It was a sunny Friday afternoon in a town square. A pleasant breeze rustled the leaves of the palm trees that shaded crowds of people waiting around a small, open-air stage. The president squeezed through the tightly packed audience, stood before a lectern, and gave a brief, reassuring speech before hundreds of smiling onlookers. Then he took questions from reporters, and after joining the crowd in singing the national anthem, left.
In many countries around the world, this scene would be perfectly normal — a campaign event, perhaps, or the dedication of a memorial. But this is Venezuela and this was Juan Guaidó, the head of the National Assembly, who took the oath of office as interim president on Jan. 23 in a direct challenge to President Nicolás Maduro, the man who represents the normal that Venezuelans are so horribly used to.
In Venezuela, it isn’t normal for high-ranking government officials to speak in public. When they do, it’s usually in the form of highly choreographed campaign events with heavy security, where public employees are forced to attend wearing red. News conferences are somber affairs, held in the Miraflores Palace before handpicked reporters who are rarely allowed to ask questions, and must instead sit through hours of bellicose rhetoric that all Venezuelan television channels and radio stations are forced to broadcast. Whenever an opposition rally is announced, the city wakes up to heavily fortified military blockades, armored tanks and squads of policemen in riot gear who eventually disperse the crowds with tear gas and rubber pellets, or, lately, gunfire. The last time I tried to ask a soldier why they were shooting at us, I was shoved, pinned down and almost got taken away.
Our normal means living in a country that we are made to feel we are not a part of, under a government that makes us know that we are not welcome. Our normal means relying on social media and YouTube — whenever the internet is not blocked — and WhatsApp chats — if there isn’t a power outage — to find out the death toll of from the latest protests: You never know if a loved one was killed. Here, it is normal to be fearful and silenced, even though we know that we are a majority. More than anything, it is normal to not dream, because we are too busy surviving. We have normalized indignity and anguish, and we have normalized dictatorship.
Mr. Maduro was re-elected to a second term last May in a sham election in which opposition candidates were barred from running, and starving Venezuelans were extorted for votes. He has quashed dissent and demanded loyalty through coercion and intimidation. Meanwhile, our economy has crumbled under corruption. Hyperinflation has meant prices double nearly every week. A carton of eggs costs more than the monthly minimum wage. More than three million people have fled our country. Venezuelans have had enough. On Jan. 23, millions of us took to the streets around the country to oppose Mr. Maduro and to support our Constitution, our National Assembly and our new interim president, Mr. Guaidó.
In the days since, Venezuelans have been in suspense, waiting to see what will happen next. There has been a heartening outpouring of support from the international community. Information is rare and unreliable, but we remain hopeful that Mr. Maduro will leave the presidential palace and we can have a peaceful transition to democracy through free and fair elections.
That Friday afternoon, Jan. 25, was far from normal; it was surreal. As I listened to the interim president talk to reporters, I realized I’d never thought about what my life would be like once the dictatorship fell. I thought about my brother and sister, who left Venezuela many years ago, and for the first time, pictured them coming home, sitting around a table, sharing a meal, discussing family and work instead of talking about soaring prices and political prisoners. I thought of how strange it would feel to not have to resort to black market vendors to buy food and medicine. I pondered the bizarre concept of a government at the service of its citizens, and not the other way around.
But the strangest observation is that I am no longer the opposition. For more than a decade, I have been fighting against a government. Now I am fighting for one. And I am not in the minority, either. Millions of Venezuelans have risen up to show our support for the interim president, and much of the world is on our side.
On that Friday afternoon, after Mr. Guaidó left the stage, I locked eyes with perfect strangers who had come from across Caracas to come listen to the interim president, and I realized that we were all smiling uncontrollably, sharing in trying to make sense of this very foreign but very exhilarating experience. Just then, someone next to me in the crowd started complaining about how the news coverage of the recent events had mentioned coups d’état and a military invasion. I can’t remember what they said, though. I was too busy enjoying the normalcy of it all.
Emiliana Duarte is a Caracas-based writer and editor.