Armed with the rosary, sisters join Venezuela protests

Dominican Sr. Purificación Maldonado Fernández, 69, had already walked a few miles, sweating under the hot Caracas midday sun as the crowd around her grew to tens of thousands, with other protest groups joining her demonstration. Protesters shouted political chants and focused on reaching their final destination: government offices in downtown Caracas.

Maldonado had just started speaking with a former student she had seen in the crowd when she heard the shots — hollow, popping sounds. Just above the masses on a highway overpass, she spotted their origin: Venezuela National Guard troops, previously unnoticed by the demonstrators, shot tear gas onto the thousands below. This was an ambush.

"We were able to walk away a bit, but I was in the gas cloud, and I started to feel like I couldn't walk, I couldn't breathe, was vomiting, and I almost fainted," Maldonado said.

Those swelling crowds June 10 prevented Maldonado from escaping the suffocating fumes, and an intense burning sensation filled her eyes, throat and nose. She fought to breathe in air, but was inhaling the toxic gas instead of oxygen.

The sensation worsened as tear-gas canisters fell on the crowd, one after another, some right beside her, making a fizzing sound while emitting a white smoke cloud that slowly expanded outward. Some canisters hit protesters in the head and back, causing bloody injuries. Panicked demonstrators began to walk away from the troops above but couldn't move quickly enough because of the large crowds.

Eventually, fellow Dominican Sr. Zulay Luján and Maldonado's former student helped Maldonado into a nearby building belonging to the local mayor's office, an office held by opposition politicians supporting the protests. After a few minutes, she recovered.

"It was an awful sensation that I couldn't breathe and just didn't have the strength to keep walking," she said.

Protests here were sparked April 1 when the country's Supreme Court attempted to strip the National Assembly, the only opposition-controlled branch of government, of its powers. Protests have continued roughly four days a week since. Opposition leaders accuse the government of becoming increasingly authoritarian, even dictatorial. Regional elections have been postponed for more than six months.

But Venezuela's spiraling economic crisis has also fueled the protests. The country, which relies almost exclusively on oil for foreign revenues, could afford to import basic food and medicine products until recently. But with the dramatic drop in oil prices, that changed. Shortages have become the norm, with many people spending hours upon hours in lines just to get a loaf of bread or a bag of flour.

Both sisters work at a nearby school that serves hundreds of children from preschool to high school. Maldonado was the school's director for more than two decades, and many of the sisters in their Dominican community are former teachers.

The sisters have watched as the struggles for their community in Caracas' Eastern Santa Fe district have intensified over the past three years while the country's economic crisis has deepened.

The shortages of basic food products have led to serious weight loss for most Venezuelans, with one study showing that nearly three-quarters of the country lost an average of 19 pounds last year. Caritas de Venezuela, the country's chapter of Caritas Internationalis, has found that child malnutrition is approaching crisis levels in many low-income areas.

Shortages have expanded to medicines of all types. Family members with sick relatives often spend days pharmacy-hopping to find all kinds of medicine, including antibiotics and cancer drugs.

"Everything here has changed so much. It has been an absolute deterioration," Luján said. "The lack of food, the lack of medicines — even for us, we sometimes spend three or four days looking for medicines."

In one recent example, she spent six hours looking for a medicine to treat a 99-year-old sister's infection. When she returned, the sister had suffered a stroke and fallen into a coma. She died three days later.

"If we could have gotten our hands on the medicine on time, maybe it would have been a different story," she said.

Luján compares the current situation in Venezuela to that of the former country of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she lived for 12 years during the First and Second Congo Wars.

"You can compare the two because the people are the ones who have been forgotten, production has been forgotten, companies nationalized," she said.

Venezuela's current socialist government has advocated a policy of nationalization for businesses and farms, with the government assuming control of entire companies. But most projects have failed. The agriculture sector has suffered as a result, and production of basic food products has drastically declined, further aggravating the shortage problem.

Government officials have blamed the shortages on an economic war waged by U.S. financial interests and wealthy Venezuelan businesspeople. President Nicolás Maduro often argues that elite interests hope to create instability to overthrow his government.

