Ukraine. Bosnia. Venezuela.
Tear gas. Masks. Water cannons.
Ours is an age of riots and rebellions, of radical self-creation in the heady streets: Spain’s indignados, the Occupy movement, Mexico’s Yo Soy 132, and of course the Arab Spring. We are understandably excited when we see people in the streets, and our pulse may even rise at the sight of masks, broken glass and flames, because for so long such images have represented the shards of the old world through which we can catch the perceptible glint of the new. Recent protests in Venezuela against the government of Chávez successor Nicolás Maduro might therefore seem to be simply the latest act in an upsurge of world-historic proportions.
Not so fast.
Despite hashtags like #SOSVenezuela and #PrayForVenezuela and retweets from @Cher and @Madonna, these protests have far more to do with returning economic and political elites to power than with their downfall.
Venezuela’s “Bolivarian Revolution” leapt forth from the historical collision of radical social movements against a repressive, neoliberal state. Fifteen years ago, Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela amid the collapsing rubble of the old two-party system, but the “revolution” over which he would preside has far deeper roots. For decades, armed guerrillas, peasants and workers, women, Afro- and indigenous Venezuelans, students and the urban poor struggled against a system that—while formally democratic—was far from it in practice. These revolutionary grassroots movements, which I document in We Created Chávez, blew a hole in what Walter Benjamin would call the continuum of history in a massive anti-neoliberal riot that began on February 27, 1989.
This event—twenty-five years ago this week—was henceforth known as the Caracazo, and irreversibly divided Venezuelan history into a before and an after. Its importance is not limited to the resistance to imperialism that it embodied, however, but also the slaughter that marked its conclusion. Numbers often fail us in their false equivalence, but there is much that they can make clear: some 3,000 were killed in 1989, many deposited unceremoniously in unmarked mass graves. But the movements struggled forth, building popular assemblies in the barrios and making increasingly militant demands against a flailing state, which responded with targeted killings and the occasional massacre. The mayor of greater Caracas, Antonio Ledezma, who today positions himself as an opponent of repression, himself presided over the murder of dozens of students in the streets in the early 1990s, not to mention a notorious 1992 prison massacre at the Retén de Catia.
It was into this gaping wound in history that Chávez stepped, first with a failed coup in February 1992, and with electoral victory six years later. Even then, however, there were still no “Chavistas” but only “Bolivarians”—a loose and all-encompassing reference to the great liberator, Simón Bolívar—or more simply: “revolutionaries.” The revolution predated Chávez, and it was always about more than the individual; so too for Maduro today. The state has become today an important terrain for hegemonic struggle, but it is far from the only trench, and those who felt the searing heat of state violence in the past have not been today miraculously converted to naïve faith. Instead, the movements persist alongside and occasionally in tension with the government: supporting Maduro while building autonomous spaces for popular participation.
The protests that have exploded across Venezuelan cities in recent days—whose most prevalent hashtag calls for #LaSalida, the departure of Maduro from power—have nothing to do with this arduous process of building a new society. While the protests are ostensibly about economic scarcity and insecurity—very real concerns, for the record—these do not explain why the protests have emerged now. Behind the scenes, the protests are a reflection of the weakness of the Venezuelan opposition, not its strength. Reeling from a serious electoral defeat in December’s local elections, old tensions have re-emerged, splintering the fleeting unity behind the presidential candidacy of Henrique Capriles Radonski who was defeated by Maduro last April. Amid the maneuvering so common to this opposition, more hard-line voices, impatient with the electoral game, have outflanked Capriles to the right: Ledezma, as well as María Corina Machado and Leopoldo López.
Rather than a breath of fresh air, the names are all too familiar, not only for their political histories but also because they represent the very thinnest sliver of Venezuela’s upper crust. Machado is most notorious for having signed the “Carmona decree” endorsing the April 2002 coup against Chávez, and for her friendly 2005 sit-down with George W. Bush. But it is López who best exemplifies both the intransigence of this opposition as well as its halfhearted attempts to connect with the poor majority. The very picture of privilege—in a country where Chávez was considered by elites to be unacceptably dark-skinned—López was trained in the United States from prep school to Harvard’s Kennedy School, an elite scion if ever there was one.
The political party in which both López and Capriles cut their teeth—Primero Justicia—emerged at the intersection of corruption and foreign intervention: López would later be barred from public office for allegedly receiving funds from his mother, a state oil executive. Less deniable is the FOIA revelation that the party received significant injections of funding from US government ancillaries like the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and the International Republican Institute. López is no stranger to street violence, nor does he flinch at taking the extra-institutional route: during the 2002 coup—of which he has said he is “proud”—he led witch hunts to root out and arrest Chavista ministers amid a violent opposition mob.
