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Flaming heaps of dead trees, tires, and trash blocked the streets of Caracas and other cities at the end of February and early March 2004. Molotov cocktails rocketed toward national guard soldiers. Demonstrators swaddled their faces with Venezuelan flags to ward off tear gas. Traffic was clogged, banks were closed, and garbage collection was thwarted. Thousands couldn't get to work. And while ashes smoldered in neighborhoods that looked like war zones, dozens of protesters nursed wounds from gunshots. At least 13 people in the streets during what came to be known the Guarimba — after a kids' game — were dead. The Venezuelan government would issue a U.S. press statement blaming the "Guarimba plan" for "systematic acts of violent and disruptive civil disobedience designed to protest President Chávez, generate headlines, and create fear among civil society. The plan's chief architect, a Cuban exile named Robert Alonso, is currently sought by Venezuelan authorities." Chávez even appeared on national television to call Alonso "one of the ideologists of the so-called Operation Guarimba."
The real genesis for the plan, Alonso says, is an 88-page booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, written in 1993 by former Harvard researcher Gene Sharp. It is a self-help work of sorts on how to use nonviolent, active resistance to overthrow a dictator. The booklet has been printed in 27 languages, cited by opponents credited with unseating Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and banned in Burma. According to the now-79-year-old Sharp, strong and strategic nonviolent resistance from the people can work to paralyze society and cause a dictatorship to crumble.
Sharp has spoken to Alonso but declined to comment about the Guarimba, saying he doesn't know its architect or the plan well enough. He says the Albert Einstein Institution, a small Boston-based think tank that he runs, doesn't offer advice to budding revolutionaries. "We don't tell people what they do," he says. "If they find our work relevant, well, here it is."
Alonso says he first read Sharp's book on a friend's recommendation after 19 Venezuelans were killed during an antigovernment march April 11, 2002. The next day Chávez was ousted from office. The president returned to power two days later, when an interim leader stepped down after losing military support and street protests erupted calling for Chávez's return.
It was then that Alonso accepted Sharp as his personal savior. Soon Alonso and some other activists began hatching plans to permanently end Chávez's reign. They discussed blocking streets in front of their homes, where they could retreat to if needed. At a meeting, Alonso recalls, one of the conspirators chipped in, "It's like the guarimba." Alonso explains: The term describes a traditional game in which children try to pass from one circle to another without getting caught by a person who is "it."
Chávez was "it." Those who joined the Guarimba would be like kids trying to dodge him.
In December 2002, Alonso began feverishly e-mailing alertas criticizing Chávez and describing future action. His contact list swelled to more than two million e-mail addresses. The Guarimba was a frequent topic. He spoke at neighborhood meetings and became known as "el padre de La Guarimba." In a May 2003 essay, he wrote, "The only thing that this plan requires is that EVERYONE head out into the streets IN FRONT OF OUR HOMES and remain there.... La Guarimba is total anarchy. Everyone does what they want, depending on their level of frustration."
There were three golden rules: (1) Block the street in front of your home. (2) Don't go any farther than the front of your home. (3) Don't confront the enemy. Alonso urged his followers to be prepared for at least one month "of battle" by stowing food and water in advance.
After more than a year of alertas, in late February 2004, he delivered cryptic news to Siomi and their two younger sons at Daktari: "You will be safer in Miami," he said. "I cannot afford to concentrate on what I have to do and be worried about you."
She argued against leaving and pressed for details. His answers were enigmatic. She suspected the Guarimba. They divorced — to cut legal ties. He bought them plane tickets and then vanished for two days.
Before their Friday flight, Alonso showed up Thursday night at Siomi's parents' home in Caracas to make sure she and the kids had left the farm. The couple and their older daughter, Carolina, embraced in the street. Siomi made the sign of the cross on his forehead before kissing him goodbye: "Be careful. Remember that you have a family that loves you."
With two suitcases and a PlayStation, Siomi and the boys departed for MIA. On February 27, they landed in Miami and headed to her uncle's three-bedroom Kendall home.
Then the Guarimba exploded. Alonso says it began after an anti-Chávez leader (whom he now calls a traitor) went on television and told people to block the streets. He says he had been working with others to spark the Guarimba on March 5 and cap it with a military ouster two days later.
Thousands flooded Caracas's streets, many demanding a recall vote of President Chávez. National guard troops shot tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at protesters, who blocked entrances to Caracas neighborhoods. They pitched rocks and gasoline bombs back at forces that rolled through streets in armored tanks. Two protesters were shot dead on barricaded streets February 29.