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.