and some of their leaders were even sent to Cuba for instruction. On the morning of April 11, when the anti-Chávez demonstrators, bolstered by their impressive numbers, decided to deviate from the official route to march on Chávez’s palace and demand his resignation, it was these Bolivian Circles, along with other loyal chavistas, who rushed to defend their president and halt the march.

*  *  *  *  

Aerial View of March
No single photograph was able to capture the opposition march in its entirety. This one shows a little over half of what was the largest civic protest in the history of Venezuela (Courtesy El Universal).

At the moment, one of those chavistas was shooting at Mike Merhi, his son, and Gustavo Tovar.

The blonde in the yellow shirt who had just collapsed was Malvina Pesáte, forty-six, a Jewish architect whose parents had immigrated to Venezuela from Romania after World War II. When the bullet struck her left cheek, Malvina fainted momentarily. When she came to, she assumed she had been hit with a rock. Being shot, after all, wasn’t really in the realm of possibility; dozens of marches had taken place over the past year, and no one had ever been shot. The whole side of her face was numb, as though it had been injected with Novocain, and there was little pain. The way her body was reacting . . . it felt like a dream state, as if she were outside of her body watching herself. Someone was pulling at her arm. “Come on,” her boyfriend, Gorka, was saying, “we have to get you out of here.” One thing was for sure: she didn’t feel like going anywhere. “No, I’m cool here,” she mumbled. “Stop pulling me,” she said. “Estoy bien.” I’m fine. “It doesn’t hurt.” She blacked out once again. Ambulances were already overcrowded with casualties. Instead, as Malvina came to, Gorka and his friend Jose María were trying to prop her onto a motorcycle to get her to the hospital.

“Get her on the bike,” a policeman said.

“No,” Malvina whined, “motorcycle, no.” She was pressing a handkerchief against her face to slow the bleeding. No one had noticed the exit wound at the back of her neck.

“Come on,” Gorka said.

Malvina shook her head, “Moto, no!” She didn’t like motorcycles.

“Get on the bike NOW!” Gorka demanded.

Malvina relented. She let them put her on the bike, and Gorka got behind her so she wouldn’t fall—three on a bike—and off they sped.

Many days later, after she had been released from the hospital, but was still eating through a straw, she would see herself on television. A man had been standing just behind her taking a home video of the violence when she was hit. Malvina would see herself move into the frame in front of the injured photographer, put her hand to her brow to shade her eyes, then rise up on her tiptoes to look for Gorka. There was another crack—one of many—and she could see the hair at the base of her neck wisp up as the bullet came out of her. Then, she watched herself collapse. The doctors explained that the bullet had “tumbled,” or twisted slightly, as it passed through her, missing her carotid artery, brain, and spine by millimeters.

The video, which was replayed ad nauseam by the anti-Chávez networks, was surreal to watch, but it enraged her, too—that people would try to kill her just for speaking out against the government. It proved to her just how far Venezuela had fallen.

Group Photo
From left to right: Malvina Pesáte, Joyce Roth, and Gorka Lacasa joined the opposition march on the morning of April 11. This photo was taken a few hours before Malvina was shot in the face (Courtesy Sammy Eppel and Malvina Pesate).

*  *  *  *  

Back on the street Mike Merhi, Jesús, and Gustavo were taking cover behind a newsstand and a ridiculously skinny tree. They were on Baralt Avenue, a six-lane road that ran through El Silencio—the old heart of Caracas—the Silence. In colonial times El Silencio had been tranquil parkland, but now it was an incessantly noisy urban center filled with towering high-rises. As the gunfire died off and the chavistas fell back, Mike realized with fear that the buildings were ideal for hidden snipers.

Mike, a Lebanese immigrant originally named Mohamad, had joined the march to protest what he viewed as Chávez’s totalitarian policies. He had come to Venezuela during the 1975 oil boom, and it had since become his country. He had named his son Jesús Mohamad to symbolize the bridge between his Islamic roots and his new Christian home and to show that all human beings were brothers regardless of religion. At that moment, crouched behind the newspaper stand, Mike’s ideas of brotherhood and patriotism seemed very much under attack.

Despite the gunfire, the march was still trying to push forward. A group of men nearby began to call for them to continue up the street. “Let’s go! Let’s go while we can!”

Mike hesitated. “But, Gustavo, they’re shooting at us and we are unarmed.”

Gustavo nodded in agreement, “Yes, but that’s exactly why we have to keep going. If we stop now, then they’ll know they can use violence and win.”

Jesús, who was just finishing high school, agreed. He repeated the opposition’s mantra, Ni un paso atrás. Not one step backward. Mike nodded slowly. It was decided: they would not retreat before the chavistas. Yes, a part of Mike was afraid, but another part of him was furious. How dare they shoot at us! But he wouldn’t let Jesús go. There was no need to put him in harm’s way so he ordered him to stay behind, then he and Gustavo moved up the street.

*  *  *  *  

Andrés Trujillo was standing in the middle of the intersection when the photographer—whose name was Jorge Tortoza—and Malvina Pesáte were shot. Andrés had lost the woman he had been marching with, Libia, when they were tear-gassed by the police on Bolívar Avenue. Now he was alone, marching close behind some girls who were carrying a banner from the Primero Justicia political party. He had told them to be careful, because people with banners made juicy targets for the rock-throwing chavistas.

