It is a Friday night in Caracas, Venezuela. We are standing in the back of a pickup truck surrounded by dozens of motorcycles, tearing through the streets of Catia, the massive slum area that makes up nearly half the population of the city. On the motorcycles, revolutionaries young and old, women and men, some masked and waving flags, weave back and forth, sometimes ahead of the truck, sometimes behind. Two large speakers are blaring songs by revolutionary folk musician Alí Primera while a voice calls on the community to halt the repression of its most radical elements.
Fliers are distributed by throwing entire handfuls toward the crowded sidewalks. The motorcycles surge ahead, down narrow barrio streets, to coordinate the progress of the truck and the many cars following it in the caravan, as they make their way through the sometimes clogged streets. Occasionally there is confusion: we cannot pass this way, and the truck is slowly turned around as onlookers, some awestruck some annoyed, watch from the crowded sidewalks. The caravan pauses occasionally, occupying an entire intersection for several minutes, chanting revolutionary slogans:
Now more than ever, we are united,
radical groups and popular militias
And, in reference to the historically-revolutionary neighborhood that most of these groups call home:
23 de Enero, people’s army
Each time we stop, a motorcyclist dismounts to set up an apparatus, makeshift but sturdy, for launching giant bottle rockets into the sky. The deafening explosions only heighten the drama of the caravan. At one point, a young teenager darts past with what looks like a bundle of burlap. A perimeter is cleared, and he lights what turns out to be a massive firework, but one which detonates on the street rather than in the air. The explosion is deafening. It looks like an earth-bound supernova.
For more than two hours we wind through these streets, fumes from the motorcycles and the generator burning my throat and eyes. But I am seeing areas that would be impossible for me to visit without the security offered by these revolutionary militias, these “Tupamaros.”
The Myth of the “Tupamaros”
The late 1970s saw a waning of the Venezuelan guerrilla struggle, weakened by defeats on both the military and political fronts. Strategic errors and state repression had left what few armed units remained almost entirely isolated from any kind of mass political base. A period of reflection and self-criticism ensued, with some former revolutionaries seeking to reconnect with the masses through new electoral movements like Teodoro Petkoff’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) or Alfredo Maneiro’s more grassroots Radical Cause (LCR).
This emergence from the shadows of clandestinity, however, did little to temper state violence: rather, as longtime revolutionary Roland Denis puts it, the 1980s saw a “socialization of violence.” As the state’s capacity to provide necessary services declined alongside oil prices, popular protest was met with hot lead, most prominently in the 1989 Caracazo riots, which saw as many as 3,000 slaughtered in the poorest barrios.
It was in this context of repression that the Venezuelan popular militia movement was born. Neither entirely clandestine nor fully open, small groups began to spring up to defend local barrios from both the state and the burgeoning parallel violence of narcotrafficking. Small groups, masked and armed, began to make semi-public appearances, giving an ultimatum to local drug-dealers: either you stop selling drugs or you’ll be killed. The police, too, found themselves all the more frequently victims of armed ambushes and shootouts with masked militias. In order to explain this phenomenon, the police, government officials, and even more appreciative local residents adopted a single moniker, derived from the Uruguayan urban guerrilla struggle: in mythical fashion, these militias were deemed “Tupamaros.”
This became a new code word for both sides: the police used the term to denigrate, local residents to express an amalgam of respect, awe, and uneasiness, and the militants themselves to symbolically unify their struggle into one. This symbolic unification would become formal in 1993, with the establishment of the Simón Bolívar Coordinator. Its function lay in the name: this was a broad organization whose goal was to coordinate and unify the activities of the various armed militia collectives that had emerged spontaneously in response to the rising tide of state and para-state violence.
In response to Hugo Chávez’s decision to run for the presidency in 1998, the Coordinator began once more to give way to a variety of perspectives and tactics. Some collectives sought to maintain absolute autonomy from the electoral arena, others like the remaining Coordinator and more recently the Alexis Vive Collective have accepted positions of non-electoral support in exchange for state funding, and finally some entered more directly into the electoral arena.