Authorities point out that government buildings and buses have been set on fire during the protests. Young masked demonstrators have also intimidated and robbed members of the press. Officials say Western countries turn a blind eye to acts of violence that would be condemned as terrorism in other countries.

After a recent attack in which a rogue police officer fired shots and dropped grenades on government buildings, the country's foreign minister, Samuel Moncada, blasted the lack of condemnation from European countries.

"In Europe, it's now 8 at night, but we've not had any reaction from European Union countries," he said.

Maduro has called for dialogue with the opposition to resolve the conflict, but opposition politicians have refused, saying that during the last attempted dialogue process, the government failed to uphold its concessions.

Government officials have also accurately pointed out that most protesters come from wealthier and middle-class sectors of Venezuelan society, least affected by the country's economic problems.

Even though the government says it represents Venezuela's poor masses at the expense of the country's elite, the sisters disagree. And that's why they continue to attend protests.

"Saying that this government is for the poor — it's not," Luján said. "I think it's time to get rid of that slogan. Because it's a small group of people who benefit from this government, not the people, I have to take the medicine I find and not necessarily the one I need, so with that situation, I don't think it's a government for the poor."

Maldonado and Luján have attended every protest in Venezuela since the protests began. While they have lost count, they believe they have attended more than 40 separate protests.

Despite the recent frightening experience, both sisters returned once again to the streets in protest just a few days later. At a sit-in demonstration June 14, where demonstrators overtook a highway, some sitting in lawn chairs reading books or playing card games, Luján paced back and forth on the thoroughfare, rosary in hand, praying.

"I decided to go to these protests to be able to pray," Luján said. "Everybody that sees me sees me with the rosary in my hand, and I'm praying that there is not a confrontation."

But as Luján walked up and down the highway, dozens of young masked men carried tree trunks, logs and branches to the extremities of the protest to create flaming barricades. Others prepared hundreds of Molotov cocktails. At times, the young men would start to yell as if rallying the troops, running to the barricades to fend off national police officers on motorcycles passing by.

Even Luján's attire revealed that the peaceful protest could end in violent confrontation. Along with her habit, she wore a helmet painted with the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Some of the young masked men noticed her praying and asked for a blessing, then asked her to lead a group prayer. Standing on the highway's concrete divider, she shouted a prayer that the crowd repeated line by line.

"My goal is to be with the people, not with any political group, but with the people who are struggling," she said. "The rosary is my weapon."

Reports say some demonstrators have died from direct impact from tear gas canisters to the face and chest. The young masked protesters use rocks, Molotov cocktails, firecrackers, and even jars of human excrement to attempt to advance. More than 100 people have died in the conflict so far.

"They are oppressing my people, and I don't want my people to be oppressed. I want them to be heard," Luján said. "If government supporters have a right to go downtown, so do we, because we are not rioters or guerrilla fighters."

In a sign of the increasingly hostile environment, the sisters asked that the name of their school be withheld from this story out of fear of state repression for speaking out.

Amid such conflict and violence, the sisters hope to be a voice of peace, reflection and prayer. Dozens of other women religious are frequently seen at protests, as well.

"Really, it's them who are with us, more than us with them," said Neylla Giangrave, a former student of the sisters whose two daughters also studied at their school. "Seeing them gives us faith and hope that we will make it out of this situation. They are a huge support and such an inspiration."

Faith runs deep for many Venezuelans in this heavily Catholic country, so the sisters often aren't the only ones praying. María José Feguera also clutched a rosary as she prayed for peace alongside protesters.

"I feel hopeful seeing them, because they're not tucked away in a convent," she said. "What they're doing is very important."

For once, the June 14 protest didn't end in violence as protesters left the highway in the evening, following another prayer led by Luján. Security forces didn't advance.

But that might not be the case for their next demonstration, where the sisters risk being caught in the crossfire.

"I'll continue coming to these marches until the last one, until Venezuela is free and fair, which is what I want for my people," Maldonado said.

[Cody Weddle is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter: @coweddle.]