The Children of 1989: Resurrecting the Venezuelan Dead

The dead of 1989 are not mere metaphor: concretely speaking, these corpses were between 300 and 3,000, most executed at close range in their homes as the Venezuelan armed forces fired an estimated four million bullets in an attempt to do the impossible, to put the genie back in the bottle, Pandora back in her box.


The present that we receive comes inevitably laden with residues of the past, sedimentations of the dialectical interplay between action and meaning, and contemporary Venezuela is no exception. Indeed, of the many lines drawn in the sand in the run-up to Hugo Chávez’s successful 7 October re-election, none was more important than that which divided the present from the past. In the end, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski lost in large part because, a wealthy scion of the Venezuelan business elite, he could not shake off the dead weight of the old Fourth Republic (1821-1998) in his effort to defeat the Fifth (since 1999). By contrast, Chávez succeeded because, despite the inevitable challenges of his long incumbency in a country in which corruption remains an everyday phenomenon, he still managed to convince most Venezuelans that he is the candidate of historical change, if not total rupture.

Simply observing the past in the present, however, gives us little guidance about what to do with that past. Here, the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire seems clear enough in his insistence that ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’, and in his concomitant imperative for contemporary revolutionaries to ‘let the dead bury the dead’. But the question for today is whether this is the case in Venezuela, whether the dead past weighs heavily upon the living present, or if this history is something lighter altogether that can provide the basis for future revolutionary unfoldings. The history of Venezuela’s present, I argue, liberates at least as much as it constrains, and as a result, our task is not so much to “let the dead bury the dead” as it is to reanimate those corpses, to endow them with voice and allow them to speak directly to new possible futures.

This task of the radical resurrection of history defies many traditional methods. Properly understood, the Venezuelan present is not the product of a slow and linear progression whose truth can be gleaned from demographic data or social indicators (although these tell us much). Nor is it the heroic creation of great leaders past, to be compiled in what Foucault called ‘traditional history’, but most often emerged despite such leaders. In fact, such triumphal histories played an immense role in the consolidation from the 1960s on of a buffered, two-party political system – known as puntofijismo – that was impermeable to mass dissatisfaction and that, unable to bend, could only break.

And break it did, in spectacular fashion, on 27 February 1989, when the political forces and popular demands that had been developing slowly, invisibly, interstitially, exploded into a rebellion known as the Caracazo or Sacudón. After an electoral campaign critical of international lenders like the IMF and the emerging Washington Consensus, Venezuelan president Carlos Andrés Pérez had imposed his notoriously neoliberal structural adjustment programme known as the paquetazo. Enraged by the immediate impact of the reforms – and especially the overnight doubling of transport costs due to the liberalization of domestic gas prices – as well as the ‘bait-and-switch’ method in which it was imposed, poor caraqueños and later those across Venezuela took to the streets rioting and looting for nearly a week straight. The desperately poor ‘swarm[ed] into the forbidden cities’, as Fanon once put it, reuniting a segregated landscape if only momentarily, and in their looting of both necessities and luxuries, revealed the two-sided nature Marx associated with the commodity as well as their own intransigent demand that the last would soon be first.

Instead of one Venezuela, there were suddenly two, and the previously frozen dialectic of history was forced into motion in an instant, unleashing everything that has come since. There had been decades of antecedent struggles, but in 1989 the die was cast, the harmonious image of Venezuelan society irreparably smashed, and the unsustainability of both puntofijismo and the neoliberal reform package revealed for all to see. The Caracazo shook, too, common understandings of who would be the historic subject of any Venezuelan revolution, as it was not the formal working class or the peasantry, but largely those informal and excluded semi-peripheral urban poor so often denigrated as ‘lumpen’ who hurled themselves decisively into the streets, ‘redeem[ing] themselves in their own eyes and before history’.

The dead of 1989 are not mere metaphor: concretely speaking, these corpses were between 300 and 3,000, most executed at close range in their homes as the Venezuelan armed forces fired an estimated four million bullets in an attempt to do the impossible, to put the genie back in the bottle, Pandora back in her box. The dead did not, of course, bury the dead, but were instead themselves buried by the servants of a dying order. Many, like those later exhumed from a zone known as La Nueva Peste, the New Plague, had been thrown into plastic bags and tossed into unmarked mass graves. Much against the wishes of the ancien régime, however, these dead would not lay quietly, would not stay silent, and nor should we wish that they inter one another in obscurity. Rather, the process of unburying those corpses, both real and metaphorical, has been a powerful catalyst for what has come since.

