23 de Enero, Caracas.
On Thursday, April 3rd, a group of approximately 500 armed combatants representing the most vociferously revolutionary sectors of the Venezuelan Revolution engaged in a display of force in the historically-revolutionary parroquia of 23 de Enero (January 23rd) in western Caracas, making painfully evident the deep and volatile divisions that threaten the tenuous unity of the governing coalition.
Chávez Walks a Thin Line
The current crisis originates in an incident in February, when an improvised pipe-bomb exploded outside the offices of the national chamber of commerce, Fedecámaras, notorious for its central role in the 2002 coup that ousted Chávez. The only victim was Héctor Serrano, alias “Caimán” (“Alligator”), a police officer who was alleged to have been setting the bomb when it accidentally detonated. According to a statement reportedly found at the scene, the action was claimed by a little-known Venceremos Guerrilla Front, supposedly located in 23 de Enero.
Various Venezuelan police agencies, from Metropolitan Police to the Intelligence Services (DISIP), responded by searching several locations in the neighborhood, sparking protests by residents and representatives of the many local revolutionary organizations peppered throughout the area. Public figures like Lina Ron and Pedro Lander participated in a public protest against the searches, likening them to the repression experienced in the aftermath of the 1989 Caracazo riots, when thousands were slaughtered in these same barrios.
The response from Chávez has been ambiguous at best: he denounced Ron and Lander for playing into the hands of the opposition, launching into a lengthy explication on evening program La Hojilla (The Razor) of the alleged harm that the Chilean ultra-left caused to the government of Salvador Allende. Despite his long-standing affection for 23 de Enero — Chávez continued — violent attacks against the opposition, no matter how reactionary the target, could not be permitted in this “peaceful but armed” Revolution.
Defending the Integrity of the Barrio
Chávez’s stinging response has done little to lower tensions. Amid continued DISIP incursions into radical territory — the agency has confirmed having as many as 50 agents engaged in “intelligence and identification” in the area on Thursday — a number of revolutionary collectives normally devoted to the armed self-defense of 23 de Enero joined in a collective show of militant force. 23 de Enero was shut down completely, all roads blocked and only foot traffic permitted. Hundreds of armed militants, hooded with black ski masks and wearing a variety of clothing from military fatigues to denim jackets, stood in formation and addressed the media.
Participants in the “popular civic strike” issued a communiqué signed by more than a dozen revolutionary collectives — from Militia Zero to the Carapaica Movement to Lina Ron’s recently-relaunched Venezuelan Popular Unity (UPV) — denouncing the DISIP incursions. “It seems contradictory to us,” the statement reads, “that while the coup-plotters of the right are rewarded with an Amnesty Law, community leaders and popular revolutionary movements are attacked, stigmatized, and persecuted in an effort to destroy them.”
One participant was further quoted as threatening that the shutdown would be expanded to other zones of the city if the searches continued. Ominously, he added, “next time it won’t be so peaceful.”
Accusations of “Disobedience”
The day following this peaceful but armed show of force, Mayor of western Caracas Freddy Bernal traveled to the militant Block 7 of 23 de Enero, home to an organization known as Militia Zero, to negotiate. He would be disappointed, as no one showed up to talk, and according to Últimas Noticias, he dismissed the groups in question “disobedient.” This is certainly a title that many of the groups here in 23 de Enero would embrace, and it clearly marks the chasm that separates some members of the Chavista coalition.
Chávez himself would do little to close the gap: in a speech today commemorating the 6th anniversary of his return to power following the April 2002 coup, the Venezuelan President denounced those who carried out the symbolic stoppage. These are people, according to Chávez, who “call themselves revolutionaries,” but behind whom “the hand of the Empire” is clearly visible. While often in the past Chávez has been content to publicly rebuke such revolutionaries while tacitly turning a blind eye to their actions, such recent statements could suggest a dangerous change of course.
As though this tension between the government and radical Chavistas were not complicated enough, rumors continue to swirl about Chavista hegemony in the police forces. There are, I am told, “two DISIPs,” one resolutely Chavista and one which still opposes and works to undermine the process. This is not surprising: institutional control is a slow and uneven process. Few recall that Chávez’s 1998 election notwithstanding, it would not be until 2005 that the notorious Metropolitan Police of Caracas came under control of a Chavista Mayor (this force participated directly in the 2002 coup against Chávez). Further, even when such forces come under formal control of a revolutionary government, their transformation is painfully difficult. Hundreds of officers have been removed as a part of the process of “purging” police forces.
Partly as a result of this slow and uneven transformation of traditionally repressive police forces, the perspective most residents of 23 de Enero have on the police has also been transformed. Many make clear that, purges notwithstanding, they still remain skeptical of the individuals that comprise the various police forces, especially the notorious PM and DISIP. However, they are quick to point out that the threat of effective disciplinary action, including removal, has had an undeniable effect on police behavior. Anecdotes abound in which police say things like, “You’re lucky this isn’t the Fourth Republic anymore.”
As a result, residents’ reactions to the shutdown carried out by radical groups are equally nuanced. Despite a tangible dislike for the police, most local residents of 23 de Enero who I have spoken with feel that the action was unproductive at best. Some insist on the need to find those responsible for the bombing, while others merely emphasize the difficult position such actions put Chávez in.
But such positions occasionally come dangerously close to those of more liberal sectors. These are perhaps best represented by Margarita López Maya, who used her weekly column in today’s Últimas Noticias to rail against both the masked gunmen and the government. Armed protest, López argues, violates the constitution, and moreover represents a threat to the state’s “monopoly of legitimate violence.” It goes without saying that this view is unlikely to be shared by those revolutionary movements who found themselves on the losing end of that monopoly for five decades.
Vanguardism vs. Mass Action
But not all of 23 de Enero’s revolutionary collectives signed on to the action, and their reasons are revealing. Conspicuously absent were some of the larger groups active in the area: namely, the Tupamaros and the Coordinadora Simón Bolivar. And while some pamphlets distributed at the event also named the Alexis Vive Collective — a militant group generally associated with many participants in the action — the group promptly issued a communiqué to clarify their position, one which reflects in many ways the predominant opinion in the parroquia. While not attacking the action and while showing the utmost respect for their comrade organizations in 23 de Enero, Alexis Vive nevertheless declared that
We believe that it is not the moment for vanguardist or foco-type actions, which on the basis of our Bolivarian Marxist spirit are not admissible as a political norm for the current transformative juncture that our homeland is experiencing, since it is instead the moment for the great majority to take part in decision making.
Current conditions, in short, demand a more sustained effort toward the mass action of the Venezuelan people as a whole. Hence Alexis Vive members turn their organizational efforts not toward confrontational attacks, but rather toward the current proposals for the construction of socialist communes. Such a view would see the “strategy of tension” that bombings would provoke as doing the work of the opposition, although without the unnecessary and unfounded claims by Chávez and others that vanguardist tendencies are puppets of the CIA.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He is currently writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.