Photo: Amalfi retrieved
The first time I heard “in an hour our Sukhois can drop bombs in Bogotá” was over a decade ago, definitely not now that the ANC is challenging President Iván Duque with the phrase; it was pre-military instruction and Bolivarian Class, in the city of Merida, where they would tell us that “if Colombia declares war on us, we’re attacking first.” I was in tenth grade and going to a public high school, the kind of places you go when your family can’t afford private education.
Bolivarian Class was, at the time, an ideological wall brought in from Russia and Cuba by Chávez after the events of 2002, a powerful and well-structured plan for indoctrination that ploughed forward like a harvester through the most important schools in the nation.
Bolivarian Class was a powerful and well-structured plan for indoctrination that ploughed forward like a harvester through the most important schools in the nation.
For starters, it was a filter to study the kids and catalog them according to their attitudes. From seventh to ninth grade, students would go through utilitarian subjects, “workshops”, where we’d learn common trades like basic construction, electricity and cooking, besides the traditional schoolwork. This other subject, though, pre-military instruction, was used by chavistas to separate potential soldiers from those who’d probably be good only as workers.
These classes dealing with historic, political and ideological induction (as well as physical training) mattered more than passing math, Spanish or biology.
‘You Will Ride the Storm’
The main classroom was a basement with a low-rise ceiling, well-lit, with two rows of wooden desks and a small stage that would set the teacher’s heavy desk on a higher level. Behind this, a huge mural painting of Simón Bolívar would stare at all of us. To go in, you had to walk across a hall full of flags and in front of a small recess built up with boxes and glass domes where replicas of Independence War generals Vicente Campo Elías’s and José Felix Ribas’s swords lay. Unlike the rest of the classrooms (falling to pieces with not enough desks), this was a patriotic sanctuary.
Our teacher was young, charismatic and deeply chavista, and for two afternoons a week he’d tell us about the hidden magic behind Soviet dialectics, he’d explain why Cuba was still in poverty and why Venezuela was the biggest economic power in Latin America. He’d talk about the Chinese Revolution, the South American insurgencies and how Venezuelan guerrilla fighters betrayed their ideology when they left the mountains. It was the first time I heard words like Operación Cóndor, counterintelligence, civil-military union. The guy spoke about destiny a lot, about our generation’s duty to keep the pillars of Bolivarian thought in place, and defend it from the Empire’s oppression, looking to shackle us. He spoke of an apocalyptic enemy that we could never wrap around our heads, but would nevertheless make us anxious.
Every Friday afternoon we’d get military training. They taught us how to form, march and receive orders. Our instructors were cadets from the Army or people training in the reserves. We’d stand in formation under the sun for hours and jog while singing military songs.
When the instructors of Bolivarian Class came to supervise the training, they’d treat us differently, behaving like generals of their own little army, inspiring fear and respect. In my school, in tenth grade alone, we had nine classrooms with forty students each, enough to form a small battalion.
The Fields of Land Navigation
The weather was humid and cold, the fog was falling over the highland. I remember leading a small squad of teenagers with faces in green and black. We were all dirty after crawling under barbed wires in disgusting trenches two feet in the mud. We had a compass and map coordinates. I gave my squad the order to advance in a line instead of a diamond shaped formation. We heard someone shouting ahead of us, so I raised my closed fist as a signal for them to stop. I summoned one of the boys and told him to go and have a look. Behind the bushes, there was another kid covered in what seemed like blood, grabbing at his leg as if it were destroyed, yelling that he wanted to die.
Every Friday afternoon we’d get military training. They taught us how to form, march and receive orders.
It was a first aid exercise.
That’s how one of the most important physical tests in pre-military training would start, and it was worth over half the grade. It was an entire day or two in a training camp up on a hill, going through obstacle courses, using military code all the time to communicate with one another. We had toy guns. Many of my classmates would collapse and get panic attacks. Meanwhile, the instructors would write down who was weak and who held out.
After choosing the best ones out of each classroom, a group was then formed, in order to establish a particular way of segregation that mirrors the nation’s divide between loyals and traitors, chavistas and escuálidos. First, they were rewarded by gaining access to things and privileges that others didn’t—skipping class or extra points in their final grades—to then behave as a small and organized commune, splitting chores, gardening, maintenance and kitchen duties in the common areas that were slowly being taken over by the Bolivarian Class inside the school. Classrooms, labs, gardens and storage rooms that were unused, were now fixed up and ready to use, as ordered from the instructors. Later on, these places were occupied by the key people of the communal councils, battle rooms, community plans offices, and even served as strategic headquarters for armed groups and counter-insurgence (such as the Tupamaros).
The boys would even go on weekends, or at night, to high school for maintenance, military training, getting special classes of Bolivarian thought. As any teenage group that’s discovering romance and consolidating their friendships, the feeling of belonging was very powerful; there was a bond and trust, even if it isolated them from the rest. They were an elite group, superior and more important than their own classroom, closer and committed, with solid ideals and their own rituals.
At the end of the school year, they organized a military parade at night—with a flag display, lit up by torches—where the boys swore in front of real military authorities that they were committed to the country. Most of these kids were aspiring to earn a spot in the Army, the police, or become political leaders in their communities. In three school terms, these instructors were able to train and indoctrinate a group of young, loyal, diligent, and fanatic men.
The last time Hugo Chávez visited my hometown was on September 21st, 2012. He was in the midst of an aggressive presidential campaign for the October elections and he gathered his followers in the Campo Elías viaduct. I went along with my girlfriend at the time to take photos. The atmosphere was very strange and religious, the fervor and ecstasy that Chávez’s presence inspired was impressive. I was terrified, I couldn’t conceive how so many seemed to be in love with one man. I pointed my camera to the stage and that’s when I understood: among the guards, I saw familiar faces from my teenage years, and also among the community leaders and volunteers.
There wasn’t a day between 2003 and 2013 that chavismo wasn’t threaded into every fiber of the fabric of my life. It was present in my education, in my community, and inside my family. Chávez and all his ideas were the white noise that would repeat itself like an echo in every place I inhabited. It was a very efficient system that kept perfecting itself so that people couldn’t fathom a world without him. To live during those years of chavismo was like being trapped inside another person’s dream. Or your nightmare.
When I took to the streets to protest in 2014, I have no doubt that among those repressing and shooting at us were my old classmates, to whom we were only a bunch of traitors. In the end, they did keep their oath.Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.