With the first shots people began shouting, “Es plomo, es plomo!” It’s lead! It’s lead! Despite the danger, few ran. At that moment Andrés felt something very strange happen—a sort of collective euphoria came over the crowd. The people, it seemed, had forgotten themselves; they had become so completely swept up in what was happening that they either didn’t care or didn’t believe they could die. The size of the march, which was said to be more than a million strong, had become like a narcotic or a shield. Not even bullets could stop them.

Doctor in Ambulance
Jorge Tortoza, the 45-year-old photographer for Diario 2001 newspaper, was shot on Baralt Avenue and then taken to Vargas Hospital in a police truck (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

Andrés found himself grabbing rocks and throwing them with all his might. At first he was surprised by the fury he suddenly felt. But he realized that this day could not be considered in a vacuum; his disappointment, frustration, and rage with the government had been building for a long time. The way Chávez was treating the people of PDVSA, his disregard for the law and the democratic process, his policies that were ruining the country, all filled Andrés with indignation. And now this final affront: he wanted to get to the palace to protest but the damn chavistas were trying to stop him.

Unlike many Venezuelans who had initially endorsed Chávez and later come to regret it, Andrés had never liked the man. He was an original escuálido (anti-Chávez). Andrés believed he had seen Chávez’s true colors during the 1992 coup. Andrés blamed the coup’s death toll on Chávez; although Andrés admitted there was corruption in Venezuela, he did not believe it could be fixed by breaking the law. The last straw for Andrés came last November when Chávez approved the “enabling law,” the package of forty-nine laws that Chávez passed as an “emergency” measure by decree and without approval from the National Assembly. Included in these laws were radical land reforms that allowed the government to seize and reallocate what they vaguely referred to as “idle” land. More often than not, instead of going to the poor, the land was used for political patronage, and land titles were bestowed on loyal party members. Critics were quick to point out how, curiously, none of the nearly 50 percent of Venezuelan territory owned by the government was redistributed to the poor. The land-reform law caused bitter controversy (and several deaths) when thousands of squatters descended on land and demanded ownership under the new law. Three of Andrés’s brothers had lost their jobs as a result of Chávez’s land reform, when squatters overran property they had worked on. Andrés saw the move as an outrageous abuse of power. He tried to convince his family that Chávez was not to be trusted, but only some of them listened. He spent many nights arguing with them over the dinner table.

At last Andrés was able to express his anger to the president. He continued up the street with a large group of marchers amid cries of “Ni un paso atrás!” and “We have to make it!” They advanced half a block as the chavistas retreated. Just then a woman with a portable radio called out that Chávez had started a special broadcast. An outcry went up from the marchers. The government often used special broadcasts as a way to censor the media: by law, all the networks had to broadcast official government announcements. Whenever there was an anti-Chávez march or a news program particularly critical of the regime, Chávez would give a long speech or run a government infomercial that effectively blocked out the normal programming. In the previous 24 hours, as the national strike wore on and the pressure against Chávez mounted, the government had held 35 special broadcasts, taking up 15 hours of broadcasting time on more than 300 radio and tv stations. Chávez proved himself a master of this indirect censorship against the opposition news media, especially the four major tv networks, which Chávez referred to as “the four horsemen of the apocalypse.”

What the marchers didn’t know was that today Chávez would take it one step further: he had just sent his secret police to cut the signals of the four major networks. He wanted a total blackout. However, Chávez’s secret police would be tricked by a lone tv technician who manned the transmission station high in the Caracas hills. When told to shut down the networks, the man cut only the UHF and VHF signals, pointed to a nearby tv screen filled with snow, and declared the stations off the air. Yet anyone with cable, a big satellite dish, or DirecTV could still watch the news, and in Venezuela this represented millions and millions of viewers—including people living in the shantytowns where DirecTV dishes dotted the hillsides. What’s more, two of the major networks, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV) and Venevisión, had rebelliously set up hidden UHF transmission centers for just such a situation. Within half an hour, these clandestine transmitters were up and running—the signal was weak, but many people could still get reception, and images of the violence were entering living rooms across the country.

It was only a few minutes after the special broadcast began that the gunfire reached a new intensity. Andrés couldn’t help thinking that the heightened offensive was cued now that the government believed the rest of the country could no longer see events unfold. The police, largely ignored, yelled at the protestors to retreat. Andrés understood only theoretically the meaning of the supersonic hiss surrounding him; the bullets hardly seemed real. Soon Andrés realized that he and a bunch of the other marchers had gone so far up the street that they were much closer to the chavistas than to the rest of the march. He could see them clearly, standing with chains and pistols and sticks and mallets. Some held baseball bats with protruding nails.

Andrés recalled earlier that morning when they had been marching along the highway. A group of chavistas in taxis and on motorcycles went by, shouting, “We are waiting for you up there.”

A woman next to Andrés said, “They are going to do something to us.”

“Señora,” Andrés said, “what can they do to us—to all these people? We’re too many.”

But now he was beginning to see what the chavistas meant. He turned to the three girls holding the Primero Justicia banner, who were still next to him, “That banner is going to be more useful if you break it and take out the poles,” he said. The girls saw the wisdom of this and took out the poles, which were long, and broke them in two and passed them out, one for each of the girls and one for Andrés. Looking at them, he was again struck by how many women were in the march—many more women than men—and most were just as enraged as any of the men. He was especially amazed by some of the younger ones, very pretty girls, more dressed for a night of nightclubbing than a street brawl. They were fierce: hurling rocks with all their might, and screaming obscenities through gritted teeth. Malditos chavistas!

