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.

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  1. That comment about the looting as an expression of “viveza” just nailed it. It was that, and not any far-ranging and Machiavelian conspiracy or deep “social protest”, it was that what made the explosion of the Caracazo reach the levels it did.

    After decades of hearing the same ideas (“we are rich, so if you are not is because somebody stole it”), that mentality was the one that went out that day and manifested itself in all its simplicity, to say, simply, this is a country of wiseguys “listos” y foolish “pendejos”, and I’m not going to be a pendejo. If your view of the country institutions is that it is just a racket of “wiseguys” that knew how to put themselves where there was money to steal, well, that day it was a big “fuck you, I can do it too, what you are going to do about it” for many.

    Later it would came the sanctification of the explosion, after the repression turned that inverse carnival, that removal of the mask to show what they believed to be the true face of everybody, into a tragedy. But those first hours? For many It was just an outburst of sincerity. This is what everybody does to me. This is what everybody is doing. This is just more sincere and direct, more “honest”. This is just my day not to be the pendejo.

  2. “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.”

    This is a really powerful observation. The Caracazo has not been Venezuela’s Amritsar, or Bloody Sunday. It did not move history forward. It did not compel uncomfortable insights, like this one quoted above. It sort of ratified a deadlock of old notions.

    On another tangent, I’ve been reading this and thinking about Vargas. That must be the most cataclysmic and to a large and significant measure human-generated tragedy in modern Venezuelan history. Surely that should have been a point of awakening, of mass insight. But while similar disasters have led to mass political engagement and tectonic change (as, to take a random example, in Mexico after the 1985 earthquake), it is not Vargas, but the Caracazo that lives large in the popular imagination, locked in an eternal standoff between the twin, moribund notions captured in this passage from the post. We have to move beyond that.

    • Regarding Vargas… What really saddens me is that nothing structurally changed to improve the situation there. Even the social housing is set up parallel to the mountains (which is a BIG NO-NO in case of another event). Public services are a mess… They haven’t completed the ‘works’ to reduce vulnerabilities.. etc. Just sad.

        • It happens every year. Every time you hear a houses crumbling down due to rainfall or when a river increases in size and wears out the slopes where most of slums are located (at least in Caracas). Land saturation is a real threat to a lot of poor families. All because of rain and -most importantly- sewage.

  3. Our imagination is held prisioner between two contrasting delusions: the cult of the apocalyptic popular explosion of righteous wrath that will cleanse the country of all its miseries and corruption , and the grandiose strong man who imposes order on the chaos that pervades our lives and makes it unlivable…..!! , behind it those artefacts of latin american culture , the violet sweeping Revolution ……..and the Grand Providential Strong Man or Caudillo , possesed of a supernaturally heroic will to rescue us from our miseries……., less prominent is the Dark Villain who oppress and victimize the Noble Good Hearted People for their benefit ( which can be embodied by the Oligarchy, the Whiteys, The Elites, Big Business, The Cia ) and who acts as a melodramatic foil to the Caudillo and allows those who like identifying with the Victimized People a focus to feed their thrill at hating something with fierce self celebrating righteousness…!!

  4. Llorens,

    This is one of the cleverest texts I have read about the Caracazo.
    I just want to add this: Chavistas not only used this tragic event to re-write history and attack others. It also must be very very happy we, the opposition, have failed to force time after time the discussion about the details of where the responsible people are, who, apart from Alliegro and Carlos Andrés Pérez, committed crimes, who among the military shot at people.

    After WWII the Allies were not just after the top 2 or 5 responsible. There was a whole process of investigation.

    The thing is this: a lot of the responsible even among the military were people who would become Chavista honchos…just like Chacín was one of the military preparing attacks against innocent (he did not take part in the Massacre of Amparo only because he had an accident a few days earlier and went to hospital), just like
    Róger Cordero Lara took actually part in The Cantaura Massacre, so many others were one way or the other more involved in the Caracazo than most politicians from the so-called IV Republica.

    We have failed to inform the people about this. We have failed to talk about that over and over. We have failed to distribute flyers asking people on the queues why we do not have a comprehensive list of missing people from that time etc.

  5. One of the biggest question marks I have right now is how are we moving forward as a nation. I was born in 1990 and I’m not from Caracas. So in a sense, new generations know of the Caracazo through stories and accounts of what happened. But never lived it.. and I think in general never shaped the way they thought about themselves and about the country.

    Are we learning to correct the mistakes of the past even if we didn’t have any involvement whatsoever? How are we going to overcome something we didn’t partake in nor have any deep knowledge about? It troubles me a lot.

    Caracazo happened and it seems like nothing changed. Vargas happened and it also feels like nothing changed. Have we changed? It doesn’t seem like it.

