We Venezuelans are taught at school that April 19th is a national holiday because that’s when we overthrew the Spanish yoke and our Independence was declared. In Spanish, the words for story and history are the same —historia. Perhaps that’s why the concepts get mixed up, too. We know that the Spanish Governor of what, back in 1810, was the Captaincy General of Venezuela lost his post when “the people”, under the influence of the quiquirigüiqui golpista of a high profile priest, let it be know that they didn’t accept his authority.
Nothing that happened that day had anything to do with independence — unless you’re talking about Spain’s independence from France.
The real story, of course, is more complex than that — and so is the History. Spain had been invaded by Napoleon’s army two years earlier. The occupiers had deposed the Spanish king, Ferdinand VII, and replaced him with Napoleon’s own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, plunging Spain into a civilization-shaking crisis.
Back in Caracas, a bunch of white, catholic, rich oligarchs formed a group known as the “defenders of the rights of Ferdinand VII”. They called an assembly in the main square and, in a very civilized sort of riot, told the Captain General, Vicente Emparan, that they couldn’t accept him as the legitimate Colonial authority because he was, in fact, the agent of a foreign government, the French invaders.
Emparan realized he wouldn’t be able to govern those guys, and so he quit.
Notice that nothing that happened that day had anything to do with independence — unless you’re talking about Spain’s independence from France. The insurrectos had no intention to create a Republic, heaven forbid. They were making clear that they would not accept Joseph Bonaparte as their sovereign, and doubling down on their loyalty to their deposed king.
It was a monarchic gesture by Caracas’s mantuano elite. It was only in retrospect that April 19th would come to be seen as the first step along the road to independence. Emparan’s ouster set off a chain of events that would end in war — three of them, in fact — and when the successive bloodbaths subsided, Venezuela would emerge independent.
To the masters, the astonishing image of Emparan quitting from a balcony must have looked entirely different from how they looked to their slaves.
The old lament about how we don’t really know anything about our own history is a tired cliché. Worse, it gets it backward too. It’s the Mantuanos that led this most genteel insurrection who lacked insight into the history they were making. There’s no hint that the people who participated in April 19th, 1810 were trying to start a war. But a war is what they got.
Nor is there any reason to think those events had one reading, even back then. To the masters, the astonishing image of Emparan quitting from a balcony must have looked entirely different from how they looked to their slaves.
Back in 1810, nobody knew how that day would be remembered. In 1830, when the Republic of Venezuela was born, that April 19th must not have been the subject of many conversations: the survivors of 20 years of mass killing were too busy trying to figure out how to build a country out of the smoking ruins. The official story about the “declaration of independence” on April 19th, 1810, that my generation heard from underpaid teachers in the 1980s, would be written only many decades later.
On that day, 207 years ago, the actors saw how deep the abyss between a strategy and an outcome can be —in the difference between what they expected and what actually happened. Maybe Emparan couldn’t have imagined, on that Easter, that he was going to lose the command of an entire colony; maybe the organisers of the cabildo didn’t expect to prevail, and least of all, that ‘winning’ would mean war. Neither what happened that day nor what that day made possible could have been predicted. We can try to give a push to History, but we don’t really know if it’s going to stay still, to move a little, or to jump off a cliff and leave us screaming in mid air.
This, at any rate, was what came to mind ahead of this April 19th, as Venezuelans get set to march once more against the chavista autocracy.
Venezuelans will be doing something that feels historic, but the expectation that we can agree on its meaning either now or in the future seems misplaced. Some are thinking nothing will happen, some might be expecting the by-now-normal beatings and kidnappings, others might think this could be the tipping point, and another group might be totally unaware of the march. Thousands are even raging on the social media about Nitu’s version that the march will be canceled in exchange for regional elections.
Like the caraqueños of 1810, none of us can foresee whether this April 19th will be historic, much less how it might be assimilated into Official History over time.
Will there be more people marching, and therefore, will it be harder for PNB and GNB to stop them before they can reach the Defensoría del Pueblo? Will the colectivos attack? Will the Army take over if the National Guard is unable to handle a widespread protest? Will this last scenario break the military chain of command? Will we see bullets instead of tear gas? What would happen if Capriles is arrested, or if regional elections are announced, before the march? What will be the role of Henri Falcón, Tarek William Saab, or Tareck El Aissami in all this?
Like the caraqueños of 1810, none of us can foresee whether this April 19th will be historic, much less how it might be assimilated into Official History over time. We can’t forge a consensus on the present; we won’t have one about the past. Ever. Venezuelans don’t know what the events of 207 years ago meant. That’s normal. On April 19th, 2224, Venezuelans won’t agree on what today’s events mean, either. That’s normal too.
What we do know today is that this is not 2016 or 2014. Never before has chavismo been so unpopular and so fragmented. Never before has the ruling elite been so ruthless.
Never before, not even in April 2002, has a big march looked so capable of starting a chain of events that could mean the end of an era and the beginning of another.
History, with a capital H, could be preparing another big jump.