Just then the police moved their armored trucks up the street. They were trying to put more space between the two opposing groups and had also begun returning fire at some of the pro-Chávez gunmen. As they pushed forward a big mass of marchers, including Andrés, moved up behind them, shouting and throwing rocks. The street was covered with things that the retreating chavistas left behind: baseball bats, chains, broken wooden boxes, soft drink crates, orange and mandarin peels (rubbing the peels under the eyes lessens the effects of tear gas). Andrés was staying behind one of the armored trucks, stepping out to throw rocks; in the confusion he lost track of the Primero Justicia girls. Suddenly there was a boy next to him. “I’ll pass you the rocks,” he said to Andrés, “and you throw them.” Andrés agreed. The kid looked like he was in high school, dressed in a black T‑shirt and blue jeans. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen.

Fighting Protestors
Point of view: opposition. On Baralt Avenue the march found the way blocked by Chávez loyalists (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

The kid gathered rocks and passed them to Andrés, who threw them at the chavistas. By now there was a constant ping of bullets hitting the armor of the truck. It made a sound that was almost benevolent, like heavy rain on a tin roof. Andrés threw a rock and turned to find the kid sprawled out on the street in a widening pool of blood. Andrés broke out of his adrenalized rage. That could be me. People are dying. The kid’s eyes were open but unfocused, and the blood, it was so thick it reminded him of spaghetti sauce. Just then a policeman came up. “Run! Get back down the street.” The policeman moved toward the boy. Marchers started to flee.

Between going and staying, helping and fighting, Andrés found himself backpedaling down the street. He didn’t see the boy again, but would later learn that his name was Jesús Mohamad, who had disobeyed his father’s orders to stay behind.

Just as he was about to turn and break into a run, Andrés felt a sharp pain at the upper thigh near the groin. At first he felt numb, and assumed he’d been hit with a rock. He tried to walk, but couldn’t, so he hopped over to the curb by a McDonald’s, collapsed, and couldn’t get up. He looked himself over; felt along his leg. Nothing. He didn’t see any blood. Then a policeman came up. “What’s wrong?”

“They got me with a rock and I can’t get up.” The policeman grabbed him under the armpits, then another policeman came and grabbed his legs, and together they carried him back to the Pedrera corner and put him on the ground. He looked himself over again and saw that all along the groin his jeans were soaked in blood. Oh shit, he thought, the rock crushed one of my balls. Then he noticed a hole in his jeans. Finally he realized: he’d been shot.

The Policemen shoved him into an already overcrowded ambulance parked on University Avenue, where Malvina and Gorka had been only a short time before. The paramedic asked him where he was hurt. Andrés indicated the blood stains around his groin and the paramedic quickly made room for him.

He lowered his pants and his underwear. The good news was that it wasn’t his testicle, but there was a hole in his leg. When the paramedic looked at the wound, he quickly grabbed his radio: “Possible femoral artery . . .” he said, and kept talking.

Fighting Protestors
Point of view: chavista. On Baralt Avenue Chávez supporters try to keep the opposition march from reaching the Presidential Palace. The Metropolitan Police tried to keep the two groups apart (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

Andrés went deaf with fear. He’d seen enough movies to know a rupture of that artery, the main branch of the iliac artery, is often fatal. He tried not to believe it. The pain was not terrible, and the bleeding seemed to be under control. No, he told himself, it couldn’t be that bad. He still felt strong. As a boy, he had fainted many times from glucose deficiency, so he knew what it felt like when you were going to pass out, and this didn’t feel like that. No, he told himself again, it can’t be that bad.

There was a kid next to him who was screaming in pain, and another man who was moaning and cursing. He told the paramedic to help them. “You are worse off than they are,” the paramedic said. But by now Andrés had convinced himself that it was not fatal. “No, take care of them,” he said. “I’m not going to die today.”

Just then Andrés’s cell phone began to ring. It was in his belt pack, which the paramedic had removed. It kept ringing. The paramedic, frantically moving from patient to patient, swore he was going to throw it out the window, but Andrés convinced him to pass it to him. It was his friend Claudio. “Claudio, they shot me. I’m in a white-and-red ambulance and they’re taking me to Vargas Hospital.”

“Andrés, no me jodas!” Don’t fuck with me.

“No, it’s true. They shot me. I can’t talk. They’re taking me to Vargas.”

Andrés hung up then swore to himself. White-and-red ambulance? How would Claudio ever be able to find him?

Injured Boy Receiving Treatment
Mike Merhi’s 18-year-old son Jesús Mohamad lies mortally wounded on Baralt Avenue (Courtesy El Universal).

*  *  *  *  

About forty yards up the street from where Andrés had been shot, Douglas Romero was doing everything in his power to keep the march from reaching the palace. Douglas was a die-hard chavista and proud of it. He had to stop the march, and that meant stopping the police, too. To the chavistas, it seemed obvious that the police were on the side of the protestors and not to be trusted. Douglas knew that they were under the jurisdiction of Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña, a former leftist-guerrilla who had initially been a Chávez ally but had since defected to the opposition.

