A couple of months back, Plaza Altamira was hosting book fairs,
food festivals and open-air concerts around its landmark obelisk.
Children played, and lovers sat round a fountain in one of Caracas'
most pleasant open-air spaces.
Now though, the protesters have made the square their base of
operations, with a militant hard core battling security forces most
evenings. The clashes are part of wider unrest that has claimed 22
lives around Venezuela.
By day, locals clamber round razor wires, smashed grates and
barricades of smoldering trash. Street cleaners normally manage to
open access for traffic on each side by mid-morning.
But as dusk nears, the square becomes a no-go zone for residents as
hooded protesters begin to line up against police and troops
awaiting them. Some wear menacing Guy Fawkes masks, made popular by
the graphic novel and movie "V for Vendetta," that have become a
symbol of global protest.
Then come hours of street fights as the demonstrators pelt security
lines with stones, fireworks and petrol bombs, to try to reach a
nearby highway to block rush-hour traffic in a favored tactic of
Tactics have developed over the days, with students now wearing
gas-masks made out of large plastic water-bottles, and using iron
sheets as shields to advance like Roman soldiers.
Heavily armed National Guard troops and police respond with volleys
of teargas, water-cannons and sometimes — to infuriate the
demonstrators — loudspeakers blasting out songs or speeches of late
socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
"It's a battlefield, no one can get outside. I don't think it's
going to stop soon," said 71-year-old Maria Cristina Suarez who has
a bird's eye view of the worst fighting from her 13th-floor
apartment on an avenue leading off the plaza.
"I don't support violence, but I do support the cause of these
boys," she added, as neighbors nodded in agreement.
By late night, the battles over, the plaza — erected by wealthy
builder Luis Roche in the mid-1940s toward the bottom of what was
then a tranquil valley — becomes a surreal wasteland.
Piles of trash smolder, teargas wafts through the air like mist and
the odd protester rebuilds a barricade or sleeps in a corner.
"War-zone" reads some apt graffiti painted in black next to a statue
of the Virgin Mary in the center of the plaza.
"Resistance" is scrawled on pockmarked walls and blackened roads,
together with the slogan "He who tires loses" popularized by jailed
opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.
For foreign correspondents generally living or staying in more
prosperous east Caracas, it is a stone's throw to cover the action
in the square. A few have received a beating from protesters or
bruises from stray gas canisters for their pains.
For the convenience of those wanting to watch risk free, some
residents stream events live from cameras in their windows.
Plaza Altamira was a stronghold for opposition rallies during the
14-year rule of Chavez. Perhaps most famously, dissident military
officers set up camp for months in 2002, calling the square
"liberated territory." They signed autographs and gave speeches to
supporters, but were derided by 'Chavistas.'
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During the current round of protests that began in early February,
demonstrators have been rallying peacefully in the square during the
day, before trouble routinely breaks out as the sun goes down.
Soldiers have reacted firmly when the students have tried to break
on to the six-lane highway a few hundred meters below the square.
Yet they have not sought to re-take it completely, perhaps because
images of students hurling Molotov cocktails and attacking private
property are powerful propaganda for Maduro's government, which is
alleging a coup attempt.
"They're wrecking their own neighborhood, aren't they? I don't
understand it at all. This isn't democratic, burning and smashing
things like this," said Juan-Carlos Pereira, a 22-year-old street
cleaner from a poor neighborhood of west Caracas, trying to drag
away a broken advertising sign.
Class questions are never far from Venezuelan politics.
No one doubts that opposition support is strongest in middle- and
upper-class areas like those round Plaza Altamira, where real-estate
prices are the highest in the city.
Some residents of buildings around the plaza have been yelling abuse
and dropping bottles on soldiers, or providing food and a hideout
'Chavista' supporters in the neighborhood have kept a low profile.
Some elderly residents have had to move out due to the noise and
The protesters bristle at the Maduro government's mockery of them as
"little rich kids" and "mama's boys."
While expensive clothes and telephones, or the ability to give
interviews in different languages, betray the social background of
some demonstrators, Plaza Altamira has also drawn disaffected
students nervous of taking to the streets elsewhere to voice
grievances over crime, inflation and shortages.
An informal survey of protesters on a recent afternoon revealed
youths from poorer areas like Petare, El Valle, January 23rd and
Catia neighborhoods. Some said they were scared of protesting near
their homes because armed pro-government gangs were threatening to
stop any demonstrations.
"The government's made out we're all upper-class bourgeoisie ... but
I'm not rich nor am I financed by the CIA," said Gustavo Sibira, 20,
who came to a recent protest in the square with his girlfriend from
"There are many like me. People come to Altamira because we feel
this is our zone. We've made this place ours."
(Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; editing by Ross Colvin
and Girish Gupta)
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