What we're talking about when we're talking about a zaperoco

We don’t have a single name for this thing lurking just around the corner. El vainón is vaguer than that: an image, a metaphor, mixed with fear, anger, and hope.

Algo tiene que pasar.

We hear it every day.

Tiene que haber un desenlace.

The words come to mind in the morning and in the evening and then they follow me through my nightmares.

Esto no puede seguir así.

And I don’t even live there; I’m just another of those Venezuelans abroad who starts and ends his day looking through this blog, or Twitter, or the news, for any tiny sign that all this suffering might come to an end.

Other than the pescadores perpetually looking to make a killing in the río revuelto, everybody needs a change. We know that.

We know that we’re past the time when the need was economic and political. The need is now physical: more and more people are hungry or dying from diseases that should be treatable.

The need is also psychological: they -we- beg that tonight, or tomorrow morning, or at the teargassed close of the next rally, a turning point comes. An Event that is not exactly the Recall Referendum, so distant and uncertain, but something unplanned and unexpected, something sudden. Crack!  — and the Han Solo-style carbonite cast that is asphyxiating our country begins to fall apart.

I can’t escape the feeling that something like this could happen at any moment. That time has run out, that soon—before the elusive Recall, before the constituyente, before any of our imagined transitions—our lives will be turned upside down again by this thing all of us sense and none of us can name.

The demon with blurred features

It goes by many names.

The vernacular sounds like this: Yo creo que aquí se va a formar un verguero / mariquerón / zaperoco / plomamentazón / matazón / coñaza / peo gigantesco.

Details? We don’t get any details. It’s vaguer than that – a sense that somehow we’re nearing generalized chaos and violence, looting, repression, vengeance. And at the climax of this week of rumors, of fear and hate, Maduro flees to exile. The classic 20th century Latin American or African putsch, with the added virulence of hunger and criminality that we’ve come to expect in Venezuela.

In a more polite register, when you talk to your mother, it’s algo, no sé, algo, un madrugonazo (a military coup, announced by Whatsapp bells ringing on bedsides), un sacudón (another Caracazo) … ¡algo, chico!

The political wording is less vague but the meaning is the same. Un golpe de Estado (que nadie quiere). Un estallido social. Una explosión social. Even the ghostly phrase guerra civil has become a bit more corporeal. But that’s another subject; the consensus forecast is the coñazo: bang!, and the country changes — well, “changes” — overnight.

If we only had a Tahrir Square…

In its most vanilla incarnation, the longing for the zaperoco expresses itself through CNN Syndrome: the belief in peaceful manifestantes as a critical force in history. Since 1989, CNN has shown us tyrant after tyrant quitting in the wake of demonstrations at a massive square in front of a government palace. We saw men and women cutting the Berlin Wall into pieces and dictators ousted in Prague, Tblisi, Baghdad. We were told that student and civic movements defeated Pinochet, Fujimori, Milosevic. It’s seductive.

But those few days and nights of CNN coverage don’t tell the whole story: the preceding decades of torture, death and exile, the following period of uncertainty and impunity. CNN doesn’t recount the negotiations with ugly characters, the handshakes behind closed doors that are the real pivotal moments. You have to read, a lot, to grasp the nature of political change. On TV, you miss the fact that many rebellions fail, or deliver power to a new team of thugs, or ignite a horrific war, as in Syria.

That’s the AD version of the 23 de Enero: civilians in Plaza O’Leary, militares institucionalistas pushing the dictator to La Carlota. It’s beautiful, but it isn’t exactly true. Finally, wounded by years of useless demonstrations, Venezuela’s CNN Syndrome may be fading, allowing The Event to recover its original character of spontaneous disaster.

Many generations of nail-biting

The CNN syndrome has deeper roots than we imagine. Those indefinite nouns—zaperoco, estallido—are fed on memories. El coñazo siempre ha estado entre nosotros.

Images, metaphors, mixed with fear, anger, and hope. But certainly not mere invention. You can’t blame the old timers for being so jumpy. Venezuelan history is as long on dramatic turning points as it is short on slow, methodical power shifts based on negotiation or mediation.

The overwhelming violence and the omnipresent military left a string of trancazos throughout the 19th century, until a warlord in command of Venezuela’s first professional army— Gómez—managed to pacify the country in 1903 (six years before giving his own personal carajazo to his compadre, Cipriano Castro). When El Benemérito died in 1935, looting and vengeance prevailed, and after that not even the economic miracle of oil could quash the sense that another vainón was lurking just around the corner.

It happened again and again. There were zaperocos in 1945 (the so-called Revolución de Octubre, the coup against Medina Angarita), 1948 (the coup against Gallegos), 1958 (the “23 de Enero”), 1960 (the assassination attempt against Betancourt), 1962 (“El Porteñazo” and “El Carupanazo”) … and then that period of relative peace during which my generation was born, to grow up under the illusion that we inhabited Chéverelandia.

Until the volcano erupted again. 1989, a golden year for the profetas del desastre, marked a spectacular comeback for the spectre of The Event. I remember reading Golpe ya! in public toilet stalls in Caracas that year. And in 1992, they arrived: those who professed to tame that old monster, to control it.

The lords of apocalypse

Chávez’s cult of violence went beyond the fascist “glorious death” of the War of Independence and the sugar-coating of 4-F to present the Caracazo not only as the moral justification for his insurgency, but also as a threat: an example of what chavistas could do to their enemies. Chávez turned 27-F, that trauma of the past, into a menace for the future. A weapon that he and his people would wield.  

By embodying in a single self the two actors of the sacudón, both the hooded looter and the soldier who shot at him, chavismo has leveraged our fear of the zaperoco, at times threatening the opposition with looting, at times making it a reality (as on April 13, 2002), riling its radicals with the prospect of sacking “oligarch” territory. Bolívar & Boves, Jekyll & Hyde. Hardcore chavistas don’t speak about the fear of explosion: they crave it, they believe that they are the explosive device. “Somos los de la Independencia”, said Chávez that rain-soaked afternoon in 2012, during his last campaign rally. “Somos los del Caracazo. Somos los del 4 de febrero”. We are the zaperoco. Le zaperoque c’est moi.

Today, the chance of a new peazo has become an imminent threat to what’s left of their power. Still, incredibly, Maduro and company shake the red idol of collective violence to scare us back into line. Maduro insists that he rules the demon. But other chavistas see more clearly: they recognize a new 27-F as both imminent and threatening. Just read Aporrea.org, or listen to dissidents like Nicmer Evans. They no longer believe the myth of chavismo as master of the zaperoco—one more sign of the weakening of the pillars of bolivarian propaganda.

The next day, the next hour

As I write this, the folks I left behind in Valencia tell me that there has been looting in the towns of Tocuyito and Flor Amarillo. They tell me that there have been fatalities. I don’t know if that’s true. But rumors of fatalities can spread panic, and people are already scared. The other day, there was gunfire in Carapita.

Is it already happening? Is this The Event?

If not, when will it happen, and how?

Will it happen at all? Or will its energy dissipate into the all-consuming every day struggle for survival?

The present is already so much worse than we ever imagined it could be. My only hope now is that, once that atavistic creature, the carajazo, strikes again, we don’t find ourselves saying that once more.