CC Book Club: Chavismo Rising

Alejandro Velasco's "Barrio Rising" is the story of a country, a neighborhood, and the people who inhabit it. But after reading the first half, do we know what they want?


Sigmund Freud once asked “what do women want?” Frequently, those of us who analyze Venezuela ask ourselves: what do the urban poor want?

Alejandro Velasco’s “Barrio Rising,” the first selection in the Caracas Chronicles Book Club, tries to find an answer. Judging by the first half of the book, I think we’re closer to an answer, but we’re not quite there yet.

Velasco’s book is a lively narration of the first forty years of Venezuela’s democracy seen through the eyes of the legendary 23 de Enero, the western Caracas neighborhood that was practically born (and, hence, named after) the day our last dictator before Hugo Chávez fell. In telling the story, one can see the early seeds of the overwhelming social problems that Chávez so succesfully exploited.

Velasco begins by laying out his case as to why this particular slice of Venezuela matters. He threads the various story lines that gave birth to the neighborhood: the dreams of modernity of a largely rural country mixed with the autocratic vision of a military strongman, sewn together by a combination of chaos and petro-populism.

This is simultaneously the story of a country, of a neighborhood, and of the people that inhabit it. The book shifts back and forth between these three levels, but it really comes alive when discussing the personal stories of those who came to call it home. Two of them stayed with me for days.

In 1958, Emilia de Pérez was a humble mother of four living in a shack an hour away from Caracas. When Pérez Jiménez fell, her brother picked her up to go to Caracas. “He said, ‘Let’s go, because you never know what may come of this and you’re alone here with these kids.”

When throngs of people flocked to the empty apartment blocks, some of them unfinished, Emilia saw an opening (literally!): she squatted in one of the apartment along with nine members of her family.

Her experience contrasts that of Lourdes Quintero, one of the original dwellers of the modernist apartment blocks (or “superblocks”) that the ventitrés is known for. Lourdes, who quite possibly passed as middle class in 1950s Venezuela, was one of the first people assigned an apartment under strict rules by the Pérez Jiménez administration. Emilia, in contrast, was just a poor woman who found an open door and barged in.

The contrast between the experiences of the two women is part of the fabric of social complexity that the superblocks represent. As Velasco writes:

[Emilia’s] testimony spoke more of being swept in a scene of utter confusion, and then going along with the current. That she had come to the superblocks from outside Caracas, too, made her situation different from those for whom the 2 de Diciembre [the original name for the neighborhood] had been designed … And that she came to share an apartment, however briefly, with someone who ‘already had a house’ and who eventually left as a result, suggested that some at least had come to the superblocks out of curiosity more than anything else. In this era of democratic revolution, then, the superblocks may have been ‘of the people and for the people,’ in the words of interim Public Works Minister Victor Rotondaro, but, as an administrative matter, just who ‘the people’ were remained unknown.

Another memorable character is Diógenes Caballero. As one of the first squatters of the superblocks, Caballero was quick to use his natural leadership skills to become a de-facto community leader, establishing his own little mini-bureaucracy, and even a jail cell “for those who disobeyed his orders.” “By mid-February,” Velasco writes, “press accounts had branded Caballero ‘the little dictator of the 23 de Enero.'”

There’s another pivotal character who was not actually a resident, but played a pivotal role in the politics surrounding the superblock.

When the dictator fell and the construction industry ground to a halt, Interim President Wolfgang Larrazábal appointed Celso Fortoul to head an employment initiative for the neighborhood. When conservative forces moved to sack Fortoul, residents protested and practically forced the government to reinstate him. In a way, the Fortoul drama was the beginning of “popular politics” in the neighborhood and, perhaps, the country as a whole.

Because he is busy laying out the facts, Velasco is not too concerned yet with the bigger picture. He cannot be faulted for this, yet this first half left me yearning for a sense of the author’s moral stance.

Whatever you may think of Emilia de Pérez and her fellow squatters, the fact remains that what they did was theft. Caballero may have shown pluck in helping the community organize itself, but in his little mini-government (something people such as Hernando de Soto have valued) we find the seeds of anarchy and violence disguised as “self-rule” that is currently tearing  Venezuela’s apart. And Fortoul may have been a popular and efficient administrator, but he also helped foster the culture of handouts that has seemingly guided much of the residents’ politics since then.

What do the characters think of these contradictions? How does Velasco view them? We do not know.

