Venezuelan On Daily Life Amid Protests: 'We Need To Be Here To Fight'
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last year as the country has fallen into economic and political disarray. A crash in oil prices and political instability under President Nicolas Maduro has led to food shortages, and that has led to nearly daily street protests by thousands of Venezuelans. So what's that like?
CARLOS: Hi, this is Carlos. I'm preparing my backpack for the march.
CORNISH: It wasn't so long ago that Carlos used to prepare a very different kind of backpack for his job as a tour guide. He wasn't much of a protester. In the past, he thought the demonstrators were radicals. Now he's one of them, supporting opposition to the Maduro government and considered an enemy of the state. We're using his first name only for his safety.
CARLOS: I'm putting inside first of all the tear gas mask, the helmet right on top of the mask. And then I put one bottle of Maalox, which is...
CORNISH: Maalox - that helps wash away the tear gas that the police use. He also packs water, snacks, his house keys, I.D., phone charger.
CARLOS: And I have a hat for the sun, sunblock as well. And that's it. I'm ready to protest again.
CORNISH: We called him at home to find out how his life has changed in the past few months.
CORNISH: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this. I know it's difficult and dangerous.
CARLOS: Yes. No, thank you for letting us have this little open window to the world.
CORNISH: I wanted to ask you about the food situation because in the States, we've heard about food and medicine shortages. But what does that mean on a day-to-day basis? I mean if you open your refrigerator, is there anything in there?
CARLOS: The food situation is pretty extreme. I cannot find basic food - I mean no rice, no chicken. Fruits are very expensive. So what have really shocked me is that this past year, you can see in every street of the city, there is somebody in the garbage, looking for food. And it's not a homeless person. It's a regular guy dressed up normally with a backpack or with a working suitcase looking for food in the garbage.
CORNISH: With the collapse of the economy, Carlos says his tourism business has pretty much dried up, too. These days, the protests in Caracas, Venezuela's capital, are practically his full-time job. We ask Carlos to record some of them for us. He says people gather in the streets by 10:00 a.m. Things heat up around 2, and police break them up by 4. At least he says that's how it used to go. Lately security forces have begun to push back right at the start of the day. What struck us about Carlos's description was how organized the protests were.
CARLOS: There's a level from one to seven.
CORNISH: Level one, he says - those are the people up front, face-to-face with police. People call them warriors. Those are the ones we see in news photos.
CARLOS: These are kids, most of them under 25, which are students, most of them. Or they have nothing to lose. They don't have a job. They don't see a future, and they fight for their life.
CORNISH: Carlos has only been to the front once or twice - too dangerous, he says. They protect themselves with shields, throw tear gas canisters back at the police. And it's actually pretty quiet except when somebody gets hurt.
CARLOS: You hear screams like, injured, injured, medic, medic.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Medico.
CORNISH: Volunteer medics, mostly students and people on motorbikes, respond to the wounded when people call out for them. Carlos mostly hovers in the second wave of the protest. He says these are folks who help with logistics. He pours Maalox over the faces of protesters who are weeping with tear gas. He passes out his water and snacks. The food he gets through a network of people who operate more or less anonymously, sharing information through messaging apps about drop-off points and pick-up spots where they're hiding supplies.
CARLOS: It's like a war. There are soldiers. There's logistics behind. There's intelligence. It's like a cold war, well, because we're hiding. I'm walking down the street, and I'm scared that some - the policemen might caught me because now if you have a helmet in your car or a baseball hat of the flag of Venezuela, which is, like, the symbol of the protest, they can put you in jail.
CORNISH: Police and Venezuelan intelligence agents are all on the lookout for people like him. And once you're jailed, who knows when you'll get out? Carlos has friends who have been in jail. Some 70 protesters have died. So I ask him why he keeps going out there even as the violence escalates.
Is it a battle to see who can stay longest on the street?
CARLOS: Yes. It's a battle of pressure, and it's a battle of resistance. We're hoping that if we stay on the streets, someday the policemen and the national guard might begin to turn around.
CORNISH: So you want them to turn on the government. That's the goal here - is to create that pressure.
CARLOS: My aim - personal aim is maybe to one day see one of the soldiers - that he stops and say, I'm not going to shoot anymore. And like, that would be a tipping point, and it's happening. It's happening. The armed forces are - there are a lot of rumors they are broken up. The rules of the game have been changing.
CORNISH: Another reason he has faith is the breadth of people in the crowd.
CARLOS: It's a mix - really, really impressive - of low class, middle class and high class. So if you turn around, you're going to see to your side maybe this poor kid with no shoes with a handkerchief on his mouth protecting from the tear gas, fighting. If you turn to your right, you're going to see this lady around 50 years old, blonde with her pearl earring also with a handkerchief on her mouth, fighting for the same thing. So it's a mixture of every social class, every kind of people all there together fighting for the same thing, which is our freedom.
CORNISH: The protests have taken on new urgency now that Venezuela's president, Nicolas Maduro, has plans to rewrite the country's constitution. Protesters believe he's trying to cement his hold on power. Carlos says the demonstrators also want new elections, the release of political prisoners and access to humanitarian aid. Recently when a fellow protester was injured by rubber bullets and needed antibiotics, Carlos says he spent days in a phone messaging group of more than a hundred people trying to hunt some down.
CARLOS: We had to send somebody in Miami to buy it and find somebody who was traveling to Caracas the day after to take it with him on the plane and bring it to Caracas. And we were like, this is what we're fighting for.
CORNISH: Is this how you get a lot of your food and supplies in the end? I mean do you often have people bringing things from the States or...
CARLOS: Yes. My sister - every time she comes, she brings always two suitcase. One is hers, and another one is full of food and things for me and my parents.
CORNISH: Carlos, you have family and friends who have left Venezuela - right? - some in Miami. Have you thought of leaving Venezuela as well?
CARLOS: I was speaking to my sister this morning, and she told me, like, listen. I'm tired of telling you to come here. You can stay at my house. I can help you find a job. And I told her what I tell everybody usually - that I love my country, and I am betting for this is going to change. And now, these two month, I think we are writing history.
CORNISH: But he waffles a bit when he thinks about what it would be like to have steady work again, not to have to rely on others for food or to be in fear of arrests. And then he says maybe it comes down to one thing. He's not ready to give up on Venezuela.
CARLOS: I'm not going to stop. Of course I'm not going to stop. But I have to be careful not to get caught, not to get hit, of course not to die, which is the most important thing. Stay alive because we need to be here to fight. I don't have a family now, but I'm hoping to have one. I want my kids to grow up in Venezuela the way I did and to - not to lose it, not to lose our culture or our country. That's what I hope for.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIDUS SONG, "GET IT RIGHT")
CORNISH: Tomorrow we'll look at what keeps Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in power and what the U.S. and other countries are trying to do about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIDUS SONG, "GET IT RIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.