Tuesday morning. The neighborhood Whatsapp group sends out a heads up: there’s powdered milk at the local supermarket. As I walk past the shop to the end of the freshly formed queue, the group gives a couple of alerts: someone posts that viral front page from EL DIARIO DE CARACAS about shortages from 1989, and another member muses “¿Hasta cuándo aguantará esta vaina? Por menos que eso…”.

HaoBfU7“That was then, this is now”, I think to myself.

I am a bad queue companion. Not only do I feel that every single queue is an embarrassment, an abject failure in a country whose shortages are caused not by war or natural disasters, but by pure social and political errors.

Somehow, I also find myself burdened by the small talk that turns rapidly from the sympathetic and worrying tales about the crisis, to petty parochial talk, reflecting social fears and old grievances.

Sadness gets the best of me. I stay silent while a woman ponders “¿por qué la gente no se alza?”, as someone adds ruefully and hopefully, that an estallido is coming.

***

The neighborhood line is both routine and happenstance, since it is formed anew several times each day, whenever the different social networks announce that a truckload of some price-controlled item has arrived. If you’re near, you drop whatever you’re doing and go there, because any staple will do.

But next to it stands another line. Separate. The out-of-neighborhood line, euphemistically called cola de visitantes: a shameful division stoked by the local need to feel a semblance of control. That one is much more disciplined; people from afar come in the wee hours of the morning to set up camp around the small supermarket. It also shows a stark social divide.

I have long refused the local rationing card system set up by the Neighborhood Association: anyone should be able to buy anywhere, new and unenforceable controls lead to more distortions, thousands do not have any functioning local store where they live, hundreds of people come to work and serve the neighborhood businesses and homes every day, and geographic apartheid is immoral.

Alas, no one would have let me in any other queue than that of the locals: I simply look the part. White and non-threatening, I am a vecino, whether they recognize me or not. This is not lost on the “visitors”, and any given day there is palpable tension between the two lines.

On Wednesday, a rumor spread that some visitantes were stealing bags or queue spots from a neighbor. It prompted a row, violent enough that State police took over the lines for the day. The policemen, who would be deemed “visitors” had they been out of uniform, ask a woman in our line if she’s from around here. She has worked in a nearby house for ten years, and she left her card there. The queue stalls, and some have called for her to be taken out of the line. Her protestations, and the intervention by some of us close by, are strong enough that she’s allowed to stay, seething and humiliated.

Por eso es que bajan los cerros”, she mumbled, and the Caracazo was thus invoked for the third time that day.

***

An ambivalent narrative was beginning to take hold: the events were at the same time a protest against the government and its reforms, and against corruption and the Welfare State.

My first memory of the Caracazo was of a conclave of 5th grade teachers murmuring at our classroom door, “something is going on downtown…” Sent home from school early, it wouldn’t be until that night that I would understand that things began in Guarenas-Guatire. Little did I know that in a two block radius from my childhood home, five supermarkets and a few shops had been looted that day, some never to recover, like the Chinese-run Quincalla at La Florida. Since the riots happened right before payday at the end of the month, supplies at home were scant. Our parents had to buy what the fearful half-opened local shops had: a whole salami, pineapple soda, a box of chocolates.

The crisis subsided, and we went back to school, but the events were the main point of conversation in the coming months. Stories about savage looting and repression were the norm, both on TV and in day to day life. An ambivalent narrative was beginning to take hold: the events were at the same time a protest against the government and its reforms, and against corruption and the Welfare State; looting was somehow both the expression of the people —savage and spontaneous, anarchic and irrepressible— but also an organized effort by brave or violent social fighters. The Armed Forces were both society’s saviors and a threatening scourge hanging over each of us. Everything was true, and its opposite also.

Ultimately, hundreds of small shopkeepers faced ruin.

Hundreds of people were dead or missing.

Nothing was ever the same, because most things were never like we thought they were.

***

The prophecy of the people coming down from the cerros has its own intellectual history. It has served as a warning and a threat, and over the years has been used as an apocalyptic device to close down debate.

