We are still rebels

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We are still rebels”

The challenge of popular history in Bolivarian Venezuela

Alejandro Velasco

NYU, Gallatin School of Individualized Study

(forthcoming in: David Smile and Daniel Hellinger, eds. Participation and the Public Sphere in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.)
On 2 April 2005 voters in the 23 de enero neighborhood in downtown Caracas took to the polls to participate in an historic election. Over two dozen candidates representing a wide variety of local groups, linked nevertheless in shared support of President Hugo Chávez, sought to consolidate a single slate of pro-government forces ahead of nationwide neighborhood elections scheduled for August. At first glance these local level primaries, unique in Venezuela,1 highlighted the gains of grassroots activism under Chávez. Indeed since first taking office in 1999, Chávez’s calls to consolidate poder popular – popular power – by promoting grassroots participation in the democratic process had remained a common discursive thread. But beyond a dynamic electoral agenda including six nationwide referenda in six years, concrete signs of how “participative democracy” might in fact be consolidated on the ground remained scarce. In this context, promoting organic community leadership through local-level primary elections lent credibility to what had largely remained a whim.

Yet a closer look reveals more about the limits than the possibilities of popular power under Chávez. Indeed primaries in the 23 de enero reflected long simmering tensions between national chavista parties and “Electoral Battle Units” (UBEs), which emerged in June 2004 after anti-chavistas mounted a successful signature drive demanding a recall referendum against the President . That the referendum took place at all reflected the failure of chavista parties to convince voters against calling for the vote. Ironically Chávez himself secured their defeat, long railing against bureaucracy and elitism in political parties of old, but in the process mining the credibility of political parties at large, including his own. By contrast, UBEs functioned as five to ten person committees designed to mobilize voters at the most local level by bypassing party bureaucracy . By August, UBEs and their grassroots get-out-the-vote campaign helped score a referendum victory for Chávez. In October, they would secure another victory, helping Chávez-backed candidates sweep regional elections.

These various successes pitted locally-based UBEs against national chavista parties as the legitimate interlocutors of popular power. Unsurprisingly, that contest came to a head in the run up to local elections in 2005. Along the way UBE members were barred from state media, denied electoral resources, and prohibited from running as official chavista candidates. In response, UBEs and other neighborhood groups in the 23 de enero formed “electoral committees” to conduct independent primaries . Once held, the winning candidates created FUP23 (United Popular Front 23 de enero) as an electoral vehicle to run in the August elections, eventually coming third in the neighborhood behind the officially sanctioned chavista party and the Communist Party, both with national reach. Days later, FUP23 candidates staged a protest at the doors of the National Electoral Council to denounce the pressures to which they had been subject throughout the campaign process.

This chapter examines the genesis of political dissent among urban popular sectors otherwise identified with chavismo. Indeed, as a grassroots challenge to a political project ostensibly aimed at bolstering grassroots participation, the primaries were certainly remarkable; that they took place in the 23 de enero was even more striking. An amalgam of 1950s-era superblocks and densely packed squatter settlements, “el 23 – as the neighborhood is widely known – has long been considered one the staunchest bases of urban popular support for Chávez, the kind journalists use words like “bastion,” “stronghold,” and “hard core” to describe . It is here where Chávez comes to cast ballots amid enthusiastic crowds. Several of the programs that would become highly popular misiones were piloted in el 23.2 And election returns from nationwide contests consistently locate el 23 as one of the three major areas of electoral support in Caracas for Chávez and pro-government candidates.3 But as the primaries reflect, alongside these expressions of support also arise direct challenges to the hegemony of chavismo. In October 2004, when the newly-elected chavista mayor of Caracas announced his choice for jefe civil, local groups staged an insurrection and installed their own appointee. Earlier, armed groups disenchanted with what they regarded as the government’s inability to confront the opposition government of Caracas, coordinated an assault against city police, forcing Chávez to distance his government from what he referred to as “anarchic groups” in el 23 .

