As Chávez’s state funeral took place on Friday, local media coverage of mourning moved from the personal to the public: the thousands queuing along the roads to the Military Academy were upstaged by the handful that graced the red carpet upon touchdown in Maiquetía. On March 8th, to coincide with International Women’s Day, Venezuela welcomed an eclectic mix of political figures that rather aptly reflected Chávez’s eclectic mix of politics and allies. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last year fired the only female member of his Iranian cabinet, received a curious amount of rather warm attention from the primary state television channel Venezolana de Televisión. President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, was not exactly a surprise guest (his absence would have guaranteed a nosedive in the already tumultuous relationship between the neighbouring countries), though comments were passed on his contrasting right-wing style of governance that never quite sat comfortably in Caracas. The unruly presence of President Mujica – the world’s “poorest president” – conflicted somewhat with that of Cristina Fernández, who seemed to have received an ultra dose of botox before boarding her plane. Despite what I’m sure were good intentions, the whole thing was all too reminiscent of an episode of satirical cartoon “Isla Presidencial” (highly recommended) whereby the loves and quarrels of Latin America’s presidency are played out on a desert island.
While this happened, the streets of the city were empty and most shops and businesses closed. After the ceremony had ended, I wondered over to Plaza Bolívar in Caracas’ historic centre. Aside from the usual heated gathering at the “esquina caliente” (“hot corner”), where Chávez followers traditionally meet to watch the news, discuss politics and arrange demonstrations, the square was relatively calm. Unsurprisingly, the mood was as sombre: like the west, the centre of Caracas “belongs” to those in favour of the government, thus frequented by those presumably most grieved at the presidents’s passing. Surrounding the square are governmental buildings and sites of historical interest rejuvenated since Chávez came to power. Children played among pigeons and bubbles and the adults talked quietly beneath the shade of the trees. Some took photos of the giant wreath dedicated to Chávez at the foot of Bolívar’s statue, many wore read t-shirts or tricolour armbands bordered in black. South of the square, the police prepared for Nicolas Maduro’s controversial swearing in at the National Assembly that evening as television cameras filtered the surrounding area. Their live broadcasts attracted small groups keen to pledge their allegiance to Chávez’s successor, determined to reassert their political importance as quotidian citizens, terrified of losing everything on which they’ve staked a claim in the last fourteen years.
When this took place at around 7pm, I found myself on the opposite side of the city in Plaza Los Palos Grandes – the exact social, political and architectural opposite of PlazaBolívar. In Venezuela it’s no secret that the eastern side of Caracas mainly houses those that identify with the opposition, though internationally they receive relatively little recognition from the media. I suppose that the South American middle-classes don’t have the same exotic appeal as their poverty-stricken counterparts. Here, the atmosphere was different; pensive, but not necessarily sad, and without a red shirt in sight. It felt more like an unexpected Bank Holiday than a day of National Mourning. A cool air breezed and people chatted.
Many pertaining to these sectors are outspoken about the fact that their existence has been unforgivingly marginalised by the government, aided by a global communications system that idealises the poor. “Would you cut short your routine, dress in black, weep uncontrollably, if your Prime Minister died?” I was asked. I admitted that I wouldn’t. “Would you consider yourself less of a British citizen for not doing these things?” “No,” I answered. Despite stark historical differences, the underlying point is powerful, and one I feel pertinent when those from abroad make political judgements about what’s happening here.
Minutes before the inauguration ceremony took place, the sound of metal hitting metal gathered volume throughout the square. It was the noise of a cacerolazo – the popular protest of banging pots that originated in Chile – that signalled discontent with Maduro’s arguably unconstitutional assuming of power. Elections were announced today for April 14th – as expected, Henrique Capriles was confirmed as the opposition candidate. For the last four days, the opposition by and large has maintained a respectful distance from funeral proceedings, despite accusations of Maduro using his role as spokesman to kick-start an electoral campaign. Before the October elections, Capriles managed the rather impressive feat of amassing some 45% of the votes in a space of three months, though this still fell almost 10 points short of coming close to challenging Chávez. As the official week-long mourning period closes next week, his campaign will surely gather steam. It remains to be seen whether he might cross the seemingly insurmountable divide that splits Caracas into east and west, or whether Chávez’s legacy is enough to keep PSUV in power.