I was on a bus from Chacao to Altamira the other day. A woman sitting in front of me was reading Les Miserables as we passed by a newsstand with a graffiti that read “Maduro Dictador.” I arrived at the plaza to see the ashes from the previous night’s barricades, broken glass everywhere, a faint smell of burned debris and kids with covered faces, bandaged arms and legs and hard helmets styling themselves La Resistencia as they asked for money from passing cars.
As I walked around the plaza I stumbled upon an improvised monument. Scribblings on the floor commemorated Juan Pernalete, who had died after being hit in the chest with a tear-gas canister on that spot a couple of weeks earlier; images of a hazy battle that has been raging on the streets of Caracas for two months now.
“Is this what war feels like?” I wonder.
I can’t help but think of the Spanish Civil War, of the fantasies or ghosts lurking somewhere in my mind stemming from my grandparents’ final days in Barcelona. Of a war that at times was fought on the same streets women walked down to go to the market and kids played fútbol on. Of a war that tore a country apart and landed my family on another continent after leaving everything, even the language they spoke, behind. I just now realize how much time I spend imagining my grandparents’ lives. Caracas has somehow become reminiscent of things I never knew.
Ervin Staub, the social psychologist, has studied the rise of mass violence in different contexts: Argentina during the dictatorships, Nazi Germany, the genocide of the Armenians in Turkey, the killings perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. He argues that mass violence develops slowly through “less harmful acts that cause changes in individual perpetrators, bystanders, and the whole group that make more harmful acts possible.”
It feels like war, like in fantasy, like in the movies. But it just might be death. Horror. Senseless murder.
He explains how, through justifications, a group can progress towards increasingly violent acts against another group, until killing becomes far from extraordinary, and commonplace. He lists off some of the conditions that aid this process along:
- Long term hardship that threatens self preservation and collective identity can speed the process.
- Unable to meet people’s needs, perverse leaders resort to scapegoating a particular group to deflect attention from real problems.
- Ideologies develop that support authoritarianism and the use of violence as a legitimate option.
- Euphemisms are employed to help erase one’s own group’s destructiveness.
I’ve been using Staub’s work to think through present day Venezuela for some time now. Sometimes his work reads like our own pergamino de Melquíades, a guide to Venezuela’s ascent through the different steps towards mass violence written long before the fact.
Our government has been militarized and its language is increasingly that of war. It seems to thrive on finding new ways of celebrating violence, from “a peaceful but armed revolution” to “operations to liberate the people”. They seem to be always fighting a war – be it economic, asymmetrical, non-conventional, third generation, psychological or what have you. They seem to long for enemies.
On the other hand, institutions made to ensure that the social contract is respected by all parties have been trampled on to the point that institutionalized ways of resolving conflict have lost all respect.
Like Jalisco, chavismo gana o arrebata.
Negotiated solutions have been betrayed so many times that most people have come to distrust dialogue as such. Positions have become entrenched. The city is a mosaic of trenches. Territories are closed off to protesters. To disagree is to be labeled a traitor. Meanwhile the bodies of the dead keep piling up.
In his latest novel Javier Cercas returns to the Spanish Civil War to reflect on the death of his grandfather’s brother, who went off to war as a teenager. He digs up a story that had been buried in his family closet, suppressed because this relative had fought “on the wrong side of history” —in Tintori’s manichaean scheme— alongside the franquistas. Cercas wonders through the novel what passions drove that young man towards a senseless and brutal war.
Mass violence develops slowly through ‘less harmful acts that cause changes in individual perpetrators, bystanders…’
One of the things that has surprised me in the recent marches is the droves of young men and women that come dressed in what has now become a sort of uniform: white shirts, jeans, an improvised head scarf to protect themselves from tear-gas, a glove to throw back the canisters, decorated shields to ward off proyectiles from the National Guard…For an instant, there’s a camaraderie, a sense of of hope. The momentum of youth.
They come in small groups, kids of all shapes and sizes. Some, very young, exude innocence. Cercas writes that his mother’s favorite uncle, sought to die what the Greeks called kalos thanatos, the death of Achilles, the most beautiful of deaths: a young man fighting in a war for his ideals, dying at the peak of life, avoiding the decrepitude of old age. In the marches I hear adults applauding these groups of youngsters. Soon something begins to feel very wrong.