What accounts for these conflicting currents of loyalty and disloyalty in the heart of chavismo? How do we make sense of these wide ranging expressions of local autonomy, from primary elections to armed conflict? What influences shape popular understandings of the limits and possibilities of revolutionary change in Venezuela? And what are the contours of what Sujatha Fernandes  has called “critical social movements,” neither independent from nor beholden to Chávez? To be sure, internal tensions are common among movements struggling to consolidate transitions from one regime type to the next . In Latin America, two decades of research have exposed the fraught nature of revolutionary dynamics, more often marked by the push and pull of local and national sectors than by the design of central leaders and parties, characterized more by everyday claims to rights and citizenship than by disputes over material interests and resources .

Yet as Smilde and Hellinger note in their introduction to this volume, the relationship between urban popular sectors and the Bolivarian project continues to be seen primarily in terms of Chávez’s enduring leadership, based in turn on emotional links and the distribution of goods and services . Those taking a longer view point to Venezuela’s economic downturns of the 1980s and the ensuing disenchantment with a once-famed pactist system to suggest that popular sectors are what drive chavismo’s most radical tendencies .4 In either case, assessments of popular sectors’ political culture seem again and again to derive from top-down and structural analyses that leave local trajectories of organizing and mobilization unexamined, thereby marginalizing the complex and contradictory ways in which popular sectors engage with the Bolivarian revolution. As Daniel Levine has noted, “The protest cycle of the last decade or so draws on a long, and as yet, for the most part, unwritten history of organization, communication, and the articulation of positions. New groups and informal networks were created, whose continuing social presence shaped new issues, and served as points of attraction that elicited citizen interest, gave experience in common action, and nurtured activism on a small scale” .

This chapter traces patterns of local activism in el 23 before both the onset of economic crisis in the 1980s and the rise of Hugo Chávez in the 1990s. It mines this period for clues about how urban popular sectors came to understand their relationship with the state. The chapter begins with an examination of the founding of this neighborhood in the 1950s, locating the genesis of its long fraught relationship with the Venezuelan state to its paradoxical position as both a symbol of support and a locus of opposition. It then traces a process of activism that oscillated between a 1960s-era of violent political conflict seeking to undermine the state, and a 1970s era of community activism aimed at perfecting the democratic regime. When these strands converged in the 1980s, they would expose a political practice coupling liberal ends and radical means, currents that continue to shape the multiplicity of political expressions active in el 23. A final section reflects upon the challenge that these popular histories pose to a political project aimed at consolidating a “complete break with the past,” in the process marginalizing local traditions of struggle and giving rise to tensions well expressed in the caption of a local placard: with or without revolution, “Seguimos siendo rebeldes” (we are still rebels).
Founding Paradoxes in the 23 de enero
In December 1955 General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who had cemented dictatorial rule three years earlier, inaugurated Venezuela’s largest public housing project in downtown Caracas . In its first phase it consisted of thirty five rectangular monoliths, eleven of them as high as 15 stories, built to accommodate 15,000 residents . But the neighborhood was meant to house more than people. It also symbolized the promise of Pérez Jiménez’s “New National Ideal,” his vision of a modern, urban nation built on the foundations of massive public works projects . Indeed, rural migration flows going back to the mid 1920s, coupled with grandly conceived but poorly implemented urbanization policies in the 1930s and 1940s , contrived by 1950 to generate over 28,000 “miserable ranchos” in and around Caracas hillsides, “generally [consisting of] one cardboard-walled room, wooden planks and a zinc roof” . The figure represented 25 percent of Caracas households. It also marked a two-fold increase from just nine years previous . But more importantly for the dictatorship, according to its principal urbanist Carlos Raúl Villanueva, was that the proliferation of ranchos “in the face of Caracas’s steady growth, seemed like an implacable indictment.” Indeed, “housing construction in these sectors [had] been completely anarchic and in many cases clandestine,” amounting to an imminent “threat” against “society,” “the individual,” and the “aesthetic” integrity of all public works projects planned for Caracas within the soon to emerge New National Ideal . In order to score “another conquest in the state’s program of social action in favor of the least favored classes,” according to Villanueva, ranchos “had to disappear” .