Yes, we need to empathize with the urban poor. I would have liked, however, a little more of a debate with them. While we understand what they do and what it represents, we still don’t know what it is they want, what they aspire to. Is it revolution? A middle class lifestyle? Ownership of their apartments? Or is it something as basic as running water and a little less crime on the streets? At this point of the book, we cannot say that we know the inhabitants of the veintitrés, but we know what they did, and why they matter.

I cannot, however, fault Velasco for not writing the book that I would have wanted to read. His book must be judged on its merits.

In that regard, the first half is a highly original, meticulous, successful piece of work. In the genesis of the 23 de Enero, we indeed see many of the traits and distortions of current Venezuelan society. By borrowing from anthropology, political science, sociology, history, and narrative non-fiction, we end up understanding urban Venezuela a little bit more.

There is more to the first half that I have not discussed. Rómulo Betancourt, for example, comes across as Augusto Pinochet with a fondness for votes. Fidel Castro’s and Richard Nixon’s respective visits to Caracas should merit chapters of their own. And the residents’ ambivalent relationship with both the Communist Party and with Marcos Pérez Jiménez is surely going to be explored more deeply in the second half.

What did you think of it? Let’s get the conversation going.

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  1. Juan, I think a book like the one you are longing for won’t come from Venezuela as long as people don’t even debate in the public – Spanish speaking – sphere of Venezuela what the actual rights and obligations of citizens should be or what is actually necessary to make for a sustainable development.

    A few posts back there was the story of this Chavista woman next to Capriles. She wanted to get her car fixed. Here in Europe people would be puzzled by such a claim. They would be shocked if they also knew the children of this woman probably don’t get even half of the hours they should get at school because their miserably paid teachers can’t care to come to work…but she wants her car fixed. Capriles didn’t have a problem with that. He will probably promise to fix that car but that car will be fixed with the money that should have gone to the teachers in the school I went to as a child or the hospital where most people are born in Valencia or Calabozo or else.

    In Venezuela no one seems to discuss how pensions are going to be paid in 10 years.

    You know what I am still missing? A book about Venezuela’s mean population, those who live in cities of more than 30000 inhabitants and less than 250.000. They are the clear majority of Venezuela’s population.

    Now: can we be too critical of these 23 de Enero people when Venezuelans who went to universities are not interested in talking, not willing at all to talk, about the humble primary schools?
    Who has said in public in Venezuela that the country is actually poor and not “a rich country where distribution needs to be done fairly” (although the few resources we do have, admittedly, do have to be distributed fairly, not to people who want to get their cars repaired)?

    Unfortunately, most of the debate we will get here will be from people like Venezuelan “Lee Kuan Yew” about how uneducated people in Venezuela are and how they need a right-winged dictatorship.

    • Thanks, Jose. As I’ve gone around talking about the book in the past two months, this is among the most frequent remarks I’ve heard, especially from expats, including caraquen~os who never, ever set foot in el 23. Interpretations will vary on the meaning of this history, of course, and I’ll be interested to hear your and Juan’s and others’ own interpretations. But expanding the range of who we consider to be part of the historical record was certainly among my primary aims.

      • Thanks Alejandro, for participating in the debate. I think I speak for everyone who read the book that you do a nice job of making us see important traits of Venezuelan society in the history of the 23 de enero. Your link to the “Tower of David” was the hook, and was spot on.

  2. The picture painted of the early life of the 23 de Enero seems to confirm Miranda’s damming description of the country as given to ‘bochiche , bochinche …’, ours is a love affair with disorder, with chaos, with improvization , a hatred of rules, discipline and stiffling impersonal authority , of the (to us ) cold and heartles operation of institutions. Caudillos are successful in becoming popular if they add a personal touch to their ramblings and discourse , if they engage in jokes and sordid intimacies. And of course if we cant organize ourselves or our personal lives or our jobs to provide for our needs we are dependent on our relationship with some superhuman caudillo or State to provide for us as a parent would , taking care of all our needs and wants , this in the country were more than half the families have no permanent father figure heading it . But is this state of affairs something you can get rid off by simply having children attend a school or does it require some deeper remedy ?? I suspect the latter.

    A Military Strong Man is ultimately the emotional emblem of a strong PRESENT father figure , some one tough ( to earn our respect) but who loves us and takes care of us ……., why is this kind of figure so beguiling to us…….maybe because in the life of many Venezuelans this father figure is absent or fleeting.

    If we compare the disorderly nature of our national life with that of other countries (Chile, China ,The US , Germany , Chile ) , is it clear to us that others find it easier to organize themselves better than we can ??

    • I’m not sure I agree. Chaos is a byproduct, but do we love it? I think people saw an opportunity for a better life, an apartment, and they took it. The fact that chaos ensued is not necessarily their fault.