George Orwell also wrote about his experience as a young man fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Homage to Catalonia recounts with loving detail the solidarity he feels in Barcelona, a city that seems vibrant with hope. But it ends, only six months later, with the disillusionment of having witnessed the atrocities of war and the distrust that soon becomes a plague, even between allies, as well as the backstabbing and political rivalries that tear the republican front apart. He soon becomes weary of idealists, revolutionaries, the querulous intelligentsia, the fashionable left-wingers writing from abroad, who seem to supply gasoline to the fire.
Not much later, in 1940, Orwell writes an essay on Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer titled “Inside the Whale”. There, he cautions against the banal references to death that appear in much of his generation’s criticism. Referring to Auden, who had been writing about “necessary death,” he comments:
“It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men – I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means – the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells. To me, murder is something to be avoided.”
Our government has been militarized and its language is increasingly that of war.
Orwell later names these writers “permanent adolescents”.
Venezuela is plagued by murder, not by war, but by thugs of different sorts – either of delinquent gangs or of uniformed security forces. In March, the Prosecutor General not only rejected the Supreme Court’s illegal dissolution of the General Assembly, she also mentioned that there had been 21,752 homicides committed in 2016; 4,667 of them by government forces.
It takes a while for that to sink in. 4,667.
More than ten Venezuelans were murdered by government forces on an average day.
It feels like war, like in fantasy, like in the movies. But it just might be death. Horror. Senseless murder. After one recent march, a young man by the name of Orlando Figuera was beaten and burned to death by opposition protesters. According to government sources it was because he was identified as a chavista. According to the Prosecutor in charge of the case, it was because he was accused of theft. Susan Sontag wrote: “to the militant, identity is everything”. Either way, it’s difficult to salvage any sort of ideal from this horrific scene.
I listened to a radio interview with the parents of Neomar Lander, who died on the seventh of June. The government was very quick to judge and sentence his death as the result of the explosion of a home-made mortar. Videos show a tear-gas canister being shot directly in his direction. Neomar’s parents seem to be humble people. Neomar was seventeen years old and wanted to study to be a bartender. He attended the marches along with his mother.
In the interview she seems to be struggling to give meaning to such a terrible tragedy. The interviewer asks the father if he thinks that his death will be worth it, if he thinks his son is a hero or a victim, then stumbles a bit and reframes the question stating: “He, in fact, is a victim.”
The subtle hesitation is relevant.
If there is a thread that joins the rise and fall of chavismo to the tragic death of Neomar, it might well be our need for heroes. The symptom is our call for epic battles, the sickness our inability to create human, rational, practical, down to earth solutions to social conflict, instead of appealing to epic revolutions. His father answers tellingly: “I didn’t want a hero, I wanted a son in my house. And if his death was or not worthwhile, I don’t know.”
Venezuela is plagued by murder, not by war, but by thugs of different sorts – either of delinquent gangs or of uniformed security forces.
Towards the end of his novel, which follows his family’s experience closely, Cercas chronicles the dying days of the war, the accumulation of senseless destruction that led to decades of authoritarian darkness in Spain.
It wasn’t a fight between the rich and poor as some wanted to believe. It was a fight between those who could barely eat and those who could not, while a military strongman took advantage of it all.
In the end, Cercas finds a set of documents written by his dead great-uncle, expressing his hope to leave the army and return home.
“What I found out was that Manuel Mena had not always been a young idealist, a provincial intellectual blinded by the romantic and totalitarian brightness of the Falange, and that at some point in the war he had stopped sharing the idea of war that young idealists have, of a place where men find their true self and their real worth. For a moment I told myself that Manuel Mena not only had gotten to know the noble, beautiful, ancient fiction of war that Velásquez painted, but also the horrific reality painted by Goya.”
Cercas recalls Ulysses meeting with Achilles in the mansion of the dead at the end of the Odyssey, when the former congratulates the latter on his heroism and comments that he must surely be the monarch of the dead. After which Achilles begs him to avoid trying to console him from the tragedy of having died at such a young age.
We are suffering the result of a demented State, prepared to wage war on civilians, determined to carry on despite the objections of an overwhelming majority, ready to rule even if only over ruins, covered by the bodies of the young. We are suffering the consequences of years of dismantling institutions created to negotiate solutions to social conflict. We are suffering from years of applauding military leaders, and buying into their fantasies of vindication. We are suffering from our delusions of grandeur, the “magical state”, the winner takes all mentality. And, all around, the stench is of ever increasing destruction, of senseless death.