And they did, in a “battle against ranchos” officially announced in 1951 . In the area that would become the 23 de enero, Pérez Jiménez consigned ten barrios for demolition, making use of a 1947 law enabling expropriation “in areas considered essential for the security or defense of the Nation.”5 In the construction frenzy that one historian has aptly named “the bulldozer years,” homogenizing the problem served a strategic purpose: it made possible finding homogenous solutions that could be implemented quickly and prominently to effect a decisive victory. The superblocks well fit these needs. Introduced in 1951, in concept the blocks consisted of free-standing Unidades Vecinales equipped with terraced duplex apartments, roof-top walkways and greeneries, and collective services at both roof level and on the first floor . By 1957 the finished project would grow to encompass 78 buildings, including 38 fifteen-story “superblocks.” All told the new neighborhood was capable of housing nearly 70,000 people . In naming the neighborhood the 2 de diciembre, the 1952 birth date of his dictatorship, Pérez Jiménez confirmed what its unparalleled dimensions suggested: the superblocks were the “material expression” of perezjimenismo ; their working class inhabitants symbols of its popular foundations. Located within sight of the presidential palace, defense ministry, and Congress, the blocks formed a symbolic axis reflecting Pérez Jiménez’s control over society’s principal elements.

But the dictatorship’s swift and uncompromising attacks on ranchos had established a matrix of confrontation that closed off dialogue with the state, thus channeling even mild discord towards an only option of resistance. For instance in clearing the terrain for the 2 de diciembre, demolition teams had made no distinction between ranchos and “well-constituted and traditional” barrios.6 In turn, residents forced to move to the 2 de diciembre development faced their relocation in various ways. For some, especially recent arrivals to Caracas, the move represented as Pérez Jiménez had intended, a marked improvement over their standards of living. For others, primarily among those who witnessed their long time communities razed to make way for densely packed superblocks, forcible relocation generated predictable discontent. In both cases, the common thread was common experiences of community life forged around both revendicative and clandestine political activity in their barrios. This camaraderie and its attendant organizing networks persisted and at times grew stronger in the 2 de diciembre, as entire neighborhoods were moved en masse, often to the same building, sometimes to the same floor.

(left) 30 April 1949, inaugural issue of Laberinto, an independent bi-weekly broadside published in the Tiro al Blanco sector in northern Caracas. On the front page, in what would become a standard feature, was a description of the community’s basic needs, water constituting an early lack. Other sections included a serial murder-mystery novel, a “literary segment” featuring poetry, birthday announcements, a “muchachas del barrio” feature showcasing an interview with a local female youth. (right) 14 May 1949 issue. Laberinto illustrates the associative networks that underlay community activism in urban popular sectors later forced to relocate to the superblocks. In 1955, Tiro al Blanco became the first neighborhood razed to relocate its residents to the just completed 2 de diciembre. Courtesy Mr. Juan Martinez.
Still, expropriations and adjudications remained a major source of disaffection towards the state. During its construction between 1954 and 1957, work on the 2 de diciembre took place in six-month cycles. From December to May construction slowed almost to standstill before commencing again at breakneck speed around June. On one hand this peculiar practice made possible, indeed necessary, record-setting rates of construction.7 On the other hand, it meant that all work – from evictions, to temporary relocation, to leveling, to construction, to adjudication of new housing – took place simultaneously. The resulting bottlenecks in expropriations and adjudications were a tinder box of bitterness, as many forced from their homes in June were further forced to wait months beyond December to return to what the regime had billed as “paradise lost”  even as new apartments sat vacant.8 In the fourth trimester of 1957, so as to accommodate the third, final, and largest phase of the 2 de diciembre, expropriations spiked 500 percent, marking an unprecedented rise that translated into unparalleled social frustration.