Douglas was from the Petare barrio in Sucre—a sprawling shantytown in western Caracas and one of the biggest slums in Latin America. One of seven brothers and sisters, the thirty-eight-year-old first-grade teacher was also a marathon runner. Douglas ran nearly every day. He ran in the botanical gardens, in Parque del Este, and even up the dauntingly steep Ávila—the picturesque sierra that cuts between Caracas and the Caribbean. Douglas had won several marathons, finishing one in two hours and twenty-seven minutes. He hoped to compete in one of the great international marathons, such as Boston or New York; he dreamed of running up Fifth Avenue and through Central Park.

Douglas had always been a Marxist and a socialist. His father had been a Communist and his uncle had died fighting with the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN)—a leftist guerrilla group that had been active in Venezuela in the sixties and seventies. Douglas believed communism was the logical system for a country with so much oil wealth like Venezuela. He had studied the works of Simón Bolívar and had found they had much in common with Marx. The class struggle, the similarities between the oligarchy that Bolívar spoke of and Marx’s bourgeoisie, resonated strongly with Douglas. When Chávez spoke of the Bolivarian Revolution, Douglas was steadfastly behind him.

Douglas had warmed to Chávez even before he knew the man’s politics. It was Chávez’s famous speech after his 1992 coup attempt which had won him over. Even though Chávez had been quickly captured in the fighting, troops under his command persisted in the cities of Maracay and Valencia. In an attempt to avoid further bloodshed, Chávez, while in custody, was permitted to make a nationally televised plea to his co-conspirators. “Comrades, regrettably, for now, the objectives that we had set were unobtainable in the capital. . . . So listen to my words. Listen to Commander Chávez who is sending this message so that you may reflect and put down your arms because, now, in all honesty, the plans we had at the national level will be impossible to reach. . . . I thank you for your loyalty, I thank you for your valor, your self-sacrifice, and I, before the country and you, assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement. Thank you.” Here, for the first time that Douglas could remember in Venezuelan politics, was someone taking responsibility for his actions. He was used to corrupt politicians and generals always lying and cheating to absolve themselves. To Douglas, Chávez was a man of the people; he went into crowds, receiving and giving embraces. Down to his coffee-and-cream skin and humble background, Chávez seemed much more in tune with the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than the light-skinned leaders who had traditionally dominated Venezuelan politics.

That Chávez had a military background was an extra bonus in Douglas’s eyes. Chávez’s militant bearing and red paratrooper beret seemed an allusion to the days when Marco Pérez Jiménez had ruled the country. Although Pérez Jiménez had been a right-wing dictator, his eleven-year rule was remembered with great nostalgia in Venezuela as a sort of golden age. Under Pérez Jiménez many of Venezuela’s greatest public works were constructed (thanks in no small part to the president’s willingness to use convict labor), and crime, now so rampant, had been virtually nonexistent. Many Venezuelans remembered the Pérez Jiménez regime—which ended in 1958—as the last time they could leave their doors unlocked at night. Chávez, Douglas felt, could do what Pérez Jiménez had done, but this time from the left.

That morning, when Douglas heard that the march had illegally deviated from its scheduled route and was heading for Miraflores, he rushed to protect Chávez. He had been walking up University Avenue when he found himself in the middle of the confrontation, albeit on the wrong side. He, too, had been on the Pedrera corner when Jorge Tortoza and Malvina Pesáte were hit. Only moments before, just in front of him, he saw another man get shot in the chest. Douglas didn’t hesitate to help the injured man. At that moment, political affiliations were irrelevant; the man was simply another human being. But as other men carried the blood soaked body toward an ambulance Douglas feared (correctly) that the man was already dead. The bullet had punctured his lung and heart.

Eventually, Douglas made his way up Baralt Avenue and managed to join the chavistas. His humanity of only a few moments ago evaporated in the face of the impersonal enemy crowd threatening his safety and his president.

Douglas wasn’t in a Bolivarian Circle, but now he was fighting with them in what had become a free-for-all. He and his compatriots felt outnumbered by the police and the marchers. In Douglas’s eyes they had to use every weapon at their disposal. If you had a stick in your hand, you used a stick; if you had a gun, you used a gun. It was vale todo, anything goes.

The police surged forward and Douglas turned to run. As he was retreating, a bullet struck him in the back of the thigh just above the knee. He felt his leg lurch forward as if someone had kicked his heel, then he collapsed. People quickly picked him up and carried him along Urdaneta Avenue to the medical tents across from Miraflores. Soon he, too, was in an ambulance bound for Vargas Hospital.

Armed Police Behind Vehicles
Distrustful of the Metropolitan Police, Chávez supporters did everything in their power to stop them. By the end of the afternoon a full-fledged firefight had erupted between the police and Chávez loyalists (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

*  *  *  *  

Vargas Hospital was seven blocks from the fighting and would bear the brunt of the casualties. Over a hundred years old, the hospital had been added onto dozens of times, eventually becoming a massive labyrinth of twisting corridors and disjointed buildings that devoured four city blocks. Walking into the hospital was like going back in time. With its open wards, tile walls, and the ubiquitous smell of alcohol and disinfectant, Vargas conjured up images of its original purpose: a Third World sanitarium. In its heyday, it had been the best hospital in Venezuela, and the main entrance, with its long plazas, Doric columns, trellised archways, and ornate fish rainspouts, still evoked the courtyard of an old colonial hotel. But the years had not been good to Vargas: it was now literally crumbling, buckling under the burden of Venezuela’s appalling poverty, skyrocketing violence, and chronic government underfunding. It was as if the building itself had contracted a terminal disease—the aggregate contagions left by the millions of patients who had come through its doors.