    • Yea, the thing is not a love of chaos, but chaos seen as the only alterative. After all, order only gives you exactly what you have, which is nothing. Nothing now ,and no promise of a future.

      The culture of Venezuelan “chaos”, the “listos”, the fact that everybody “rebusca”… thats the culture of a place that knows that official solutions and official institutions ignore them and if you are not fast on your feet you are screwed.

      • You dont call it chaos , you call it freedom , spontaneity , irrepresible exhuberance, naturalness, you dress it up with fanciful and delightful monikers, but taking what you want when you want it without any regard for form or convention or rules is a form of chaos. In Venezuela those who dont actually love chaos have developed great tolerance for it.!!

        Of course disorder is just something that makes human endevours ineffectual , disfunctional , result in a mess. Sometimes order can be used to pursue foul ends

        Give you an example from Arendts ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’ , the germans were distressed at the disorderly way antisemitic roumanians took care of their jewish ‘problem’ , they took them by the truck loads to the woods , shot them and left them there. The Nazis preferred more orderly methods such as they used in their system of extermination camps, with tidy protocoles and rules and very efficient ovens!! .

        By comparison look at the very orderly way the US took care of its highly succesful system for the distribution of virgin lands thru the Homestead Act , if the US were to have adopted the 23 de enero system of apartment occupation suspect results would not have been as good.!!

        • Its not dressing up, and I’m not calling it any of that 🙂

          What I’m saying is that this is not some strange quality of the Venezuelan character or genome that makes people be that way. This is the way things are, everywhere, where certain conditions happen. And the main one is the pervasive feeling in a society that the inequality and lack of oportunities is not going to be deal with in any way by anybody, so it is either you wise up or you accept your fate.

          The US is also not that full of good examples, but in general, the “protestant” societies got into a more “equalitarian” point of view of society in which more or less, not perfectly, but in principle, everybody is “equal” so the values of good rules and all that is clear – you need the collaboration of your equals to function. Again, not always work, and plenty of cases of devolving (like, right now…) but is their society point of view.

          Ours, in Spain, Latin America, etc, has been the one of the ones that have, by divine right, and the ones that dont have, and all institutions, norms, and rules are expected to be representative only of the first, and the second either assumes the place or becomes “picaros”. The worship of the “listo” is the recognition of that – not of somebody that screws with his equals, but somebody that cheats the rules imposed over him.

          It is, of course, a severe handicap toward democracy and law and institutions. But is not a handicap that makes no sense. Is a reflection, the accumulation of survival strategies over time in a culture.

          • Jesus I agree that many people arround the world as a result of historical influences and circumstances have developed a tolerance or fondnes for disorder which is lacking in other peoples who have a greater propensity to seek to lead orderly and organized lives .(Germans , Japanese,etc) .The causes are often lost in history but the current reality cant be denied.

            Im not out to blame most common Venezuelans for being complacent about their disorder , but simply to point out that such cultural feature is embedded in their lives and that it has consequences.

            The penchant for disorder is to be found in many people inside and outside government and it can vary, both in time and in families and in individuals , but the basic fact is that it permeates the culture .

            For example if you were to grade how functionally organized some govts have been in our recent history , Gnral Gomez , lopez Contreras , MPJ and perhaps Betancourts govts were more organized than that of the Chavez regime .

            a propensity for order is tied to other character feature , most important among them the quality for self control and self discipline and for planning for the future , which goes with a natural respect for authority and strong social (not merely interpresonal) cohesion .

            Features which psychological studies tie to success in life ( marshmallow experiments among many others)

  3. Great post, Juan, also very good comments. As for exonerating Velasco for the lack of a moral stance on the issues of poverty and the 23 de enero, I beg to differ. That is, from a cursory and partial reading. I came across enough buzz words and verbal presentations to get the idea that Velasco was being kind to Chávez and not-so-kind to the “democracy” that followed Pérez Jiménez.

    That he, Velasco, paints “Rómulo Betancourt …. as Augusto Pinochet with a fondness for votes” is absurd. True, AD had an über-fondness for votes. But how is that different from the current regimes? Velasco would not want to highlight the differences — in all honesty.

    • Thanks, Syd. Alas, “Augusto Pinochet” doesn’t come up once in the book. And I personally would never, ever compare Betancourt with Pinochet. That comparison would, I agree, be absurd.

