A man is taking a shower in his apartment in Caracas’ 23 de Enero complex. His head is filled with the events of recent days. In the adjacent room, his young children are playing.
Suddenly, his wife’s screams jolt him outside.
His sister-in-law and his young boy, unaware of the dangers they faced, have peeked out the window. The soldiers down below warn them to go back inside, but his sister-in-law is deaf, so she does not heed the call.
The soldiers shoot. A bullet finds lodging in his young son’s frontal lobe.
After taking him to several hospitals that are unable to admit him, his child dies. “‘He couldn’t talk or see after they shot him,’ testified Moncada [the man in question], ‘but he could hear me … I asked him questions and he squeezed my hand, he squeezed my hand to tell me that it hurt. And so on until I left him [at the Lídice hospital], later they notified me he was dead.”
The book is, in theory, just the story of a neighborhood. Yet contrary to what its title suggests, the tale is not about its rise but about its demise. In the sprawling, crumbling mess that is Caracas’ 23 de Enero, we witness the fall of democracy itself through the eyes of its inhabitants.
The “23 de Enero” is a parish at the heart of Caracas, home to tens of thousands of Venezuelans living a stone’s throw away from the Presidential palace. In the 1950s, dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez razed the existing shacks to make way for 45 modern high-rises. He didn’t finish the job because he was overthrown. On January 23rd, 1958, the day he fled, residents from all over the Metropolitan area invaded the apartments and claimed them in the name of Venezuela’s nascent democracy, christening the buildings after the date.
As you can imagine, dealing with thousands of people squatting semi-finished apartments is a nightmare for any public entity. The problems were confounded by the traumatic way the change in government took place, and by the upheaval that marked 1960s Venezuela.
Velasco takes his time to delve into these root causes. One particularly interesting fact is that the 23 de enero did not support Rómulo Betancourt, Venezuela’s first elected President after the dictator’s fall. Since it did not immediately buy into the nascent “adeco” hegemony, it was immediately viewed as “a problem” by the governing elite. The “rebelious” nature of the neighborhood was thus born.
And what a problem it was.
The veintitrés quickly became one of the epicenters of Marxist urban guerrillas. The chaotic maze-like nature of the buildings and their strategic location near the epicenter of power in the country meant that radicals could take advantage of legitimate grievances over things like trash and water to blend in.
But the groups never really blended. The picture that emerges in the book is that of an uneasy mix of an aspiring middle class barely coexisting with radical activists looking to push an ideological agenda.
The two groups coalesce (narratively speaking) in the climax of the book: the two chapters devoted to the 1980s.
In 1981, residents of the barrio “kidnapped” garbage trucks in a desperate push to rid their neghborhood of mounting garbage. At one point, residents complained garbage in the chutes reached the fourteenth floor, and “worms were eating away at the structures.”
The secuestros followed overtures from the government of President Luis Herrera Campins, a Christian Democrat. Herrera had courted the traditionally non-adeco parish, and in his first few months of office turned his focus on the parish.
But chronic inefficiency, combined with Venezuela’s mounting economic problems, caught up with him. Even a well-intentioned program to transfer ownership to residents flopped. Two years into the Herrera administration, the parish was literally up to its elbows in trash, and they became radicalized.
Democracy had failed them for the last time. A new form of coexistence was born – one where radical moves were taken, prompting stop-gap measures from governments that seemed to legitimize them.
This decadent pax puntofijista was broken in February of 1989.
The chapter on the caracazo is the book’s best. All of the story’s elements came to a head in those days of looting, and of the heavy-handed government response that followed.
The metaphor really writes itself: buildings named after Venezuela’s democratic hope become littered with bullets.
Velasco steers away from claiming victimhood, though. In his narrative, there was clearly a confrontation between radicalized sharpshooters on the buildings’ rooftops and the army down below. Interestingly, radical elements in the neighborhood were seemingly caught off guard by the spontaneous looting, putting a dent in the theory that the caracazo had been planned and spurred on by communist cells embedded in Venezuela’s poor communities.
Caught in the middle of all this mess were innocent residents. Some of them had looted, yes, but many had not. Most thought the response was overwhelming. Moncada’s child Francisco, the dead boy from the beginning of this post, was one of the first victims.
By the time young Francisco had died, the work was done. Venezuela’s democracy had nothing more to offer people like the Moncadas.
“These accounts,” Velasco writes in a crucial segment, “presented the scale of violence as the breakdown of historical patterns of acceptability, rooted in their lived experience as residents of the 23 de enero. Residents used this same register to make sense of what transpired as a massacre less of people than of expectations.”
We all know what happened next: Chávez’s two coup attempts, Por Estas Calles, CAP’s impeachment, the banking crisis, and the death of a political system that had lived long past its due date.
Velasco mixes his techniques deftly, but at times jarringly. In the same chapter, we may think we are reading an anthropological study, while the next paragraph changes to narrative non-fiction. In its more arid passages, Velasco puts on his poli-sci hat. Whereas some readers may be turned off by the shifting tone, it owes less to the ambition of the author than to the complexity of his subject.
It is also worth pointing out that Velasco’s work would have been impossible were it not for Venezuela’s vibrant press of the 1970s and 1980s, as witnessed by his numerous cites to newspaper reports. Journalists back then were not afraid to go into the veintitrés to air neighbors’ grievances, to really tell the story of what was going on in popular sectors.
This would be impossible in today’s Venezuela. The government’s clamp-down on press freedoms and its deliberate empowerment of urban guerrillas means the work of the future Velascos will be that much harder. A large chunk of Venezuela’s contemporary history will be lost.
In my previous entry, I asked … what do the residents of the veintitrés really want?
A minority basically want a revolution, but a large majority really wants what all of us aspire to: opportunity. Good schools. Garbage. Running water. A better life.
Many of us think of el veintitrés as an unsolvable problem. Most of us Venezuelans would probably be scared of the place. To use the words of journalist Cristina Marcano, cited by Velasco, the neighborhood is “a 45-headed hydra.”
But the parish is not a monster. Urban planners would relish at the challenge it poses. Delivering public services, even private ones, would break the unholy alliance between minority radicals and the majority of the population. Ultimately, it’s not about ideology or crime fighting. It’s about public policy, about delivering dignity, and restoring the promise of democracy. And it all goes through delivering services in an efficient, inclusive manner.
The solution is not political – it’s wonk-ish. The only hope we have is in recognizing people’s dignity, and in delivering.
For too long, we Venezuelans have looked down on technical answers to focus on the political. But politicians alone cannot deliver what people need if they are not accompanied by a solid technical understanding of the complexities involved. Trash that reaches the fourteenth floor is political problem, for sure, but it’s mostly a logistical problem.
Chavismo never understood this, and that is why they are poised to lose the coming election – even, perhaps, in the iconic ventitrés.
But consolidating this win means understanding that the challenge ahead is less about rhetoric than it is about a tangible delivery of public goods.
Recognizing this challenge … is the only way out of this mess.
What did you think of the book? What do you think of the book club format? Let’s get the conversation going.