By Juan Andrés Misle
You describe the Veintitrés de enero barrio as a strategic and symbolic manifestation of the promise of democracy. Can you tell us what makes the Veintitrés de enero neighborhood such an iconic and transcendental place in Venezuela’s modern political history?
A.V: El Veintitrés as it is popularly known in Caracas and in Venezuela, short for Veintitrés de enero, has both this symbolic and physical proximity to Venezuelan history especially modern venezuelan history.
Physically it is located right in the heart of downtown Caracas. It is literally a stone’s throw away from the presidential palace and the National Assembly. Physically it’s also a highly imposing neighborhood. It’s comprised of 1950’s – era superblocks which at the time were some of the most modern housing that was around in Latin America. Recently, over the last twenty-thirty years it’s now also been incorporated by squatter settlements — which we can talk about later — but it looks visually imposing.
The other way in which it is symbolically essential is that it is called Veintitrés de enero. But to understand the significance of this name, which of course, translated to January 23rd, it’s also important to realize that it’s not the first name that the neighborhood had.
It was first founded under a different name, which also was a different date: Dos de diciembre — December 2nd. Which was a date in 1952 when the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez had solidified its rule over Venezuela and had embarked on a tremendous project of public works and really transforming the visage of both Caracas as the showcase for a new Venezuela, what he called the “New National Ideal” and really a new place for Venezuelan in the world economy.
Of course, he did so at the barrel of a gun through a military dictatorship, but nevertheless, his signature project by which he thought that all of Caracas would, specially the working classes of Caracas, would now become modern citizens, was encapsulated in this neighborhood that he called Dos de diciembre. Again, because it was a dictatorship, what was papered over were the significant amounts of discontent that were rising to the surface as people — even those among that once moved to the Dos de diciembre — realized that what they lacked, even now they had modern housing, coming from squatter settlements themselves, what they lacked was a voice in the political system.
And so on January 23rd of 1958 they helped usher in a new period of democratic rule by joining in with groups of civilians, elites, as well as military sectors, in overthrowing the dictatorship of Pérez Jiménez.
Of course now you had a problem: What are you gonna call this neighborhood that had such a tremendous symbolic attachment to the now fallen regime? Neighbors took it upon themselves to re-name, very organically, their neighborhood Veintitrés de enero, which now linked them very much to the new and highly uncertain democratic project that was to unfold.
In terms of its origins, what would happen is that over the next thirty years, this neighborhood that again, seemed to have such a tremendous link through the modern political history of Venezuela, at least at that moment of transition, would come also to figure centrally in some of the most dramatic and sometimes violent battles over what democracy would be defined as in Venezuela.
So for instance in the 1960s, the veintitrés de enero was a hotbed of leftist insurgency battles as well as counterinsurgency battles. The governments of Rómulo Betancourt and later Raúl Leoni in the 1960s made the pacification of the veintitrés de enero very much sort of a signature part of their counterinsurgent battles. Then in the 1970s you had a moment of incorporation of this neighborhood and all that it stood for into the two major parties of the period, Acción Democrática and COPEI the Christian-Democratic party. And then in the 1980s, even though in the 1970s you also had a significant amount of street protests by neighbors as the upkeep of their neighborhood, again, which was built and built as a public housing project, deteriorated significantly, even though there was a huge boom in oil prices that was not going to benefit the neighbors. And so they protested continuously. And then what you had in the 1980s was the emergence of a schism on the one hand, between the neighborhood and its neighbors, and the authorities of the democratic regime.
But you also had this interesting combination of what had once been through the demobilized radical sectors and factions of the insurgencies of the 1960s and run-of-the-mill neighbors that weren’t really politicized but very much felt the shortcomings of the democratic project that they had lived under now for twenty-five years. So those two came together in some highly innovative forms of protests that very much stood outside what at the time was a very storied and celebrated institutional apparatus that made Venezuela the envy of democracies, and certainly governments and societies throughout the region that were embroiled in civil war or dictatorship.
