The demonstrators who have flooded Venezuela’s streets in recent weeks to protest the government of embattled President Nicolas Maduro have faced formidable pushback: tear gas, riot shields, armored vehicles.
At least 36 people have been killed and hundreds more injured since the protests began in early April.
The latest clashes came on Thursday, when opposition marchers lighted fires and hurled stones at security forces along Caracas’ main thoroughfare, only to be doused with tear gas.
One thing that has characterized the protests in the crisis-ridden country — where consumer goods can be hard to acquire — has been the make-do nature of the gear donned by demonstrators before they take to the streets.
We asked one frequent protester, 21-year-old university student Alberto Castillo, to share what he’s learned about gearing up to protest on the front lines.
Colors of a nation
Protests are awash in the colors of the Venezuelan flag, which symbolize another struggle, the fight for independence from Spain. At the nation’s founding, yellow stood for gold and blue for the ocean separating Venezuela from bloody Spain, represented by red.
Fighting back, with one glove
At protests, they seem to be everywhere, young men with just right-handed gloves, usually heavy workmen’s gloves. They wear them to hurl tear gas canisters back at police. “The first time I grabbed one, I didn’t know any better and it burned me,” Castillo said. “Since then I have used a glove, a thick one that resists the heat.”
A shield, any shield
Protesters routinely show up at protests carrying improvised shields — of wood, metal, particle board, whatever. Castillo recalled a friend who was injured in one protest. “The police shot a tear gas bomb directly at one friend and it tore off one of the fingernails of his right hand. Later, one bounced off the street and hit him in the groin,” he said. Since early April, sometimes violent clashes with police and troops have left 36 dead and more than 400 injured; more than 1,200 have been arrested.
A student movement
The protesters range in age — Castillo’s mother joins him on marches — but many demonstrations are driven by students. Castillo, a thin, boyish architecture student at Central University of Venezuela, recently prepared to attend a memorial for a student cut down in the protests. “There is a special event for a kid who they killed yesterday with a tear gas canister. We’re going to pray for the fallen and then go on to the march,” he said.
Fending off tear gas
Gas masks, real and improvised, are a must. “Before, I didn’t use one, just my shirt,” Castillo said. “Later, I tried diapers soaked in vinegar. Now I use a mask I make with a canned ham tin filled with cotton, charcoal and held together by elastic. It’s not the best, but it helps.” Castillo also brings Maalox. Protesters rub the antacid on their faces in hopes it will neutralize the tear gas.
Helmets and hope
Like many protesters, Castillo wears a motorcycle helmet. Others strap on bicycle helmets — not as strong but protection of a sort. Protesters denounce what they say are Maduro’s undemocratic schemes to enhance his power. Still, despite the dismal economy, rising crime and mass shortages of medicines and food, Castillo envisions a better Venezuela. He has no plans to leave the country, though his father wishes he would. His hope? “That there is liberty, that I can walk on the street and not see people eating garbage. That I can leave [home] feeling secure I won’t be killed, because that’s the chance you take these days.”