“Who was that pale youngster who followed Jesus covered only by a thin sheet that night of sweat and blood, of unheard cries, of kisses of betrayal, torches and crowds, tunics and swords, a rumour of footsteps in the bushes, piled up shadows on the prowl, humiliation and arrest and, finally, the stubborn roosters of sunrise?
What unthinkable passion can guide someone to go out to face rejection and threats, under the universal indifference of the stars, dressed only in a solitary sheet?
Was there not fever in the mind of the young man?
Didn’t his presence here and his dress, obey a different consciousness from the ordinary…?”
Armando Rojas Guardia’s extraordinary poem The Nudity of the Madman came to mind recently as I saw the pictures of that skinny, quixotic body climbing on the armored personnel carrier and pleading with the National Guard to please stop the abuse.
Rojas Guardia writes of the extreme vulnerability of nudity as well as of its statement of poignant rebellion. Public nudity is a condition that will surely be scoffed at, that will spark amazement and scandal. A condition that underlines that he who chooses nudity states his absolute personal conviction, his utter indifference to social approval, his lack of need to appeal to any instrument of power. He needs only his belief to confront the trappings of force.
In the recent painful series of confrontations with an authoritarian government we’ve seen it all: from calls for mass violent revolt, to the barely concealed longing for a military pronouncement.
We’ve seen sober people celebrate young men throwing rocks at armed soldiers and, now and again, overpowering them. These images seem to fuel the fantasies of defeating an increasingly militarized state through force.
The excess of hard metal layers to protect power, in contrast with the frailty of bare skin.
But we’ve also seen the opposite. It’s telling that it’s the nude young man who captured the country’s imagination, leading Maduro and many public chavistas to publicly belittle him, which was just another way of recognizing his impact.
His name is Hans Wuerich, but he’ll forever be remembered as the joven desnudo. He’s become a symbol of civil resistance. He follows a collection of largely anonymous citizens who have bravely taken a stance in Venezuela and defied authoritarian power with the only weapon they have: their consciousness.
The images recalled instances from years past. I was on the scene in 2014 the day after the Defense Minister ordered a raid of Plaza Altamira. He described the affair as a complex and sophisticated display of military logistics, second only to D-Day, to take over what had become the center of citizen protests. During the night, the Defense Minister strolled triumphantly through the plaza displaying on live tv his “recovered” territory. He proudly explained how his tanks had been able to overpower student rocks and the old lady’s pots and pans.
The next day, a small group of catholic nuns decided to take it back. They walked through the plaza singing out for justice. They left the soldiers perplexed. Were they to arrest these rebels? This wasn’t the sight of the “terrorist” groups the government adamantly blamed for the protests all day on television. Were they to tear gas them out?
As if our solutions could be willed by force. Is it not obvious that force has failed?
While the security forces demurred on how to handle the punk nuns, neighbours began to join in, and soon the plaza was filled with citizens, that is, people of all ages, and sizes, and walks of life. People occupying a public plaza to do what citizens are supposed to do: share in community their thoughts and feelings on communal life, which at that moment meant rejection of government abuse.
The security forces there were left facing a paradox: attack an unarmed crowd for nothing but showing their rejection of the government through chants, and hence underlining their brutality, or staying put and being dumbfounded by the power of citizen resistance to military power. Commanders did the smartest thing they could probably do –by ordering the soldiers to leave.
It was a tiny moment of comfort amid the horror. An instant of citizen rule over authoritarian imposition. It took tons of bravery and defiance, but not force. The Generals would much prefer a furious youngster throwing a rock, rather than a large group of old ladies praying. The nuns were much more skillful players of the power game. They knew they had the upper hand.
Days ago, an older woman stood up in front of those same armoured personnel carriers. Her stance succeeded in much the same way. An old lady in front of an APC is something that the National Guard doesn’t know how to handle. I don’t mean to say that the military doesn’t prey on vulnerability. We have enough video footage to demonstrate that government doesn’t seem to mind ganging up on defenseless demonstrators and beating them to a pulp. But just as often, the photographed and video-recorded citizens standing up publicly with no power but their convictions has great force.
The Generals would much prefer a furious youngster throwing a rock, rather than a large group of old ladies praying.
I still remember the terrible evening of 2002 when a deranged man began shooting at the innocent people who were protesting in Plaza Altamira. Someone who I believe was never identified crept up behind his back and wrestled his gun away. He prevented many more deaths. No mention was made of the man. His action disappeared, crowded out by the news of the murderous lunatic. He was an anonymous citizen, bravely taking a stance in very dangerous circumstances.
In 2013, the Minister of Housing, Ricardo Molina met with his closest employees and announced that “I really don’t care what labor laws say. I won’t accept anybody coming here to talk down the revolution”, and he threatened to persecute and fire any sympathizers of the opposition while an adoring crowd cheered and screamed “así es que se gobierna.”
Someone filmed this display of abuse and leaked it to the public. An anonymous source. Someone who was very close to the minister that day, who probably knew the risks he or she was taking. A witch hunt probably ensued, in search of a traitor. The footage is an important piece of proof of the persecution public sector workers have endured.
Rojas Guardia goes on:
He escaped in the nude. Only nude could he escape the crowd, out for blood, the insomniac troop, the confusion of voices and shouting, the pushes, the insults, escape from the societal hour of the law looking for a transgressor, the eternal prisoner.
These episodes of anonymous defiance, of nudity confronting uniforms and ammunition, turn power upside down. The silhouette of the nude young man recalled the images of naked bodies running from napalm in Vietnam, or the lonely man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square. It made one think of Auschwitz.
Maduro found it necessary to address the episode. He decided to mock him, trying to minimize his relevance, dispatch it as a mere spectacle. He made a joke about dropping the soap. The image of the nude man was now in front not only of tanks, but of the tasteless humor of an executioner. Maduro empowered the symbol.
The footage is an important piece of proof of the persecution public sector workers have endured.
It is a powerful image of civil resistance, of Nudity confronting armoured cars. They are poles apart: the excess of hard metal layers which protect power, in contrast with the frailty of bare skin.
Judith Butler, in her brilliant essay on the place of mourning in political processes, argues that awareness of vulnerability might be a key factor in opening space for the development of non-military solutions, “just as denial of this vulnerability through a fantasy of mastery can fuel the instruments of war.”
“We cannot, however, will away this vulnerability,” she tells us. “We must attend to it, even abide by it, as we begin to think about what politics might be implied by staying with the thought of corporeal vulnerability itself”.
Being nude, writes Rojas Guardia, is “an invitation to live another way, with fear and awe before the miracle of existing every day under heaven.”
We have suffered years of military solutions. We have militarized the economy, we have militarized security and a large part of the population continues to crave a military resolution. As if our solutions could be willed by force. Is it not obvious that force has failed? But force’s nature is to insist on forcing a way out.
“We were, and are, like him” writes Rojas Guardia musing on extreme psychological vulnerability, “thanks to a privileged suffering.” We are able, he says, “to see the world upside down.”
Civil resistance, the construction of a democracy guided by civil society, is different from the need for conquest; it is a recognition of the other through intimate awareness.
I have no idea how this will end. But I know for sure that that afternoon in Plaza Altamira, after the nuns defeated the soldiers in their heavy war attire, was a moment of insight and joy. I believe that Hans Wuerich’s nude lunacy is a much more honorable expression of the country I yearn for than that of tacky military medals draped over protruding bellies and hanging on crusty uniforms.