Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War

[From Warscapes]
by George Ciccariello-Maher

“In their housing developments

they placed first, broken bottles on top of their walls,

then, barriers and armed guards,

barbed wire, bars, attack dogs,

and now, triple-wired electric fences

like a Nazi camp… [but]

the concentration camp is the street,

the barrio hills and poverty,

the dust and the junk,

where they live, God willing…

- François Migeot, “Who divides the country?”

Venezuela is a society at war. There is no need to sugarcoat this fact, in part because it is nothing new. But against those voices who would insist that it was president Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution that divided Venezuela into two warring camps, it must be said: the camps already existed; the Revolution has simply revealed them.

On the Virtues of Open War

Sometimes, often, open war is preferable to its opposite. I don’t call that opposite “peace” because of the need to destabilize this all-too-common, all-too-easy opposition. No, this war is nothing new. Instead, it is a question of rendering visible the war that already exists, that has existed, and that continues unabated. Whereas Frantz Fanon famously diagnosed colonial society as Manichean, as cut into two, inhabited by two deadly opponents whose enmity is as clear as day, things are rarely so clear in ostensibly postcolonial Latin America.

The war has been going on for many decades, even centuries, but from the 1960s to the 1980s it remained largely concealed under a blanket of petrodollars. Occasionally, it was measured in bullet-ridden corpses: in the sporadic guerrilla struggle of the 1960s and in state-sponsored massacres like Cantaura (1982), Yumare (1986), and El Amparo (1988). But most would agree that this war became absolutely undeniable on February 27th, 1989, in the popular, anti-neoliberal rebellion known as the Caracazo and the massacre of massacres that followed.

© Lainie Cassel

What former president Rafael Caldera called the “showcase window for Latin American democracy” was irreparably shattered, and no quantity of rhetoric could repair it. The events of 1989 begat Chávez’s failed 1992 coup, and 1992 begat his eventual election in 1998. Suddenly, wealthy elites were wondering aloud what had happened to their powerful myth of Venezuelan harmony. To lose the comforting myth of one’s own magnanimity was one thing, but to lose power to a dark-skinned brute was another thing altogether.

As the Venezuelan anthropologist Jacqueline Clarac recently put it, “Venezuela has always been polarized,” but this has simply been “invisibilized.” She continues, “At present, we could say that the dominant classes, who have always been on the side of the dominator, have been displaced in this process, and this has been very traumatic for them.”

Where there had been one Venezuela, there were now two, but this was not a clean division of the existing à la Mao. Rather, it was the reappearance of the invisibilized, the reemergence of those who had been systematically excluded from Venezuelan politics. A simple glance at the television, the halls of power, a beauty pageant, and even the voting rolls in the 1990s would make it perfectly clear that exclusion was a structuring principle of this “harmonious” Venezuelan reality. Rather than mere division, an entire sector of Venezuelan society has come into being since 1989.

From the Part to the Whole

Michel Foucault identified social war as an unrecognized structuring premise of modern society, but one that is systematically concealed by the unitary logic of sovereignty. Despite the inherent tension between representative democracy and more direct forms of grassroots control that the Bolivarian process seeks to foster, the Bolivarian Revolution is at least in part an electoral revolution, and to attempt an electoral revolution is to agree to play the game of popular sovereignty, to struggle for the whole. But this is a notoriously dangerous game, and most radical parties that have played it in Venezuela — from Teodoro Petkoff’s MAS to the late Alfredo Maneiro’s Radical Cause — have been devoured by its logic.

Chávez has played the game of popular sovereignty with more skill than most, walking the fine line of appealing to the whole while empowering a part: the poor, the oppressed, the pueblo understood in its most subversive sense. This peculiarity of the Venezuelan Revolution is best epitomized by Chávez’s relation to the most militant of revolutionary collectives operating in Venezuela. These groups, many of which constitute veritable anti-state communist militias, actively and consciously reject the holy right of sovereignty to a monopoly of violence, and while Chávez occasionally scolds them in public, he also seems to realize that they are his best protection. At times, however, this game can seem exasperating to sympathizers, especially when it cuts against demands for more radical transformation: as longtime revolutionary Roland Denis recently told me, “Chávez speaks of ‘pulverizing the bourgeois state’ while in many ways doing the opposite.”

Lest we conclude, however, that the play of popular sovereignty is simply a ruse, that beneath the rhetoric of unity there lay an ulterior motive of class conflict, it is worth recalling – as Argentine-Mexican philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel has argued – that the struggle of the oppressed and excluded part is always also a struggle for a new and reconfigured whole, a war for the sort of harmony that has never existed in Venezuela except as a governing myth.

From War of Position to War of Maneuver

I recently returned to Caracas after four years away, and perhaps the most visually striking indicator of the city’s transformation is the sprouting up of large apartment buildings — white and red — under the aegis of Misión Vivienda (Mission Housing). More revealing than the Venezuelan government’s new insistence on fulfilling the needs of the homeless, however, is the location of this housing. Rather than occupying empty spaces at the periphery of society, these projects have proliferated like unwelcome but ineradicable mushrooms in mixed and even opposition neighborhoods.

Misíon Vivienda © Lainie Cassel

I travel to El Encantado, which despite translating literally as “enchanted,” is instead the most isolated and neglected part of Petare, the largest and most dangerous barrio in Venezuela, and arguably all of Latin America. Here a hydroelectric plant and train line once nourished the population, but that is all in the past, and today the only way to reach El Encantado is down a long and unstable dirt path hundreds of feet above the Guaire River. It used to be a paradise of sorts, but now the river here stinks of refuse and is visibly choked with garbage.