If there was such a thing as a founding moment for what has been called the Bolivarian Revolution, this was it (and not, for example, the 1982 oath sworn by Chávez and his co-conspirators under the Samán de Güere tree). 1989 provided a powerful example for struggle, but more concretely still, it provided the impetus for those already conspiring within the military and their civilian allies. Not only had the people in the streets acted and demanded action in turn, but it was these same troops – many poor and dark-skinned recruits – who were ordered to fire on their own in the barrios of Caracas and elsewhere. It was only after the Caracazo that, according to Chávez: ‘the members of the MBR 200 realized we had passed the point of no return and we had to take up arms. We could not continue to defend a murderous regime. The massacres were a catalyst.’ Chávez’s failed coup attempt of 4 February 1992 was the direct result of 1989, and in fact had originally been scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the massacre.

As a recently spotted graffiti in Caracas by the Hip-Hop Revolución Collective puts it: ‘Somos hijos del 89… We are children of 89…’ And yet, as with all founding moments, even the most visceral memories can fade eventually if not connected continuously with the present. As a result, radical politics appears almost as though endowed with a half-life like plutonium but much shorter: radical leaders come to power by the ballot or the bullet, and move – gradually or swiftly – from left to centre, from challenging the status quo to faithfully upholding it. Venezuela, by contrast, has seen the opposite trajectory: elected as a moderate in 1998, Chávez has been powerfully radicalized through a combination of pressure from below and antagonism from the right.

Here too, the question of rupture is central: rather than rely on a single, founding moment which then fades in the popular memory as it is gradually betrayed by governing practice, the Bolivarian Revolution has instead, as longtime militant Roland Denis explained to me in October 2012, ‘moved from event to event’. From 1989 to 1992, to Chávez’s 1998 election, and crucially to the short-lived opposition coup that unseated Chávez for 48 hours in April 2002: the memory of struggle has been periodically invigorated in a way that condenses within itself not only the continuity of the Chávez government but also its process of radicalization and future challenges. Here again, our task is not to liberate present from past à la Marx, but to instead deepen continuities and make such bonds not only perpetual but also palpable.

The history of the Venezuelan present has thus been a history of momentary and decisive rupture, of 1989 but also of many moments before and since. It moves forward as with the momentum of a catapult, of previously unforeseen and unforeseeable qualitative leaps that suddenly become historically possible. But rather than cede to this unforeseeability and neglect historical tasks, and rather than dissolve this history into a multiplicity of micropolitical moments without any overarching meaning, our task is to grasp, in reverse, the dialectic which draws them together and around which the coalesce gradually, with the barely visible becoming undeniable in an instant.

All of this is not to say that Marx is fundamentally wrong, or that we should never ‘let the dead bury the dead’ (after all, it was Marx himself who criticized others for treating Hegel like a ‘dead dog’). There is much in Venezuela’s recent past that ‘weighs like a nightmare‘ on the present: the bureaucracy and corruption, the petro-state centralism, the ingrained tendency to see solutions only from the top-down, and the resurrection of some dead at the expense of others. Even Simón Bolívar, for whom the Revolution is named, has been resuscitated for both radical and conservative purposes. Our question instead begs a response like Lenin’s famous ‘Who, whom?’: who is being resurrected, and for what purpose?

Or, as the revolutionary Venezuelan folk singer Alí Primera put it: ‘Those who die for life cannot be called dead, and from this moment forth, mourning them is prohibited.’ Our task is to distinguish between the corpses, to bury some and unearth those that resonate with the demands of contemporary struggles in a manner far distinct from mourning. The same goes for Primera himself, who during his life was acclaimed in the poor Venezuelan barrios despite being blacklisted by the mainstream media, and who died in a mysterious car crash in 1985 as Venezuelan society veered toward a breaking point. Much like the victims of the Caracazo, Primera too has been resurrected as the namesake for a plaza in Caracas and the metro station in Los Teques, and a statue erected this year on the highway where he died or was killed.

Some of our dead simply cannot be left buried.

George Ciccariello-Maher teaches political theory from below at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is the author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Bolivarian Revolution (Duke University Press, 2013), and can be reached at [email protected]