The Violent Innocence of The Caracazo

The events of 1989 carry traces of social trauma: it transcends history and lives ambivalently as a portmanteau fantasy, carrying both fears and desires.

Social upheaval has resurfaced, as it does every so often, in newspaper articles, politicians’ speeches and daily conversation.

“Aquí va a explotar un peo”, is now cliché steeped in uncertainty. From the university professor to the guachimán, everyone seems to assume that that is our most likely scenario. The Chigüire Bipolar, who through comedy has become our national conscience, ironically summed it up: “‘Aquí va a estallar un peo’, says a Venezuelan watching Game of Thrones.”

Traumatic events weave a paradoxical relationship with history, intertwining the intimate with the collective, maintaining a dramatic potential in its psychic isolation.

El Caracazo stands for the rupture of the social pacts that sustained Venezuela’s democracy and the beginning of the turbulent restructuring of power that led ultimately to chavismo. It’s our dominant frame of reference as we try to give meaning to expressions of social discontent, upheaval or just plain looting and destruction.

The events of 1989 carry traces of social trauma, of something that transcends the historical events and now lives ambivalently as a portmanteau fantasy, carrying both fears and desires.

“Aquí va a explotar un peo” is a condensation of terror and longing.

In Fernando Yurman’s wonderful essay, Fantasmas Precursores, on the place of trauma in Venezuelan history, he argues that traumatic events weave a paradoxical relationship with history, intertwining the intimate with the collective, maintaining a dramatic potential in its psychic isolation.

Traumatic experience, by nature, cannot be completely metabolized into a comprehensive narrative because of the pain it evokes. It continually leads us to dizzying excess. A traumatic experience is history transmitted through nightmare, insomnia and intrusive traumatic memory. As Freud put it, enigmatically, in one of his letters to Fliess, “Fantasies are ‘protective fictions’, psychical façades which bar the way to memories”.

In this sense, our current narrative on the Caracazo is plagued with fantasy.

Traumatic memories are prone to excess and manipulation, they feed off irrational emotions, touch upon our passions.

There are two fantasies regarding El Caracazo which we would be wise to handle with care. One is that “el peo” is a spontaneous social upheaval of such dimensions that the State’s power inevitably succumbs to it. A sort of magical last step that will once and for all clear the air of authoritarianism. Wishful thinking at its purest.

In El Mundo Según Cabrujas, the master reserves some of his clearest eyed analysis to the looting that ensued. For Cabrujas, it was the most Venezuelan day ever,

The image of a caraqueño happily hauling a side of beef on his shoulder lingered in my mind. He wasn’t someone half-starving looking for bread, he was a venezuelan ‘jodedor’, that smiling face carrying half a cow refers to a very particular type of ethics; if the President is a thief, than I am too; if the State lies, I do too; if power in Venezuela is nothing but a group of vulgar quarrelers, what law can stop me from going into the butcher shop and stealing meat? Is this viveza? No, it is tragedy.

At last some perspective on the romantic fantasies of mass revolt that now abound. What began as public indignation against the rise of bus fares, amid the collapse in the state’s credibility, degenerated into what Cabrujas called a combination of the sublime and the perverse.

The fantasy of a Final Social explosion that will once and for all free us from political struggle is a simplistic notion trying to appeal to an abstract mass that will magically and spontaneously resist tyranny. It is the mirror image of the opposing fantasy of a military strongman that will come and establish order once and for all. It is part of the problem. A wish for political struggle without struggle. But the Caracazo by itself, did not bring the government down in 1989, nor will our current political struggles succeed without our active participación and organization.

The second one is a fantasy deliberately manipulated by chavismo: that the sacudón marked the beginning of a social revolt that the bolivarian revolution helped to give voice to. In this narrative, government has honored the victims that were brutally murdered by State forces. Chavismo has taken the date as its own, using it as a banner of popular resistance. This is, of course, pure propaganda unsupported by even a casual understanding of the events of the day.

If we read the reports by Cofavic —the NGO created by the family members of the victims of that event— we find that the cases of murder by the hands of State security forces were identified by the Interamerican Comission for Human Rights in 2002, but its resolutions were only partially implemented by the Chávez government. The CIDH sentence ordered the Venezuelan state to compensate victims’ families, to try the perpetrators of human rights abuses and take given steps to avoid any repetition of similar events. Monetary compensations were effectively paid out. But the symbolic reparation, the sentencing of the perpetrators and the steps to avoid another event never occurred. All the crimes remain unpunished.

Talking to one of the mothers of the young men murdered by state troops on those terrible days, I heard her dismay and the feeling of being cheated by a government that continues to delay the trials of those indicted. 27 years after the events, she told me, she has still not been given access to the official police file that documents her son’s case.

The Caracazo has been used as a political banner, not to repair the harm done to the victims’ families, but as a weapon to attack past governments and appear as the vindicators of past wrongs. Chavismo suffers from what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas has described as violent innocence, which is a mechanism of posing as a victim as a way of depositing all of one’s destructivity and guilt on the other. It is a way of denying one’s own aggression, depositing it all on the appointed wrongdoer, on the necessary enemy.

Violent innocence is sustained by the existence of a false self, an incomplete representation, a splitting off of oneself that leaves out crucial information. In perverse collective processes the feeling that one belongs to an exalted group comes with the construction of such a disavowal: “in such a place, though all know how awful some of the dynamics are, each also believes that part of the price of continued admission is to collude with a collective false self”. Such denials are commonplace in a political group that enthusiastically lumps together past Human Rights defenders, criminals and the military.

Chavismo has used the ghosts of the Caracazo to claim the deference owed an innocent victim. But the wounds have not healed, the losses have not been properly mourned.The clearest expression of this is how little the victim’s own voices appear in these recollections.

We have not been able to see up close the suffering that they have endured. We have not reflected enough on the enormous indifference that has allowed violent repression to substitute an active and effective society. We are still very far from developing a political process capable of being in touch with our past wounds in order to heal them instead of dusting them off and wheeling them out periodically to use as justifications for our present violence.

In that sense El Caracazo is very much alive.