I wake up startled, staring into the darkness with eyes wide open. I do not know what awoke me, and the resulting sensation is a paralyzing confusion. The second blast goes off and I leap out of bed, still confused about what is happening. It takes a few minutes before the realization sinks in: the cacophony of clattering pots and pans, screaming neighbors, rising clamor and noise in the street. By then, tear gas has started seeping into my apartment, filling the place, enveloping me in a dense and suffocating cloud. My heart thumps and fear hammers my chest. I am not going to cry, I repeat to myself, exhausted but defiant. I am not going to cry.
I stumble around the dark apartment. Another blast goes off. It’s almost 11pm, the end of an especially strained and difficult day. I'd gone to bed less than an hour earlier, overwhelmed at the news of brutal repression and horrific beatings of civilians by police. Fatigued by the helpless frustration of being held hostage in this country. I make my way carefully now, with outstretched hands, listening to the metallic sound of pots banging, the rhythmic clack of tear gas guns discharging. In Venezuela the days don’t ever seem to come to a complete end. Violence remains, continues, spreads. Normal means a collection of pains and terrors. Of closed doors and a general state of suspicion. We have survived this way for over a decade now.
When I peer out of the window, I see the toxic smoke spiraling up from the street. It can’t reach far enough to seriously harm me because I live ten floors up, but I the odor clearly reaches me, a rancid sting that causes me to sneeze and gasp. A group of National Guardsmen move around surreptitiously in the dark, guns held aloft, firing upwards. I am almost unable to distinguish their figures from street lamps. They form a line in the center of the plaza. They wear helmets and breastplates. And they shoot. They shoot at buildings, down the deserted street. One, two, three times. Frozen, I watch them with a disorienting sense of surreality and incredulity. One of the blasts hits with a resounding echo and I throw myself down, hands over my head, shaking from head to foot. I am not going to cry, I repeat to myself, infuriated now. I am not going to cry.
Several of my neighbors lean out of windows, gesticulating and screaming at the top of their lungs. One hauls out a large casserole pan which flashes under the milky glow of the flashlight he's wielding. He strikes it with a clenched fist, euphoric with anger and anguish. I see him lean out into the void of night, shouting with all his might. The cacophony of metal and voice blend together in a single sound.
“Damn soldiers! Damn them all!” he screams. His voice is hoarse and tired. “Damn them! There are families here!”
Someone else joins in. He also screams, unleashing slogans, insults, vulgarities. Voices rise from everywhere in a discordant uproar. The only answers from below are blasts. Once more, and again. Tear gas thickens and smothers. A bright white wall running the length of the street obscures the full view. The image is tinged with something ghostly, brutal. An unthinkable images of the streets, the everyday landscape of a place I have seen every day for over twenty years.
It hurts to breathe. I rub my eyes and cough. My neighbor beckons to me from her window. “Come over to the door,” she shouts. I can barely make her words out over the clattering pans and screaming around us. There's a new blast. “Murderers!” The scream multiplies, elevates, rocks, trembles and flows outward. In the street, the national guardsmen advance and spread. I see their figures appear and disappear in the pearly darkness. A quick spark of light. And the sound of another blast embraces the world, throttles it. My throat thickens and closes in fear.
When I open the door, my neighbor slides her arm around my shoulders and places a damp cloth in my hands. “Wash your face off with this,” she whispers, “to get the gas off you, so you don't get intoxicated.” She inclines her head toward mine. “This is going to get worse,” she adds. She is shaking with fear, like me. I press her hand between mine, as firmly as I'm able. I do not know if it seemed that way.
“They're throwing bombs at buildings,” she tells me in a nervous whisper. “They say that by the street corner, they're trying to get some of them inside.”
She pushes me firmly into the hall. A group of neighbors are huddled there, half hidden in the gloom. A woman I remember from a nearby apartment sobs in a corner. Her cries sound small, fragile, painful. My neighbor shrugs and looks around. I feel her impotence. Like mine. Like everyone’s, I suppose.
“We don’t know what to do. The people downstairs just came up,” she explains to me quietly. “Let's just wait here until everything passes. Put this on your face so you can breathe.”
I obey. The rag is soaked in some liquid with a curious citrus smell infused with something I do not immediately recognize. I let myself slide down to the floor by the door. My heart is thumping so hard I can hardly breathe, my tightening throat grips me in a slow, blinding panic that I struggle to contain. I hear a new blast. An enraged shout. The sound of breaking glass. The woman's sobs in the hallway grow louder and take on a tone of childlike fright. Fear is everywhere, like an unbearable stench that steals my breath from me.
I cover my ears with my hands and try to stay calm. I am not going to cry, I tell myself. I am not going to cry, I repeat. We hear another blast.
The street is desolate now, with scorched garbage and pieces of broken glass scattered everywhere. An insignificant scene from some random pitched battle. I tread carefully, trying not to stumble. A woman advancing from a few feet away shakes her head and kicks what appears to be the twisted remains of a plastic container.
“You know what hurts the most?” She says when I catch up to her. Her face is sorrowful. Like mine, I suppose—I do not know what will happen next with all these protests. You feel the rage, the fury, but don’t know what will happen next.
