- By Daniel Lansberg-RodríguezDaniel Lansberg-Rodríguez teaches on Latin America at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Nacional. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.
Last month, when Venezuela’s anti-government protests reached peak intensity, José Rafael Becerra, a non-commissioned officer in the National Guard, was stationed in Táchira, the most rebellious of Venezuela’s provinces. “You can launch 500 tear gas canisters into a crowd,” he told me, “but when agitators are all wearing gasmasks and thick, layered clothing (to protect the skin from gas and rubber bullets), there’s hardly any effect.” By now, Venezuelan protesters have been seasoned by years of violent confrontation with the forces of the revolution — and developing defenses against tear gas, a favored tool in the regime’s crowd control arsenal, has been a big part of that experience. “They had all protected themselves in some way against those few weapons we were actually allowed to use against them,” Becerra recounted. “And we’re not allowed to remove people’s gasmasks or face rags.”
Becerra described moments in which he felt “physically and psychologically assaulted” by protesters, at one point being forced to retreat from his position by agitators hurling Molotov cocktails. Though he and his colleagues were armed with clubs and “other weapons” that he declined to define more clearly, Becerra said, “we were under orders to use lethal force only as a last resort, and in response to direct threats to our lives.” As a result, he told me that he and his colleagues “felt hamstrung” — especially in light of the fact that tear gas alone could no longer be expected to deliver the expected results.
I was especially intrigued by Becerra’s remarks, having at one point found myself on the opposite side of the line. My own induction into the ranks of “the suppressed” took place at a protest in Caracas’s Plaza Brión in the summer of 2007. This was during the tumultuous period surrounding Hugo Chávez’s controversial closure of the opposition-leaning TV station Radio Caracas Televisión. It was an honor for which I was distinctly unprepared. The armored national guardsmen who descended on us were equipped with water cannons, mechanized personnel carriers, and tear gas grenades. I was armed with only a camera. Engulfed in a sea of gas that seemed to melt my contact lenses into my eyes, leaving me blinded, I was isolated from my friends and eventually collapsed in a nearby alley, struggling for each breath.
While we routinely speak of “tear gas,” there are actually a number of different substances that can be used as such. One of the most favored is CS gas (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), a substance capable of producing intense irritation to mucus membranes in the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and airways. At higher dosages, exposure can result in unconsciousness, permanent eye damage, and asphyxiation — to say nothing of the risks posed by the heavy canisters themselves as they are thrown or shot out as projectiles. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for the arrival, back in 2007, of a sympathetic and well-prepared stranger who poured vinegar over my shirt and pulled it up to cover my bewildered, burning face, my own story may have had a tragic ending. Vinegar-soaked cloth somewhat neutralizes the effects of tear gas, allowing a person to draw in breath through the acidified fabric. It’s effective enough to give the victim an opportunity to move to safer ground, but does little to dull the sensation of having one’s skin on fire.
Since February, when this most recent cycle of protest and repression began — thus far claiming scores of lives and leading to the arrest or injury of many hundreds more — regime opponents have gone to great lengths to disseminate these best practices. YouTube videos offer do-it-yourself guides to making homemade gas masks, and both civil society groups and individual protesters have flooded the blogosphere and social networking sites with checklists on what (and what not) to bring to protests. (Most caution, for example, against wearing contact lenses, and I heartily agree.) With this influx of shared information, even the use of vinegar has become out of date, almost unfashionable. Today’s cutting-edge Caracas counterrevolutionary prefers Maalox, an over-the-counter antacid that, when mixed with water, becomes a superior antidote to the effects of gas, minimizing the risk of irritation.
