Setting the Stage
I had just returned from two weeks of epic adventuring at the FIFA World Cup in Rio de Janeiro and was ready to re-immerse myself in the craziness of Caracas.
July 5th was Independence Day. I wanted to find a celebration. I polled some of my colleagues in the office in attempt to discover how Venezuelans marked the triumph of Simon Bolivar, their Liberator, in the nation’s struggle for freedom from Spanish rule. No one knew. It didn’t seem to be an event that people widely recognized. However, the fact that most of my co-workers dismissed my curiosity with mumblings of “hmmmm…Chauvistas…” suggested to me that there would, in fact, be some sort of event, but that they, as liberals, didn’t care. Indeed, because Chavez had earlier adopted the revered nineteenth century hero as the poster child for is modern Bolivarian Social Revolution it was likely that any Independence Day events would be so politically polarized that the young, ambitious Venezuelans close to me would almost inevitably be disenfranchised.
I had to look outside the office for ideas.
Although more by coincidence that by calculation, I sent a message to FluffyBunny. FluffyBunny (his online alias) is an expat living in Caracas who I had messaged prior to arriving in the city. He, unknowingly, had been instrumental in helping me plan my 2012/13 travels through the Middle East because he was living in Erbil, Iraq at the time and very active online. In the months leading up to my arrival in Caracas, I had learned that he had more recently swapped the mountainous desert of Kurdistan for the lush hills of Venezuela. On this day, via text, I suggested to FluffyBunny that we meet for a beer sometime in the coming weeks. He responded inviting me to join him at the Venezuelan Independence Parade the following day. I was ecstatic. A couple lines of text announced both proper plans to mark Independence Day and a coveted opportunity to chat with a guy I was eager to meet.
Independence Day Uncertainty
The next day, I met FluffyBunny on the subway platform at the Chacao metro station. As he suggested, he looked like the product of a Hells Angels biker who had mated with a ‘60’s flower child. This was my first time taking the subway in Caracas. I was excited and nervous. We hopped on the next train heading to the centre. We swapped lines at Plaza Venezuela before arriving at Los Simboles station, just south of the river. After we emerged into the street, we strolled down the pedestrian boulevard that spilt the usual clog of traffic. Knowing that we were on track for our targeted early arrival at the parade grandstand, we strolled casually. I was intimately curious about FluffyBunny’s personal history. Although he is Canadian-born, he hasn’t lived in Canada for twenty years. Different self-sourced assignments ranging from six to twenty-four months in duration had taken him to a diverse range of obscure countries and capital cities. The only uniting factor between them is that each location would cause a middle-class North American mother to cringe upon learning that her son had set-up shop in the new ‘hotspot’. Indeed, his most recent ‘homes’ included Kurdistan, Yemen, Egypt and China. Now he was based in Caracas.
As we neared the promenade where the parade would take place, I asked FluffyBunny how he would compare Caracas to the other places he had lived. His answer chilled me. He slowed his gait and said bluntly, “Caracas is the most challenging place I have ever spent time.” I was simultaneously floored and vindicated.
A series of military police road-blocks signaled that we were nearing our destination. As we approached the first, I grew slightly conflicted. As a general rule of thumb, I manage my interactions with police like a person re-introducing solid food into his diet following a bout of stomach flu – small doses and as bland as possible. In this part of the world however, it is ideal, if not imperative, to fast – nothing, ever. Here, in a country whose modern leaders have consistently railed against ‘American imperialism’, I questioned how welcome two obviously foreign dudes would be at the socialist extravaganza. The knowledge that neither FluffyBunny, nor I, carried our Canadian passports on our person only served to amplify the uncertainty of our reception.
It was time to find out.
With a confident stride, and speaking almost flippantly, FluffyBunny explained to the guard that we were headed for Section O of the grandstand. I didn’t know how he knew to cite this, but was glad that he had some specific information. Before the armed officer had time to halt our progress, we had passed her and it was too much effort for her to inquire more deeply. As only first of what would be many lines of defense, I doubted she was too concerned anyway.
We passed through three more checkpoints. The personnel were increasingly inquisitive and FluffyBunny had his camera bag searched on two occasions; however, we were through.
Inside the Machine
Now we found ourselves in the concrete grandstand. So far, only small contingents of Chauvista keeners had begun to congregate in pockets on the concourse. Otherwise the area was empty.
I expected the morning to be laced with mystery and charade. Almost immediately, eerie pixels began to form an intriguing canvas.
FluffyBunny had mentioned on the subway that ministry employees were required to attend the event. As we settled into wait for the President’s speech, I made attempts to convert inquisitive why-the-fuck-are-you-here? stares into comrades. It was going well. Well, at least until each conversation I struck up took its inevitable turn to politics.
Politic discourse in Venezuela is omnipresent. The power struggle invades all facets of life and as such, it is supremely difficult to chat with a local without broaching politics.
What habitually softened this cumbersome reality was the fact that nearly everyone in my social circles stood staunchly on one side of the broad political debate. They did not support the government.
