An Unexpected Protest at Caracas’ Plaza Bolivar

CARACAS, Venezuela — We made our way to the famous Plaza Bolivar yesterday. As first-time visitors, it seemed important to stroll the smooth granite square nestled in the dense maze of street vendors that is the old part of downtown Caracas. The plaza has long been a meeting point for men of ideas and, given President Hugo Chavez’s revolution of the past eight years in Simon Bolivar’s name, it seemed equally vital to take a moment to gaze at the equestrian sculpture of the man who led the country to freedom from Spain some two centuries ago.

The plaza was a vision of tranquility in the morning. Bright Caribbean sun beat down as a local film crew set up at the foot of Bolivar’s statue to shoot what appeared to be a scene of a young girl running through the pigeons that swarm the place. A small crowd gathered to watch. Old men sat, disinterested, on the granite ledge that frames the square. In one corner, a few people played with an iguana that apparently lives there.

We stopped in the shade for a smoke, and took in the scene, remarking to each other on how calm the whole place seemed after all we’d read in papers during the weeks leading up to our arrival about the vicious political polarization that has existed since Chavez took power. “People seem so relaxed,” I think one of us said.

Indeed, it was a fine morning.

Then, as if on cue, the riot police ran past. Suddenly, chanting could be heard in the distance. It was getting louder. They were coming to the plaza. Within a few moments, about 150 drum-beating, sign- and megaphone-wielding demonstrators appeared. They marched right up against the riot police, who had formed a line in front of the Caracas mayor’s office at the northeast corner of the plaza.

It was not a violent demonstration, but certainly a loud one. The protesters, we later learned, were there to demand that the mayor sign a contract to guarantee payments of overdue wages and benefits. Mostly middle-aged women from a citywide Education Workers Union, many held signs railing against the city government for unfair treatment. One woman, near the center of the crowd, told me she makes the equivalent of $7 a day as a janitor at a school in Caracas. But that’s the wage for six hours of work. With no signed contract with the city for the past eight years, she explained, city authorities are now trying to force janitors to work eight hour shifts for the same pay.

And so went our visit to the Plaza Bolivar. A peaceful place at times, but also one where Venezuela’s political discontents have a habit of bubbling forth unannounced, even on the most beautiful days.