Together, we walk a few feet further. The scorched remnants of one of the countless political campaign posters plastered all over the city float in a dirty puddle. I look at it and am overtaken by a feeling of deep disgust. I think back on all the years of political battles, of polemical debates. Of pained hatred spewing forth in all directions, emanating from a twisted core of intolerance and fanaticism. Nearly two decades of a blind fight that advances and retreats at the whims of the powerful, a confrontation fueled by resentment and fratricidal malevolence. How close are we to the abyss, I ask, and force myself to keep moving. How close are we to the final confrontation? Will that moment ever arrive?
A ramshackle fence is still standing two blocks from where I live, smeared and darkened with soot from where fire licked the wood. Someone told me several of the tear gas bombs launched that night landed near this rickety fortification. Amidst the clash of uniformed officials and protesters, this cheap bulwark of wood and plastic was battered by stones and broken bottles. I gaze at the ashen prints left by the fire and try to picture the scene in my mind: the group of invaders hiding in the dark in an embankment piled with garbage, listening to the same blasts as me, breathing the same tear gas, unable to escape or protect themselves. I quicken my pace, sickened and reeling. Terrified by the haunting effects of fears both tangible and imaginary.
A survivor among a group of locals who have taken cover in a vacant lot watches me, shielded by one of the last pieces of zinc sheeting in his possession. His face is taut and hollow with tension. Like mine, I remind myself. I hear a broken wooden door shut somewhere behind me. It makes a hollow sound, small, futile. It brings my thoughts back to the violence, the death, and the toxic cloud that enveloped the street the night before. We who were due to inherit the fulfilment of society’s vindications, the faithful believers in Hugo Chavez’s revolution, have instead fallen prey to a colossal, historical hoax. Who are the victims and enemies at the frontlines of this raging antagonism? Who will be the survivors?
The stench of tear gas lingers everywhere. An invisible trace that recalls the existence of something abject and difficult to adequately express. I stand in the middle of the street, contemplating the brittle normalcy around me. There is something unreal in this vision of the commonplace, of inertia, of violence on the other side of an imaginary border. This is how we've learned to live after 20 years, each and every day, with the aggression, abuse and fear that is now a regular part of our daily life. When will we realize we are prisoners of a failed and violent system? How much more do we need to understand the real scope of this ongoing tragedy? What unimaginable calamity will be next?
I know very little about civil war, even if at times I think I do. I know nothing about genocide and mass murder, in spite of how much I’ve read about those subjects in books, articles, and personal accounts. The only thing I know is helplessness, this sense of nameless terror that infuses everything I look at, everything I think about. I watch passersby trudge slowly down the street, women clutching children in their arms, men rushing to cross the avenue. How many of us understand what the tragedy of violence really means? How many of us truly realize the traumatic cost of a confrontation that warps us into irreconcilable enemies? I stand and gaze at the street where I grew up, its little details, the places I know by heart. Traces of violence everywhere. When did violence become part of my life? Of the everyday landscape?
I myself don't know, or even worse: I do not remember. And the possibility of forgetting, of losing that uniform gaze at both past and future, is more painful than anything else, more difficult to understand than any other thought. A hostage of my own memory.
At the bakery, a man comments aloud about the street protests happening in Caracas. His voice is ragged, angry, confrontational, pained. He does not make a partisan proclamation nor express a political opinion, but rather a sincere, concerned complaint. Our daily burden to bear.
“Something has to happen, for better or worse. Something has to happen from all this,” he repeats, shrugging his shoulders, shaking his head. “Something has to happen to make people understand how screwed we all are. All of us—no one is safe.”
Silence. Customers lined up at the counter avert their eyes, shake their heads, nervously clear their throats. The man clenches his fists, his face flushed with fury.
“Am I lying? All of us are fucked, aren't we?”
“The problem is we're all so used to ignoring what goes on, we look the other way and try to carry on like we did before. No one remembers they should stand up and face this,” says a woman next to the cash register. “In this country everyone goes on and acts like nothing ever happens.”
I'm irritated by the resigned, almost bored tone with which she speaks. But I also can't stop thinking about the truth of her words. Over the last decade-and-a-half under the Chávez administration, most Venezuelans have faced fear, hope, terror and exhaustion on a daily basis; a blank space without name or definition, whose emptiness seems to define better than anything else this point in history at which we live. Or perhaps there just isn't a name for this broken, soft indifference, this cracked exhaustion crushing our civic consciousness, this simple perception of reality we endure day by day. It's a kind of deaf battle against nothingness, against despair and distress.
There is a general murmur of approval. The man sighs, hunches his shoulders. Emotion colors his cheeks, makes him clench his fists. I relate to his frustration, his weariness. That fall into silence. The scene repeats itself a thousand times over, mirrors the twisted face of a country deeply wounded by fear.
“Venezuela is falling to pieces,” the man says. “We’re falling apart and I wonder if any of us are even aware of it.”
I think back to his words as I plod along the street amid the rubble of an unequal battle, fissured with a tenuous wound that never heals, the perennial sense of not recognizing the country I live in. With our national identity broken and crumbling into a mixture of grief and a slow, endless, deep suffering. This feeling of belonging nowhere and without a history.
Sitting in the living room of my house, I try not to cry. But I give in, of course, because of the deep anguish I carry everywhere; because of the daily crushing horror, because of this Venezuela which is not mine but that I must endure. I wonder how long I can resist, to avoid this reality from crushing me. What will happen next? And, of course, I have no answers. I've never had any and I suppose I never will. And that gaze into the void—into the abyss—is hard to bear. An deep sense of fear has become a way of life.