The teargas most regularly in use by Venezuelan authorities is likewise, by accounts, a good deal stronger than the Chinese version I faced back in 2007. Becerra tells me, not without a modicum of pride, that Venezuela is no longer importing tear gas. Now the government manufactures its own, using a state-owned defense company called Venezuelan Anonymous Company of Military Industry (CAVIM). Many of the spent canisters I’ve come across recently, though, actually hail from Brazil, fabricated for export by the Rio de Janeiro-based firm Condor Non-Lethal Technologies (as seen below). A recent report by the newspaper Ultimas Noticias indicates that the regime in Caracas bought nearly 150 tons of tear gas from Condor between 2008 and 2011 (in the aftermath of our protests) at a price of between $6.5 and $9 million. As a company, Condor is no stranger to controversy, at times coming under attack for casualties produced by its products in the hands of its overeager clientele. In 2011, Condor tear gas used against protesters in Bahrain allegedly led to the death of two young children. When the corporation was singled out for criticism, it responded with claims of breach of contract: that Bahraini authorities had failed to follow “the instructions” for proper use.
Like Bahrain, Venezuela currently seems unable, or uninterested, in keeping to the Condor manual. According to the company’s product catalogue, safe usage involves launching the chemical grenades several meters upwind from the amassed protesters, thus giving the agent adequate room to safely disperse. According to Becerra, however, this is not how tear gas is generally used. While taking care to point out that there are specific National Guard specialists tasked with managing the use of tear gas against agitators, in his experience, standard procedure is to aim for the center of a group — provided, of course, that it is possible to do so without risk that the grenade itself will hit someone. “If you can get the canister into the center of the group,” he explains, “that’s where you get the best chance of a scattering effect. It doesn’t work as well at a distance.”
Venezuelan authorities and the protesting masses are currently locked in a kind of arms race, with both sides struggling to adapt to the new reality of urban conflict. Due in large part to the protesters’s adroitness and ingenuity in the face of the regime’s tactics, so far the body count has remained remarkably low, numbering only in the dozens rather than the hundreds, despite months of very violent suppression.
There is likewise another possible explanation for the declining marginal returns afforded by tear gas. The tear gas currently in use by local authorities has a short shelf life, and much of those Brazilian tear gas reserves imported between 2008 and 2011 would, today, have already expired. Once past its “use-by” date, tear gas’s eye-burning effect is ameliorated, even as the agent itself, being cyanide-based, remains very dangerous, retaining its capacity to cause fainting and asphyxiation.
Venezuelan National Guardsmen, upon finding that tear gas implemented at a “safe distance” is not having the desired effect, may instead opt to throw caution to the wind, so to speak, by launching the canisters directly into the crowd. While this tactic may prove effective in terms of dispersing demonstrators, it likewise runs the risk of causing potentially lethal respiratory effects. These effects speak for themselves. On March 12, during a protest by students from Venezuela’s Central University in Caracas, the National Guard fired nearly 850 individual tear gas canisters into the crowd, ultimately sending 25 individuals to the university hospital due to asphyxiation or acute respiratory failure.
Francisco Marquez, chief of staff for David Smolansky, the opposition mayor of Caracas’s borough El Hatillo, told me of another protest where, he said, the authorities launched tear gas directly into the heart of the crowd. That incident was captured on video by nearby onlookers. “Everyone was choking,” Marquez tells me. “The mayor was choking, a nearby group of women was choking. Even the national guardsmen were choking….”
Even as the current instability in Venezuela seems to be winding down — and as Chávez’s heirs breathe a sigh of relief at having lived to fight another day — a new generation of Venezuelan freedom fighters is adapting, becoming better able to neutralize the government’s myriad advantages in resources and in materiel. As chavismo struggles to reconcile its ideologically driven policies to a new era of depleted national reserves and to governing absent its eponymous founder, the shortages, inflation, and human rights abuses that fueled these dissident outbreaks are unlikely to improve. Future standoffs are inevitable, and this violent game of cat and mouse may well become the new normal in Venezuela.
Becerra, too, is skeptical that the protesters will remain subdued for long. “Damned is the soldier who turns his arms against his own people,” he tells me, paraphrasing (perhaps unknowingly) Simón Bolivar, Venezuela’s celebrated founder, “everybody knows that. And that is exactly why they’ll keep seeking to provoke us.”
Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a weekly columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.