Confronting El Caracazo

There are two options when confronting Caracazo: digesting it, or spitting it out. Either we see it as an Estallido Social of shortsightedness and savage chaos, or as the awareness-creating moment of a massive political movement against imperialist neoliberalism. Two readings, two Venezuelas.

Alain Badiou, a French philosopher, writes about political Events as having the power of creating fidelities around them, completely redefining social and political realities and the subjects that participate in them. True Events, for Badiou, bring what was not previously visible into the foreground, forcefully breaking and redefining the social reality of those who experience them.

Could an Event that happened before you were born nevertheless define the social space that you’re born into, leaving our identities caught up in its ramifications so deeply that we have to go back and try to understand it to understand ourselves?

That’s my generation’s experience with respect to el Caracazo. I missed the Caracazo’s “Midnight’s Children moment”, but only by a few months. If we hope to move into a new political era that goes beyond what we inherited, how should we think of it now? What lessons do we need to learn?

That’s what #CaracazoWeek is about, right? I see it as part of a broader project —digesting chavismo— that runs counter to what the opposition has stubbornly been trying (and failing) to do for a good part of the last decade and a half: spitting chavismo out.

I asked some people my age to give me one-line characterizations of what Caracazo means to them. Here’s a sample of what came back:

  El quiebre de la democracia — Democracy’s breaking point.

  El despertar de un pueblo — a people’s awakening.

  Una conspiración en contra de CAP — a conspiracy against Carlos Andrés Perez.

  Un gran bochinche — bedlam.

  La fuerza por encima de la razón — force trumping reason.

  Una masacre del pueblo por parte de la cúpula neoliberal — a massacre against the pueblo perpetrated by the neoliberal elite.

Some other defy translation:

  La máxima expresión de la viveza criolla.

  El día en que bajaron los cerros.

I wanted visceral reactions, not ones filtered through considerations of what’s acceptable or historically accurate. I’m no historian and I’m not currently writing about what actually went down. I’m interested instead in our political identities and how the Caracazo’s alternative meanings might actually teach us something.

The responses break down into two overarching narratives: on the one hand the estallido social narrative of a shortsighted people who did not understand much needed reforms and opted instead for savage chaos. On the other, the despertar de un pueblo narrative which politicizes the events as inchoate Chavismo, the awareness-creating moment of a massive political movement against imperialist neoliberalism. Two readings, two Venezuelas.

Growing up, as I did, in a vehemently opositor milieu, the first of these narratives is the most familiar to me. The hoary cliché — “bajaron los cerros” — generated a particularly strong image in my young mind, a swarm of dehumanized bodies descending from the mountains in a looting frenzy, invading and disrupting normalcy.

Of course, this image was my inherited share of anxiety, the deep realization that our pasado salvaje (as Briceño Guerrero would put it) is not so buried in the past as we had thought, and that perhaps our national-pride-cementing story of a harmonious democracy was never as color de rosa as we thought. In the context of the colonial legacy of a stratified society, our harmony rested on the continued and strict observance of geographic and symbolic boundaries, where the most apocalyptic vision imaginable is one in which the demarcating lines are violently crossed, i.e. cuando bajan los cerros.

On the other hand the despertar del pueblo narrative was always presented to me as mere propaganda: a populist lie at the service of an authoritarian project. And I believe it is, or at least has become, for the most part, precisely that. But I also believe that hiding somewhere in that narrative is a recognition that is missing from the other, an identification of something that came into the public sphere for the first time with El Caracazo and that certain parts of Chavismo were quick to identify and co-opt to put at the service of the authoritarian project that we are all too familiar with by now.

Long time left wing activists such as Roland Denis and self-described radical political scientist George Cicciarello-Maher favor what could be called a bottom-up narrative of how the left came to power in the late 90s. For them, it was the underlying strain of radical left wing activism (including armed struggle) that can be traced at least as far back as the AD-MIR split of 1960, which eventually generated Chávez as political phenomenon, and not the other way around.

As they see it, Chávez was born out of the same stuff as El Caracazo: the emancipatory thinking that was incipient in 1958 that went up into the cerros with in the rural guerrilla movements of the 60s, in the urban guerrilla movements of the 70s, and in urban groups through the 80s that would become known as the “Tupamaros” by the early 90s. For Cicciarello-Maher, El Caracazo was nothing, strictly speaking, new. It was a continuation of an ideological struggle against a hostile neoliberal state that goes back to the emancipatory fervor of 1958.

If the estallido social narrative hides remnants of colonial prejudice, the despertar de un pueblo narrative suffers from the totalizing, teleological overstepping so typical of the left.

To place Caracazo so surely within this anti-imperialist narrative doesn’t just do violence to the historical record (after all, radical left wing guerrillas and parties had been failing to connect with the larger population for decades – and we have election results to show for it) but it’s embarrassingly simplistic, projecting a coherent political will onto the thousand motivations at play in the Sacudón:

The initial anger in increased transport prices was generalized quickly and successfully to encompass the entire neoliberal economic package, thereby channeling popular anger not at bus drivers but instead directly at the President, the party system, and the State. (Ciccariello-Maher, G..We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution.Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. P.93)

The brutal repression that ensued may have crystallized a visceral rejection of the state as a common enemy, but to go project onto the events of 1989 the whole of the political agenda of a certain part of far left is wishful thinking at best, malicious propagandizing at worst. And that’s what Chavismo has been feeding us.

This is not to say that there’s no emancipatory story to be told. The despertar del pueblo recognizes the new political subjects brought forth as a result of Caracazo in ways that competing narratives didn’t, and can’t. The need for a profound change was made clear once the Caracazo laid bare the repressive heart of the old regime, and Chavez and his followers found an opportunity to capitalize on it that they were never going to pass up.

Banking on the conflict between the two visions that emerged, they were able to increase the visibility of problems they would, once in power, only make worse. What came to light in 1989 is the frailty of a dominant discourse that wasn’t just incapable of addressing people’s demands but, much more damagingly, couldn’t even see them.

What’s different about post-Caracazo Venezuela is that the worst of our system failures — the deep inability of our state to channel people’s legitimate demands — is no longer invisible. Visibility isn’t much of a consolation — surely, solutions would be far preferable. But visibility is what we’ll have to settle for.