San Cristóbal, the Barricaded City of Venezuela

By Arturo Wallace

BBC Mundo, Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rocks, old furniture, damaged electrical goods, tree trunks, fallen lampposts, rubble, rubbish and even a tank.

Anything comes handy for the “gochos” – as the inhabitants of the Venezuelan state of Táchira are known – to block the streets of their capital city, San Cristóbal.

It is here that the protests against the government of President Nicolás Maduro began more than a month ago, and then extended to other regions in Venezuela.

The barricades have become a symbol of what government opponents in this Andean region call “the resistance.”

“There are more than one hundred barricades in San Cristóbal,” Mayor Daniel Ceballos told BBC Mundo. “Around 40% of the city has been compromised,” he said.

Ceballos, who belongs to the opposition party Voluntad Popular, justifies the presence of the barriers as a reaction to the attacks by security forces and Chavista motorcyclists against protesters. Initially, they were groups of students protesting against insecurity, but now it is a heterogeneous group of opponents that demand a change of government.

In order to deal with the problem, President Nicolás Maduro called for a Táchira “peace conference” to be held in San Cristóbal this Thursday.

However, for the time being, his call has made no difference whatsoever in the barricades.

II

These protests cannot be separated from past or present difficulties that people face to get their hands on basic staples.

“This situation has compounded the problems of goods shortages. There are huge queues in supermarkets, pharmacies and bakeries,” Mayor Ceballos acknowledged.

Queues start in the morning, when this city of more than 620,000 inhabitants located 33 Km away from the Colombian border – 65 Km by road – gets as close to normality as it possibly can.

In any case, it is a relative normality. Public transport has been halted for several days now and many people have to walk to the few places that remain open: grocery shops, pharmacies and some services.

The window of opportunity only lasts a few hours, and by afternoon people rush to their homes to seek protection from what could happen when night falls and the risk of violence increases.

“Generally, they attack us in the early hours of the morning,” explained Albert Medina, a 26-year old student of the Universidad Católica del Táchira, part of a group that protects the barricade that includes the old tank – an old monument located in one of the main avenues in the city, and now a symbol of the protests.

“We take turns, students and citizens, to protect the barricades and make sure there are no attacks,” says another university student called Alejandro, while he tours the barricades located in the sector known as Las Pilas in the center-eastern part of the city.

It was in this area, little over a week ago, that another student named Jimmy Vargas died after falling from the second floor of a nearby building during clashes between students and security forces.

A few blocks away from the still smoking tyres at the end of a nearby avenue I see a group of youths, some of them hooded, preparing Molotov bombs for what seems to be an inevitable night-time clash.

III

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However, night has not fallen yet, and during daytime San Cristóbal remains generally calm.

Not a single national guard can be found near the so called “guarimbas” – the name given by Venezuelans to this type of barricaded protest –, much less troops of the parachute infantry sent to Táchira by the president a couple of weeks ago to reinforce safety in the border state and protect every access route.

There is also no sign of the paramilitaries that the state governor, José Vielma Mora, said had arrived from Colombia to infiltrate protests.

Vielma Mora, however, also accuses the “guarimberos” of being responsible of “neighborhood terrorism” by keeping neighbors prisoners behind the barricades they erect.

Jonathan García, a deputy of the Regional Congress who also represents the governor’s party, the governing Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela, agreed.

“This is all part of an insurrectional plan expressed through blockades and barricades, expressed through hooded youths, through the violent actions that thousands of families face every day when they cannot leave or go back to their homes when they want to,” said García to BBC Mundo.

“It is a violation of all the rights of Venezuelans as established in the Constitution,” he maintained.

García has no doubts that the opposition is to blame for these episodes of violence. “We are not going to give them the excuse they are looking for, to evict them forcibly as would be done anywhere else in the world,” he explained to BBC Mundo.

“We know that the cameras are there, we know there are videos that will be used to try and sell to the world the idea that unarmed Venezuelan people are being savagely repressed by the tyrannical government of Venezuela, so that they can justify an intervention by the United States,” he added.

But he also made a caveat: “We are supporting communities that little by little have started to get rid of the barricades.”

However, according to protesters, the people that the authorities try to depict as angry neighbors are in fact armed Chavistas paid by the government to intimidate them and remove them by force.