This simmering frustration in late 1957 coincided with mounting pressures from both military and civilian sectors for Pérez Jiménez to resign. Yet by the time authorities understood the unintended consequences of their hasty urbanization agenda there was little room for a selective response, leading instead to broad militarization of the neighborhood beginning in December 1957. Far from neutralizing clandestine political work, the government’s response worked to expand networks of solidarity among residents, fueling the kind of key urban support for the struggle for Venezuelan democracy that would prove vital in lending it popular legitimacy when it came in the form of a military coup on 23 January 1958. Within days, the 2 de diciembre “went from being a symbol of the dictatorship to a symbol of the democratic victory against it” . Wrote one paper, “The fury unleashed upon residents of that populous neighborhood,” alongside the final demise of Pérez Jiménez, “… gave rise to a proposal asking the Junta de Gobierno to change the name of the from 2 de diciembre to 23 de enero.”9 Renamed the 23 de enero, it would again honor both popular strength and the promise of a republican ideal, only this time at the service of a new liberal democratic order. And just as it had during the dictatorship, a tense interplay between conflict and support marked the state’s relationship with its namesake community.

(left) The newly completed 2 de diciembre superblocks, meant to provide modern, low-income housing for Caracas’s slum population. (Photo in Fraser 2000, 117). (right) 23 January 1958, with the superblocks in the background, a crowd gathers in front of the presidential palace following the overthrow of Marcos Perez Jimenez. The Defense Ministry stood atop the small hill behind the church. (Photo in Coronil 1997, 203).

Map of the 23 de enero parish and its subdivisions. Alcaldia de Caracas, 2002.

La Pelea Era Brava”: The Ambiguous Politics of Radicalism, 1960s

In the wake of Pérez Jiménez’s ouster, political elites sought to consolidate democratic order by opening spaces for dissent but under carefully crafted rules of consensus building. Moving away from the zero-sum politics that had doomed earlier efforts at democratization, political, military, clerical, and labor leaders agreed to what Fernando Coronil has referred to as an “agreement to make pacts,” steering economic and political incentives to opposition seen as legitimate through a well-oiled institutional apparatus . Meanwhile opposition considered illegitimate faced marginalization and punishment. The result was a system highly efficient at managing conflict from within but highly inefficient at handling conflict from without, resulting in party splits and guerrilla conflict that would shape Venezuela’s political landscape for much of the 1960s.

In el 23, the tension between conflict and consensus that underlay Venezuela’s political system during the years of democratic transition would find expression in a seeming paradox: while electoral support increased for the nascent democratic regime, violent opposition also found a strong and lasting base. The roots of this tension lay in what residents recall as the National Guard’s “occupation” during the government of Rómulo Betancourt (1958-63), which would gave shape to an undercurrent of radical political action in the neighborhood. The occupation responded to urban guerrilla activity during the transition to democracy, creating a climate of intense conflict in el 23. Period headlines give sense of the violence: “The 23 de enero gunned down,” “1500 National Guardsmen and Political Police Agents Assault the 23 de enero,” “Unrest all day in the 23 de enero: 6 dead, 40 wounded,” “Disorder in the 23 de enero…”10 Because it was set against the backdrop of the consolidation of democracy, the militarization of a neighborhood sector ironically named after democracy’s founding date seemed all the more striking. Indeed, these contradictions and the violence that characterized them were not lost on residents, even among those who professed partisanship to the parties then in power, AD and COPEI, respectively. One AD militant heavily criticized Betancourt and the difficulties his administration’s record in el 23 created in the campaign for his eventual successor, Raúl Leoni.11 Still, voter rolls in el 23 grew during the elections of 1963, 1968, and 1973, even if not apace with national levels, as did preferences for the bipartisan system . What accounts for this apparent contradiction, and how deep did popular support for representative democracy and its leading parties run in practice?

