Burning Man in Venezuela

The man set on fire in Caracas might be the perfect symbol of the country’s runaway opposition.


The other day, anti-government protesters in Venezuela set a man on fire, severely burning nearly 80 percent of his body. The man had brown skin, and government supporters say he was a Chavista, to highlight the racist savagery of their adversaries. The opposition says he was a thief.

The video of the incident—which shows an anti-government protester throwing accelerant on the man, who then bursts into flames and runs down the street as other protesters, rather than help douse the fire, let him burn—is horrific. It obviously doesn’t fit the narrative of brave, virtuous, democratic activists facing down a tyrannical government. News wires have a curious framing: They decided that the point of the story isn’t “opposition protesters on Sunday set a man on fire” but rather “Maduro excoriated opposition protesters on Sunday for setting a man on fire.” Choose the correct lede, and you too can become a foreign correspondent: Man sets off bomb outside arena; or: Theresa May excoriates man for setting bomb off outside arena? US is blamed after bombs hit Afghan hospital, or: US is blamed after bombs hit Afghan hospital?

The crisis that has overtaken Venezuela is of profound proportion, with overlapping calamities, including critical shortages of food and medicine, soaring criminal violence, corruption, degeneration of oil capacity, and escalating anti-government protests. The crisis is as much existential as it is economic and political, cutting to the core of national identity. Rank-and-file activists are worried that their country teeters on the brink of becoming another Syria. (I noticed, after the last piece I posted on Venezuela—a “roundtable” of opinions from various sources—a new phenomenon, in which the post was denounced by some with the same righteousness usually reserved for arguments about Syria, in which “Chavist” was used with the same vehemence as “Assadist.” That can’t bode well.) 

There are plenty of people, in and out of Venezuela, sympathetic to Chavismo who are highly critical of Hugo Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. Yet, at the end of the day, where one places the blame for this disaster depends on one’s politics. Either the opposition’s efforts to oust the government are a response to, and are justified by, the regime’s authoritarianism, or the regime’s authoritarianism is a response to, and is justified by, its opponents’ efforts to oust it. On the one hand, the Chavista state has governed as if it were running one long election campaign, constantly in danger of being overthrown, if not by domestic elites, then domestic elites patronized by a Washington-Bogotá axis. On the other, the opposition has run an equally long campaign not to check and balance Chavismo, but to oust it.

Those who follow Venezuela know the history of this debate, running from when Chávez was first elected to the presidency in 1998 through the US-supported 2002 coup, the oil strike, the 2004 recall, the golden years of Chavismo, which ran from Chavez’s 2006 reelection through to his 2013 death from cancer, when health, education, and housing indicators were soaring and Venezuela was on track to meet many of the Milleninium Challenge’s social goals. Julia Buxton, in this interview she did with the New Left Review about a year ago, provides a very good summary.

Wherever one places the initial cause—either latent in the idea of using politics to achieve social reform, or manifest in the ruling class’s primal fear of losing economic, cultural, and racial status—Venezuela is caught in a self-propelling downward spiral, gripped by what the great historian of Europe, Arno Mayer, called, in writing about the French and Russian revolutions, The Furies.

Mayer provides two standards by which to judge how revolutionary a revolution truly is: The first has to do with the nature of the domestic backlash it provokes. For Mayer, “revolution/counterrevolution” is an indivisible concept; you can’t have the former without the latter. The second standard has to do with international reaction. All true revolutions challenge not just the domestic hierarchy but the dominant hegemony of the interstate system.

For Mayer, the “furies” are dialectical. The revolutionary breakdown of state sovereignty creates a vacuum filled not just by political and ideological conflict but by local antagonisms, hatred of elite pretensions, desire for vengeance, base interests and ambitions. Revolutions are “hothouses” of “wish fulfillment,” simultaneously compressed and exploded moments of intense hope and dread—hope of release and liberation, dread of either the coming of the new or the return of the old.

We need to pay careful attention to the chronological unfolding of these ecstasies, to the real or imagined tit for tats that mark the contours of polarization. Revolutionaries, both successful and aspiring, have to harness these furies, linking the local to the national in a novel system of sovereignty. As they seek to establish sovereignty over a social terrain that they themselves shattered, revolutionaries seek to monopolize violence and terror, not only to neutralize inevitable opposition but to incorporate diverse popular demands for justice and revenge into new state structures. This is one reason why Red Terror is often public, incessantly theorized, and openly justified (think Cuba’s early trials and firing squads, carried out in the full glare of the international order), while White Terror can do its work in the dark, quietly and covertly (think Pinochet in Chile, or Uribe in Colombia).

