‘The Wise Are Running for Their Lives’: Venezuela Simmers With Violence as Putin Sends in Russian Troops
Putin saved Assad in Syria. Can he save Maduro in Venezuela? It’s starting to look that way.
CARACAS, Venezuela—“I’m ready to die for this. I’m 56 years old and I was born to have my blood shed for this country, but I don’t want this to be your death, as it may be so many others in the coming months. I want you to get out but I know you won’t so I will do everything I can to protect you.”
We’re in the car, my bodyguard José and I, trying our best to make our way through a Caracas under complete blackout. The streets are eerily empty but as always here in Venezuela, the quiet is dangerous and José’s head is on a constant swivel, his almond eyes focused on everything but me.
The Russians have just arrived in Venezuela. Nicolás Maduro’s Eastern ally sent tons of military equipment and two planes carrying at least 100 Russian troops to touch down at Caracas airport as tensions in this fractured country rise to the point of no return. Having seen the images of these foreign soldiers lining up at the airport, saluting their Venezuelan colleagues, José and I are discussing what comes next—not only for the country but for us, the team that has been working together for almost two months.
"If the war starts, we can’t have you at a hotel, because the hotels will be some of the first targets for the regime and the Russians. We will move you into my house and we will have our base there for as long as this takes. But please, Annika, understand what I am saying—there will be bodies all over the streets, this war has only two possible endings—a new government or an emboldened old one with no restraints and no consequences.”
I fall silent. I look out the window as we head down the highway to the Petare barrio, and just to my right a couple of young men are climbing a fruit tree, trying to salvage some sustenance just below a massive billboard of Maduro hugging a smiling child. I’m not sure what to say to José, because there are no words for what we’re facing. Just this eerie silence and the swooshing sound of the car squeezing past the entrance of the colorful favela.
The arrival of the Russians means that Maduro is far from resigning to the opposition wave, but rather preparing for a showdown that will have many actors and many victims. The Russian soldiers may be few, at least for now, but they are bringing something more valuable than men—the skill-sets needed to fight a drawn-out war in the jungles of Venezuela. Because that is what will happen if war hits this country, despite any White House fantasies about a quick and clean operation that puts an end to the last socialist stronghold. A war would not be fought army to army, but rather army to army to paramilitary groups, Cuban operatives, FARC guerrillas and Russian mercenaries.
Among the main actors in all of this are the colectivos, the paramilitary groups that once led the opposition during the Fourth Republic and were Chavez’s allies during the birth of the Fifth. Now they're an army in their own right that heeds no regular rules of engagement, as my own run-ins with them clearly showed.
The colectivos are prepared to fight and are being trained and mobilized in preparation for what seems to be inevitable. Just a few days ago Diosdado Cabello, one of the most powerful men in Venezuelan politics, posed with members of the paramilitary group in a now-viral Twitter video, saying that they were all prepared to ”preserve Venezuelan peace.” The message Cabello is sending through that video is very clear—that the Venezuelan government has many arms and that they are all working together to stop the regime change that the opposition and its leader, Juan Guaidó, have been calling for since the beginning of this year.
”Are you not afraid to die”?
José seems to ask me this as an afterthought and it catches me completely off guard. During this time together, we have stayed away from emotions. Not because we don’t care for each other, but maybe the opposite. We’ve become family and now that the danger is so close and so real we play this game of pretend where we just exist inside each moment and ignore the world outside. But José breaks the bubble and looks at me with genuine interest, finally meeting my slightly bewildered gaze.
"Of course I’m scared, I don’t want to die or watch others die in front of me but on the other hand, I can’t imagine leaving.”
José nods, and I nod, and then we sit there for a moment and avoid saying the things that so desperately need to be said.
"So,” he finally breaks the tension, ”I guess you’re coming to live with me, the wife, the dogs and the parakeet.”
Two months have passed since I got here and in that time, the possibility of an American intervention in Venezuela has been on everyone’s mind. President Donald Trump has generously sprinkled his speeches with heavy innuendo to that effect, including boasts about being ready to take on the Russians, but shows little sign of actually following through.
The Venezuelan people themselves are divided on the issue; some fear that American help to overthrow Maduro will end up becoming a permanent American presence in the country and a co-dependent relationship that doesn’t come close to the ideals they’ve fought for over the past two decades.
Others view American intervention as the only hope for a hopeless situation and are praying that the red lines drawn by Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton, finally will be enforced so that the end of this nightmarish tale of 24 Venezuelan states and two dictators, bloody as it might be, will be written.
There were plenty of people from both camps who thought that the international community’s near unanimous support of interim president Juan Guaidó would eventually break Maduro and force him out. But by adding Russian soldiers to the mix, mobilizing the paramilitary troops and radically amping up his anti-imperialist rhetoric he has disproved any rumor of a swift and painless transition.
Nicolás Maduro is preparing for a war and actively testing the fierce and fiery rhetoric of the U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition to the point where it is beginning to look like an all-out dare. Juan Guaidó, on the other hand, is reportedly waiting for the Venezuelan military to turn and aid him in removing Maduro, but even if that happens their loyalty is untested and, much like the Americans, their help could very well turn into a more comprehensive leadership role that would change the face and purpose of this counter-revolution. Either option means confrontation and both these roads would, to differing extents, lead to war.
Later that day, José and I visit the National Assembly to interview some of the deputies about the escalation and even though we’re just in there for a little over an hour, everything seems to have shifted once we get out.