This dilapidated state was typical of Venezuela’s public hospitals, long neglected by the traditional ruling parties that came before Chávez. But in addition to suffering from this systemic disregard, Vargas Hospital was also a victim of the political battle between Chávez and Mayor Peña.

Due to Venezuela’s overly centralized government, public hospitals, despite being technically under the jurisdiction of the municipality, were dependent on the federal government for funding. This was because virtually all government revenue—taxes along with oil income—went straight to the federal government before being distributed to the states and municipalities. The legislature technically controlled government monies, but those funds had to pass through the Venezuelan Ministry of Finance, which was controlled by the president. Hence, if the president did not approve of the governor or mayor of a specific municipality, he simply stalled or blocked the flow of funds. This abuse of power was not new in Venezuelan, but Chávez—in part due to the particular rancor he felt against those who opposed him—made of the tactic an art form.

For the hospital, the quarrel was a disaster. As Chávez put the squeeze on Peña, the flow of funds to the hospital had been reduced to a trickle; each day the hospital had less and less to work with. Supplies were increasingly low, and most months the federal portion of employee paychecks went unpaid.

The ER whiteboard read:

There is no: PL equipment
 electrodes for external pacemakers,
 fuses for ventilators and BiPAP,
 EKG paper
 Bilumen and Trilumen catheters

On the printer was a note that read: “There is no toner! Not here or anywhere else in the hospital and I am not going to buy any more.” Although incredibly low on equipment and supplies, Vargas Hospital did several things very well—one of these was treat gunshot wounds. Due to its location in the inner city, it received between 95 and 110 gunshot patients in any given week; 75 percent of broken bones the hospital treated were caused by bullets. Venezuela’s two-decade-long economic crisis meant a staggering surge in violent crime, which had transformed Vargas into something of a war hospital. By necessity, the staff, particularly the surgeons, had become experts in treating gunshot wounds.

*  *  *  *  

Dr. Pablo Rausseo was in charge of Emergency Medicine at Vargas on April 11. He himself had marched against Chávez that morning and walked the scheduled route from Altamira to Chuao. Since he was due at the hospital at one o’clock, however, he and his wife had gone home to have lunch before he left for work.

While they were eating they watched the news coverage switch back and forth between images of the march moving closer and closer to the palace and government supporters and the National Guard waiting for their approach. Rausseo could see that many of the president’s supporters had sticks and rocks. The doctor could tell already that he was in for a busy afternoon. He was prepared for a lot of people with beating injuries—cuts and concussions and a few broken limbs—as well as people suffering from tear gas inhalation.

Earlier that morning, at around eight o’clock, Rausseo and his boss, Dr. Ricardo Serbanescu, had set up a contingency plan in case there was a confrontation. They added staff and set up a triage system:

Green—Injuries can wait
Yellow—Non-critical injuries but can become critical
Black—Non-recoverable injury

When Rausseo got to the hospital, he made additional preparations. He went so far as to place a couple of stretchers in a small room: an interim morgue, which he assumed was an overprecaution. Although there had been a lot of big marches in the past year, there hadn’t been any fatalities.

Rausseo was surprised when the first patient who arrived was a gunshot victim, a young man with a single shot to the head. He had thick black hair. He was coded black—a non-recoverable injury. The bullet had entered the forehead, exposing the brain, and made a large exit wound at the back of the head. He lasted about fifteen minutes, his breathing erratic, then he died. The young man was Mike Merhi’s son, Jesús Mohamad.

More wounded began to arrive. He could tell by the paraphernalia—their T-shirts, flags, and whistles—that they were marchers for the opposition. He realized that the additional staff he had requested was not going to be enough and began making calls for more help.

*  *  *  *  

Dr. Serbanescu, was working in his private office when he got the call from Rausseo. He switched on the tv and saw the footage of the photographer Jorge Tortoza being shot in the head. He immediately headed for Vargas.

Serbanescu was a tall man with a light mustache, small chin, and a receding hairline. As the chief of Emergency Care he was soft-spoken, gentle, and professional—very even keel—which, in his line of work, was necessary. He hadn’t planned on going into emergency care—he wanted to be an internist—but there was a need for people to specialize in emergency care; public violence was on the rise. In the end he had come to like it, in part because you were forced to face and resolve issues quickly—something that was rarely possible in other areas of medicine.

When Serbanescu arrived at the hospital, he found it surrounded by a massive crowd shouting and yelling. At first he figured they were either from the opposition or the government, engaged in some sort of protest. But when he got closer he realized they just wanted to see what was going on and to help in any way they could. He could hear them shouting, “Here’s another wounded!” “Watch out!” “Coming through!”

Inside was chaos. He had never seen so many wounded before. There was no place to put them and many were left lying on the floor. Hospital staff could not keep up with the stream of casualties brought in by pickup trucks—three or four wounded in each truck bed. It was overwhelming. Serbanescu worried that his staff was beginning to panic; they didn’t know what was happening and their emotions were taking over. Serbanescu felt it too. He was too young to have worked during the Caracazo—the bloody riots of 1989—so this was new to him, but he knew that overstressful circumstances generated uncertainty about what to do next. Resulting in inaction. He had to make sure his people stayed focused on their work.

They needed supplies: more blood, more plasma, more gloves, more beds. Serbanescu had been quietly hoarding supplies over the last several months, supplies he knew they might need in an emergency such as this, but even those reserves quickly fell short. They needed blood.

