Carlos Lizarralde: “In Choosing to Forget Our History, the Past Had Come back to Haunt Us”

In his book Venezuela’s Collapse: The Long Story of How Things Fell Apart, Venezuelan author Carlos Lizarralde unearths the uncomfortable subject of race and ethnicity to explain how Chavismo destroyed the country

We all know that Colonial Venezuela was established, as most parts of the continent, on the slavery and death of millions of Indigenous and African people. But we tend to confine in the remote past that country organized according to the color of the skin, even if race and ethnicity never ceased to fuel conflict and define politics after Independence. It was a matter digested into discourse and political economy by the demagogues who ignited the Federal War in 1859, the Positivistas around dictator Juan Vicente Gómez, the progressive AD leaders in the 1940s, the military nationalism of Marcos Perez Jiménez, the democracy and, of course, Chavismo. Race and ethnicity have always been there, causing tension, even if we were told to ignore them under the illusion of mestizaje. To the point that they help to understand why Hugo Chávez used them not only to access power, but to obliterate the petrostate and knock our country down. 

This is the subject of the historical essay Venezuela’s Collapse: The Long Story of How Things Fell Apart, which launches today, published by Codex Novellus. Its author, Miami and CDMX-based Carlos Lizarralde, studied at University of Massachusetts in Amherst and has a trailblazing career in media, founding pioneer projects like and Urbe magazine in Caracas in the 1990s. “The artwork on the book’s cover is part of a series by exiled visual artist Tony Vázquez,” says Lizarralde to Caracas Chronicles. “His exploration of how oil shaped the country’s collective unconscious has always fascinated me. This work, in particular, has a magnetic effect on anyone who sees it. A photo of the supersonic plane bathed in an oil resin is enough to elicit anyone’s attention. But what’s critical here is the extent to which the weekly Concorde flight between Paris and Caracas, which metaphorically erased the gap between both cities, generated such wonder among the Venezuelan elites. Many were convinced that Venezuela, fueled by endless petro-dollars, was on the brink of entering the ‘first world.’ Given what’s happened since, Vazquez’s work is an epitaph, an explanation, and a deep look into our unconscious.”

Venezuela’s Collapse seems destined to be polemical: as Lizarralde himself says in it, many of us can have a very bad reaction to the mere proposal that race is an issue in Venezuela. For the moment, the initial reactions are promising. According to Venezuelan writer Boris Muñoz, “this essential book offers deep insights into present-day Venezuela, shedding light on the roots of its current crisis. With captivating narrative and analysis, it serves as a compass to navigate the past, helping readers comprehend the complexities that have led to the country’s downfall. By illuminating the demons haunting the nation, we can begin to confront and address them, offering hope for a better future.” Playwright Moisés Kaufman said that “this book is the best chronicle I’ve read of the historical events that led to the Chavez presidency and the subsequent destruction of Venezuela’s democracy.”

When and how did you discover you needed to write this book?

The day I realized the country I grew up in was falling apart. Readers of Caracas Chronicles don’t need explanations about the tragedy, but for the few who will read this without context, suffice it to say the Chavista project ended up expelling one in four inhabitants, now more than eight million refugees, displaced and exiled around the world, shrinking the economy by about 70%, and allowing a level of violence until then unknown since Venezuela’s Federal War. Witnessing this disaster, I needed to figure out the social forces and long-past conflicts behind a tragedy I was taught to believe could never happen. I’d been convinced that Venezuela’s spirit of consensus would keep the country as one, no matter how contentious. I’d thought that at least a basic level of oil prosperity couldn’t vanish overnight. But it was evident that what I felt I knew about my place of birth had to be changed. I started to research the country’s long historical development. I then wrote to give shape and settle the many arguments I was having with myself about how it had all come to be. The result is Venezuela’s Collapse.

What did you discover researching and writing this book?

Much to my surprise, Venezuela had one of the most violent histories among all countries of Spanish America. This violence manifested itself over and over again in the context of race and ethnicity. It also became clear that the oil bonanza and a political project that wanted to end that violent past had rewritten the nature of those events. In choosing to forget our history, the past had come back to haunt us.

Do you see the concept of mestizaje, that old trope in the narrative of our collective identity, as a myth or a reductionist tale midway between historical truth and political manipulation?

Venezuela was the first country in Latin America to achieve a majority population of mixed-race origin back in the early 1800s. By the late 1700s, the near majority status of mixed-race people had determined the political debates of colonial times. Demography sparked the fires that led to the independence wars. In this sense, mestizaje was a social reality long before it was a concept. If you ask me what defines Venezuela as a nation, I wouldn’t say an arepa or a mountain range, not even a musical style. What has made the country a unique nation is its mixed-race society. In no other Spanish colony, by the 1700s, were the population numbers so roughly equivalent between the initial Spanish settlers, those kidnapped and forcefully brought from Africa, and those who, among the indigenous nations, had survived epidemics, wars, and forced displacement. 

