On a Sunday, at the end of March 1989, Moisés Naím hosted a lunch for a group of friends. I was among them.

Just under a month earlier, we had witnessed the social explosion and the riots and looting that had bloodied Caracas, which were consigned to Venezuela’s collective memories as el Caracazo.

Naím was Minister for Economic Development (Fomento) in the second government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993), and as such, he was part of the cabinet that accompanied Pérez in his attempt to introduce far reaching economic reforms.

It’s been nearly thirty years since those events, and my memories of those days, at the end of February and March of 1989 are blurry. Including terrible events I witnessed personally, because I happened to be out and about when the looting started.

I was still living in Prado de María, where I grew up. At the turn of the 20th century, Prado de María had been a vast swathe of grazing land, some 10 miles Southwest of downtown Caracas. It slowly turned into a lower middle class neighborhood during the late 30s. In 1989, this nice, picturesque Caracas neighborhood was still very far from plunging over the abyss into one of the most violent and deprived areas of the city.

The main thoroughfare in the area was and is the Avenida Principal del Cementerio. After hundreds of fear-stricken troops, hastily flown into Caracas to reinforce the local garrison, finished machinegunning the slums that skirt the hills on the North side of the avenue, at dawn of the third day of rioting, you could see dozens of people guarding the bodies of their loved ones, right where they had fallen, waiting for the curfew to be lifted so the dead could be hauled off to the morgue.

The casualty count all over the city rose into the hundreds. Many gruesome scenes were captured in barrio Las Luces by my younger brother, who was a press photographer at the time.

 
I joined the stunned onlookers in witnessing these three women convincing the uniformed officers to tie up a metal cable from their vehicle to the sliding door of a shop advertising itself as a jewelry workshop.

Unlike my younger brother, I didn’t get to see bodies piled up on the sidewalk, but I did run across looting. There’s one incident, in particlar, I’ll never forget.

Three women, ostensibly from the barrio, all of them heavily pregnant, began to negotiate with the policemen on board a Policia Metropolitana Jeep. This was on the intersection of Avenida Roosevelt with Avenida Principal del Prado de María, a downmarket commercial area.

I joined the stunned onlookers in witnessing these three women convincing the uniformed officers to tie up a metal cable — the proverbial “guaya” derived from “wire” by our oil sector work crews — from their vehicle to the sliding door of a shop advertising itself as a jewelry workshop, which had been cautiously shut down by its owners when the looting started.

The guys on the Jeep hurried to do as they were told, and after a few failed attempts, they managed to yank the santamaría clear off. The women rushed inside and began to carry off the deplorably crafted jewelry. One of the three cops was armed with an old, Belgian Vigneron sub-machine gun. They could not have looked more dejected.

They’d clearly hoped for a different class of booty. The women, on the other hand, ran jubilantly with their stash of bisutería, which they would go on to resell, possibly at the Mercado de El Cementerio.

By then the three cops had become the laughingstock of the onlookers. The one with the submachine gun fired a burst into the air to disperse us and, I suppose, to vent his frustration. Seconds later, the jeep took off and was soon out of view.

 
Like any calamity of a certain caliber, those events were almost immediately explained by the pundits with hypothesis that often made absolutely no sense and still elicit a grin.

Vignettes like this one come back to my mind as goyaesque sketches, interspersed with photos and grotesque bits of video, together with borrowed memories that over time have begun to feel like they’re my own.

Like any calamity of a certain caliber, those events were almost immediately explained by the pundits with hypothesis that often made absolutely no sense and still elicit a grin. Certainly, as T.S. Eliot put it, “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and is always eager to accept the most far-fetched conjectures to give the inexplicable a place in the world.

And yet I cannot think back on those times without a little nostalgia for the country that blindingly, unfoundedly and fleetingly we managed to become in the decade that ended with el Caracazo.

So the convivial afternoon offered by the Naíms could not give rise to any sort of celebration, after the hundreds of lives lost, of the collective assault on the right to property that configured the final fracture of the “illusion of harmony” that had preceded its own idea of itself, if not Venezuelan society as a whole, then a good part of its enlightened elite. (We’ll come back to that expression, the “illusion of harmony”, but not for quite a few paragraphs.)

As I said, it wasn’t a celebration, and though I cannot recall Naím’s exact phrasing when he called with his invite, I am certain that his idea was to put together a handful of Venezuelans alive to public affairs without seeking greater efficacy than to bring them together to share the perplexities and stupors each of us carried in those times.