  4. Indeed, we cannot concieve of impersonal order, from the lowest levels of drug addicted poverty to the highest echelons of privilege and power Venezuela is basically a middle finger sticking up to the world. Why we can’t recognize and find identity and power around this idea, unite under it, is where I think the problem is. We’ve stuck with it thus far, we might as well “asumirlo” and see where it takes us, if nothing else because it is the only universally held value in all the nation.

  5. I’m enjoying the book. I’d really like to know what the heck is going on *right now* at the 23 de enero. It seems like they’re durmiendo en los laureles. How is this former “hotbed of political mobilization” not reacting to their terrible living conditions? Is it colectivo and Big Brother-induced intimidation? Leftover fondness for Chávez and his “legacy”?

    • There was a story going around about how the opposition might actually win in the 23 de enero next month. If that were to happen it would be shocking, a seismic electoral event. I don’t think it’s likely though, but who knows?

  6. Quote from the book:
    For the new undisputed President, the results offered a valuable if seemingly contradictory lesson: ridding Caracas of slums and moving their inhabitants to modern housing might be in the popular interest, but it would not ensure popular support. To modernize Caracas, and all of Venezuela, he [Pérez Jiménez] would need to push through his vision with no expectation of popular support. As he noted years later: “There must be a leader who shows the way without being perturbed by the necessity of winning demagogic popularity.”

    There are some (many?) people in today’s Venezuela that still think that, now more than ever, we need “mano dura” to rebuild the country after this debacle. How do we convince them that democracy and strong institutions, not a strongman, is the way?

  7. Quote from the book:
      Castro arrived in Caracas on 23 January 1959, his first overseas trip after triumphantly entering Havana two weeks earlier. He had come to thank Venezuelans for the example they had set a year before and, in turn, Venezuelans embraced the “hero of Cuba.”

    Eerie thought: was Castro planning on using us as caja chica from this early on? Can you imagine? Conspiracy theory stuff, I know.

    • Eerie thought: was Castro planning on using us as caja chica from this early on? Can you imagine? Conspiracy theory stuff, I know.

      At this time, in his first month of power, Castro was years away from getting the Soviet Union to sign on as Cuba’s cash cow. If at the time Castro was considering sundry sources of $upport for the Cuban Revolution, Venezuela would have been a good possibility: cultural affinity, a degree of political affinity, with a ready source of oil dollars. Castro’s a well-earned reputation for being a master strategist also lends support to your proposition that at the time he was thinking about using Venezuela for $upport for the Cuban Revolution.

      Castro’s landing guerrillas on the shores of Venezuela came later.

      • The parts about Fidel’s 1959 visit to Caracas sent shivers down my spine. Talk about patience! Forty years later, his dream came to fruition.

  8. Quote from the book:
        We knew that the government was giving away all the country’s riches. We fought for that, but many times, many of us didn’t even know why we were fighting. What we were interested in was shooting at the police so that they wouldn’t shoot at us.” Rafael Gutiérrez of Monte Piedad mostly felt “indignation” at the deaths of those “you studied with and were part of your group, you were together all day, you knew their true feelings and idiosyncrasies… They weren’t doing it because they were really political. For some it was amusement, even fun, for others it was snobbery, to tell the girls ‘I was there.’”

    I have seen quite a bit of this in our opposition’s movimiento estudiantil. I recently went to a talk about “la juventud chavista” at the Venezuelan embassy where they showed embarrassing clips of students who had no clue why they were protesting. This sort of attitude is something chavistas love to point out, and it’s a lesson for the opposition as a whole. What are our concrete proposals? We shouldn’t just be anti-government, we should be pro-something-else. What is that something else? I know there are huge disagreements within the opposition as to what those proposals should be, but let’s talk about what we DO agree with (other than “the current government sucks”).

  9. Quote from the book:
        By the first quarter of 1980, 44% of Venezuelans considered the elimination of price controls the Herrera Campins government’s worst policy decision.

    I fear this will happen when the opposition takes power and dismantles the price controls. Things will be harder to afford before we can reap the benefits of a more sane economic policy, and chavismo will try to make it seem like it was the new leader’s fault.

  10. Who built the 23 de Enero and so much more? What a coincidence..

    “En la década de los años 1950, bajo el gobierno del General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, se construyó una Unidad Habitacional de apartamentos diseñados por el arquitecto Guido Bermúdez basándose en el modelo de “la Cité Radieuse” del suizo Le Corbusier, usado también en la Unidad Habitacional Tlatelolco (México) con apartamentos que fueron otorgados a la población de clase media y baja de Caracas. Inicialmente se llamarían “Urbanización 2 de Diciembre” (en conmemoración al ascenso a la presidencia por parte de Pérez Jiménez), sin embargo el nombre actual fue asignado por su sucesor, Rómulo Betancourt, la fecha 23 de enero conmemora el derrocamiento del General e inicio de la democracia.”