Exactly, even in the 1700s, Venezuela looked different from Cuba or Mexico, in demographic terms. 

The plantation islands had overwhelming populations of African descent, and in the Spanish colonies bordering the Pacific, there was a vast majority of indigenous survivors. Venezuela was an exception because these three roughly equivalent populations, in terms of numbers, became intertwined at almost every level of society. By the late 1700s, free citizens of mixed race were already a substantial majority in the Aragua valleys, the country’s economic heartland. Simón Bolívar suffered many early defeats, and the First and Second independent republics went down in flames because this majority did not want to be ruled by light-skin Mantuano elites from Caracas. After many years, by the Third Republic, mestizaje became a concept as Bolívar finally understood the social reality of the country he wanted to lead. This allowed him to muster enough support to defeat the Spanish Crown. One text we need to return to is the Angostura speech, because that’s where Bolívar explores the Venezuelan identity made up of three ethnic and racial groups in passionate and pioneering detail. The country’s way forward from there was deathly and painful; it would still take decades for the enslaved to be free while unimaginable violence and poverty took hold of the countryside, but the seeds of something new had been planted. José Antonio Páez founded the country and forged its identity on that solid ground. To your question, the concept of mestizaje has indeed served several political agendas, many of them reductionist, and in certain academic circles, the word is viewed with horror. But the social reality of its existence, in sheer numbers, is there for anyone who wants to look under the hood of Venezuelan history. 

Which are those academic circles that detest the term ‘mestizaje’, and why?

The idea of mestizaje is criticized for good and bad reasons. Advocates of indigenous rights can trace how the ideology of mestizaje has been used to erase the culture and recent history of different nations. In a place like Guatemala, where the poorer and more disenfranchised half of the population is indigenous, mestizaje is rightly contentious. On the other hand, those who seek to impose a more American idea of identity politics to every situation would have us hyphenate every background in the name of an impossible originality.

You argue in the book that we have been told, through generations, to conceive our country as color-blind, with no racism. Then came Chávez and exploded race and ethnicity. Do you think that being trained to deny the weight of race and ethnicity in our history left us with no counterarguments against the Chavista discourse on this issue?  

Let me parse your question because I think this is the crux of Venezuela’s past and current political dilemmas. Confronted by a painfully violent past of ethnic and racial strife, Rómulo Betancourt and Rómulo Gallegos advocated a post-racial society to build a democratic country. In their minds, if we were all equal citizens before the law, without rank or privilege, and if a Venezuelan identity encompassing all the country’s ethnicities and races, exemplified by Juan Bimba, were to supersede our different ethnic and racial origins, a free and egalitarian society striving for the common good would be achieved. Among their concerns was how to integrate the massive influx of South American and European immigrants into a Venezuelan identity. Ultimately flawed or not, that was the adeco utopia. If we consider that by the 1930s, the country had had an overwhelming mixed-race majority for over a century, it only makes sense that Betancourt and Gallego’s dream would point in that direction. Betancourt himself was the son of a Spanish-born and an African-Venezuelan mother, and the three adeco presidents that followed him had parents with foreign origins.  

That was the country we were born in: what Ramon Piñango and Moises Naim called “la ilusión de armonía”. At least for a while, it seemed to work, right?

Well, how did it unravel in the end? Many planets aligned to deliver a perfect storm, starting with two trend lines that went in opposite directions beginning in 1980: population growth continued its upward trend while oil prices in real dollars declined for two straight decades. Any society’s sudden and increasing poverty makes it look at itself and see differences, tribes. What’s interesting to me is that Chávez was not the first to emphasize a sense of ethnic and racial difference in the 1990s. The first public repudiation of the idea that the state should care for all Venezuelans, in the same way, was signaled by newly independent municipalities that saw themselves as islands bordered by an unruly city. Suddenly, some mayors had a lot more money than others. The more or less equitable distribution of state resources that produced spectacular results for the entire population from the mid-1900s onward had ended. The federalization of resources, also called decentralization, meant to bring accountability and democracy to the country, had the opposite effect. 

Yes. This is why you actually mention the case of Irene Sáez and Chacao in the book.

Right. Some municipalities paid for immaculate white gloves and safari hats for their traffic police, provided toll-free numbers for the public to lodge complaints, and set out to hand-wash sidewalks. But a few miles away, in a different and underfunded jurisdiction within the same city, state clinics lacked alcohol and clean syringes. Suddenly, many in the rich municipalities hid behind thousands of miles of electric fencing. 

Decentralization and federalization are other constants in Venezuela’s history, along race and ethnicity, as in pretty much all Latin America. But, for you, the failure of decentralization to reduce inequality in the late 1980s and early 1990s brought us back into ethnic conflict?

