Caracas, Venezuela — “There are colectivos on every corner.”
My bodyguard points them out to me, the seemingly inconspicuous men standing a few feet away. The men belong to the colectivos, the heavily armed Maduro-loyalist gangs policing this city, always ready to intimidate and attack anti-government protesters.
Just after he points them out, one of them walks up to me and asks for my phone and passport. I hand him a copy of my passport and show him my phone. Without even bothering to search it, he tells me to delete whatever is on there.
I do as he says while he watches me, and when I am finally allowed to go I realize he didn’t think to check my phone’s trash. So I post the videos and photos, all in succession, while my bodyguard drags me away.
It’s only my second day in Caracas but already my third run-in with the alternative law in this city. There’s a growing sense of unease in me as I realize how truly totalitarian this country has become, creating a culture of desperation and fear. You fear everyone, not just the regime, but also all those who are on its payroll, wielding weapons in the name of this twisted socialist dream.
We are headed to the National Assembly where the self-appointed interim president, Juan Guaidó, is rumored to be making an appearance. Ever since the uprising against President Nicolás Maduro started almost two weeks ago, the country has been waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the nation’s fate to be determined through either violence or legislation, or both. Guaidó represents hope, but the path to freedom for Venezuela is paved with blood, tears, and radical uncertainty. Every other day here there are protests from both sides that result in riots and massive regime-led pushback, and it seems as if the people of Caracas are waiting for that final straw that will break the camel’s back.
On the buildings leading up to the José María Vargas building that houses the National Assembly, there are countless posters of Maduro and Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s former president and the architect of this socialist state, some of them grafittied with the new, unofficial regime motto: “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” It is reminiscent of Cuba, the not-so-subtle hints at how little everyone has to lose, almost taunting the oppressed people of this country to exercise a power they don’t have.
There are about a hundred of us waiting for Guaidó in the scorching sun, and when he finally arrives an hour late, there is palpable excitement in the air. He has the charisma of a young Kennedy, and he knows how to use the new media: When he speaks, it is in sound bites, powerful and short.
“The Maduro government tells you that the blood of protesters is on my hands, that I incite violence in this city. But Maduro knows and you know that these protests come from the people. They want freedom, they want dignity, and they want the humanitarian disaster that is taking place here to be recognized.”
Guaidó recounts the stories of some of the 850 political prisoners who have been jailed since January 11. When he mentions their names, the otherwise loud group of journalists goes silent. There is a power in his words and a general sense that things are changing, finally, in a country that has suffered for so long.
We follow him into the assembly, where he ceremoniously sits down in the center chair reserved for the president of Venezuela. The moment isn’t lost on anyone, and definitely not on Jose Guaidó himself, who makes a statement that seems prepared down to each pregnant pause.
Once it’s all over, we head back out into the streets. Once again the mood has shifted. There are more colectivos than before, and the walk we had planned, from the assembly to Simón Bolívar Square, is cut short by my ever-vigilant companion. We get into a car as the colectivos approach, and as we head away from danger, I wonder what would have happened had we stayed.
There are three more protests planned this week, that we know of, and the feeling on the street is that this week is when it will all come to a head. Maduro is refusing to step down, despite an offer of amnesty from Guaidó. Around the world, the international community is taking sides in the fight for Venezuela’s soul.
For the people of this city, however, it is less about grand strategy than it is about survival. Those here who dare answer my questions tell me that they want what anyone wants — to feed their children, live without fear, and see the country they love so much regain its dignity. After more than 20 years of consistent mismanagement and broken policies, that is a tall order for Venezuela, and its people have seen too much to be burdened with naiveté. Perhaps the everyday Venezuelan’s state of mind is best described through the words of a woman I met at a downtown coffee shop:
“Guaidó is a great politician, but we have made the mistake before of believing that one man would have all the answers. Venezuela won’t be saved by one man, but by one people, and I won’t believe things will change until we realize that.”