To be honest, there seems to be a lot of sympathy for the demands of “guarimberos” among the people that have to tackle the barricades to go about their daily routines.

IV

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“I am not bothered by the barricades. I prefer to hold on for another month instead of facing four more years of dictatorship,” América Ruíz told BBC Mundo, a neighbor of Barrio Obrero, a shopping district with barricades on practically every other corner.

“Do you know what I find sad?, getting up at two or three in the morning, standing in a queue so that you can buy something in the afternoon, and when it is finally your turn they say, ‘no madam, there is no more paper, no more flour, go back home’. It’s enough to make you cry,” she complained.

Vianey Carvajal, from a poorer sector known as La Concordia, agreed.

“This is no longer just the fight of students. This is the fight to get milk, to get bread,” she told BBC Mundo.

“We don’t see this as suffering, we see it as an investment,” maintains Carvajal, one of many “gochos” who believe that Táchira’s condition as a border and mainly opposing state means that many of the problems they accuse the Chavista government of tend to be aggravated: insecurity, shortages, corruption.

“It is not an issue of life being harder or easier with the barricades. The thing is that if life were easy we wouldn’t have the barricades,” added Blanca Ontiveros, a neighbor from Las Pilas.

Back in Barrio Obrero, Jesús Delgado, a veteran shopkeeper is convinced that the majority of people feel this way.

“80% of San Cristóbal agree with what is going on here,” he assured BBC Mundo.

V

I come across them in the civic center of town, in the middle of a relatively thin celebration commemorating the first anniversary of former President Hugo Chávez’s death.

There I find Lía Rodríguez – clad in a Chávez T-shirt and clutching a cap in support of Maduro – who is fearful of speaking in her neighborhood of Las Pilas because of what the “guarimberos” might do to her.

Omar Ramírez, a student from Universidad Nacional Experimental del Táchira, has no doubts about criticizing his fellow students.

“Many students are against the barricades, these “guarimbas”, because they are also suffering the consequences,” he said.

“And many other people have been affected, because the smoke generated by these barricades is creating a public health problem. People want gas, they want food, they want their kids to go to school, they want to go to the supermarket, they want to receive medical assistance,” he added.

VI

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Back in the barricades, however, it seems many more are convinced they will continue protesting until the government changes.

Many “gochos” maintain they are even willing to march on to Caracas as their fellow Táchira native Cipriano Castro did more than a century ago as leader of the Liberal Restoration Revolution of 1899.

In fact, this area is proud of the influence it has exerted during key moments in the history of Venezuela.

Apart from Castro, the list of “gocho” presidents goes from Juan Vicente Gómez to Carlos Andrés Pérez, including former dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

However, for the time being it seems it is Caracas that is heading towards this Andean region.

On Wednesday, Congresswoman María Corina Machado, one of the most visible faces of the opposition, visited Táchira to take part in a small protest that developed without any major incidents.

Also, you have the peace conference the government has called for, although most protesters do not seem to be taking the invitation very seriously.

“They have not been able to convene the political sectors,” explained Pedro Pablo Quintero, a 60-year old university lecturer who previously voted for Chávez but who now supports the protests.

He considers this to be a first small step that should not be entirely dismissed.

“We need to be patient. This is not a short-term struggle. Venezuelans who believe that these proposals will help us get rid of Maduro tomorrow are wrong,” he told BBC Mundo.

“However, a precedent is being set so that Venezuelan society and Venezuelan institutions can finally react. And there are legal mechanisms for this situation to come to an end,” he added.

Others are more impatient and that is why the authorities have no doubt in qualifying them as coup perpetrators.

Despite all this everyone seems to agree on the ubiquitous slogan “whoever gets tired, loses”, seen in many of the barricades.

And then there is the emphatic response of Omar Cárdenas, a student whom I asked how long they were willing to continue in the streets.

“We’re in this for the long haul. We’ll persevere for as long as we have to,” he maintained.

Source: Wallace, Arturo. San Cristóbal: la ciudad de las barricadas en Venezuela, BBC Mundo. 6 de marzo de 2014. BBC. 6 de marzo de 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/mundo/noticias/2014/03/140305_america_latina_venezuela_tachira_aa.shtml.

Main photograph: An image from San Cristobal, capital of Táchira state / AFP

Translated by #infoVnzla

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