And yet, what was happening outside of that institutional framework in places like el veintitrés was a significant amount of sometimes highly contentious, very innovative protests that was escaping the sight of elites.
All of which sort of came to a significant head in 1989 on February 27, what’s known in Venezuela as the Caracazo, when after a series of structural-adjustment policies that were pushed through by the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, there was a huge explosion, that interestingly, even though the place of el veintitrés in that explosion was actually quite minimal in terms of participation in the protests that happened, because it held such an important and symbolic place in the national imagination, the state very severely repressed far more, proportionately speaking, el veintitrés and other parts of Caracas. As a result, that really marked, again symbolically, a major split between urban popular sectors and the Venezuelan governments that had built themselves as democratic for the previous thirty years.
Despite being a bastion of Chavismo, the opposition narrowly won in the veintitrés de enero in the last congressional elections in 2015. It is now represented by Jorge Millan from Primero Justicia the party of opposition leader Henrique Capriles. To what extent and in what ways have popular dynamics changed within urban sectors since the death of former president Hugo Chávez?
A.V: First I think it’s important to go back to the 1990s a little bit and the era before Chávez to understand why el veintirés came to be seen as such a hotbed of revolution now linked to a much different government.
So it had been built and linked to the military dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, then it had taken up this name that would usher in and would be identified with the democratic regimes of the Punto Fijo-era between 1958 and 1998, and then it became the central place in the imaginary of Chavismo. And partly the reason why it became so is because of this history of oppositional politics in each of the previous regimes. Such that it was marked, at least by some, as a site for leftist extremism.
What’s curious about that reading is that in fact, for instance throughout the 1970s and 1980s, el veintitrés and its residents voted significantly in favor of the two major parties of the time, even though the 1960s they had rejected those parties, in the 1970s and the 1980s they very much came around. Which suggested there was strong support, even if not in for the particular ideological projects of Acción Democrática and COPEI, there was certainly strong support for the pillars of democracy, the vote in particular as the entry to a legitimate form of political engagement.
And I think that speaks a little bit to what on the one hand was opposition in el veintitrés to the coup by Hugo Chávez in 1992, even though he staged the coup, the staging ground for his coup was the Museo Militar, which is actually right in the middle of the heart of el veintitrés de enero, there wasn’t a massive groundswell of support for his coup because in part they rejected that kind of approach to politics, as they had rejected it in the 1960s.
They much favored new democratic engagement through these procedures, even though they understood the vote not to be the end-all be-all of politics, but rather just the beginning of politics, which was of course expressed by the ways in which they protested extra-institutionally once they had participated in elections.
What happened in terms of creating, number one, this kind of fiction of the veintitrés as a Chavista parish or neighborhood was this misunderstanding of the highly nuanced and complex ways in which people from barrios like el veintitrés negotiated their presence vis-à-vis the prior regime, the Punto Fijo regime, which was one of opposition to the parties in power but support for the system that underlay it; the democratic system that underlay it in terms of participation, elections, and such.
But what they also wanted and said they had wanted from the beginnings of having helped overthrow Pérez Jiménez was greater say in the fray of decision-making. Which is why Chávez’ initial appeal to participatory protagonistic democracy was quite appealing. And in fact, in places like el veintitrés, because of this pre-existing history of organization and social movements, many of the social programs that Chávez would roll out and also some of the participatory mechanisms that he would roll out — communal councils, Bolivarian circles, and such — they found a very strong and dynamic home in el veintitrés.
What happened is, especially around 2014, 2015 when the government of Nicolás Maduro began very much to move outside of the fray of formal democratic politics, and really it became clear that his primary aim was to stay in power rather than to advance in some of these innovative mechanisms for greater participation, greater protagonism by popular sectors that that fundamental path, that fundamental sense of “we support the underlying system if not necessarily the people who are in power” that came to kick in again as it had before.
