Venezuela’s Naked Truth

One man’s bullet flecked backside has come to symbolise the disorder and crisis sweeping Venezuela’s streets. For months, protesters have fought daily duels with riot police, leaving over 20 dead. With many basic goods unavailable, medicine stocks depleted and violent crime running rampant, Venezuelans were already stretched to breaking point. When the government-backed Supreme Tribunal ruled to strip the opposition-controlled parliament of its immunity from prosecution, the last straw was laden onto an already malnourished camel’s back.

To many opposition figures this was tantamount to one-man rule and they declared that this move was an “auto-golpe”, a term that literally means self (auto) coup (golpe). It’s a uniquely South American Spanish turn of phrase, one born out of the experience of frequently having political crises that involve heads of state clinging onto power using both force and legislative skulduggery. It’s not a coup with tanks and missiles, but something more internalised, from within, a self-coup.

For weeks Venezuela has been in all-consuming turmoil. Each day of action is named more poetically and definitely than the next: “The Mother Of All Protests”, “The Day Of Silence”, “The Big Sit-In”. Venezuela has spent 2017 unravelling. In a display of heartbreaking and potent symbolism, eight people were electrocuted to death when electrical cables fell on them — apparently while trying to steal a refrigerator from a bakery. All of this in a country that was the richest nation in Latin America in 2001.

So what does this have to do with one man’s arse?

On the 20th of April a man stripped naked and climbed on top of a military vehicle. Holding nothing but a bible in his hand, footage showed him begging with riot police to stop firing tear gas and rubber bullets. They do not respond positively.

One man’s bum quickly became a symbol. But symbols are complicated things and in the heady political maelstrom of Venezuela, his arse meant many things to many people. Here’s my hypothesis: if you can understand this one pair of bullet-flecked butt cheeks, you can start to understand some of what is happening in Venezuela.

To some, Hans Weurich — the man behind the behind — in one dramatic gesture exemplified their frustration, their helplessness and their desperation. There he was, defenceless against the might of the state, asking in vain for help. Venezuela’s Tank Man, one man’s very public breaking point.

However, not everyone saw it this way. Take the reaction of the President Nicolas Maduro, who quipped on his TV chat show “good thing he didn’t drop the soap — that would’ve a horrible image.” Maduro’s callous comments mirror how his supporters reacted to the photo; a toxic cocktail of traditional machismo and “somebody-think-of-the-children” squeamishness. In Latin America, sex, gender and masculinity are inextricably intertwined with Catholic morality and Weurich’s naked protest clearly hit several pyschological pressure points. To supporters of the government, here was proof positive that these demonstrators want nothing less than the wholesale breakdown of society as we know it, anarchy, to walk naked in the streets.

Venezuela’s tale is a sad one. Many on the left, politically and economically, had hoped that Hugo Chavez and, later, Maduro would present an alternative way of doing things. A progressive economic policy that was redistributive in an unequal society and offered leadership to the Global South. Instead, what Venezuela got was near-total collapse. I cannot imagine anything more tragic than watching Venezuelan social media pages that served as advertising boards for people trying to find medicine for their loved ones when the pharmacies ran out of stock.