The Eruption of a New Society

Beneath the “buena nota” veneer, Venezuelan society has a deep streak of self-loathing. Could the exhilarating experience we shared on Sunday help change that?

Maybe foreigners and recent observers of our spectacular mess aren’t aware that, alongside its horrid indicators the measurable dimension of the disaster Venezuela has a serious case of national self-hatred as well.

It may not be evident at first sight. Many Venezuelans are prone to respond with the primal, basic patriotic reflex: Lo nuestro es lo mejor, con Venezuela no te metas, etc. But in everyday life in the ways that many of us are taught since childhood to deal with each other, in the words we use about the rest, in the images and ideas with which we refer to the masses we reveal a society that despites itself.

We don’t trust anybody, unless it is someone we know very well. Actually, our warmth and joviality are often a thin façade over an intense state of alert, one which tends to give way to a disposition to harm: break that crust of smiles and hermanoqueridos with anything perceived as an aggression, and you’ll see how we can go from 0 to 100 insults per minute faster than a Lamborghini.    

We used to tell old jokes built around the trope of the Venezuelan as trickster or idiot: an American, a German and a Venezuelan share an elevator; the first two behave in a rational and civil way, the third one closes the story with a comic display of stupidity. We share a long, solid history of prejudice with many postcolonial nations that survived the 19th and 20th centuries. You see it in both an illustrated form the sour motif of civilización vs. barbarie, source of frustration for intellectuals and of pretexts to autocrats and in our tendency to nod approvingly at anyone complaining about the absence of politeness inside a bus or any guerrero del teclado tweeting his repulsion for Henrique Capriles’s promenades in the slums.

An American, a German and a Venezuelan share an elevator; the first two behave in a rational and civil way, the third one closes the story with a comic display of stupidity.

You could trace the ancestry of this disdain and hopelessness about the capacities of the common Venezuelans way back; from Miranda’s bochinche, puro bochinche  final curse; to travel diaries by Europeans like Carl Appun, a naturalist outraged by the fact that no one in the Guayana jungle had a clock; and to the thesis by Laureano Vallenilla Lanz and his son, who wrote that only a gendarme necesario could rule over such an uncivilized people, a thesis that became the ideological façade to the 27-years dictatorship of general Juan Vicente Gómez as well as the 8-years regime of general Marcos Pérez Jiménez.

More recently, you can read the essays of historians like Elías Pino Iturrieta or Inés Quintero on the Apartheid system that was Colonial Venezuela, when the multitud promiscual of non-whites was the subject of permanent abuse. You can turn to the oeuvre of Germán Carrera Damas and learn how mutual hatred drove the spears and machetes of the ethnic cleansings of 1814, or you can take a look at the essays of Petare-based priest and researcher Alejandro Moreno Olmedo to understand how the typical Venezuelan family is a tribe eternally eying outsiders as potential enemies.

The polarization that took over the nation has been the perfect vicious circle for the ancient forces of mistrust: while Chávez was disregarded by many as a leader, due to his origins and physical features, and his followers labeled as a primitive mob of mendicant naïfs, chavismo learned quickly to feast on all those prejudices to ignite the bonfires of fanaticism, and to exploit the nihilism of those eager to loot the public treasury or just to lord some power over fellow citizens, whether as Cadivi clerks, CLAP coordinators, or national guardsmen.

The traditional motto of the criollo opportunist, a mí que no me den sino que me pongan donde haiga, morphed during the Chávez and Maduro decades into an extended certainty: we are a people corrupted on the core, unable and unwilling to live by any moral standards. Not a country, but a mining camp, as the playwright Cabrujas prophesied in the 80s; a horde, not a society, as the behavior of almost all forces us now, and again, to think.   

The struggles of recent times can fold neatly into the idea that Venezuelans are not only thieves but also savages: the discourse against the multitud promiscual is back with renewed virulence. Those thousands who have no option but to spend their days and nights in line for food in streets with no public toilets are called animals defecating on the sidewalks like donkeys. Those men, women and children that, in front of a cellphone camera, killed an entire shipment of livestock from an overturned truck in the countryside, were instantly classified, by the viewers in the cities who haven’t experienced that kind of eternal hunger, as prehistoric hominids, the proof that este país no tiene remedio.

Not a country, but a mining camp, as the playwright Cabrujas prophesied in the 80s; a horde, not a society, as the behavior of almost all forces us now, and again, to think.  

In this Inquisition court that the social networks tend to be nowadays, not many wait a second before posting to wonder if the Danish, the Singaporeans, or the Americans would have a different conduct if they were facing the conditions under which the majority of Venezuelans live in 2017. It’s easier to let three centuries of self-hatred kick in.

And then, something happened. On July 16, 2017.

The consulta popular is, for me, a crack in the ice no less astonishing than that one just opened up in Antarctica. A different note in the exhausted chorus of loathing. A streak of light running across the black surface of Venezuelans’ understanding of ourselves.

What thousands of people did last Sunday revealed, on an unprecedented scale, the existence of a collective set of skills developed or rediscovered over so many years of challenging normality and opposition activism. Networks woven via Whatsapp to find and send medicine or scarce supplies became channels to organize volunteering and share the proceedings of the plebiscite. The experience as members of station polls that many of us have built since 1999 (thanks for that, CNE) spread the know-how to manage puntos soberanos all around the world. The design tools and social media that we’ve had to learn to use in the last few years to get around the censor helped to spread the voice in less than two weeks… worldwide. I even think that constant contact with lethal violence gave millions of ordinary citizens in Venezuela the stamina and the courage to wait for hours in the streets to fill those three circles, well aware that, as in fact happened, there were real dangers involved.

Now we know things that we didn’t know before chavismo, and we put them to use to deliver this outstanding achievement. We are stronger, more resilient. But that’s not all.    

With no central State, no oil money and no military, regular people and institutions used to expect guidance and support from the government had to do something enormous by themselves, because the State was not only uninterested, but hostile. So the outcome of that challenge was a sort of miracle: regional opposition governments, NGOs, churches, parties and universities worked together.

What thousands of people did last Sunday revealed… the existence of a collective set of skills developed or rediscovered over so many years of challenging normality.

Take a moment to marvel in amazement at what’s just happened: Venezuelan politicians, usually disdainful of intellectuals, gave the authority of overseeing and announcing the results to the heads of the main universities. They deferred to the expertise and gravitas only academics could provide to the process. I think we must acknowledge the brave gesture of MUD strategists and parties to give a green light to the idea of this consulta popular, to build a consensus around it, to forge the multidisciplinary alliance that made it happen, and to stay out of camera view while the five University Chancellors gave the 95%  scrutiny number.   

That Sunday showed we can collaborate. Politicians and professors, former marxists and aspiring libertarians, the ones that stayed home and we the emigrés. We found that we can work way, way better than Papá Estado. We know that the spirit of teamwork that delivered the worldwide vote is the same we’ll need to form a government and to take on the colossal task of reconstruction.

So the plebiscite is more than a smack in the screaming face of the malandrato. It announces the insurgence of a more resilient Venezuelan society, able to be consensual, effective, and disciplined around a common goal centered on the lives of everyone of us, inside the country and abroad.  

Of course, there are still people who don’t give a shit. The black legend didn’t well up out of nothing.

However, we are not only that. We’re more than that.

Millions of us are prepared to take on responsibility for the future.

We are bochinche, but we are not only bochinche. We can feel authentic pride of what we’ve become.

And that’s wonderful, because we’re going to need that pride for the task that awaits us just around the corner, the second after the malandrato falls.