Venezuela

Venezuela's presidential election brings fresh grief to families of slain protesters

Zugeimar Armas spray-painted the name of her son, 17-year-old Neomar Lander, on a wall in Caracas near the spot where he died. Neomar was killed last June during an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Sunday's election, which Maduro is expected to win though it has been called a sham by countries in the region, has triggered fresh grief for families of those killed.
Zugeimar Armas spray-painted the name of her son, 17-year-old Neomar Lander, on a wall in Caracas near the spot where he died. Neomar was killed last June during an uprising against President Nicolás Maduro’s regime. Sunday's election, which Maduro is expected to win though it has been called a sham by countries in the region, has triggered fresh grief for families of those killed. Special to the Miami Herald

Zugeimar Armas, 37, knew the graffiti she was about to spray on a wall in downtown Caracas wouldn't last.

Supporters of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro would probably cover it up with paint, the same way they had tried to erase the unwanted memory of the street protests in this spot last year that killed her son, Neomar, when he was 17.

But Armas pulled out the can of spray paint anyway.

“My son’s name has already transcended any walls, any borders. They can erase it from walls over and over again, but the memory of my son is embedded in hearts and minds of thousands and millions of people,” Armas said.

In black letters as high as she could reach, she wrote on the wall: Neomar Lander, 1 year, June 7, 2017.

For Armas, the small act of defiance wasn't a gesture of desperation. It was a reminder that she is still here, almost a year later, still opposing the regime that she blames for killing her son. With the presidential election set for Sunday — and the likelihood that Maduro will be reelected to another six-year term in a vote that many in the international community have called a sham — she felt the need to make her son visible again.

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Zugeimar Armas spray-paints the name of her son, 17-year-old Neomar Lander, who was killed last June during an uprising against Maduro’s authoritarian rule. On the Caracas street where he died, Armas recently wrote his name on the wall so he would not be forgotten. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

Neomar Alejandro Lander was killed last June during an uprising against Maduro’s authoritarian rule. The government initially said he was killed when a homemade mortar exploded in his hands during a confrontation with National Guard troops and the Bolivarian National Police. Opposition lawmakers and members of his family, however, said he was killed by a tear gas canister fired straight at him.

It happened beneath an underpass on Libertador Avenue in a Caracas neighborhood called Chacao. Now, at the same exact spot, Armas sprayed her public message.

Just a year ago, the underpass was a focal point of the resistance movement. In the days and weeks after Neomar was killed, hundreds of people, thousands by some estimates, would gather here to commemorate Neomar's sacrifice.

By candlelight and lanterns, the groups would gather for "nocturnal marches for the fallen," singing and proclaiming their determination to fight on against the government as a way to honor Neomar's memory.

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A file photo from July 24, 2017, shows a demonstrator touching a poster of Neomar Lander during a tribute to those killed in the wave of protests against Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro, in Caracas, Venezuela. Fernando Llano AP Photo

Today, there is no physical mark to remind passersby of the tragedy. Before Armas sprayed her boy's name on the wall, it was clean and white. The boys and girls who wore shirts over their faces and called themselves "escuderos," for the shields they used as a defense against pro-government security forces, are gone, at least for now.

No more marches, no more clashes, no more general strikes. For many, depression has replaced the fighting spirit.

“So many of my brothers died right there on the street and what for? The dictator is about to get even stronger while people don’t care,” said Mateo Diaz, 21, who was part of the escuderos but now lives in New York City.

Diaz was talking about the presidential election set for Sunday. Maduro is widely expected to win, in part because the National Electoral Council, or CNE, in charge of counting the votes is controlled by the president’s allies, and opposition leaders have been jailed, exiled or barred from running.

On top of that, the Constituent Assembly formed last summer on Maduro's order is expected to present a new version of the national constitution shortly after the election. Many fear that the revised version will cement Maduro's rule and possibly establish a Cuban-style, one-party political system in Venezuela.

For the families who lost loved ones during the uprising last year, the idea is soul crushing. Luisa Elena Castillo, whose 27-year-old brother, Miguel, was killed last year on May 10, doesn’t hide her pain and dark mood.

"I am scared to go out. Nobody has threatened me, but I suffer from post-traumatic symptoms. For instance, if there is an explosion, I get paralyzed. And I know that many people feel the same way at this moment," she said.

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Luisa Elena Castillo's 27-year-old brother, Miguel, was killed last year on May 10 during street protests in Caracas against the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela. Humberto Duarte Special to the Miami Herald

Castillo, 34, says that as the months have gone by, she feels less emotional support while she continues to grieve. She believes that many who took to the streets in 2017 are disillusioned and don't want to march anymore, including Castillo herself.

Armas also feels it — despair mixed with pain, anger and frustration. She blames Maduro and his people for "unleashing a psychological war on Venezuelans to plunge them into despair," but she also condemns some in the opposition for their willingness to have a dialogue with the government.

"There are millions of us and if a group of politicians let us down, we cannot abandon the fight. We must assume our roles and each and every one of us must do what we can do," she said, sounding resolute.

But for Diaz — the young "escudero" now in New York — the protests didn't accomplish the change he wanted, even though he risked his life.

"Figuratively speaking, I use a different kind of shield now — being in exile. I try to make enough money to protect my family members who stayed behind in Caracas," he said, eyes on the Manhattan skyline.

He misses a different vista: the mountains that ring the Venezuelan capital. But the fact that he is able to provide for his family from the U.S. gives him enough peace of mind to make up for that.

Castillo, too, has found solace in the circle of her family and closest friends who "have been always there for her." Her brother Miguel’s passing is still very painful, but the tragedy brought her close to her older brother, Juan, in Chile.

The siblings didn't talk much when Miguel was alive; now they talk daily.

Sometimes she talks with Miguel, too, in her dreams. "Miguel told me that I should take it easy, that this will change soon," Castillo said, referring to the possibility of regime change in Venezuela.

She, like Armas, isn't planning to try to change the system through the ballot box. Both women see the election as being rigged in favor of Maduro so they refuse to vote. Also, Castillo believes Miguel wouldn't vote if he were alive.

How would Neomar Lander feel if he could see that the resistance has died away and that Maduro might stay in power for another six years or more?

Armas answered without hesitation, as she viewed her handiwork on the wall: "He would continue to fight the regime, 100 percent."

Humberto Duarte contributed to this report from Caracas.
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