Two Sukhois in the skies over Caracas

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This is my translation of a piece by Ibsen Martínez, published last month in Buenos AiresLa Nación:

Last Friday, February 2nd, I was crossing Caracas’s Avenida Miranda, just outside Parque del Este metro station, when the rumble of combat jets made me stop and look up. It wasn’t the first time that Caracas has been overflown by fighter jets. On November 27, 1992, as an aftershock of the failed coup attempt by then Lieutenant Colonel Chávez against president Carlos Andrés Pérez, which took place on February of that same year, several units of the air force rebelled and brought us, for the whole day, an air battle in the skies over the city.

We saw all kinds of things from our balconies that day, and also on TV: pilots ejecting, for instance. A reconnaissance and attack Bronco was shot down by government anti-aircraft batteries placed, at the last minute, on the roof of a nearby shopping center, and crashed on the runway at La Carlota airfield, which sits right in the center of Caracas valley, alongside the highway that traverses it from east to west, next to upper middle-class neighborhoods.

Some of the bombs used that day never went off and stayed there, roped off with yellow police tape, for weeks, while somebody got around to dealing with them. We were thankful, for once, for the corruption in our armed forces that ensured we payed over the odds for bombs that would under no circumstances explode.

At the time, all the aircraft used by the rebels and the loyalists was made in the US. By the end of the afternoon, the rebellion was put down. One of the rebel pilots decided to cause a sonic boom over the capital before landing and giving up. He said he did it because he’d always fantasized about it, ever since he was a cadet, and he realized that, once he turned himself in, he would never again have the chance to do it.

This time, the fighters that caught my attention were two brand new Sukhoi SU-30s, recognizable by the twin tail fins, a distinctive design of soviet military aeronautics. They are the first to make it to Venezuela; just two of a squad of 24 whose purchase was announced a while back. But what really surprised me was the attitude of the pedestrians around me: nobody seemed to stop to look at them.

Why are two Russian-made fighters flying over my city? What did these people know that I didn’t, how could they ignore the almighty roar of these war planes?

That’s when it dawned on me that the flight was a rehearsal to the military parade announced for two days later. With the parade set for Sunday, February 4th, Chávez would mark his failed coup attempt of 15 years earlier. Just one week before that, our single-party parliament had handed over to the top leader the right to legislate by decree – “just for 18 months” – by approving an Enabling Law. The special powers Hitler asked of the Reichstag enabled him to legislate by decree for just four years: he stayed in power for 12, until the time of that final gunshot in May 1945. With all that this parade implies, the Venezuelan army – whose name Chávez has changed once again – becomes the armed wing of the recently announced Unified Venezuelan Socialist Party.

Chávez has also ordered that the date of that early morning putsch, perpetrated without the knowledge of any of his countrymen, to overthrow a legitimately elected president should, henceforth, be celebrated as a national holiday. Suggestively, he has done so through his first decree-law. In practice, this means that, starting next year, Venezuelans will be legally obligated to fly the national flag – itself, modified by the national assembly to humor a historicist whim of the comandante – from our homes and workplaces, to commemorate a failed coup attempt that our particular dystopia has re-christened a “civilian-military rebellion.”

February 4th, 1992 has been consecrated, beginning this year, and for all Venezuelans, including those who oppose Chávez, as “Dignity Day,” and must be celebrated as such in all our elementary schools. The spectacle of the parade was galling: pennants with the face of our homegrown Kim Il Sung, huge billboards with phrases from his vague ideology. Elite battalions jogged with their brand new AK-47 assault rifles shouting “homeland, socialism or death”. Ministers, Supreme Tribunal justices and the Attorney General shouted party slogans in unison along with Chávez. And my two Sukhoi 30s flitted above the city. The public in assistance didn’t know it was witnessing the creation of the armed wing of the will of the strongman.

In the opposition, the prevailing feeling these days is acquiescence. That’s why, while I watched the parade on and off on TV, I thought of Sebastian Haffner. Haffner (1907-1999) was a Berlin resident who fled to exile in England in 1938, considering himself an Aryan victim of the Nazis. After his death, a never-published manuscript finished in 1939 was found among his papers. Published for the first time more than 60 years after it was written, Haffner’s posthumous book needed just a couple of years to become an indispensable text to understand one of the mysteries of human collective behavior: the gradual acquiescence with which an open society accepts to live under dictatorship.

Haffner was not the only European writer of the 20th century to linger over the intellectual move and the moral contortion that allows a kind of political stupor to take over an individual, making him think he can somehow survive without being seen or touched by a mass dictatorship. He begins his book saying, “the history about to be told deals with a kind of duel. It’s a duel between two very unequal adversaries: a tremendously powerful state, strong and ruthless, and a particular individual, small, anonymous and unknown. This duel does not take place in the field of what’s usually considered politics; this man is in no way a politician, much less a conspirator or a ‘public enemy.’ He is at all times on the defensive. He aspires only to safeguard, as best he can, what he sees as his own personality, his own life and his personal honor. All of that is attacked relentlessly by the state in which he lives, through brutal – if somewhat clumsy – means.

Writing about the start of 1933, with the Nazis already in power and working amazingly fast to take control of all the institutions of the German state, Haffner noted: “The situation of non-Nazi Germans, during the summer of 1933, was certainly one of the most difficult a human being could find himself in: a state of total submission. All institutional reference points had collapsed; any kind of collective resistance had become impossible and individual opposition was a kind of suicide. The Nazis had us completely in their hands. And at the same time, each day they entreated us no longer just to give up, but to go over to their side. Just a small little pact with the devil was enough to stop belonging to the band of the prisoners and the persecuted and to become one of the winners and persecutors.”

Living in Venezuela today, you would think these words were written last week. It’s here that, I think, one of his most suggestive observations fits in, recalling the idea of an unequal duel between the state and the individual: “one is always tempted to believe that history is made by a few dozen people who ‘rule the fate of their peoples’ and whose decisions and acts result in what, later on, will come to be called history. But, paradoxical though it may seem, it’s a simple fact that truly historical decisions and events happen within us, within anonymous people, in the guts of any person, and that faced with massive and simultaneous decisions even the most powerful dictators, ministers and generals are totally defenseless.”

Lets hope that Venezuela’s huge opposition masses will not give up and acquiesce to what Alvaro Vargas Llosa once called “contented barbarism.”

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