“You need to get out of here now or these people will kill you.” This was the earnest and forceful advice given my friends and I about three minutes after we arrived at Montreal’s Venezuelan consulate on August 15, referendum day in Venezuela. There were only three of us – my roommate Albert with his camera, Macdonald, a pro-Chavez activist, and I – waiting to be joined by a group of others who shared our views on events in Venezuela. Our intention was to demonstrate support for pro-Chavez voters, signs in hand.
Immediately after we arrived, these signs garnered us hisses, boos, and heckling from the predominantly upper-class, white Venezuelans who had lined up to vote “Yes.” We were attempting to get past the line to a clear area when our way was blocked by some particularly aggressive individuals. One woman (who had been informing us that we had no right to be there as we were not Venezuelan, and thus could not possibly know what we were talking about) left to call the police. Another tried to grab the sign, reading “Chavez no se va,” out of Macdonald’s hand – and Macdonald grabbed it back. He was unceremoniously shoved to the pavement. Albert pulled out his camera and began snapping pictures; he was grabbed from behind, his arms pinned behind his back, and someone tried to smash his camera. Hostile, shouting Opposition supporters surrounded me and prevented me from moving.
Other comrades and supporters began to arrive. The crowd began singing the Venezuelan national anthem. We began singing the Internationale. At this point the police arrived.
The class instinct of the police to side with the rich was impeccable. Since we had been the ones assaulted, it was obvious to Montreal’s finest that we were at fault. We were told to cross the street, for our own safety of course. Our protestations that we had not instigated the events fell on deaf ears; we crossed the street, the crowd cheered. The police stayed around, for our own protection of course, pointing at us and talking among themselves. After about 45 seconds, they informed us in the courteously contemptuous style of policemen everywhere that if we stayed there, we would receive $150 dollar fines for loitering. But unnoticed by us, our side of the street had begun to fill with other pro-Chavez Venezuelans. We immediately began gathering signatures on the Hands Off Venezuela petition, moving up and down the street in avoidance of the loitering tickets.
Our main man from the anti-Chavez group, the one who had assaulted Macdonald, crossed the street and began yelling insults at Macdonald (who was still carrying the same sign.) He charged at him a couple of times, unsuccessfully attempting a repeat performance, as the police looked on passively, for our own protection of course. I yelled at the cops in English and French to do their job and intervene. One displayed his great respect for law and order with the comment, “I don’t care.” Albert pulled out the camera again, and suddenly, in the absence of backup, the hero of the Opposition became a little camera-shy. A policeman came up to him and threatened him with a ticket once again. Albert began shouting back at him, but an older lady who had signed our petition took his hand, saying simply, in a most soothing tone of voice, “Let’s go.”
At this point, a contingent of Bolivarians marched up the sidewalk toward us. They had been holding a pro-Chavez rally, in a park just down the street, which we had intended on attending. From what we were able to gather from conversations afterward, they had heard a broadcast over Montreal’s Spanish radio, live from outside the consulate, that Chavez supporters were inciting violence with pro-Chavez signs. Their instincts immediately informed them as to what was taking place and they came to rescue us.
A more welcome sight could not be imagined. As opposed to the flashy clothing and expensive cars of the crowd across the street, these people were visibly working-class, soft-spoken, gently expressing sympathy and concern for us. Their demeanour was one of genuine camaraderie; almost all of them wore Che t-shirts. It seemed like a sea of red…. In response to the changed balance of forces, the police left us alone, the crowd’s taunts became quieter.
We walked the few blocks to the pro-Chavez demonstration. We were at home. Pro-Chavez songs provided a beautiful backdrop to the political exchanges, friendly conversations, and the dancing. Albert’s saviour from outside the consulate, through an exchange of broken French between us, let me know that she wanted to take our petition around. She filled three pages worth of signatures. Another man showed us pictures which he had taken during the massive demonstrations which defeated the April 11 coup. We, non-Venezuelans and complete strangers, were part of a family.
There was more drama to the day; police cars menacingly surveyed the gathering, more Yes-side supporters took our pictures, but it didn’t matter anymore. We spent hours in the park relaxing and making contact with people from the Bolivarian Association in Montreal. We were invited to all their meetings as comrades, friends, and fellow revolutionaries.
The day was a success for us, and as it turned out, a success for Chavez, for the Bolivarian revolution, and for the international working class – as the referendum was resolved in favour of Chavez. In Venezuela and in Montreal, we held our ground and retained a base for advancement. For us, this is only the beginning.