Now, I was surrounded by hundreds of people who worked directly for the government. Indeed, they were the direct catalysts and benefactors of Maduro’s Revolucion Bolivarana.
I chatted with one young guy named Carlos. I expressed my interest in the day’s events (obviously highlighting the parade of tanks that I hoped were en route) and ranted about how much I loved Venezuela. We talked a bit about his work at the Ministry of Economic Development. This was great! I was genuinely eager to chat with people of different political affiliations. Further, I knew that even if conversations turned awkward, all I had to do was to nod my head, listen to any grievances voiced and smile.
This was, at least until I was asked by Carlos, “So, what does the socialist revolution look like in Canada?”
Like an eighth-grader whose science teacher had just referenced the planet Uranus, I attempted to suppress the laughter rising in my throat. What I am supposed to say?!? “Yeah well, there is this guy – Harper. He ain’t exactly the voice of the underprivileged, however he can’t be all bad because we buy basic food staples without waiting half the day in a queue, inflation in Canada isn’t running 70+% and the murder rate hasn’t broken 78 / 100,000 since, well, never.”
So, it was time to play another of the Gringo cards I keep in my pocket – the Incomprehension Ace.
Sensing that the conversation was headed nowhere, Carlos shook my hand and moved on. I sat down and unwrapped my Socialist Sandwich from the breakfast package allotted to all parade goers upon admittance. I was careful not to dirty the ‘Cinco de Julio’ t-shirt I had been issued with my breakfast.
As the sun rose higher, the stands filled with people.
At 10 AM, the crowd set off a large cheer. I snapped to attention. It was premature. Instead of President Maduro’s address to the nation igniting the massive TV screens on the far side of the parade concourse, the Argentina vs. Belgium World Cup semi-final had been plugged into the big screens. It was immediately apparent that no speeches would be delivered until the final whistle was blown. Our early arrival at the grandstand was looking less and less advantageous.
To entertain ourselves (and manage our anticipation of the military tank parade) we took turns walking up and down the section, taking in the atmosphere.
To me, it seemed like this was just a casual Saturday for most people. Instead of lounging in an inner-city park or assembling at someone’s home, they were hosting leisurely family gatherings at the Independence Day parade. Children chased each other, young couples flirted, and old men dozed.
Then, without any warning, the action commenced. Faintly visible through the radiation of the summer sun approaching its highpoint, military choppers sparkled on the horizon. The bright colours of the Venezuelan flag flew proudly in their undercarriages. On the ground, a line of tanks crept forward with what could only be the presidential motorcade in tow.
I walked swiftly back to the step of concrete that FB and I had defended against the wave of spectators that now filled the sunny-side of the grandstand. It was show-time.
Eloquence & Irony
Maduro gave a short address before yielding the microphone to a female military officer. Presenters employed a narrow range of vocabulary to deliver their remarks in an exuberant, aggressive tone. I got a spooky sense that Chavez was still alive. In rhetoric, his revolution certainly seemed to be.
As the demagoguery droned on, my attention waned. In the stands below I noticed a young boy perched on top of a cooler. For the second time that day, I fought to swallow a chuckle. Not so unlike an invented image of Stalin’s rambunctious son maneuvering a Chevy Suburban through a McDonald’s drive-thru or the very real one of Kim Jong Un shooting hoops with Dennis Rodman, the irony I was witnessing was comical.
Upon arrival earlier that morning, each spectator had been given a ball-cap in addition to the breakfast package and ‘Cinco de Julio’ t-shirt. In the place where a sports team logo is conventionally affixed to the front of the cap, there was instead a black indiscernible shape seemingly attached with Velcro. Throughout the morning, FluffyBunny and I had made multiple attempts to deduce what the hell this shape represented and how it was to be used. Up until this point, we had failed.
Now, it was all too clear. However, our epiphany was warped with disbelief. The shape was a mustache – undoubtedly intended to resemble the big bush that adorned President Maduro’s upper lip. Further, the mustache could be removed from the cap, a protective layer on the non-velcro side peeled back, and, as evidenced by the young child below, ominously positioned on a face – either pre-pubescent (as in this case) or otherwise.
What transformed the situation into one of beautiful irony was that, with his left hand, the child continually touched his face in attempt to reinforce the adhesive of his mustache, while with his right he innocently flipped around a Captain America action figure.
I nudged FluffyBunny. He shot me a grin.
If only the speaker could see what the little Chauvista-to-be was doing. For me, it was the highlight of a very special day.
Finally, as the malefic rhetoric cooled, the parade began.
FluffyBunny and I watched intently as legions of enforcers and costumed civilians marched by. From the fully equipped riot police that I had grown accustomed to co-existing with in Chacao to regally-ornamented cavalry brigades, from all-female cadet units to colorful PDVSA floats, all ‘revolutionary’ agendas and interests seemed to be flourishing.
At 2 PM it was time to leave. We would have to join the queue now if we were to buy supermarket ingredients in time for dinner.