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Generation TBD: A dispatch from the streets of Caracas

Natalie Keyssar describes the protests that have now become a daily routine for many young people around Caracas.

Editor's note: This story kicks off a GroundTruth project we call "Generation TBD," a year-long effort that brings together media, technology, education and humanitarian partners for an authoritative, global exploration of the youth unemployment crisis. Natalie Keyssar was a 2013 "Burma Telling Its Own Story" fellow and her work will be followed by projects from 21 fellows selected this year to report from 11 countries.

CARACAS, Venezuela — On Friday night in Altamira, Caracas, a car alarm began to sound. The looping digital warning cut through the deserted streets of one of Caracas’ most upscale neighborhoods, known as a respite from the crime, poverty and unemployment that plagues so much of this oil-rich country.

It was still ringing on Saturday morning, as residents of the neighborhood ventured into the relative safety of the bright morning sun. A young couple in gym clothes carefully stepped over one of the many piles of singed, rotting garbage that function as barricades to stop traffic throughout the neighborhood.

Groups of teenagers set about their daily work of erecting barricades around the streets surrounding Plaza Altamira, a scenic park area occupying four square blocks, with an obelisk and fountain in the center. The bushes, now often used to take cover, are still neatly trimmed. Teenagers sit among benches making signs, miguelitos (strips of hose with nails protruding to puncture the tires of pursuing authorities on motor bikes), and molotov cocktails. They scrounge for large pieces of concrete and cinder blocks to smash into smaller rocks to throw at police. They make adjustments to their homemade gas masks and heated debate strategy.

Harold Perez, a 23-year-old computer engineering student, referred to an economic discrepancy that many youth find disturbing.

"The government is wasting the wealth from our oil resources and all the opportunities that come with it,” he said.

Outside Migas, a local eatery, two men compared notes on rumors that a protester had been kidnapped nearby the night before, a hazard for Venezuelans who have taken to the streets since January to denounce rampant violence and corruption that have become deeply rooted here.

Several middle-aged women scurried over to the grocery store to get in line. People lingered on the streets, despite the constant, faintly toxic odors of the protests, taking advantage of the morning calm before the afternoon clashes between police and demonstrators would inevitably drive many into their homes.

For many in the opposition, the enemy is President Nicolas Maduro, successor to Hugo Chavez, who implemented changes to economic policy after taking office last year which critics say exacerbated goods shortages, robbery and looting, lapses in social services and halting of industrial production. Many demonstrators say Maduro’s militant response to early, peaceful protests emboldened his critics.

Saturday morning the opposition’s “March of the Empty Pots,” with attendees of all ages numbering in the thousands, ended peacefully, though without the government allowing them to march along their planned route. Like every afternoon for the past month in Caracas, youth began to arrive in Altamira Plaza for a second round of protests, which no one expected to end quietly.

Eventually someone yells from down the hill as police arrive on their motorcycles, clad in body armor from head to toe. Streams of youth surge forward to meet them. They duck under their own trip wires and leap over the oil slicks they’ve left for their enemy’s tires. They bang rocks against metal poles. They chant slogans. They throw their bottles and ready their slingshots. And of course the tear gas comes. The shots echo over the still sounding car alarm, and protesters shout warnings about where the canisters will land. Dozens, sometimes hundreds, sprint for the barricades as the clouds fill the air, running over their booby traps without hesitation.

The brave ones, perhaps the angriest ones, or those with the best masks, stay to hurl the canisters back at police. Almost all are eventually overcome by the tear gas.

“Maalox!” yells a young man through the T-shirt over his mouth, his eyes rimmed in pink and brows furrowed in anger. A beautiful girl in a cropped tank top and shorts runs towards him on long limbs, her spray bottle outstretched, to squirt the white antacid and water mix, a remedy for tear gas exposure, into his face. He grips his knees and coughs. Grimacing, determined, he walks back toward the police lines.

This scene is repeated throughout the night, until the authorities push protesters far from the square, or the protesters begin to encourage each other to go home as the darkness creeps in and it gets less and less safe. Some are caught and arrested and there have been widespread allegations of the abuse of these prisoners.

Local doctors report having treated dozens of protest-related injuries, and the government puts the official death toll at 21. Still, the students come every day to fight again.

Sympathetic neighbors bring them sandwiches, arepas, and cases of water. Some drop off bottles for molotov cocktails. Police and National Guard complain of having rocks hurled at their heads from the apartment buildings above.

When asked their identities and reasons for protesting, every youth I spoke to said they are students. Many fear for their economic future in a country where the youth unemployment rate is above 20 percent and employment options for graduates are limited. Almost all said they fear for their safety, and for that of their families.

Li, a 23-year-old audiovisual student in Caracas, declined to give her last name for fear of arrest or retribution for participating in the protests. Small in stature, with fierce eyes peeking out from behind the cloth that wrapped her face tightly, she toyed with the slingshot in her hands as she explained why she comes most days to the protests in Altamira, which almost always turn violent.

"I'm here to support the resistance,” she said. “I live a long distance from my school, and when I leave the house every day I have to leave my phone, my camera, all my valuables at home. We are robbed in front of our homes, in front of our parents. People point pistols at us with impunity. People wait outside my school because they know we use valuable equipment, just to rob us. And at home, there are shortages of even the most basic supplies, like food and paper towels. I've had enough of living amid total insecurity. I will fight until Maduro is gone."

Sairam Rivas, a 20-year-old student activist, elaborated on this theme at the March of the Empty Pots: “How is that we have so much petroleum money in this country and yet we can’t buy milk at the grocery store? In order for socialism to function, we as a country have to be economically independent.”

And Eduardo, an 18-year-old graphic design student who also declined to give his last name, summed up his reasons for demonstrating Altamira simply.

"Here we don't have a lot of opportunities for the future,” he said. “I know I could get hurt while protesting, but it’s worth it.”

Then he turned and walked back towards the front of the clashes with police.

More from GlobalPost: A night in the life of a Venezuela rioter
 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/groundtruth/caracas-venezuela-protests