Testimonies offer partial answers. First, as the 1960s insurgency settled into stalemate after any real chance of victory crumbled by mid-decade, popular support faded for radical leftism while it increased for the bipartisan system. Electoral statistics, insurgent leader memoirs, and institutional analyses of Venezuela’s party system sustain this long-held view in the literature.12 But local testimonies offer new insight into the troubled context in which this process took place at the base, suggesting that just correlating the unfeasibility of guerrillas’ military objectives with waning urban popular support offers an incomplete view. For example, AD militants in el 23 point to a kind of pathological aversion to communism in barrios. Ramon López, an AD militant since the 1940s and among the first residents of the 2 de diciembre neighborhood, notes that “AD always had more support than the communists. No one liked the communists. Do you know why no one like them, why the people never liked the communists? … because they have that vision, of communism, what they do is kill people to take over their stuff, that’s a vision that’s been created, from Russia to Venezuela.”13

Yet this political-culture analysis underestimates the lasting influence of Communist Party (PCV) organizing against the dictatorship among urban popular sectors like those resettled in el 23 . Indeed despite its exclusion from the pacted system that shaped representative democracy after 1958, the PCV was well represented in the Caracas congressional delegation elected that year, including one envoy – Eloy Torres – from el 23, who in 1962 would go on to participate in a failed coup against the government of Rómulo Betancourt. Through its weekly organ, Tribuna Popular, the PCV also targeted el 23 as a source of support, publishing a weekly column under the title “En el 23 de enero” about social and political goings-on in el 23 throughout 1958 and 1959.14 In 1960 it expanded its column to include all barrios of Caracas.15 Between 1962 and 1969 Tribuna Popular was banned as part of the counter-insurgency campaign waged during the administration of Raul Leóni (AD). When it was again legalized, Tribuna Popular continued its column on el 23, this time under the title “Tribuna del 23.”16 Meanwhile Eloy Torres and his wife Carmen would continue to participate prominently in the social and political life of Venezuela in general and their neighborhood in particular. While Eloy would go on to help found the Movimiento al Socialismo party in 1971, Carmen dedicated herself to bringing material benefits to el 23 in the form of health centers and forming women’s action committees to solicit gas and telephone service.17

Torres’s partisan affiliation let slip another problem with a strict political-culture analysis applied in el 23. Grouping 1960s guerrilla movements as Communist overlooks the insurgency’s ideological fault lines, which were linked under a socialist banner that proved too tenuous to assimilate the state’s increasingly effective military campaigns. What complicated the picture was the high representation of disenchanted AD militants in the ranks of the insurgency. In fact, it was generational and ideological fissures within AD that fueled three well-documented splits in the party between 1958 and 1968. Each break led to creation of new, more militant factions that promoted guerrilla warfare against a system by which they felt betrayed as socialists. In this context, while all insurgents believed that the social democracy Betancourt promoted after 1958 was neither socialist nor democratic, their struggle was marked more by doctrinal debates regarding the contours of real democratic socialism than by plotting the task of wresting political power in the soviet or Cuban style. The result was a series of internal fractures in which the PCV constituted only one factor among many, more often lending a voice of criticism than of support to guerrilla warfare . In this context, residents of el 23 were more likely to view insurgent actions in their community as strands of student protest movements than as Communist take-over campaigns.

Seen as students rather than hardened political partisans, insurgents in el 23 often benefited from a maternal kind of support at times expressed as women lent their homes as impromptu safe houses or makeshift infirmaries. Consider the following testimony from Lourdes Quintero, at the time a mother of two toddlers in block 37 in the Zona F. Recalling armed clashes in the early days of the insurgency, Mrs. Quintero noted how:

LV: One time the police were chasing some kids, students, coming up [the stairs] with crates full of bombs. We opened the door [and said], “leave those bombs here and keep on running.”

AV: They came in?

LQ: Yes, we opened the door … they were running, yelling “Help us! Help us! Help us!” And we opened the door, and they left a crate here and then we threw it down the chute, all bombs. There were many, la pelea era brava (the fighting was tough)…
To be sure, it is difficult to glean the extent to which these forms of seemingly spontaneous support reflected broader ideological affinities. In the case of Mrs. Quintero’s testimony, however, what emerges is a pattern of material aid for the insurgency that seemed to reflect. Recalling another instance, Mrs. Quintero notes:
AV: But did you sympathize with the students? That is, did you understand them?

LQ: Well, it’s not that we understood them, but we helped them.

AV: How did you help them?

