By Jeremy Morgan
Latin American Herald Tribune staff
CARACAS – Heavy-handed policing returned to Chacao, the middle class, law-abiding district where National Guard troops and Metropolitan Police officers have forcibly seized control of an old market hall against the wishes of the local mayor.
A score of citizens, perhaps marginally more, had formed a cordon across the westbound stretch of the avenue running through Chacao on Wednesday morning. They were blocking the traffic to protest against what they called the government’s lack of action against squatters near their homes in La Guarena outside the capital.
They were holding aloft placards calling for the attention of Infrastructure Minister Diosdado Cabello, a close associate and former coup partner of President Hugo Chávez. The reason why they were there is that Cabello’s ministry is on the avenue, less than a block away.
Their intent was evidently peaceful, albeit an inconvenience to drivers. There were far more bystanders looking on from the sidewalk.
A local Chacao police officer tried to persuade them to desist. Some agreed with him that they’d made their point and looked like they were ready to shuffle off.
The sun was moving towards high noon when two truckloads of officer from the Metropolitan Police turned up, backing towards the protesters and stopping some 20 meters away.
Around a dozen officers piled out of the trucks. They were kitted out in full gladiator gear, replete with steel helmets, gas masks, riot shields and body armor. This attire and their gait as they sauntered up to the protesters suggested they were ready for trouble, if not actually itching for it.
Officers fiddled with gas masks, or stood hands on hips Macho Camacho style. Others brandished pump-action shotguns, some of which were primed to fire tear gas canisters. Others were not, and for all anybody knew, these were loaded with lead.
In theory, the law stipulates that police officers should not normally bear arms when they’re dealing with a public protest. By no stretch of the imagination could these protesters be perceived as posing a threat to the Fifth Republic.
The municipal officer was barged aside. A verbal confrontation broke out, most of it distinctly one-way. Discretion got the better part of valor as the protesters lowered their banners and moved quietly away.
The riot squad had made their point, and without anybody breaking the peace, but they didn’t appear to be in good temper about it. As they marched back to the trucks, officers barged their way through people standing outside the Metro subway station. Some didn’t even shoulder their firearms as they did so.
This was not the first time that the crossroads at Chacao has been blocked by protesters, but the Metropolitan Police don’t usually intervene. It was the second time in days that bad boys in blue had made their mark on the life of the citizens of Chacao.
The fall-out continues from incidents last weekend in and outside the old market hall three blocks north of the avenue. On that occasion, six people were hurt when Metropolitan Police officers fired tear gas and, it’s said, rubber bullets at local residents protesting against the hall being taken over.
At the time, supporters of president or chavistas were inside, quite evidently unmolested, and claiming to be cleaning the hall in preparation for an event last Sunday.
The National Guard and Metropolitan Police did nothing to remove the chavistas from the building, which is municipal property.
The police action is said to have been ordered by Cabello, against the wishes of Chacao Mayor Emilio Graterón, a member of the opposition. On Monday, the National Guard formalized the takeover of the hall as a fait accompli.
Graterón, who’s called for a local referendum on the fate of the old market building, has tried to bring a court action to get the unwanted guardians to go away. He has backing from the local council, shopkeepers, residents and Metropolitan Mayor Antonio Ledezma, likewise of the opposition.
Cabello is reported to have claimed that the community councils in Chacao had petitioned him to occupy the market hall and get it cleaned up. Gloria Paniagua, a spokeswoman for community councils in Chacao, said this wasn’t so, and there was nothing in writing to this effect.
Instead, she said, there was a petition – in favor of holding a referendum. “We want progress, we don’t want stagnation,” she declared. “This is destabilization of the Chacao municipality, they want to destabilize us to destroy the efficient administration our mayors carry out.”
Graterón’s predecessor as mayor of Chacao was Leopoldo López, an up-and-coming opposition star who was seen as a strong contender for Metropolitan Mayor until Comptroller General Clodosbaldo Russián banned him from running at last November’s elections. The ban remains in place.