  6. Good evening,

    Maybe Caracas Chronicles should put a story named “Leave your Own Story Here…” for those that lived through the Caracazo or knew first hand accounts of what happened on those days. One of the things I remember was that 27 and 28 Feb was a Monday and Tuesday, and that many people who are paid by the week or every 15 days were waiting for their check to arrive when the gasoline and urban transportation was hiked up, I worked in the Tuy Valley (75 Kms from Caracas) and my first worry was how to get enough gasoline (and how to pay for it…) to return home, (Caracas) To be continued …

    • On 28 Feb Banks were closed (I think only Banco Mercantil had ATM machines in those days and I did not have a Mercantil ATM card) and so were nearby gas stations, so the company were I worked checked in their safe and and divided the little petty cash they had between several of us. In the plant we checked the forklift truck and extracted maybe 15 – 20 liters of gasoline which were shared between the cars with less gasoline. We drove back in group, and I remember seeing 2 persons walking in the Charallave – La Peñita highway with shop carts filled up to the brim with groceries … At the toll booth entering Caracas I decided to go through the Baruta road, since I sensed that the highway in front of Fuerte Tiuna was dangerous (it was, I later learned). near Baruta I saw a Metropolitan Police pull a shotgun and fire at some kids stealing something, I was almost in the line of fire… Fortunately he had either run out of ammo or only had blank shots, the shotgun made a lot of noise, and nothing else and then the policeman made a “what the heck” gesture and continued walking.. I arrived at El Marques 3-4 hours after leaving Tuy Valley, in one piece. Another thing I will never forget was the amount of people walking in the Francisco de Miranda avenue, since there was no subway or bus service, this maybe around 4 to 5 pm

  7. The Llorens´ opinion about the Purifying Fire (because we are talking of this: the Phoenix´s fantasy) is very interesting and it makes me thinking on my proper desires. I still talking in Spanish because is really a important theme:

    Muchas religiones juegan con la idea del fuego como un purificador, como el símbolo del castigo o penitencia divinas, e incluso en algunas se asocia a la deidad predominante con el fuego. Esa imagen sigue presente en nuestros subconscientes pese a que no está en el cristianismo. Por eso tantas naciones en momentos de crisis extremas llegan a pensar que lo mejor es destruirlo todo para renacer más fuertes que nunca. El mito del ave fénix. Destruir el pasado para poder construir un nuevo futuro pues la ligazón al pasado es lo que nos impide avanzar. Y lo peor es que hay ejemplos históricos que lo justifican, como la Alemania post-2GM, la Revolución Francesa (sobre todo en su fase jacobina), la Rusia soviética post-zarismo, etcétera.

    Por eso los guarimberos escogieron como símbolo al ave fénix, pues en efecto eso era lo que querían, destruir las viejas, podridas y corrompidas estructuras (lo que incluía tanto al chavismo como a los viejos partidos de la cuarta, por algo no había casi adecos o copeyanos en las guarimbas), y crear algo totalmente nuevo. Y es muy fácil pensar así cuando eres joven y todo lo que has conocido de Venezuela es el lado oscuro, marginal y decadente, y ya nadie recuerda los viejos tiempos dorados. Acoto que con “marginal” me refiero a la actitud (“el rancho en la cabeza”), no el color de piel.

    Yo siempre he visto al Fuego Purificador (nombre que le doy al mito de “el peo”) como la última esperanza, si todo lo demás falla. Y así lo hemos visto muchos, debido a todas las veces que la MUD traicionó nuestra confianza en ellos (se podría decir que la Gran Traición fue el recule de Capriles en abril de 2013), lo más que esperamos de ellos es un “tal vez logren tumbar a Maduro”. No hay nadita de fe. Y como es muy díficil ser 100% racional cuando pasas hambre, pasa lo que pasa.

    También está el conocimiento de que la venganza que en el fondo tanto anhelamos solo es posible a través del Fuego Purificador. Entiéndase por “venganza” los deseos más oscuros que tenemos respecto a todos los inútiles que nos metieron en esta crisis. No me refiero a un tribunal aplicando justicia. Por algo se menta a cada rato en Twitter el destino final de Gadaffi. El bárbaro que todos los seres humanos llevamos dentro suele emerger en momentos como éstos. Homo homini lupus.

    Y ya esto es personal, yo no tengo muchas esperanzas en un golpe. Pero sí en que el Fuego Purificador obligaría a escoger a los militares (sobre todo al militar de a pie, esto es esencial) entre matar a miles por Maduro o unirse a las masas sublevadas. Eso es lo que queremos, que el destino del país se decida en un solo clímax, como en las películas, no en un penoso anti-clímax donde cuando nos demos cuenta de que el chavismo gobernará para siempre sea demasiado tarde para poder escapar.


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