Venezuela Election: Specter Of Violence Looms, As Chavez Bids For Fourth Term

Venezuelan streets spilling over
Venezuelan streets spilling over
Silvina Heguy

CARACAS - After the tunnel that bores through one of the rocky hills that surround Caracas, the road bends, lined on either side with colorfully-painted homes, ending in one of the plazas of the 23 de Enero neighborhood.

This corner of the capital is a bastion of support for incumbent Hugo Chavez, and one of the 278 places that the Venezuelan opposition thinks might see violence during the presidential elections this Sunday. In this square, the “collectives,” armed pro-government groups considered a threat to a calm election day, are active.

Warnings about the possibility of violent acts have been repeated by supporters of Chavez’s challenger, Henrique Capriles Radonski. The murder of three of Capriles’s supporters on Saturday has sharpened and led credence to their warnings. Chavez’s government also spoke about the possibility of violence this week.

“Our intelligence shows that there are several factors, several groups that are tiny, of course, that are planning actions that are not within the legal, constitutional framework,” said General Henry Rangel Silva, Minister of Defense.

Interior Minister Tarek El Aissami also announced that from Friday through Monday during election weekend the right of civilians to carry arms would be suspended. The Venezuelan Foreign Secretary accused Capriles of preparing to “ignite” the country to tarnish the electoral process.

“You can understand this fear, if you keep in mind that the president has talked about the possibility of a civil war if pro-government forces lose,” says Roberto Briceño León, a sociologist at the Central University of Venezuela and director of the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.

Still, in the end, he thinks the chances are unlikely of major violent conflict. “There are not two armed factions that could face off,” in Venezuela. But there are armed pro-government groups that could act violently. “Although I am sure that most Chavez supporters do not agree with the use of force, including some of the militias created by Chavez,” Briceño León said.

In a country where 14,000 people were murdered in the past year, the arms in circulation are part of the problem. Briceño León said that a lot of people have guns to defend themselves, but that others fall into the hands of young gang members. “However, the origin of the problem is impunity. For the mothers whose children are killed, the only kind of justice they can think about is divine justice.”

In this country of 29 million, there are between 9 and 15 million guns, both legal and illegal, according to official data in 2009. Briceño León said that in Venezuela, violence has become a common way to solve conflicts within communities, especially because the communities often don’t find conflict resolution in the court system.

It’s in this context that Chavez talks about a peaceful revolution, even with the help of well-armed militias, which Briceño León says is a troublesome contradiction.

Eyes of observers

In a fight for every vote, both side’s electoral machines are working at full speed. “My Comandante!" could be heard coming from a red tent in the middle of Caracas one day earlier this week. A group of election observers were preparing to be present at different polling sites.

As it happens, both Chavez -- who is trying to be elected for a third term after 14 years in power -- as well as Capriles, are depending on a group of 200,000 people who are working as electoral observers for the campaigns. Since Chavez was elected in 1999, this is the first time there have been equal forces on each side, according to analysts.

But these two armies of observers have very different goals, depending on the side it represents. For Chavez’s observers, the goal is to verify the loyalty of people who have supported Chavez in the past; for the opposition, it is to make sure that people who are not satisfied with Chavez get the chance to vote.

For that reason, the opposition’s goal is to make sure that places like the neighborhood of 23 de Enero do not become ‘points of unrest’ as they have in the past. In past elections, 5,300 polling places out of a total 13,810 have reported problems, including an absence of witnesses, attempts to bribe opposition representatives and voter intimidation.

To try to avoid that in the Caracas neighborhood of 23 de Enero, Capriles’s team has 459 volunteers stationed there. Some of them have received death threats, according to the campaign’s national coordinator.

“Only five people know that I am going to do it. Some of them say that I am crazy, but I am committed to change for Venezuela,” one of Capriles’s volunteers told Clarin, asking for anonymity for fear of retribution.

At the same time, he thinks that the populist militias either already know or will find out everything soon enough. Still, he says, “Maybe this time they understand that we are tired of seeing them move around with impunity, and that peaceful change is an option.”

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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