He made calls to the mayor’s office, the blood bank, and to the Red Cross. When they ran out, they started taking it from the nurses and residents.

The surgeons were pulling a lot of handgun bullets from the victims, mostly 9mm, but they were also removing a lot of .308-caliber (762 NATO) rounds that could have been fired only from a Belgian FAL, the assault rifle used exclusively by the Venezuelan military—in this case, the National Guard troops loyal to Chávez. All recovered bullets were taken by the Justice Department as evidence, and, not surprisingly, were never seen again.

Doctor Rausseo was struck by the damage these rounds inflicted. Typically it was not uncommon for a patient with four and five wounds from a .38 to recover, provided the bullets didn’t hit anything vital. But the military rounds were tearing these people apart. Doctors assumed they would be able to save a pregnant woman who was shot in the shoulder at a downward angle. But when they got inside they found the bullet had traveled to her abdomen and irrevocably damaged her organs. They couldn’t save her. Her name was Josefina Rengifo. She was nineteen years old.

Some were luckier. A reporter named Jonathan Pérez, who worked for the daily Tal Cual, was bleeding from the chest. A bullet had passed through his wrist and struck near his heart. But when they examined the wound, it was only a few millimeters deep. They checked the photographer’s vest he had been wearing and found the bullet embedded in his cell phone, which he had placed—contrary to habit—in his chest pocket.

As the afternoon wore on, they began to get more wounded from the pro-government side, people wearing red berets, red T‑shirts, Long Live Chávez headbands. Most had probably been shot by police returning fire on the Chávez gunmen. More and more staff arrived to help, along with many residents. This was graduation weekend for the medical students and dozens of them came in to do whatever they could.

Injured Woman on Gurney
Wounded begin to arrive at Vargas Hospital (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

*  *  *  *  

The ambulance doors opened to a chaotic scene of photographers, journalists, bystanders, doctors, and frantic family members. Andrés Trujillo, still bleeding from the leg, was transferred onto a stretcher and rushed inside the hospital.

Once inside, Andrés was stripped and examined. A doctor started giving the nurse instructions. Andrés heard him ask for something.

“We’re out of that,” replied the nurse.

“Okay, then give him toxoide,” said the doctor.

“There is no toxoide,” she said.

“Okay, take an x-ray,” he said.

“I think we are out of x-ray plates,” and she went to check

The doctor turned to Andrés: “Wherever you end up, tell them to inject you with toxoide.”

“I feel like I’m going to pass out,” Andrés said, “how am I gonna tell anyone anything?” The doctor took a roll of medical tape, tore off a piece and wrote something on it, then stuck it to Andrés’s chest. Inject with toxoide, it read.

They put an IV in his arm. Soon another patient, a young man, arrived. He had a head wound and yet was angrily cursing. “Why the hell did they do this to us? Goddamned desgracia’os!” Andrés tried to talk to him—he looked to be about twenty. He had a shocked and distant look in his eyes. “They really let us have it!” the boy said. “Que bolas!” A doctor and two young residents—a man and a woman—triaged the boy. “Leave him be,” the doctor said, “he isn’t a priority.” But Andrés noticed that the residents both had tears in their eyes. “We have to optimize our resources,” the doctor said. The boy kept cursing, “Motherfucking Chávez! Why did you do this to us?”

The nurse was running to and fro, and she knocked out Andrés’s IV. By the time she replaced the needle, and Andrés turned to his wounded neighbor again, the boy was dead. The woman resident began crying over the body. “We should have done something to save him,” she said. That was it for Andrés. His confidence in the ambulance—his declaration that today was not his day to die—was gone. He found his cell phone and called his friend Claudio. “Please, do whatever you have to, but you have to get me the hell out of here.” No one had put anything on the wound to slow the bleeding and he could hear his blood dripping to the floor. He knew that at any moment he might pass out, and this overwhelmed hospital was the last place he wanted to be, unconscious and possibly forgotten. One resident looked after Andrés. He was huge—built like a weight lifter—with black hair and a goatee. Despite his looks, he seemed inexperienced and frightened. “Damn, it’s really messed up, dude,” he kept saying, putting a hand on Andrés’s shoulder. When Andrés said he was cold, the resident found a thin hospital gown and draped it over him.

Every now and then a nurse would come in with a little folder and take down his name, ID number, and other personal information. In a few minutes, another nurse would come around with a different notebook and ask for the same information. This happened three more times.

A nurse returned to announce that they had some x-ray plates, and Andrés was soon wheeled into the x-ray room. The results were a relief. “He’s all right,” the doctor told the residents: the bone had not been broken, and the bullet had missed his femoral artery. “He isn’t a priority,” the doctor said. Somehow, this phrase was less than reassuring. It echoed what the doctor had said about his young neighbor only minutes before he stopped breathing.

Andrés, left in one of the main corridors, still couldn’t feel his leg. Seven or eight other wounded surrounded him. Some were on stretchers like Andrés, others were sitting in bloodied plastic chairs, still others were lying on the floor. The sound of screams kept coming without rhythm from the operating rooms. Terrible, terrible sounds. Never had Andrés heard screams like that. And the doctors were shouting, too. Twice he heard someone say, “He’s dead, bring in the next one.” Then they would wheel out the body.