Against those who argue that terror is intrinsic to revolutionary ideology, Mayer draws from 1970s Marxist existentialism to argue that political actors operate not with a fixed ideological roadmap. As emerging historical actors on the political stage faced with apparently archaic obstacles and opposition, Mayer writes, “revolutionaries accelerate their lunge into an imperative but uncontrollable and hazardous future.” He cites Maurice Merleau-Ponty to argue that during revolutionary moments, “history is suspended and institutions verging on extinction demand that men make fundamental decisions which are fraught with enormous risk by virtue of their final outcome being contingent on a largely unforeseeable conjuncture.” “History,” Merleau-Ponty writes, “is terror because there is contingency.” As a result, revolutionaries often take resistance to their program to be more coherent than it often is, leading to an ever-intensifying friend-enemy schism.

For their part, counterrevolutionaries, faced with a sustained challenge to their class, status, and worldview, can no longer simply reflexively defend the hierarchy as a common-sense good. They have to become more ideological, more active, which generally entails adopting a revolutionary style and willingness to plunge into the future. But for the counterrevolution to gain full steam, it has to look outward and attract the attention and patronage, either in the form of invasion or siege, of foreign powers (as right-wing Venezuelans did with Washington and, to a lesser extent, Bogotá under Uribe). But it also has to look downward. The classes have to connect with the masses, who have their own motives for opposing, or breaking with, the revolutionary state.

The Bolivarian Revolution, inaugurated with Chávez’s 1998 election, clearly met both these tests: It shattered an already tottering domestic establishment, destroyed its governing myths, and shocked the status hierarchy, opening up the political field to Venezuela’s heretofore excluded and marginalized majority. And it threatened the neoliberal assumptions of the interstate order, as headed by the United States, especially in the revolution’s efforts to repoliticize oil, to return to a 1970s conception of using the resource as an instrument to tax wealthy nations and socialize, through international aid and welfare programs, the proceeds. And Venezuela today certainly seems to be caught in a Mayer-like spiral, where contretemps deepen schisms, charging every act with political meaning, transforming every event into a provocation, intensifying the friend-enemy distinction and leaving Venezuela on the threshold of either a civil war or a major bloodbath.

But it needs to be pointed out that in Venezuela, the furies have been decidedly nondialectical. Yes, the regime has grown more authoritarian, and observers will disagree to what degree this was (1) a response to the opposition’s actions, or (2) inherent within the idea and politics of Chavismo itself. But for all of Hugo Chávez’s populist bombast and rhetorical attacks on the oligarchy, his administration was remarkably absorptive, able to incorporate would-be enemies into its new political and economic structures with relatively little repression. In fact, only a handful of people went to prison for any length of time for their role in the 2002 coup. That is, for trying to overthrow the government (in the United States, Oscar López Rivera just spent 36 years in prison for playing a supporting role in a bombing campaign on behalf of Puerto Rican nationalism, and Leonard Peltier still is not free).

In fact, for all the attention paid in Venezuela to Leopoldo López, who was imprisoned for his involvement 2014’s violent protests, Chavista victims of the 2002 coup decry a double-standard in the leniency shown to the coup plotters, pointing out that white skin still provides something like a “get out of jail free” card for right-wing Venezuelans. In other words, the Chavista state has long avoided what Mayer argues is a central requirement of the centralization of a revolutionary state: the channeling of popular anger and grievances into new judicial structures through public acts intended to ritualize legitimacy. “What is the message that this is sending to the Venezuelan people?” asked one victim, who then provided the answer: “Don’t worry, coup-plotters, fascists, you can keep killing chavistas…there won’t be a sentence for you, you won’t have to do time, you won’t have to pay for it.”

In Mayer’s account of revolution and counterrevolution, the kind of violence executed by the opposition, first in 2002-03 and then from 2013 to the present, should have (short of overthrowing the government, as in Chile in 1973) plunged the country into civil war (think of the Contra war in Sandinista Nicaragua), international war (again, Cuba, which sought to deflect Washington’s campaign against it by sponsoring “two, three, many” insurgencies throughout Latin America), or a period of sustained Red Terror (Russia and France). But no such war or terror purge has occurred. Not yet.