That conflict was always there. In the last decades of the 20th century, Venezuelans had split again into tribes, as had happened during the late 1700s and the mid to late 1800s. Betancourt’s dream of liberty, equality, and solidarity for all was dead. Chávez showed up on the stage of a nation already divided and growing poorer by the day. What made a difference was his intuitive sense of the political history before oil. He knew that politics would again devolve into tribalism. He also understood his chances of political success relied on deepening the racial and ethnic fissures, not bridging them. What happened next is one of the story’s ironic moments: an opposition mainly led by young professionals with degrees from America’s most prestigious universities, living in houses and buildings fenced by electric wire, dressed in the Ivy League uniforms of the global elite, and with the unmistakable accents and the Spanglish of their eastern Caracas neighborhoods, would tell the country there were no ethnic differences. They argued well into the 2010s that any such idea was an artificial manipulation without real roots in the country’s history. People in the barrios, the same ones being called “monkeys,” laughed at this characterization. Someone like Rómulo Betancourt would have never fallen into such a hopeless trap. But by then, his adecos had ossified as a movement after decades in power—too many fancy canapes and too much scotch. Chávez had taken up their political lane. The Comandante rallied this large political base to break with everything the 1900s had built by undoing the pillars of the race-free society Betancourt had tried to build. 

And where are we at now, under this perspective?

Today, things are different as the demographic landscape has changed once again. Probably one million people, those of lighter skin who are mainly descendants of the great immigrant waves from South America and Europe, have left the country. The social balance has been transformed, so the political discourse about ethnic and racial differences has seemingly vanished. From the little that we can see without some historical distance, the sense of tribes that gripped the country with such fury has receded. How this evolves remains to be seen.

You argue in the book that we have been told, through generations, to conceive our country as color-blind, with no racism. Then came Chávez and the race exploded. You currently live abroad and were educated in the U.S. How do you see this matter from afar? For example, to what point do you think that foreign audiences reacted to the trope of Chávez, a savior of people of color, against a white Criollo elite?

Let’s say that it’s complicated. The best insights and the most imaginative scholarship usually come from American universities. And yet, the biggest obstacle to studying Latin American societies is the overwhelming influence of the American political imaginary. On the one hand, incredibly astute, hard-working, and very knowledgeable interpreters of Latin America’s social history, such as Ann Twinam or Camilla Townsend, teach at American universities, but few read their books. The vast majority of writing comes from self-proclaimed progressives who project U.S. racial history onto the world stage and are incapable, or unwilling, of interpreting the history and culture of other regions in their own right. Their influence has impoverished much of the political discourse in Latin America. 

A particularly interesting take of your book is that race and ethnicity are present not only in the ways we live with others in Venezuela, in the way we are described in political myths and propaganda but also in the criteria with which political economy is implemented across centuries. This is what Chavismo says, sort of. Where do you concur with Chavismo on this matter, and where do you differ?

Going as far back as the late 1990s, most cultural and intellectual figures who sympathized with Chávez were consumed by a shallow politics of good versus evil based on loud and simplistic truths. I never sensed they had any interest in the hard work of looking at the country’s long and conflicted history. The late 1990s and early 2000s were confusing times, to be sure, but to think the fanatic simplification of the past advocated by so many educated people brought us to this point is remarkable. It is odd because the intellectual generations of the 1930s and 1940s had been so intelligent about the country’s past during two decades that were not just confusing but outright tragic around the world. The young Uslar Pietri wrote his classic Las lanzas coloradas between 1929 and 1930, during the Great Depression and three years before Hitler rose to power. But there is nothing simplistic about the book’s exploration of the legacy of slavery, race, and ethnicity during the wars of independence. As Uslar Pietri started to publish, Betancourt was trying to figure out how to finance and build a new country to bypass the mechanisms Las lanzas coloradas described. You read almost any history from those decades, for example, the books by Juan Uslar, and it’s clear that race and ethnicity were critical concerns among a broad group of intellectuals. No serious writer disputed that those of darker skin had been poorer, less educated, and less privileged compared to those of lighter skin throughout Venezuelan history. Those thinkers were obsessed with what today we call “social and cultural capital” because their historical memory of the colonial caste system was very much alive. Many Venezuelans today associate these issues with the slogans and political machinations of the Chavista movement, but some of the country’s greatest intellectuals were already discussing them well before Chávez was even born. All I’ve tried to do is bring back a debate that was alive almost a century ago, went quiet after oil flooded our imagination, and then became trivialized by a political movement’s intellectual supporters. Hopefully, Venezuela’s Collapse restarts a real conversation. 

Venezuela’s Collapse: The Long Story of How Things Fell Apart launches tonight at LnS Gallery, in Miami. Signed printed copies are available in the U.S. at the Codex Novellus store, and ebooks and paperbacks on Amazon. Selected book stores will get it in the next few months. You can read an extract of the book here.