Injured Man on Floor
Overwhelmed by the number of wounded, the doctors at Vargas Hospital were forced to tend to wounded on the floor (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

Andrés was starting to lose it. He felt light-headed and his vision was getting blurry. He had to get out of here before he fainted. He tried to call Claudio again—to call anyone—but his cell phone was dead. The minutes dragged on and on and on.

How had things gotten so fucked up? He remembered back to this morning, when he and Libia had joined the march on its way to Miraflores. It had been so amazing, joining the march, being part of that crowd. The energy. He thought about all the people, so many people: women and children and old ladies; fat people, thin people, the varying smells of rich people and poor people becoming inseparable in the streets. They were dancing and chanting and waving flags and banging pots and pans. They felt they were really going to accomplish something; they were going to get Chávez out. For Andrés, it had been like an epic Hollywood movie with thousands of extras. He had thought of historical tides, great movements of people. They had begun singing the national anthem when Andrés felt tears well up in his eyes.

Now he was here, on this stretcher in the middle of this nightmare, each minute feeling more and more certain that he was going to die here.

A man in a suit and tie was searching among the wounded. Andrés recognized him as a chavista and a government bureaucrat, a counselor for the Baruta Municipality. The person he was looking for turned out to be the boy on the stretcher next to him. “Could you ask your dad if he could lend me his phone,” Andrés said to the boy. He was worried that the man might say no, would somehow know that Andrés was an escuálido, but the man didn’t hesitate and freely gave Andrés his cell phone.

He called Claudio again and learned that his friend was stuck outside the hospital. “Do what you have to, but get me out of here!” He was growing hysterical, and didn’t much care. If freaking out was what it took, so be it.

*  *  *  *  

Lying on a cot near Andrés Trujillo was Douglas Romero, the chavista marathon runner. The medics outside of Miraflores had put a tourniquet on his leg—the bleeding was under control—but he, too, was waiting to go into the operating room. As he lay there among the other wounded, listening to Andrés’s call for help, he was disgusted with the man’s weakness. Yes, it was a horrible scene—Douglas had never seen death like this before—but still, the doctors were doing everything they could. And here was this escuálido, this petite bourgeoisie, crying for help like a baby.

*  *  *  *  

Just when Andrés didn’t think he could stay awake a second longer, Claudio appeared. “Your family is waiting outside. Can you walk?” Claudio and Pepe, Andrés’s brother, got him up and loaded him into the back of Pepe’s Cherokee. They rushed him to the Caracas Medical Center, a private hospital. Just as at Vargas, there was a crowd of news crews and onlookers there. The footage of Andrés’s arrival was broadcast on the still-functioning RCTV. On his chest you could see the white strip of medical tape on which the Vargas doctor had written his instructions.

Entering the private hospital, Andrés lost consciousness. He woke to three nurses shaving his leg and groin. At first, it looked as if Andrés would lose his leg. The bullet had nicked his sciatic nerve and the doctor explained that if the leg didn’t start responding within an hour, they might have to amputate. Andrés wasn’t sure if the doctor told him that to scare the shit out of him—to somehow shock him and his leg into working—but within forty-five minutes he began to feel his toes again. He eventually made a full recovery.

Douglas Romero, who stayed in Vargas Hospital, was not so lucky. He too kept his leg, but he suffered permanent nerve damage below the knee. His days as a competitive marathoner were over.

*  *  *  *  

As RCTV continued to broadcast footage of the day’s carnage, President Chávez was utilizing a much less public means of communication.

Shark One [President Chávez]: Okay . . . Look, I’m trying to reach [General Manuel] Rosendo by various avenues—right now by phone—but I haven’t been able to talk to him. I’ve been here for a half an hour. Have you had contact with him, over?

Shark Six [General Jorge García Carneiro]: No, negative. I’m here and I haven’t had contact with him for about forty minutes.

Shark One: Okay, then, look . . . activate Plan Ávila. Tell me if you copy, over.

Shark Six: Copy. Put in effect Plan Ávila, uh, I’m proceeding now.

This was Chávez’s trump card. Plan Ávila had not been used since 1989—the infamously brutal Caracazo. Chávez had just issued an order to turn the Venezuelan army against the march.

Throughout that day, National Guard troops from the Comando Regional número 5 division had attempted to control the march with tear gas, rubber bullets, and at times, real bullets. In Venezuela, the National Guard is a permanently active branch of the armed forces dedicated to controlling ports and bridges and handling civil disorder. But fearful that these troops (along with the Bolivarian Circles) would not be enough to hold back the march, and that he would be sequestered inside the palace, Chávez resorted to Plan Ávila.

Chávez’s order to implement Plan Ávila would bring to a head the mounting crisis in the military. No one had forgotten 1989, when hundreds (and many believe thousands) of civilians were massacred by the army. It had been, without a doubt, the darkest stain on the Venezuelan military in the twentieth century. The loyalty of the military was already strained by Chávez’s nepotism—his compatriots from the 1992 coup received promotions ahead of their non-chavista peers—as well as his soft stance on Colombian guerrillas operating within Venezuela. The order to implement Plan Ávila forced the military high command to set aside the law for their president. The new constitution of 1999 expressly prohibited the use of the army to quell civil unrest—specifically to prevent another Caracazo. What’s more, the constitution clearly stated that if an order from a superior officer (the president included) violated the constitution, then that order should not be obeyed.