And although the tenor of the event was never lugubrious, I remember the gravity in the air and the consternation that suffused our conversations.

Most of the guests were part of the Pérez Cabinet, and I was struck by the heterogeneity of the group: young people from academe, like Naím and Miguel Rodríguez; seasoned veterans of political party militancy who may have doubled them in age, such as the dour and measured Alejandro Izaguirre, the interior minister nicknamed, inexplicably, “el policía”; an active duty military officer, General Italo del Valle Alliegro, defense minister, and others. They’d all finished a very tough month, perhaps the toughest in their lives, and it showed.

Back then, I wouldn’t have known how to answer if someone had asked me what I did. I worked halfheartedly as a telenovela scriptwriter, after a long internship as a professional activist, first in the Communist Youth (Juventud Comunista) and later in the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), but by then I was no longer a political militant. I wrote a weekly newspaper column in El Nacional that I peddled as satirical, but in my day to day life what really moved me was the theater.

As happens in true friendships, I wouldn’t know when or how I met Naím, given that his world and mine were, to say it in terms of set theory, a ‘void intersection”, but I think Juan Nuño had something to do with it.

I said earlier that I’d give the phrase “illusion of harmony” its due. It’s the phrase with which Moisés Naím and his colleague, Ramón Piñango, had brilliantly christened, just three years earlier, a book that shook not just Venezuela’s academic circles but Venezuela’s whole public sphere.

 
Many of the men and women who, together with Naím, had set into motion those urgent reforms, and with whom I lunched that Sunday, would soon be satanized as soulless technocrats. The most benevolent described them with contempt as “muchachos bien, carentes de burdel,” sorcerer’s apprentices, hamfisted officiants of the Washington Consensus. I know it because I too joined that accusing chorus.

It was a one of a kind book, no question: part survey of the most paradoxical findings on Venezuela, from the point of view of economics, statistics and sociology, and part an incisive essay that fisked the most deep seated certainties about Venezuela that the country’s elites held to. It’s a book that, reread today, has a predictive streak that, on that Monday in February of 1989, crystallized in a way I’m almost sure its own authors were stunned by.

Many of the men and women who, together with Naím, had set into motion those urgent reforms, and with whom I lunched that Sunday, would soon be satanized as soulless technocrats. The most benevolent described them with contempt as “muchachos bien, carentes de burdel,” sorcerer’s apprentices, hamfisted officiants of the Washington Consensus. I know it because I too joined that accusing chorus.

And here we come to the nut of this evocation. The arguments put forward against reforms did not go beyond, for the most part, the discursive level of the brilliant liberal pamphlets of Antonio Leocadio Guzmán in his struggle with the “manchesterian” oligarchs, no less brilliant, who surrounded General Páez, circa 1840.

Very soon, public debate became engorged with the most misleading, simplistic and ill-tempered narrative possible about what had happened and its causes.

I hasten to add that, since that time, I’ve been convinced that the caracazo was what the French call a “jacquerie”: a leaderless communal revolt, more or less violent, that expands and gains territory and blows itself out soon after, in a way that Malcolm Gladwell could probably explain much better than Venezuela’s “reactionary left”, to use the expression coined by the departed Argentine-Catalan thinker, Horacio Vásquez-Rial.

In fact, the Venezuelan left, reactionary as a whole, wasted no time in attributing the looting spree to a popular rebellion on the scale of the Revolt of the Comuneros. And even if it was without leaders known beforehand, it would amount, according to that narrative, to an action explicitly directed to denouncing the World Bank, Public Choice theory, the IMF and Milton Friedman himself.

Apparently the three women and the cops I saw in Prado de María were devoted readers of Noam Chomsky and Tony Negri.

Those who would, in time, take the lead alongside Chávez, began their pilgrimage from the Enchanted Castle at Cendes to Yare jail. They were the future ministers who, when the time came, would think up mass expropriation, exchange controls, and vertical chicken coops.

Starving for fresh ideas since the mid-1960s, in need of a caudillo to galvanize its longstanding, maggot-infested militarism, it was only a matter of time for a gifted ad-libber of historicist themes named Hugo Chávez equaled the Caracazo with the blinding voice that knocked Saint Paul off his horse to reveal the road to Damascus to him. A road that, in Chávez’s case, went straight past Havana and onward to the destruction of our democracy.

And yet, there’s one thing I’m sure of. None of the guests in that March luncheon could have imagined the dystopian hour that chavismo has brought our erstwhile beautiful and vibrant nation.

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