I wake up in the middle of the night and it takes me a few seconds to understand why. It took a second round of gunfire for me to remember the brief shock that thrust me from a deep sleep to fear. A blank, confused fear that required effort to contain. I stay in bed, sitting very still, listening and trying not to panic. The sound of gunfire repeats for a third time.
Later, I will discover that this was a settling of accounts in the Cota 905 neighborhood, which is about three blocks from the building where I live. I will find out that two alleged muggers died, and that a father and a policeman were injured. When I woke up, it had been almost two hours since the shooting had begun. But at that moment, I only knew fear. I only knew the feeling that everything happens too quickly, in small fragments of scenes that I can't understand clearly. Breathless, I throw myself out of bed and I stick myself against the wall, listening to the darkness shaken by violence. That almost malignant succession of violence that takes me effort to realize is real.
Another new burst of gunfire. One of my neighbors lets out a shriek and I feel like it was me who shouted, even though I didn't. Suddenly, the night is filled with voices and loud yelling. I wonder if everyone woke up at the same time or if it's only now that we dare express terror aloud. Either alternative terrifies and saddens me. Then, silence again.
Several minutes pass in which I can't hear anything other than my own breathing. The tension seems to increase, mixed with the heat of this endless summer and the panic tightening my chest, leaving me crushed against the wall as if unable to do anything but wait. Suddenly, I wonder what will happen next, what this sudden silence means after the roar of bullets and screams. I'm a regular citizen: less than five years ago it was unthinkable to consider violence part of my life; that protecting myself from it would be inevitable. I still can't figure out how to come to terms with the fact that this is everyday life in my country, that this place is shattered by threats, this perpetual aggression that seems to come from everywhere.
I don't know how much times passes until I get up from the floor. My arms and legs are stiff and my back aches from tension. I approach the window — a little voice in my head screams that I shouldn't — and I peer toward the street. The avenue perpendicular to the nearby highway is empty, bathed in a gray mist, a result of the drought afflicting the country. The street lights flicker and I have the unusual feeling that the whole scene is surreal, with its fragmented silence and a deceptive, leaden calm. Nothing seems to suggest what just happened, as if the sound of bullets was my imagination or just a nightmare.
But it's not, of course. The next morning I cross the street to go to the bakery at the end of the street, and I stumble over the remains of what happened. Signs of bullets on the metal poles on the street. A garbage can full of holes, glass shards piled up on the uneven pavement. I stop to look with an almost childlike wonder, as if my brain were unable to process the fact that I live so close to real violence — every day — that leaves my city scarred.
When I was little, I liked action movies. I sat next to my grandfather, my uncles, and cousins to enjoy the famous Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, delighted by all the ingenuous excitement of battles in the desert. The sound of bullets was a dazzling roar: it sounded like an echo on the plains in the radiant sun and then someone fell to the ground, his chest full of blood. But back then, I knew it was only fiction, that it was a fun, if a bit crass melodrama that made me laugh and joke about it.
But this is something else, I tell myself with a lump in my throat, my breathing turned into a scared whisper. It's so raw that makes me wince and stumble, just to get away from there clumsily. This is the real threat, to die — or be murdered, rather — by a type of violence that for years seemed unthinkable to me, completely unimaginable. By a startling idea that extends not only to what I consider everyday life — and it isn't any longer — but something much broader. The concrete fact that the city where I was born and raised must face a type of threat that's difficult to comprehend. Every citizen is a potential victim who has a bullet with his name on it waiting on any street or corner.
Put that way, it sounds exaggerated and dramatic. But it's not, and it's been a long time now that I'm unable to think of Caracas in any way other than as a threat. I think about that while I buy warm bread — and appreciate being able to do so — in front of an empty counter. It hurts me as I listen to the murmured comments among a scrum of neighbors crowded together around tables. Everyone talks about what happened: the feeling of waking up at midnight by the sound of bullets, the terror of the everyday landscape converted into a battlefield. It's like a war that hasn't happened yet, survivors of an inimaginable and increasingly rough conflict.