So from a historical perspective it was actually quite, not predictable, but it certainly wasn’t very surprising that el veintitrés, even though had been billed as this hyper-Chavista parish neighborhood, would vote for the opposition in 2015, very much as a way to indicate their rejection of the ways in which Maduro in particular, had moved away from that fundamental commitment, which they very much saw Chávez as having maintained to at the very least the formal trappings of democracy; as the benchmark, as the entry point, the minimal requirement for engaging in society.
Do you think the veintitrés de enero neighborhood is likelier to back president Nicolás Maduro’s communal initiative to re-write the Constitution, or do you sense popular sectors preferring a change of government instead? Which scenario falls in line best with the neighborhood’s history?
A.V: Actually, we’ve sort of seen it. The night after the Constituent Assembly votes were announced there was this big protest that happened in el veintitrés. Partly, this protest was clouded by the fact that there had been many protests throughout the day. Some of the bloodiest and most violent protests of what had been at that point four months of uninterrupted protests against the Maduro government. Ten people had died at the end of the day on July 30 when the votes were announced.
But once the votes were announced there was this significant protest against the results, calling the results fraudulent because some of the more radical candidates that had mounted autonomous, independent far to the radical left positions from the veintitrés de enero to become constituyentes and participate in the assembly were basically completely sidelined in the results that the National Electoral Council announced because basically it was a winner-take-all system.
And what they were demanding was that there should be more proportional representation so that these voices that had been mounting opposition especially to the corruption that they saw in the government, to the excessive bureaucracy that they saw in the government, to the lack of commitment to revolutionary principles that they saw in the government, that they could have a say in shaping the Constituent Assembly.
And yet, what they found with these results was that they too were going to be marginalized, and instead the slate of representatives from el veintitrés was comprised exclusively of PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) candidates. All of which suggests that what people in el veintitrés, specially some of the more radical sectors in el veintitrés, what they were looking for was participation in a process of decision-making that had now certainly been completely abandoned when it’s so clear they have no qualms in protesting.
In terms of what they want, they are sort of stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, what they want is to deepen participatory and protagonistic dimensions of what they imagined — at least in the beginning of what the Chavista political project had in mind — but at the same time they realized that Maduro is not actually interested in that. So they reject the Madurista version of this effort to create more participatory mechanisms as basically a craven attempt to stay in power, but they support the underlying idea that what Venezuela really needs, especially for popular sectors, is greater mechanisms for participation.
The fact is that right now, they don’t see that anywhere in the political scenario and more and more of what you’re finding is that these sectors are retreating or retrenching into their own spaces, which of course it’s also aided by the fact that the economic crisis hits them as much as the rest of the country, and sometimes worse, so there’s far greater opportunities for participating at this time.
Your book encapsulates very well how these urban sectors interacted inside and outside of conventional democratic norms. There’s a very interesting chapter in the book detailing how residents, even families would block streets with barricades and burning tires after spending days without water. How does the use of violence in popular sectors as a mechanism of protest compare to methods seen in middle class neighborhoods? Are there significant differences?
A.V: Yes. Partly what ends of happening is that similarities in tactics get confused with similarities in strategy. Every road block is not the same. It’s not built the same and it’s not demanding similar things.
The biggest difference between what we call guarimbas in the more contemporary parlance of anti chavista contentious politics and bloques de ruta, cortes de calle in the pre-Chávez era is that on the one hand what you find is that in those protests before the Chávez era, people closed the streets because they demanded the state’s attention. It was a way to dramatize and to civilize the closing of communications channels between state and society. To close a road or a strategic intersection was a way to say “you have stopped listening to us and therefore we need to call your attention.”
With the guarimbas closing of roads was quite the opposite. It was a way to reject the presence of the state. It was a way to shun the legitimacy of the state. In short hand, one of the ways I tend to think about it is that there is a difference between protestas ante el gobierno — those that face up to the government; they face up to the state — and protestas anti el gobierno — protests that are against the state. So one calls the state into engagement, the other one explicitly rejects it.