With a clever bit of theatrics, López has placed himself at the forefront of these demonstrations, garnering the title of “opposition leader” in domestic and international media alike. But where are the protests headed? From the beginning, the numbers have not been particularly impressive by Venezuelan standards, and certainly far fewer than the opposition is capable of mustering. But more problematic for the opposition is the makeup of the protesters and the very predictable geography of the protests, largely confined to the wealthiest neighborhoods. Even the ferociously anti-Chavista blogger Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles put it bluntly: “Middle class protests in middle class areas on middle class themes by middle class people are not a challenge to the Chavista power system.” Capriles himself has similarly insisted that the opposition will fail if they do not manage to attract the “humble people, the people of the barrios,” and that demanding Maduro’s extra-constitutional ouster will not accomplish this. In other words, even many Maduro opponents recognize that this “exit” hashtagged from Blackberries is nothing of the sort, but instead a callejón sin salida, a dead end.
Hyperbole seems to be the rule of the day on both sides, and among the fearful exaggerations of the opposition, none looms larger than the colectivos. While officially designating the more organized radical sectors of Chavismo, here signifiers float freely in proportion to the fear they represent, with the term colectivos applied to anyone on a motorcycle, anyone wearing a red shirt, anyone too poor-looking or dark-skinned. This is nothing new, either: the 2002 equivalent was the term “terror circles,” a slanderous pejorative used to denigrate members of grassroots popular assemblies who served as the backbone of resistance to the undemocratic coup. These popular grassroots organizers constitute the most direct, organic expressions of the wretched of the Venezuelan earth, the most politicized segment of the previously discarded human mass that the opposition has never cared about for a second.
Even Chavismo is not immune to the deep-seated hatred for the poor barrio residents that such terms represent, and to a certain degree the feeling is mutual. Against the caricatured view that insists that radical popular organizations like colectivos are either blindly devoted or cheaply bought off, these are in reality among the most independent sectors of the revolution, those most critical of government missteps and hesitations, those most familiar with the repressive force of the state and those who demand above all that the social transformation under way move faster.
These forever victims of the state have nevertheless bet on its potential usefulness in the present, or at the very least have insisted that the alternative—handing the state machinery back over to traditional elites and voluntarily returning to a life on the defensive—is really no alternative at all. This is not a decision undertaken desperately or nostalgically, however, but instead with the most powerful optimism of the will, not premised on the good faith of individual leaders—although there are some who deserve this—but instead because to bet on the Bolivarian government is to bet on the people, to wager on the creative capacities of the poor that always exceeds that state.
Many loose threads remain, but few can be easily disentangled from this broad back-and-forth of revolution and reaction that spans decades. If the experience of April 2002 has taught us anything, however, it is to avoid facile explanations fueled by mediatic imagery. Every passing day reinforces this lesson—yesterday’s hyperbole is today’s discredited exaggeration, and while regrettable, the deaths that have occurred on both sides fall far short of what one would expect from reading Twitter. Despite opposition claims of impunity, an official from the Sebin, the government intelligence agency, has been arrested for firing his weapon and the agency head has been sacked. Leaked conversations have suggested coup plots, and even López’s wife admitted on CNN that the Venezuelan government had acted to protect her husband’s life in the face of credible threats.
The media question itself will be urgently debated in the coming days as the conflict between the government and CNN comes to a head. Here too the role of the private media in actively spearheading the 2002 coup looms large in the effort to strike a balance between press freedom and media responsibility (a tension that is not avoided by acting like it doesn’t exist). But these loose threads do not negate the urgency of the phrase that the revolutionary grassroots reserve for those who once governed them, and who today try to do so again, regardless of the death toll: no volverán, they shall not return.
Venezuela is indeed at a crossroads, having—in the words of the militant-intellectual Roland Denis—“llegado al llegadero, arrived at the inevitable.” It is the point at which the Bolivarian process itself—socialism in a capitalist society, thriving direct democracy in a liberal democratic shell—cannot survive without pressing decisively toward one side or the other: more socialist, more democratic, in short, more radical. This is not a crossroads simply between two possible forms of government from above: the Maduro government or its hypothetical right-wing alternative. It is instead a question of either pressing forward the task of building a revolutionary society, or handing the future back to those who can think of nothing but the past, and who will seek to fold the historical dialectic back onto itself, beaten and bloody if necessary.
The only salida is the first, the exit personified in the more than 40,000 communal councils blanketing Venezuela, in the workers’ councils, popular organizations, Afro and indigenous movements, women’s and gender-diverse movements. It is these movements that have struggled to make Venezuela, in the words of Greg Grandin, “the most democratic country in the Western Hemisphere.” And it is these movements that—shoulders to the wheel of history—are the only guarantors of progress.