The sign caught my attention. Attached to a fence in Pastora, a Caracas neighborhood and former bastion of the Hugo Chávez revolution, it read: “If not now, when? If not us, who?” That was the Spanish version of the same Czech message that I saw displayed in my hometown, Prague, during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
While covering the revolt against Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and his government, I’ve encountered many such echoes. I still vividly recall the exhilarating and scary times in the fight against Communist rule 28 years ago.
In Caracas, I witness the same propaganda as I did in Prague, where smiling officials exploited the so-called achievements of the “revolution” while threatening and ridiculing their opponents. Václav Havel, who would become the first democratically elected Czech president in 40 years, endured assassination attempts on his character. On national television, the Communist regime portrayed him as a filthy scoundrel, a drifter, an imbecile.
To demonize him further, the government footage of Havel was always black-and-white, in contrast to the bright, colorful views of the socialist country under “the guidance of Communist leaders.” The propagandists liked to use joyful, Mozart-style violins to accompany video showing life under Communist rule, while the soundtrack to the images of Havel was of sharp, warped electronic tones.
Today in Venezuela, Diosdado Cabello, the second in command of the Maduro regime, attacks his opponents on national television, his favorite target being Freddy Guevara, the former vice president of the National Assembly, which the Maduro regime eliminated just days ago. “Guevara is a little bird who likes to smoke his marijuana,” Cabello said some weeks ago on his regular Wednesday show Con el Mazo Dando. Maduro weighed in by calling Guevara, well, an imbecile. Cabello and Maduro often use the black-and-white propaganda technique whenever they show images of opposition figures.
Then there are the government thugs.
When I was 13 years old, walking home one day I saw a Soviet flag hanging pretty low above a door frame in Prague, prompting the child’s idea of trying to reach it with one mighty jump. I made it and touched the flag! Immediately, two members of the People’s Militia who were standing nearby in their ugly Mao-style uniforms grabbed me and slapped me around for showing disrespect to the Soviet Union.
Even under that oppression, the best of the human spirit often shines through in Venezuela, as it did in Prague. People here stand up to tyranny and challenge violations of human rights.
That afternoon, the culture of fear that prevented many from criticizing the government was instilled in me. Anybody can come for you and do you harm, I thought, as my adolescent brain was consumed by panic. Today in Venezuela, that job is done by the so-called colectivos for the Maduro regime. They are a truly scary band of criminals roaming the streets of Caracas and other cities, carrying rifles, ready to unload on anybody.
Even under that oppression, the best of the human spirit often shines through in Venezuela, as it did in Prague. People here rise above their fear, standing up to tyranny and openly challenging flagrant violations of human rights. Venezuelans walk through the streets, defying the possibility that they will be hit by a rubber bullet, choked by tear-gas bombs, or killed. I’ve seen protesters return to challenge Maduro’s troops a few seconds after a tear-gas attack clears. Mostly they confront the “thugs” only with their physical presence, unarmed. People from all walks of life show this bravery.
But bravery might not be enough. The resistance against the Maduro regime could fail, a soul-crushing prospect for many Venezuelans. Maduro has shown himself to be nakedly dictatorial, disregarding the division of powers, freely lying to the citizens.
Days before the so-called election on July 30 for the Constituent Assembly, an alternative legislative body stacked with Maduro’s allies, many who oppose his regime told me that the government would claim that the total number of votes for the assembly would be 8 million — and it was. Why? That was just enough to edge out the 7.6 million votes cast in the July 16 plebiscite organized by the opposition. There, an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans rejected the Constituent Assembly. Many opponents of the government now fear that this newly created rubber-stamp Constituent Assembly will cement the Maduro dictatorship.
If their fear is realized, Venezuela might end up following the Czechoslovakia not of 1989 but of 1968. During the Prague Spring, as it was called, many of my countrymen believed that the regime was soon to fall. Their revolt was crushed, however, by overwhelming military force in the form of invading Soviet tanks.
Of course, Eastern European Communism and Maduro’s are different in many respects. But the hope and the vitality that are crushed are universal. Many Venezuelans and I, too, fear that Maduro will send this country to a condition resembling that of Cuba in the dark days of Fidel Castro.
Back in the 1990s, Cuba suffered a severe economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union. That so-called Special Period was marked by widespread starvation and the collapse of infrastructure including transportation, electricity, and water supplies.
Cubans were reduced to a life in dark, humid apartments while going hungry. Through propaganda, the state hammered away at them and threatened anyone who would dare to stand up against the Castro regime. Alina Fernández, Fidel’s daughter, told me some years ago that sitting in such a desolate apartment, feeling paralyzed and depressed, is what finally moved her to flee her country.
For months now, Venezuelans have been enduring unprecedented economic hardship. They are still far from the depths of misery recently suffered by Cubans, as the water and electricity still run. And although some staples — eggs, bread, milk, cooking oil — can be hard to find, other foods are still available. And Maduro-regime minders are not stationed on every block, as their counterparts are in Cuba. The Cuban government collaborates closely with a network of snitches who write damaging reports on anyone who would rebel or even criticize the Castro regime.
In recent months, many Venezuelans have opted to leave the country. Others have vowed to stay and fight for freedom and democracy, which the Maduro government has been systematically dismantling. Those fighting back in Caracas and throughout Venezuela deserve better than the grayness and repression of the Communism of former Czechoslovakia, stripped of self-expression, diversity of thought, physical and mental safety, and democracy. They deserve the spirit of the Velvet Revolution and its freedom.