Soldiers Firing
A block away from Baralt Avenue, on 8th Street, National Guard troops fire shotguns with plastic shot and tear- gas into the opposition crowd. These troops were also video taped shooting their 9 mm pistols into the crowd (Courtesy Cadena Capriles).

General Manuel Rosendo, a barrel-chested hulk of a man, was the head of Venezuela’s Joint Chiefs and, according to protocol, he was the man from whom Chávez had to request Plan Ávila. Rosendo, an ally and personal friend of the president’s since they had met at the Military Academy in 1971, flatly refused the order.

There is a famous mantra within the Venezuelan military which every soldier knows, a quote from Great Liberator Simón Bolívar, a mantra that was violated during the Caracazo. Rosendo thought of it then. Maldito el soldado que vuelva las armas contra el pueblo. Damned is the soldier who turns his arms against his own people.

When Rosendo refused, Chávez began moving down the chain of command until he finally reached a malleable old ally from the 1992 coup, General Jorge García Carneiro. Carneiro complied and ordered out the tanks, but when General Efraín Vásquez Velasco, the head of the army, found out, immediately he had Carneiro arrested and the tanks recalled.

In the end, the order to implement Plan Ávila would tip the scales of the divided military against Chávez, particularly after the defection of Rosendo. By the time night fell on Caracas—spurred by the media’s damning footage of the Bolivarian Circles and National Guard troops firing on the marchers—the majority of the military high command refused to recognize Chávez as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. Simultaneously, high-level members of the administration were distancing themselves, both politically and literally. Many, like Luis Miquilena—the old Communist fox who had engineered Chávez’s election campaign—held press conferences publicly denouncing the president and the violence. Others, including Vice President Diosdado Cabello and much of the cabinet, went into hiding. Chávez eventually turned himself over to the military, saying he was willing to resign if guaranteed safe passage to Cuba. Chávez’s advisors announced his resignation to the public.

Into this power vacuum stepped the most radical element of the opposition—a group of wealthy oilmen headed by business leader Pedro Carmona. These men would convince the army leadership, including General Vásquez Velasco, to let them lead an interim government that would prepare for new elections. However, once in power they summarily dissolved all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions—the legislature, the supreme court, the attorney general’s office, etc.—effectively setting up a dictatorship. The people soon realized that the cure to Chávez was proving to be worse than Chávez himself. Spontaneous protests from both sides broke out.

However, contrary to official legend, it would not be a popular uprising that brought Chávez back to power. In the end, the same generals who accepted his resignation forty-eight hours earlier, particularly General Vásquez Velasco, paved the way for his return by dismissing Pedro Carmona and replacing him with Diosdado Cabello, Chávez’s vice president recently emerged from hiding. Once signed in, Cabello, instead of calling for new elections as promised, brought back Chávez and stepped aside. Chávez would deny that he ever signed a resignation in the first place.

As with his own coup attempt ten years earlier, fate favored Hugo Chávez, and this coup, ironically, invigorated his presidency. Upon his return he knew exactly who was with him and who was against him. He subsequently purged the government and military of all those who had shown disloyalty. Aided by the blunders of Carmona’s short-lived presidency, Chávez artfully painted himself as the victim of a well-organized coup led by wealthy business leaders who acted with the blessing of the United States. Although this misrepresented the facts in many ways, there were so many historic examples of this scenario that it was popularly accepted. Chávez’s dismal approval ratings rebounded. In fact, the coup was so beneficial to Chávez that rumors would circulate that it was an autogolpe (“auto-coup”), that Chávez had intentionally orchestrated the whole thing.

*  *  *  *  

It was nine o’clock on the night of the violence when Mike Merhi, Gustavo Tovar, and Mike’s brother, Ali, pushed their way through the crowd into Vargas Hospital. Mike had spent all afternoon searching for his son until, finally, they had come here, where they knew most of the wounded had been taken. Once inside, Mike was shocked by the number of them, many still crouched in the hallways. Mike spoke to some, asking if they had seen Jesús. Finally, Gustavo said that he was going to check the basement. A fresh wave of terror ran through Mike. The morgue was in the basement. While Mike waited, he talked to a nurse who had one of the notebooks listing all the people who had entered the hospital. Jesús’s name was there, with the word deceased beside it.

*  *  *  *  

At ten o’clock, in a nearby conference room, many of the doctors, exhausted but still wired, sat down to talk. Most were outraged at the government, but more than anything, they were angry over the senseless loss of life. Most of the victims had been very young, and many of the survivors were going to be permanently disabled.

Doctor Serbanescu was saddened by it all, especially the death of Mike Merhi’s son, Jesús. A young man like that, so healthy. The boy had been in a state of agony, but there was nothing they could do for him.

Serbanescu felt changed by the day’s events. He had been directly touched by the political polarization that was rupturing Venezuelan society. He understood now what a political conflict like this could mean for Venezuela, and, what’s more, he saw what human beings were willing to do to each other in the name of ideology. People were ready to kill and die for Chávez, others were willing to kill or die to get rid of him. In this job, where he dealt with violence everyday, Serbanescu always had his finger on the pulse of public discontent. Now he knew that the violence was not going to subside. Instead, he believed it would get worse. It would come out in different ways—in crime, in assassinations—but it would come. The political situation would drive it, exacerbated by Chávez on one side and the opposition-dominated media on the other. People would get more and more worked up, pushed and pulled by both sides.

For Serbanescu, at that moment one thing was very clear: his emergency room was going to stay very busy.


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