LQ: For instance one time a kid burned his back with a bomb, because when he threw it it fell on his back. Two kids brought him here, we kept him, treated him, well, we helped them, we gave them wáter, and food, and whatever we could. They were going around hurling … and this was full of students, but I don’t remember for what purpose, why, how it all started. I know it was during the government of Betancourt, very tough.

AV: Were the students communist?

LQ: Apparently. They came here for that. They came from below for that. Downstairs it was full of tanks.

AV: And were there many soldiers or police?

LQ: Many military, not police, military.

AV: And did you have to help a lot people?

LQ: Yes of course, everyone around here helped the students.

AV: So the people in the building helped?

LQ: Of course, they were young kids, students.

AV: And were there people who did not want them here?

LQ: No, everyone lent a hand, some didn’t because they were afraid, but others did, we helped them a lot, because they were young students.18

Accordingly what testimonies suggest is that behind the waning urban popular support for 1960s insurgent movements, or behind rising acceptance of representative democracy, lay more quotidian concerns regarding violence and the attendant difficulties it posed for everyday life. In el 23 these concerns gave rise to at least three political choices: 1) participation in national elections as a form of voto castigo (punishment vote) against radical leftism; 2) participation in national elections to reject leftist political parties born in the wake of pacification – an early 1970s policy of granting amnesty to demobilized guerrillas in order to incorporate into the political system – considered tautologically as vendidos (sell outs) for acceding to the plan or “the same radicals” (in either case untrustworthy); and, 3) participation in national elections as an admission of defeat by rank-and-file militants and sympathizers of the guerrilla movement, and as an attendant recognition that social democracy as represented in AD had indeed won and should therefore be afforded a vote of confidence.

Consider the testimony of Ravin Sánchez, who as a teen in the 1960s participated in the urban guerrilla campaigns in el 23. He recalled an AD rally in the early 1970s: “When I saw an Accion Democratica rally come down this road, openly identified as adecos, I felt that, well, that we were screwed. When I saw that march come by here with people carry Accion Democratica flags, for me that was, the final proof that we were screwed … we, in that era, were defeated by the adecos.”19 Admissions of defeat among demobilized guerrillas translated into at-times very active – and paradoxical – cooperation with the state, as was the case with those from el 23 who went on to fill the ranks of the military, the urban or political police services, or intelligence agencies, in short the same repressive apparatus against which they had squared off as insurgents.20

The common thread during the 1960s’s was the way in which the political struggle between pactist democracy and leftist guerrillas overwhelmingly marked the focus of both the state and insurgents in el 23, even if statistically the levels of ideological adherence to either front were limited. On the part of insurgents, their emphasis on doctrine rather than popular support exposed their indifference toward social goals. On the part of the state, its inattention to the social demands of el 23 was manifest in the performance of its Worker’s Bank (BO) charged with running el 23. During the dictatorship the BO had pursued a housing policy almost exclusively focused on urban centers and Caracas in particular as the superblocks well illustrated. On coming to power in 1958 under Betancourt, AD reversed this policy, focusing on rural areas and urban construction outside Caracas.21 But the BO proved institutionally ill-equipped to handle the dramatic turnabout without sacrificing efficient management of its superblocks in Caracas.

This was especially true in el 23 where nearly half of the apartments were seized by squatters in the days immediately following the fall of the dictatorship, thus providing an immense challenge at the time of normalizing rent contracts that would result in the ensuing years in staggering financial losses for the BO.22 At the same time, squatter settlements arose in areas of el 23 that had been designated as parks and footpaths, presenting new challenges and requiring more investment in infrastructure and maintenance at precisely the time when the fledgling democratic regime moved the foci of its development policy outside Caracas.23 In this context el 23 became a state burden not just politically but also administratively, but the latter lost out. What was sidelined, then, by both militant activists and the state, was attention to residents’ social demands: efficient water, sewage, and waste management services; roads and elevator maintenance; more public spaces. Against this backdrop, “pacification” under Caldera created an aperture for “community work” rather than political militancy to take the forefront in organizing in el 23 during the 1970s. Against this backdrop, an alternative current of activism gained force, one emphasizing community needs over political aims and resorting to unarmed, if not always passive, forms of collective action to achieve results.

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