  11. I’m only beginning Chapter 3 and so far I’ve learned a lot. Alejandro Velasco is a careful researcher, who handles well the mix of historic and ethnographic research. I appreciate that (and also that his writing isn’t stuffy or boring). The first two chapters are chock full of the paradoxes that have defined not only el 23 de enero, but also Caracas and Venezuela.

    Juan, I agree with you that it’s the interviews with the residents that bring el 23 de enero (and the book) alive for us. As for the answer to your question, I don’t know if we’ll find it in this book…or anywhere because it’s so complex. I only know that the history of our country is plagued with people who found partial answers to that question only to use them for their own benefit: to hold on to power.

    • I’m glad you bring this up, Carolina. One may agree or disagree with the slight bent the book takes on these events, but one has to appreciate how meticulously researched it is.

  12. Thanks Juan, great pick and comment for the bookclub. I think it’s an excellent book that expanded my knowledge significantly about the history of Caracas and Venezuela. Regarding Juan’s question, I don’t really know what the urban poor want, but I think they behave on a significantly more rational way than people give them credit for. I think pragmatism and chaos were behind the first squatting movement. People knew that the government would have a hard time satisfying everyone’s claim and took a house (or created one) on their own. It’s true that what they did was theft, as Juan points out. Nonetheless, the passive stance didn’t seem to payoff in the democratic era. I’m sure this is not the only answer, but it seems like a rational strategy under a weak rule of law. It’s rent-seeking behavior.

    I also agree Prof. Velasco paints Betancourt in a not kind way. He claims that “Venezuela engaged in the most intense period of state repression during the next 30 years(,,,) during which Betancourt suspended constitutional liberties (…) more people died in Caracas during one year than during the entire Pérez Jiménez dictatorship”. My question is. Was it really because of state repression, or was it more because of a state that was weaker and less scary for violence to emerge?

    • That’s true. And after those 30 years? 17 years of Chavismo = 200,000 people dead. Compare that to the “abominable” 17 years of Pinochet: 3,000 dead.

    • Very rational, and also very human. I kept struggling as I read it between wanting to harshly criticize some of the behavior painted in the book with a pressing need to put myself in the shoes of its inhabitants. Would I have done anything differently than, say, Emilia de Pérez, had I come from the same circumstances?

      • Yes, I had exactly the same problem. Some other societies seemed to avoid these problems by very non democratic and hard measures (like China for example). Nonetheless, I keep wondering how a democratic state with high levels of poverty deal with housing issues such as the ones presented in this book. Can we draw lessons from other places? Which places in particular?

  13. I prefer democracy to dictatorship simply because I prefer to think of the citizen as above public interest, but in terms of pure abuse of power, democracy is obviously a lot worse. I think it is a sign of an evolved human to prefer braving it with corruption than giving away the “ultima palabra.”

  14. Also, Alejandro in his book explains a bit how the government got rid of the responsibility of the building under Luis Herrera. However, my question is: how were property rights assigned in 23 de enero? Do these people own their apartments? Can they trade them freely or use them as collateral? These seem to be very important issues in developing economies. Some researchers have spent a lot of time on this (especially De Soto, “The mistery of capital”. Juan properly mentioned him in the post).

    So it would be nice if you could expand on this topic.

    Is it feasible to design economic policy that assigns these property rights in 23 de enero and other similar places?

    The economist wrote an article about mechanisms that could help in the establishment of these property rights. So I’m thinking something along these lines.

  15. I got the book just ten days ago, and I’ve finished it already. It piqued my curiosity because of my work on Nixon’s visit, but 1958 is merely the start.

    I cannot say much, because of an academic commitment to review it, but I must point out -regarding Juan’s dilemma- how some chaos emerges after the opening of any authoritarian or elitist government (1936, 1958, ¿1999-2001?…). Many of the facts were familiar, but seeing them beyond the elites was refreshing. A recent Master’s theses in Political Science at USB dealt with a similar housing project near Maracay, pero “el 23” es “el 23”.

    I was especially pleased by the second half of the book, particularly the LHC section, when a politically ambitious presidency fails to gain steam and ultimately… Well, you have to get there.

    In Re: property rights and what opinionesdekantinas means, this links social-christian and christian-democrat beliefs of communitarian property and subsidiarity, with the current efforts by Sucre’s mayoralty to award land ownership of the inhabitants of municipal lands. Some people close to the LHC administration are near this effort as well.


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