Speaking to my friend, a lawyer working for the deputies, I don’t notice it at first; the rows and rows of colectivos standing by the only gate where we can exit to the street. Once I see them, I go quiet, and I try my best to look inconspicuous in my tights and hoodie, as if I don’t belong in the halls on which the militants have fixed their focus. My friend, dressed in a sharp blue suit, has no such hopes for escaping and starts sprinting to the car parked just outside the barrier. The colectivos spot him and for a few seconds there is chaos as they rush toward him and pounce.
“Just walk. Don’t look at them, just walk away with me. There is nothing we can do for him now.”
And I walk, not too fast but I walk and I don’t look back at my friend as he is being attacked. José takes out his phone and holds it just next to his face, turning the camera in selfie-mode to see if we are being followed. We pass the corner and I can feel the blood drain from my face and I grab at José’s jacket and when he looks at me he grabs my face with both hands, offering me a look of genuine concern and affection.
“Do you need a lollipop?”
I nod and laugh as the stern man takes out a bright pink lollipop and carefully unwraps it for me. I’m shaking a little so I sit down on the steps of a bank, empty now because of the blackout, and breathe deeply to recover from the fright.
“You were so lucky. If they realized who you are, what you are, it would be over. They don’t care that you’re a woman, or a journalist. You saw those faces—they’re ready to go to war now and they don’t need to pretend to follow any kind of rules. You were lucky that they found a better victim.”
I sit on those steps for a while, waiting for the driver to come pick us up, and look at the city that has come to represent so much joy and so much heartbreak. It has changed, just since I got here. Now there are police, military, SEBIN intelligence and FAES special forces everywhere, a constant visible reminder of the fact that any perceived calm is a fallacy.
I try to text my friend to see if he is OK and he replies almost immediately, sending a video shot from inside the car, showing three men throwing Molotov cocktails at the moving vehicle and breaking the back window. He’s shaken, but alive and relatively unharmed and when I ask him if I can tweet about what happened he tells me to not mention his name.
“I’m scared for real, Annika, they will target me and my family and as much as I want to I can’t speak openly about this.”
When we drive past the National Assembly on our way back to the hotel I lock eyes with one of the colectivos while filming the commotion from the car and he starts running across the street. Still shaky, I drop the phone in my lap as the driver speeds up and when I check the footage it abruptly cuts to a trembling leg and a bright-yellow sneaker.
“Now you see what we are up against, right? You realize that from now on, things will only get worse and we will be right here in it. You need to be prepared, we all do.”
José is right, things are clearly escalating, and not just because of Russian troops arriving but these—the dangerous troops already here—now openly attacking the opposition, violently and without fear of consequences as military, police and special forces stand by and watch.
It is as if this crisis has leveled up and the hidden is coming out into the light, exposing itself as well as its surroundings. Meanwhile, Venezuelan society is on the brink of a total collapse as the blackout cuts off water, light and any and all basic services—including in hospitals where most backup generators have broken down after years without maintenance.
It isn’t chaos that I see here, but something much more sinister and frightening; it’s like the hours before a tsunami, when the ocean rolls back from the shore and disappears into the horizon. All is quiet at that point, as the birds flee and unknowing onlookers are drawn to the scene of this apparent miracle. To an untrained eye, this would be the image of tranquility but the wise are running for their lives as they know this silence will soon be replaced by waves of unrelenting destruction.
For the U.S. to intervene now would mean a conflict between Trump and Putin, something Maduro surely is counting on Trump wanting to avoid. The Russians have little ideological interest in Venezuela nor an alliance with Maduro himself but are rather protecting both investment and debt in the formerly wealthy nation, banking on Maduro to provide continued stability for their lucrative deals to unfold.
Many Venezuelans are hoping that Guaidó, through Trump or other actors within the international community, can offer up a better deal or at least promise more stability and thereby strip the strongman of his allies and leave him vulnerable either to ouster or an offer to simply disappear.
On the ride back I fiddle with the ancient car radio but instead of my favorite salsa barrio, all the stations are live-airing President Maduro’s speech about the ongoing energy crisis. ”This shows that the imperialist terrorist will stop at nothing,” he says and goes on to blame the blackouts on U.S. sabotage. From the back of the car I hear José giggle for the first time since I’ve known him.
”Next he will tell us that Superman flew in and shot up the Guri power plant with his death rays,” José says between giggles and I burst into to laughter—less for the brilliant comedic stylings of my bodyguard and more for the perfectly timed release in tension.
Two hours later, the power comes back on and thrilled by the glimpse of normalcy, my Venezuelan friends and I go out to celebrate at a nearby bar. An hour into drinks, the entire country goes dark again, and though the smart thing would be to leave we end up staying in the dark together, on the 11th floor of the Palos Grandes Hotel.
Dressed up and made up, using our smartphone flashlights to see each other’s faces, we talk and drink and occasionally bump into each other. We had three hours of light and were flung back into the darkness but none of us seem quite ready to give up the facade of having been allowed one night out, one taste of normalcy, in the midst of all this madness.
One of the girls says, ”We should get drunk enough to march on Miraflores,” the presidential palace still occupied by Maduro, and then immediately she goes quiet, probably realizing she doesn’t know any of us nearly enough to be making such bold and illegal statements.
”I bet Maduro still has electricity, I will break into Miraflores just to charge this fucking phone,” another one chimes in and before long we have bonded over rum and misery, swapping names and stories while each drop of rum lessens the anxiety. It’s a nice moment, even beautiful, but I can’t help but think that while we sit here, the water is ever so slowly rolling back from the shore.
Somewhere out there in the darkness, the tide is turning. And coming back as a wave.