“And then I heard someone screaming and asking for help,” says a worried-looking old woman a few meters away. “I heard it at around two in the morning. In the end, I didn't find out what happened, if they helped him…”
There is a collective sigh, a shared terror that spreads like a gentle wave. While I stand next to the group, a man with a tired face explains how his daughter, a little girl, couldn't stop crying for hours even after all went silent.
“How do you calm her down? How do you tell her that nothing will happen to her? How do you explain what's out there if you yourself don't know what the fuck is going on?” he complains. “One can only pray that things don't get worse, that a stray bullet doesn't get shot into your home and bring tragedy.”
I start to walk to get away from his story, from my own nightmarish night, my fear that I can't quell. And with anguish I think that us Venezuelans are still too infantile to understand our own anxieties. This fragmented landscape of life and what we are, what we face every day.
Every four days, a huge line of shoppers spans nearly a kilometer in front of the supermarket six blocks from my house. The place used to be part of a private chain, but the whole network of food stores was expropriated almost a year ago and is now part of chavismo social programs. So each time that the government conducts food distribution, the surrounding streets become a hotbed of worried shoppers, waiting for hours to acquire regulated foods.
On this occasion, the store is selling cooking oil and precooked flour used to make traditional arepas, a typical dish in my country. A crowd of customers huddles against the bars of the concrete patio that separates them from the store's door, still closed. When I cross the street, I hear a man screaming as he shakes the heavy metal bars.
“When are they going to open this fucking dump? We've been waiting since dawn! Don't take advantage of us assholes!”
I stop in the street to watch. The commotion is a uniform mass of raised arms and swaying heads, pushing and trying to get inside the store. An official from the National Guard watches but limits himself to looking on with a certain nonchalance. Another pair in uniform wait further in. Neither seem concerned about the turmoil outside, by the bitter and furious impatience of those waiting.
“I've been here since six in the morning and the line hasn't moved!” exclaims a woman, her face flushed with anger. “I don't know what the fuck they're waiting for!”
Nobody really notices, I suppose, when the long line comes apart and becomes a semi-circle of increasingly violent voices and shouts. Someone pushes me and makes me move back, even though I'm a few meters away and I haven't even gotten a step closer to the line.
“Don't you dare try to cut, bitch!” yells the woman who pushed me. She's about my age, maybe a little younger, and carrying a child in her arms, who's sucking his thumb quietly while his mother moves from side to side. “Go to the back of the line!”
I rush forward a few steps and get as far away as I can from the crowd. Now the unrest increases, and it becomes increasingly dangerous. I have a feeling that improvisation and discontent are about to explode into a violent riot. So I keep walking with stiff shoulders and head bowed until I can barely hear the yelling. I finally end up at a bus stop. A group looks toward the corner where the crowd is growing with expressions of concern and even fear.
“I don't know what's going to happen in this country,” says a young woman carrying a backpack slung over her shoulder, “since people can't take it anymore, having to work so hard to buy food.”
“You deal with it and you'll keep on dealing with it,” answers a boy with red cheeks covered in acne. He shakes his head, looks at the crowd a few hundred meters ahead. “We're already got used to this shit and we didn't even notice when it happened.”
The comment shakes me, leaving a bitter taste in the mouth. But above all, it scares me. A terrible, unthinkable, painful fear, a fear felt daily. Then I remember my neighbor, who less than six months ago assured me that she would never wait in line to buy food, standing silently in a group of shoppers as tired and sad as her, in front of a truck that sells half-price vegetables.
I remember my friend who had to buy a drug at fifteen times the regular price since she couldn't find it at any commercial pharmacies. I remember my colleague who admitted to paying a reseller of basic products to avoid the usual line. I remember the woman I saw weep, sitting on the sidewalk in front of an empty store, because there was nothing to buy. I remember the man on Twitter, pleading for a drug that no one could help him find. And suddenly, I have the distinct feeling that we are in the midst of a collapse, a tragedy in stages, a long agony that leads nowhere.
