Even at Bogotá airport in Colombia, the closest major capital city to Venezuela, a look of curiosity comes over the faces of staff when you tell them you are heading to Caracas.
Entry visas into Venezuela remain fairly accessible, although journalists are not allowed without a special visa. Although I claimed I was there as a tourist, this seemed far-fetched even to the likely pro-government immigration authorities. “What is the real motive of your visit?” the officer asked me. “Seeing my girlfriend,” I replied.
She smiled. “Welcome to Venezuela.”
As you travel down from Simon Bolívar International Airport into the city center, the difference between Caracas and Bogotá – formerly one of the world’s major drug war battlegrounds – is stark.
Armed police stand on almost every street corner. Every physical space is dedicated to promoting the success of the late Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution and Nicolás Maduro’s authoritarian regime. The opposition undermines official government propaganda with its own graffiti, effectively accusing the regime of destroying the country with the highest oil reserves in the world.
The rise in anti-government messaging stands out compared to my visit last November. Pro-government propaganda shares the streets with graffiti denouncing the regime on nearly every block.
Nearly every day, anti-government marches take place across Venezuela, nearly all of which attract violence. So far, as many as 84 protesters have been killed since daily protests began in late March, as police use water cannons, rubber bullets, and smoke bombs to control the situation.
Protests have the feel of an out-of-control soccer crowd. There is a feeling of solidarity among people, most of whom are wearing Venezuelan flags. On the side of the street, salesmen sell what can only be described as protest merchandise, including Venezuelan flags, horns, and t-shirts.
Below, the shirts read from left to right: “S.O.S. Venezuela;” “Whosoever Tires Will Lose;” “Resistance: Don’t Surrender!”
Closer to police and military barriers, the protests become more tense, with the menace of violence constantly present. Many of those protesting are boys and young men in their mid-teens.
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