A thin young man, totally naked, clambers onto the hood of an armored vehicle from what’s called the National Bolivarian Police force. “Don’t throw any more bombs, brother, por favor!” he begs. But in Venezuela, the forces of the government have no patience with such protests or such pleas. They answer the man with rubber bullets at point blank range, stones, and a terse, unequivocal order from one police officer shouting: “Get down!” When he is moving away, he is blasted in the back with scatter-shot from a riot gun that leaves pox-like lesions across his body.
Of such incidents memes are born. And as Venezuela continues what looks like a death spiral for the regime of Nicolás Maduro, but also an agony for the country amid vast privations and vast demonstrations, the image of that thin young man’s naked body peppered with wounds has spread on social media more quickly and more pervasively than the tear gas that has been choking thousands of protestors in the streets of Caracas throughout the month of April.
He seemed too gaunt for a country that has the largest oil reserves in the world and which, just three months ago, donated half a million dollars to the inauguration of the now-incumbent president of the United States, Donald Trump, after mortgaging itself to Russia.
Eventually identified as Hans Wuerich Larios, 27, the naked protestor was interviewed this week by CNN Español, which called him “the hero with no clothes.” But social media were quick to say it is the imperious Maduro who has been exposed.
Maduro, the obdurate president of Venezuela, has lost everything: votes that were never his in the first place—the legacy of the deceased populist Hugo Chávez; he has lost the barrios; he has also lost all shame. Nicolás Maduro has been stripped as naked as the intrepid young man who climbed up onto the armored vehicle.
“The mass of Chávez supporters we knew a few years ago no longer exists in this country,” says political scientist, Colette Capriles, speaking from Caracas. “Today in Venezuela we are living through an unprecedented moment. The people who have taken to the streets to demonstrate their opposition cannot—and neither would they wish to—continue living in this state of social and economic crisis. They are out on the streets to demand the return of constitutional order,” says Capriles, who is no relation to the jailed Venezuelan governor and opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski.
According to figures published by the nongovernmental organization Foro Penal Venezolano, as of April 27, some 1,584 Venezuelans had been arrested. The government acknowledges that 26 people had lost their lives between April 4 and 25.
Colette Capriles believes that the road ahead for the opposition will be long and winding. Presidential elections are due to be held in 2018 and the technical difficulties implied in bringing them forward are dauntingly complex. The most beneficial course would seem to be to demand the return of constitutional order, given that the country currently finds itself under a state of emergency.
The unrest was ignited when Maduro’s hand-picked and packed Supreme Court tried to usurp the powers of the National Assembly, which is dominated by the opposition. A case study in the way a dictatorial regime tries to manipulate “legal” methods of control, the ruling was so explosive that it was quickly reversed, but by then the fuse was lit and the unrest has continued.
“Eliminating public power [the national assembly] is nothing less than a coup,” says Capriles. “The decision by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice unveiled Nicolás Maduro’s tyranny.
“What the people in the streets are demanding is that the statute of the National Assembly, a democratically elected body, be observed; that the constitution be observed; that the municipal and state governor elections be called as stipulated by the constitution; that the rights of citizens be upheld,” said Capriles, citing just a few of the demands.
She said the maneuver instigated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice was executed on the fringes of the law. It demonstrates that “in Venezuela the institutions do not function correctly. This is symptomatic of a political power in decadence.”
Both the late president, Hugo Chávez, and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, have consistently and relentlessly blamed the United States for backing conspiracies, fomenting coups and, more recently, waging an “economic war” on the country.
Despite such accusations, the United States continues to be the main consumer of Venezuelan oil. On Dec. 22, 2016, Nicolás Maduro’s government donated, in the middle of an acute and unprecedented economic and social crisis, $500,000 to the organizing committee of the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Donald Trump.
According to the Federal Election Commission, the transaction was made via the Venezuelan refinery, Citgo Petroleum Corporation, which has its headquarters in Houston. Citgo is the U.S. branch of the nationally-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). It has three refineries in the United States and gas stations all over. The Venezuelan donation doubled those contributions made to Trump’s inaugural celebration by companies such as Google or Pepsi, despite the fact 49 percent of Citgo’s shares are now held by Russia as the guarantee on a $1.5 billion loan that Moscow granted to Caracas in 2014 via the Russian oil company, Rosneft.
Maduro’s government has issued no statement concerning this donation.
Maduro’s power today leans heavily on weapons, the military, the police force, the militia and, primarily, the pro-Chavista paramilitary groups (although in the Orwellian newspeak of “the Revolution,” the president prefers to call them “peace collectives”). The civilian-military alliance, upon which the regime is based, has been active in all these areas.
“The situation that the country is experiencing today represents the radicalization of the government,” says Capriles. “I don’t think that they calculated the political cost that the rulings by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice would have; neither did they really calculate the magnitude of the nation’s repudiation of such measures. The government is harboring several fears at the moment, and one of these is the possibility of a state of anarchy—a popular revolt—given that these are scenarios that no one can control.”
And all the while the memes are multiplying: images of violence and protest; images of courage and resolve. Wuerich Larios, who studied communication, said he decided to act after he saw images of an old woman who stood in front of a menacing police tanqueta, or armored car, and refused to move in an image reminiscent of the anonymous hero of Tiananmen Square more than a quarter century ago.
She stood there in a cloud of tear gas, the yellow, blue, and red Venezuelan flag around her shoulders, a baseball cap in the colors of the flag as well, alone in front of the vehicles known locally as “rhinos.” And every time the tanqueta tried to back up to go around her, she advanced, until finally she turned her back on it, leaning against it, wiping gas from her eyes.
The woman, identified only as María José eventually was arrested, and reportedly was released but has to appear to police every 15 days. She has not spoken to the press. “It’s not a good thing to say her name, so they won’t go after her,” said a man reacting to one of the many pictures of her on the web. “Better to call her Señora Libertad.”
The story of the naked young man on the armored vehicle closed its first chapter with an unfortunate joke on national television, told by President Maduro himself: “There is no limit to how ridiculous they are,” said the head of state. “What a terrible, ugly thing, a horror movie. What can we do but laugh?”
All that is left, then, is to ask what exactly the president is laughing at: The hunger? The repression? The injuries? The fatalities? Or maybe, like the emperor without clothes in the fairy tale, he doesn’t understand that his people are laughing at him, having lost all respect.