In 2013, animated by a closer than expected national election (which brought Maduro to power following Chávez’s death), the losing campaign of Henrique Capriles (considered to represent the more moderate, “cuck” wing of the opposition for its willingness to contest elections) decried, with no evidence, fraud and called for protestsEight Chavistas were murdered. A few months later, in 2014, the opposition called for more disruptive street protests, which left over 40 people, mostly Chavistas or government employees, dead. One motorcyclist was decapitated by a wire that anti-government protesters strung across a road, an improvised guillotine. More than 50 people have died in the current cycle of protest and counter-protest.

Maduro has in fact compromised on a number of issues, including setting a dateto hold regional elections. But the opposition—divided between its “moderates,” many of whom have adopted the social-rights framework of Chavismo, and right-wing “extremists,” who believe they are waging an end-times struggle—is totally invested in accelerating the crisis, in calling for more and more protests. Those protests focus on the repressive agents of the state, and are shooting bullets and hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at security forces, hoping to provoke reprisals, that will then be covered by international news outlets. But they also focus on the state’s redistributive symbols. As the Contras did in Nicaragua in the 1980s, protesters in Venezuela focus their energy on destroying health clinics and disrupting food-redistribution centers. The objective is clear: to cut off both the right (the repressive) and left (the social) hand of the state, rendering it incapable.

The Maduro government seems paralyzed. The Sandinistas in the 1980s paid for the Contra War by rolling back many of their social programs and embarking on a punishing austerity program. The anthropologist Roger Lancaster tells me that he first heard the word “neoliberalism” when he was doing field work in Managua, to describe the Sandinistas’ retreat from their early ambitious social agenda. Still, Lancaster says, the “Sandinistas weathered the crisis, in no small part on the discipline of their base, to say nothing of the discipline of their police and army. The Sandinistas knew how to clamp down but without having a bloodbath or even a campaign of selective assassinations. But it’s clear that this period of hardship eroded popular support for the Sandinista project: the FSLN lost the next elections, even after winning the war.” In some ways, Maduro is in a worse bind, largely because Chávez before him opted to keep the national currency artificially overvalued (which contributes to shortages). And Maduro insists on making “surreal, suicidal” payments on its international debt, rather than spending that money on emergency aid to calm the waters.

It’s the opposition that has the momentum, but at this point it is self-propelling and potentially calamitous. They can’t call off the protests, no matter how violent they become, since that would risk splitting their power. A return to calm might create a scenario where the “moderate” wing would negotiate a deal with the government, short of the latter’s total capitulation (which is the only acceptable outcome for the extremists). Protests also have to be kept going to continue the centripetal force of, à la Mayer, uniting the classes with the masses. The English-speaking media are constantly trumpeting the multi-class and multi-skin-tonal nature of the protesters, and the fact that the opposition, as compared with the past, is broad-basedPerhaps.

But they are desperate for the real Chavista rank-and-file—those who live in the hillside shanty-towns that circle Caracas and helped return Chávez to power after the failed 2002 coup, in neighborhoods such as 23 de enero—to align with the opposition. Alejandro Velasco, my colleague at NYU and author of the excellent Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela, says it is true that there are now more protests, including looting and vandalism, in these neighborhoods than there were in 2014, but to a large degree they are running parallel to the anti-government demonstrations. These neighborhoods, Velasco recently told BBC reporters, aligned with Chávez because he understood them not in instrumental, or contingent terms, but as central “social” actors in Venezuelan politics. There’s a profound distrust in the barrios of the opposition, no matter how bad things are, a sense that the leadership just wants to use them as battering rams. What, exactly, would opposition leaders do if these people came down from the hillside, but, after the government fell, decided to stick around?

There’s also a deep fear of the primal hatred, racism, and fury of the opposition, which for now is directed at the agents of Maduro’s state but really springs from Chávez’s expansion of the public sphere to include Venezuela’s poor. After all, it’s hardly an exoneration to say that those anti-government protesters thought they were setting on fire a “thief” rather than a “Chavista,” since in their mind the two terms are interchangeable. Velasco tells me that he is “in touch with friends and others in barrios: they are flabbergasted and deeply afraid of 1) the revanchist violence on the part of some in the opposition, 2) just how completely hidden (or as in the case of these burnings, celebrated) that violence is on the part of the media especially abroad, 3) how little the government is equipped or willing to deal with it (for instance I’m hearing lots of pleas for Maduro to implement a curfew). None of the three are surprising in themselves. But taken together, they’re a cauldron for fear and paralysis that has a lot of people rightly terrified of what’s coming down the pike.”

That image of the man running down the street ablaze might just be the perfect metaphor for Venezuela’s opposition.