To the Cabildo!

The word “cabildo” has been driving translators crazy all week, but these open citizen assemblies have been the inflection points of Venezuelan history for two centuries.

Photo: ABC Internacional retrieved

Let’s review the facts: an illegitimate ruler and people pushing back, gathering in cabildo retaking sovereignty and then calling for elections. Is the National Assembly deliberately following the script or is our history a script that we’re unaware of? Hard to say for the time being, but the historical perspective has never been more necessary.

All of this comes from the cabildos that attract huge crowds across the country, and I write it like that, in Spanish and italics, because their identity is different from other types of assemblies, coming directly from citizens and not just their representatives.

Called by the National Assembly, they’re one of those events where a long historical tradition, sometimes latent beneath the surface, bursts into the equation when least expected. Historical tradition draws Francisco Salias by the arm of Capitán General Vicente Emparan, taking the baton and shouting “¡A cabildo!”, an event of many intricacies that we tend to simplify today as “our first step towards independence.”

Cabildos are one of those events where a long historical tradition, sometimes latent beneath the surface, bursts into the equation when least expected.

This new call “to cabildo!” is surprisingly similar to the one made in 1810. We Venezuelans have made such an effort to connect the ups and downs of our political life with the independence epic that, when it finally happens, we don’t even notice.

On April 19, 1810, a date where the upheaval portrayed by Lovera was merely an instant, the first autonomous and truly independent government in Venezuela was established. Since there was no legitimate king in Madrid, but an usurper imposed by Napoleon, Joseph I, the people of Caracas declared that the pact with the monarchy controlling the country was broken. The assembly, which is the gathering of the people, or at least of its representatives, created a Junta, another typically Spanish institution, to rule in the king’s name. And that’s literal: the Junta, which soon became the Supreme Junta, took on the authority of His Royal Highness. Initially, Juan Vicente Emparan was offered the presidency of the Junta and, since he refused, he was removed from office and exiled.

In the old Spanish judicial and political tradition, which is part of our roots, sovereignty has always resided on the people. The king was such because the people, or its representatives, gathered in cabildo, accepted and recognized his authority. If that agreement was broken in the absence of one of the parties, the king in this case, sovereignty reverted to the people. That’s why, when Joseph Bonaparte illegitimately takes the throne, the assembled representatives of Caracas took back Majesty and Authority, because they were always theirs and only temporarily yielded to the king. Essentially, this is the argument in our Declaration of Independence.

Cabildos were the ones who asked José Antonio Páez to call for a Congress separate from Bogotá’s.

When Gran Colombia was hit with crisis, back in 1829, once again cabildos and other gatherings of citizens convened all over Venezuela. They were the ones who asked José Antonio Páez to call for a Congress separate from Bogotá’s. That means that the process of independence and foundation of the Republic started and consolidated with a coalition of cabildos. The same happened during the Federal War. The judicial route was to gather citizen assemblies in each province conquered by the federalists, so they could decide to split the entity of the Republic of Venezuela and then join a new state, the United States of Venezuela. And although in later years, centralization restricted cabildos to the municipal scope, during Juan Vicente Gómez’s era and the governments that followed, municipal councils (technically, they’re gathered by cabildos) were the ones responsible for electing lawmakers which, in turn, elected the President of the Republic. Although this was a dictatorship and elections were worthless in practice, Gómez boasted his legitimacy thanks to a decision initially coming from cabildos.

Showing that history sometimes leaves fossilized traces of the past, cabildos are gathering in every city and even in their poorest neighborhoods. Just like in 1810, in 1829 or 1859, what we’re seeing is extremely serious. What happened in the past won’t necessarily happen the same way in the future, but it’s possible to identify the trends we’re part of and forecast their general direction. With the suits and courtesan manners depicted by Lovera, or with the ardour of later traditions, the call to cabildo may be the onset of a change that’s struggling to burst open.