Local activists associated with the youth movement Chávez Es Otro Beta explain to me how, despite four years under both an opposition mayor and governor (the latter being Henrique Capriles, Chávez’s opponent in the recent presidential contest), little has changed. “The opposition doesn’t ever come to this area,” they tell me, disgusted but hardly surprised. “Capriles wouldn’t dare to show his face here.” The disregard for El Encantado is even more galling since it sits across a ravine from the affluent opposition stronghold of El Hatillo, and from this collapsing dirt road we can see wealthy housing developments jutting into the horizon from amid otherwise lush countryside.

But these activists draw my attention across this vast geographical and socio-economic gulf to a series of buildings that is larger and more prominent than most, which I expect to contain astronomically priced condos. Not so: they have been seized by Misión Vivienda and are currently being outfitted to house those displaced from barrios like this one. This is about more than merely providing housing to the poor and those displaced by the all-too-frequent mudslides that destroy entire barrios in an instant. It is about bringing the war to the enemy in a way that provokes further polarization and the sharpening of political positions that comes along with it.

El Encantado © Lainie Cassel

This is, in many ways, the lesson of the recent electoral results. On October 7, Chávez was re-elected by a margin of 11 percentage points, a landslide most anywhere on earth, but for a Revolution that won by 25 percent six years ago, this narrowed margin reveals a great deal. Is Venezuelan society more clearly divided into two chunks organized around contrasting political outlooks and aspirations? The now popular opposition phrase — somos casi la mitad, “we are nearly half”— certainly suggests as much.

As one recent commentary put it, these are “not the same votes” as 2006 and 1998, since the socialist project today is more clearly defined. As a result, the tendency that Gregory Wilpert identified, according to which “Chávez was elected by the middle class…and confirmed by the poor,” appears to still hold. But the same cannot be said of those who voted for Henrique Capriles Radonski and an opposition which still lacked a coherent alternative program, and which, if a leaked governing plan is to be believed, continues to disguise its neoliberal aspirations beneath social democratic rhetoric.

One thing clearly stands out from the numbers, however. Venezuela’s presidential race was not a standard electoral contest on the U.S. model, one in which two parties race to the center in an attempt to win the soft middle. Although both candidates occasionally softened their rhetoric to attract the “middle class,” votes won do not appear to have been at the expense of the other side, but rather came through the mobilization of new or previously disaffected voters. Turnout was massive, and while proportionally Chávez lost 8 percent compared to 2006, he actually won nearly a million new votes, while Capriles mobilized more than two million more than his notably uncharismatic predecessor, Manuel Rosales.

The War Within Chavismo

This, however, is not the only, or even most crucial, lesson of the elections, whose narrower margin cannot be attributed solely to a laudable sharpening of political positions. The results also point towards an internal war within the Chavista ranks, one long simmering but which many expect will come rapidly to a head. “This is Chávez’s last chance,” one revolutionary tells me without a hint of hyperbole. Unless revolutionaries can mobilize their base through radical and effective action, the very survival of the process will soon be called into question.

Chavismo, according to Roland Denis, is more than just a run-of-the-mill mass movement: It has become a veritable “movement of popular struggle” comprising a multiplicity of forms and initiatives. The source of Chavismo’s energy, however, was “attacked” by the attempt to centralize it within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), and as a result of both the internal dynamics of the party and the “disastrous” experiences of Chavista governance on a regional level, the movement as a whole is suffering an internal desgaste, or exhaustion.

Confronting this desgaste is not a question of selecting better regional candidates, or about the question of who will succeed Chávez. Instead, it concerns the problem of whether or not the constellation of forces will allow radicals to take the reins of the process, steering it in a way that is at once revolutionary and democratic. And yet, as Chávez’s health remains in question, and as December gubernatorial elections quickly approach, such questions cannot be cast aside.

Of the three main contenders to succeed Chávez, former soldier Diosdado Cabello is widely considered to lead the “endogenous right” – the more conservative revolutionary forces – and is rumored to be severely corrupt. While he has proven an electoral failure both in Miranda State and within the United Socialist Party (PSUV), one anonymous revolutionary recently quipped to me that “it’s not a question of electability, it’s a question of the balance of forces, and Diosdado owns generals, he owns ministries, he has built a powerful machine.” More importantly, this electoral calculation would shift drastically if more moderate sectors of the opposition ever decide to throw their lot in with a centrist Chavista.

On the other hand, Elías Jaua, until recently Chávez’s vice president, has a long history of civilian militancy with origins in the underground armed struggle of the 1980s and maintains close relations with grassroots movements today. He is clearly the choice of the radicals and the youth, and currently faces off (in what will be a difficult but potentially decisive gubernatorial race in Miranda State) against none other than Henrique Capriles Radonski. While Jaua fights a difficult battle, one that Cabello himself has proven incapable of winning, Nicolás Maduro sits comfortably as the newly named vice president, his hands unsullied by electoral races or practical local governance. A former bus driver and union leader, Maduro holds his cards closer to his chest and, while politically powerful, has failed to chart a clear path to either the right or the left (although some suggest the feasibility of a Jaua-Maduro alliance).

For Reinaldo Iturriza, who works closely with both Jaua and youth movements like Otro Beta that support him, the challenge is to fundamentally rethink politics from below. The PSUV will never be fixed, he tells me, unless the movements are able to generate “an entirely new political logic” rooted in the critique of representation. “We need to create a new way of doing politics,” he insists, and the fate of not only the Revolution, but the country, depends upon it. As Denis puts it: “A powerful confrontation is coming… As long as we don’t create a popular force capable of winning, we could lose power tomorrow.”

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory from below at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Bolivarian Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013), and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.

Photos by Lainie Cassel http://caracazomedia.org/

One thought on “Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War

  1. Pingback: Notes from the Frontlines of Venezuela’s Social War | ROCLA

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