The fact that we misunderstand this difference between tactics and strategy is important and indicative of a larger misunderstanding of the ways in which — and this is one of things I try to do in my book — we tend to conflate histories of what is in fact a highly divided country. I don’t mean divided in a polarized way, although that, of course is true, but divided in terms of histories that aren’t easily represented or subsumed under the narrative frameworks of those who are imagining their place in history. So for instance, this is what allows in the 1980s for political scientists and economists and policy makers and the rest to think that things are getting a little bit hairy, the economy is not doing as well as it was doing before, but fundamentally things are well, until of course there’s a social explosion and it’s sort of like “woah where did this come from? It came from out of nowhere!” but no, in fact it had this long preceding history.
This inability to see beyond your immediate milieu and to assume that everything that is happening is new and never-known before and that you are accomplishing something entirely different makes it impossible to see beyond your immediate framework. And to some extent that’s what is happening with the way that people read the protest movement of the opposition even if it’s tactically similar to the ways that popular sectors protested before, it’s very different strategically pursued as far as different ends. There’s an assumption that if we do the same things that popular sectors are doing, perhaps that means that we are part of this larger whole, when in fact it’s not at all the case.
As talks of a possible negotiated transition between Chavismo and the opposition ensue, what role, if any, do residents of neighborhoods in popular sectors like el veintitrés de enero, Petare, and other important slums have in shaping the future of democracy and participation in Venezuela?
A.V: I think if anything has come out of the Chávez era, and I believe this — I want to believe this — is that whatever happens next, whoever comes to power next in Venezuela, much will depend in the way in which they come to power, for certain, but much about the transition and the future stability of any Venezuelan project that emerges from this moment of intense crisis, will depend on the ability of those sectors to understand that it’s impossible to sideline or marginalize the demands — especially for participation — not for handouts, not for immediate goods or services, but for participation of popular sectors. Because ultimately that is what drove the aspirations of neighborhoods like el veintitrés de enero in the late 1950s to help overthrow the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, that’s what helped these popular sectors to take up to the streets in 1989 in El Caracazo, that’s what led these popular sectors to really latch onto Chávez’ message about participation and protagonism, beyond even the social programs that eventually took root.
One of the things that I always like to say to students and others is that the first social programs that Chávez rolled out, the ones that concretely called — even if you wanted to be pejorative and say they were clientelistic — the first of those programs weren’t rolled out until 2003. Those were very piecemeal. They began to be rolled out in earnest in 2004. Of course, he was first elected in 1998, which means there was a period of about five to six years when sectors that fervently supported Chávez and Chavismo didn’t do so because they thought that something material was in store for them. They supported him primarily on this abstract notion that it mattered to have a president and it mattered to have a constitution in which their voices were formally included, that they at least had the aspirations to have mechanisms to formalize their participation and protagonism in democracy.
As a result of that, the role of these sectors going forward in any kind of negotiation is primarily going to be holding whoever comes to power next in check to make sure that those aspirations for greater participation are not abandoned in any transition scenario. So for instance, if a government comes to power that implements a very severe — much more so than currently even — neoliberal adjustment package, that completely sidelines the aspirations for participation of popular sectors, is very likely going to be met with the same kind of protests that you’ve been seeing, except for with a different kind of composition, as you’ve been seeing in Venezuela over the past few years.
The role of these sectors in going to be to maintain or keep alive this aspiration that now has been fifty years running, that whatever democracy is going to mean in Venezuela, it should and has to have a place and a mechanism for popular sectors to participate and to feel and to be part of the decision-making process, more than just periodic elections. And to the extent that that’s making sure that that stays the case, that will be the primary role.
Alejandro Velasco is an associate professor of Latin American History at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and Executive Director at North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). His book is Barrio Rising: Urban popular politics and the making of Modern Venezuela. You can follow him on Twitter @AleVelascoNYU
Juan Andrés Misle is a DC-based independent writer, researcher, and social & human rights advocate. He is Director of Latin American Affairs at Latino Giant.
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