When the bus arrives, I look back at the crowd of shoppers before getting on. Now three uniformed officers walk down the street, their guns held high, shouting something I can't understand from a distance. The crowd retreats like a wave, moves back, and forms a line again. And it’s that pale resignation, the slow horror that unsettles me more than anything else.
In the plaza in front of the building where I live, a group of ruling party supporters put up a platform to celebrate — or commemorate, in the eye of the beholder — the events of April 13, 2002. The improvised structure not only obstructs traffic but also limits the movement of vehicles along the street. The result? The area is isolated by a political and minority celebration in which most residents don't directly participate. When I go out onto the street, I find most gathered in small groups, disconcerted by the paraphernalia of the political celebration: in less than an hour, the quiet square is filled with posters from old election campaigns, plastic chairs and tables laden with drinks. One hundred members of the Socialist Party of Venezuela, dressed in red from head to toe, flood the street. Onstage, an entertainer calls for “popular rebellion.”
Frustrated and trying to understand why the neighbors must endure this improvised scene, I approach to watch. A ring of uniformed members of the National Guard surveils the area, which does not surprise me: under current legislation, the area is considered under military protection. Which makes the spontaneous celebration taking place right on the street even more puzzling. Perhaps for that reason, or just out of curiosity, I decide to take a few pictures with a small camera. I take them and walk around toward the stage, where a man shouts the name of Hugo Chávez Frías with a macho insistence.
Nobody looks at me as I approach. There is a festive and warm atmosphere, filled with the smell of alcohol and a fried food kiosk in the corner. I look at everything, a little disconcerted that the improvised scene means nothing to me. As if I didn't belong to the country this crimson crowd celebrates and recognizes. A stranger in my own land, a foreigner from the place I was born. It is a strange and sad idea that hurts me more than I care to admit.
I raise the camera with a simple gesture. And perhaps I didn't conceal it well enough; I didn't hide, as I suppose I should have in a country where fear prevails and censorship is everywhere. Immediately one of the uniformed men approaches me, making his way through the crowd which shoots me surprised and irritated looks. And I stand there, not knowing what to do or where to turn, when the soldier plants himself in front of me and extends his hand with an almost violently firm gesture.
“Hand that shit over!”
I react almost instinctively. I step back and hold the camera against my chest in an attempt to protect it. The soldier leans toward me and suddenly, I am well aware of the threat, the crowd watching me and taunting me, the dangerous situation in which I find myself, in a country where justice is an ideological weapon.
“You have no right to use that thing here!” shouts the solider, who takes another step toward me. I hide the camera, step back and almost naively ask myself if he'll hit me, if the situation will become uncontrollable. If that threat that throbs and floods every street and city is about to overflow around me. I stand there, frightened and humiliated, looking at the gun resting on the soldier's thigh, feeling with overwhelming clarity that this country is a jail where I am a prisoner without knowing it.
Because I have no rights. Not only to photograph, but not to complain, to lament the loss of peace and civic freedom. A country where I do not have the right to speak out, to confront an official who should protect me but whose sole purpose seems to be reminding me that as a civilian, I find myself under the boot of a military state. I have no right of reply, to reclaim public spaces, to enjoy the freedom to express myself, to oppose the ideas that a twisted and violent ideology tries to impose.
The soldier yells again, ordering me to leave. And I do so with the pain of the abuse of power in tow, horrified by the relief that fills me when I leave the plaza and no one follows me. I run into the street, my eyes filled with tears. I feel the eyes of my neighbors all around me, so close and so part of this tragedy. But no one approaches. I appreciate that. Nobody wants to clean open wounds. Those hidden scars that we all carry, scars of a country transformed into an act of obedience.
Sometimes I think that Venezuela ceased to exist. It is a persistent idea that I carry with me everywhere, that has overwhelmed me so many times that slowly it's becoming an everyday affliction. Because with the loss of my rights and the country collapsing, this shattered vision blurs so that I no longer recognize it. It's nothing more than a glance at the silent suffering that every Venezuelan puts up with like a new form of citizenship.
Translated by Rachel Glickhouse.