Political Unrest in Venezuela
-- Story by Erin --
For the past year, Venezuela has been in political and
economic turmoil. They've had other national strikes, demonstrations and a coup
attempt last April which removed President Chavez for a few days, before he was
reinstated. Although democratically elected, Chavez has since made changes to the
countries constitution, some needed and some benefiting Chavez directly. It is
extremely complicated and I don't have all the history but suffice it to say that the
overwhelming majority of the population of Venezuela now desperately want him out of
office. The problem is, he made a change to the constitution which says that he
can't be ousted until half way through is term, which is more than a year away. The
general public think he has put forth policies which damage their economy and encourage a
Fidel Castro-style of governing and government.
To show their feelings to the government, the public staged
a nationwide strike which began on Monday, December 2nd. All shops, most restaurants
and other businesses were closed. We had hoped that the strike would only last for a
day or two, maybe three at the most and then we could work on getting the shock repaired
and research shipping options. Well, while we were there, the strike stretched into
it's 10th day. During this time demonstrations and marches took place every day
throughout Caracas, and probably the rest of Venezuela. We couldn't really go far
from our hotel, because of road blocks and besides, everything was closed. Luckily
the hotel restaurant and two other restaurants in the neighborhood stayed open.
Also, Francisco made sure we were well taken care of during this time, took us to his
home, his office and showed us some of the sites from the security of his car.
One of the places we visited was the Plaza Francia-Altamira,
where peaceful demonstrations were taking place. In the plaza were families,
retirees, members of the military who support the opposition, and police who were there to
protect the protestors. People were dressed in the colors of the national flag
(yellow, blue, and red) from head to toe. There were speakers on a central platform,
giving their views to the cheers of the crowd, national flags waving. It was a
relatively upbeat atmosphere, not angry and aggressive as one might think. That
evening, just 3 hours after we were there, a crazed gunman opened fire on the crowd and
killed 3 people, a 17 year-old girl, a 70 year-old woman, and a 44 year-old man.
Over 30 people were injured. I watched this in dazed disbelief on live television
and prayed that our new friends and their families were not there in the middle of the
madness. The only one that was there was Andres, whose wife must have been sick with
fear as they have a new baby son at home. He was not injured, but certainly it must
have been traumatizing.
By Monday, December 9th, it was apparent that this was going
to last much longer. The executives of the state owned petroleum company PDVSA
joined the strike and gas was no longer being delivered to the gas stations. Cargo
ships parked out at sea, honoring the strike and refusing to neither take on cargo or
deliver what they had. We were concerned, as were our new friends, that the
situation may deteriorate to the point where we might not be able to leave due to airplane
fuel shortages and air traffic controllers threatening to join the strike. That
Monday we rode to the airport to talk to the cargo agent directly. We didn't know
what would happen but packed the bikes in the event we could get them on a plane that
night to Panama.
The agent, Ever Gonzalez of Vensecar, was ready to help us
and that afternoon started the process to get our bikes sent out. He rounded up some
helpers and got pallets built for the bikes. We strapped them down and had them
weighed. There was some confusion as to whether we would be charged by actual weight
(which Ever originally told Chris on the phone) or volume weight. It turned out the
cost was based on volume weight, which was greater than the actual weight. At this
point we had to do some juggling, and removing of the windscreens and top cases in order
to get the volume weight down to a reasonable level. At the end of the day, the
bikes were ready to go but had to wait until Tuesday because it was too late to get
Customs and the National Guard to sign off on them. We had to return the next day.
We hopped a local bus back into the city and were more
relieved that it seemed we were going to get the bikes out without problems. On the
bus ride back, took us through other Caracas neighborhoods we would not normally see, the
lower income areas and downtown area. It was also interesting to listen to the
chatter of the local people returning home after a day of work (yes, some people were
still working). The driver let off the last passenger somewhere downtown and we were
the last on the bus. He was very kind and showed us where we needed to go to get the
bus to return to the airport the next day.
Tuesday, Dec 10th: Day 1,300, and nearing the end of
our South American adventure. We've been in South America 15 months, the original
length of our entire trip when we started, which at the time did not even include South
Early Tuesday we found our bus and started the ride back out
to the airport, some 40 kilometers over the mountains by the sea. The ride to the
airport was quite different than the ride home. We encountered several road blocks
where the driver had to take detours, he was obviously getting frustrated. At one
point an angry pedestrian banged on the drivers window and started an argument. The
driver opened the door and began to exit the bus to fight the man. Passengers on the
bus yelled at the driver to drop it and ride on, which he did. At the last
neighborhood out of town, we noticed people running on the sidewalks, covering their
faces. Just then, we felt the tingling in our nose and stinging in our
eyes-----tear gas. The police had just shot off some canisters to disperse a crowd
of demonstrators. Everyone yelled for the driver to floor it out of there.
Things were heating up.
At the airport, it took all day but we finally got all the
necessary signatures to send the bikes on their way. Now it was time to get a flight
out for ourselves. On the phone, we got a confirmed reservation on Copa Airlines
(part of Continental) for Wednesday afternoon. We even went to the Copa Airlines
counter at the airport that evening to confirm what we had to do. Payment wasn't
necessary until one hour before the flight, so we felt comfortable that we could leave
after we got confirmation Wednesday morning that the bikes did indeed fly out on Tuesday
evening. In the end, the bikes flew for $1,000 US, all taxes and charges included.
Wednesday morning, Francisco, his wife Luz Maria, Carlos and
his girlfriend and daughter took us for breakfast as a last goodbye. We had already
gotten confirmation that the bikes were in Panama waiting for us, and all we had to do was
buy the ticket and get to the airport. Well, one last hurtle awaited us. At
the Copa office at the Intercontinental Hotel we were told that they didn't have a
reservation for us for that day, they had us on a flight on Thursday! Well, after a
flurry of phone calls by Francisco and his secretary, he was able to find us a flight, for
the same price, to Panama via Costa Rica. We made the reservation and raced off to
the airport to see if we could still fly on stand-by on the Copa flight that went direct.
We made a warm but hasty goodbye with Francisco and Luz Maria, with promises to
return in the future for a more in-depth tour of this beautiful country. At the
airport, we lucked out and were able to fly on the direct flight to Panama afterall,
arriving at 6 o'clock in the evening.
Looking back now, I can say that we never felt afraid for
our personal safety, but it was evident that the situation was very serious and people
were bent on seeing Chavez resign. We did see a glimpse of this beautiful and
diverse country, enough to know that it is a friendly and beautiful place blessed with
natural resources. The world-famous Angel Falls are here, there is the jungle of the
Amazon region, the Andes mountains reaching heights over 5,000 meters with snow on top,
beautiful beaches, and an abundance of good natured people who welcome visitors. We
sincerely hope this situation ends soon for the sake of all its citizens.
One final thank you to everyone who showed us so much
hospitality in this difficult time.
Shipping details to
Lunch with Francisco and his family
Demonstrators for the Opposition in Plaza Francia-Altamira.
The demonstrations passed by every night at 8, 9, and again 10pm
Final preparations for the bikes