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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