Politicians of all democratic parties have taken it as a cautionary tale of politically unsupported reforms, stifling thousands of policy discussions with the straw-men of populism and neoliberalism. Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan far left weaved a tale of legitimacy out of 1989’s violence, to justify the coup attempts of 1992 and the eventual Bolivarian Revolution, heeding of a possible social explosion if they were ever to be removed from power. Radical vocal minorities  would have claimed that Chavismo was the ultimate triumph of the 1989 mobs, and now invoke the cerros against the Maduro government and his “paquete”, pining for an avenging riot that would topple Chavismo, rehabilitate the erstwhile-loathed Carlos Andrés Perez, and bring forth the Armed Forces as savior and scourge.

Most simply wonder why it hasn’t happened again.

Surely, the social situation of 2016 seems, if not worse, at least comparable to that of 1989. A long recession, a crisis of the Welfare State, an unpopular government. There are even small riots reported every day from many different corners. The ingredients appear to be there for a big social purge that will reset the playing field and atone for these last three decades, bringing everything full circle, either by destroying whatever’s left of the old Venezuela or restoring its long-lost hope.

The similarities are deceiving, and the bet for a second coming of the Caracazo are either disingenuous or misguided. The economic crisis of the mid-to-late eighties was due to the abrupt end of the upwardly mobile and dynamic society that had thrived in Venezuela since the 1920s. Whether the change was not sufficiently democratic, broad or expedient, is an open argument, but the fact remains that, for a few generations, every Venezuelan had it better than his predecessors. Every social indicator improved in the intervening decades, at a pace that put Venezuela in the top of the Human Development standards of the second half of the  XXth Century.

Yes, the effort was led by the State, since not only was it oil-rent-rich, but because there was no Civil Society to speak of (and, let us not forget, because the policy consensus in the West was adamantly welfarist). And, yes, the idea of modern Democracy in Venezuela, as far back as the 1930s, has been inextricably linked with how much the lot of the people improves.

How could we be surprised that there was a day of reckoning? The social expectation of never ending betterment was cut short, and something had to give. It found violent expression in a society that had become unaccustomed to its own historical propensities, and thus was met with a violent response beyond the pale. One that has brought forward deep-seated prejudices and resentments, which go both ways.

Whether the change was not sufficiently democratic, broad or expedient, is an open argument, but the fact remains that, for a few generations, every Venezuelan had it better than his predecessors.

Today, social deterioration is much less abrupt. We are almost a decade removed from the heyday of oil-rich Chavismo, and regulation-driven scarcity has been a common fact in life since the end of the aughts.

Similarly, there’s not a single social indicator that hasn’t shown a decline during the last years of Chavez and Maduro’s cuatrienio, but such decline has been cumulative, even if it has greatly accelerated since 2014.

Moreover, the State has grown adept at curbing any surge in violence, letting society vent its frustrations in highly localized events, and preventing them from becoming widespread through force, fear and intelligence work.

The prophecy of the people coming down from the cerros has its own intellectual history. It has served as a warning and a threat, and over the years has been used as an apocalyptic device to close down debate.

It must be said as well that, unlike 1989, there is no organized political catalyst set up towards subversive action, or to transform focal protests into a regional –let alone nationwide- upsurge; the socialist far left is now in power. All this should be enough to explain why “nothing” has happened.

But the Caracazo doesn’t need to occur ever again, because it hasn’t ended yet. Venezuelans have not grasped, collectively, the meaning of the 1989 events. Not only because the legacy of violence and destruction remains unsolved —despite the tenacious work of Human Rights groups, and notwithstanding the specious rhetorical claims to the contrary by public officials— but  also because the structural factors that caused it are still there.

Venezuela is a deeply unequal society, with a violent history, an unproductive economy and an arrested relationship with the State. It invokes the Caracazo not to face up to its shortcomings, but to evade understanding them by playing up the fear and threat of social upheaval.

***

I finally get inside the Supermarket, still flustered by the argument about the domestic worker. I remember the pineapple soda from three decades ago, then see they’ve run out of powdered milk.

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