Somewhat ironically, it was the latter group, under the leadership of José Pinto, that chose to maintain the Tupamaro name. This electoral strategy was not without its gains: after supporting Chavista candidate Alexis Toledo, Pinto himself would be named police chief of Vargas State. But the use of the Tupamaro name for electoral politics would not go down well among some revolutionary sectors of 23 de Enero, and after 1998 Pinto found himself increasingly less welcome. One such critical revolutionary explains the resulting irony as follows: “Today, everyone is a Tupamaro, and yet the Tupamaros as an organized formation don’t exist in 23 de Enero.”
Radio Combativo 23
Our day began in a much less exciting way. We had managed to arrange a meeting with members of the Radio 23 Collective, the first community radio station to operate in the revolutionary parroquía of 23 de Enero upon its founding exactly four years ago. Unlike state-sponsored stations, Radio 23 operates on a shoestring budget. Each member contributes around $2 a week, and most are behind several weeks’ payments for lack of work. Despite such financial difficulties, however, the station broadcasts 24 hours a day, an incredible feat that collective members attribute to the “magic” of their technician, who has managed to construct a homemade transmitter that has never crashed.
“We are itinerant,” they tell me, “of the 9 sectors of 23 de Enero, we have operated in 8.” Most recently, the collective set up shop in the zone of Cristo Rey. As we walk up the gentle hill that crosses from Monte Piedad to Cristo Rey, we pass a massive mural painted by another local revolutionary collective, La Piedrita. It is Jesus holding an AK-47, above an inscription that reads, “Christ supports armed struggle.” One of the oldest in the zone, the La Piedrita Collective has been operating for 22 years, and its members patrol the sector in a bright red, military style personnel carrier.
While the zone surrounding La Piedrita was pacified by the armed militia long ago, Cristo Rey is another story altogether. Tucked beneath the climbing barrios of Sierra Maestra, El Mirador, and El Observatorio, Cristo Rey was until six months ago a deadly warzone. “If you had a problem with someone,” collective members explain, “they would shoot you right here and dump your body in the ditch around the corner.” While much of the prevailing violence was drug-related, members of the Radio 23 collective are quick to point out that drug violence and state repression are really one and the same: “It was the Metropolitan Police and the National Guard who were bringing the drugs in in the first place and overseeing their distribution. To fight the narcos was to fight the police at the same time.”
When the collective set up shop, the first thing they did was to install the large power cables necessary for running a radio station. This was done at 11pm, and by 6am, the cable had been stolen. “That was the last thing that was stolen from us.” Members of the collective confronted local malandros (delinquents) and indigentes (homeless). “It was a dialogue, but one with consequences,” with the threat of force always implied. Almost immediately, the zone was secured, and there has only been one death in the entire area since. “The community is very appreciative,” we are told, and they even approach the Collective to sort out their basic demands, for example when the subsidized Mercal supermarket isn’t selling the amount of chicken they are supposed to.
But Radio Combativo 23 is more than merely a radio station: its members were among the more than 30 revolutionary collectives that recently called an armed blockade of the entire parroquía of 23 de Enero.
“Todos Somos Juancho”
Until recently, the relationship between the revolutionary collectives of 23 de Enero and the Chávez government had been a friendly one. Certainly, there were moments of tension, as when the Alexis Vive Collective and Simón Bolívar Coordinator turned up outside opposition television station Globovisión last year, protesting the station’s content and spray painting radical slogans on the walls.
But in general, the revolutionary collectives have enjoyed a much more open and supportive atmosphere, cultivating a tight relationship with the Bolivarian government. This relationship was at its clearest in April 2002, when Chávez was overthrown and briefly replaced by a non-democratic junta before being returned to power by popular mobilizations less than 48 hours later. Not only were revolutionary collectives in 23 de Enero key to Chávez’s return to power, but they had even provided a safe haven for Chavista government ministers and elected officials during a wave of opposition retribution.
In recent months, however, this relationship has been strained considerably. In February, a militant named Héctor Serrano, alias “Caimán” (“Alligator”), died while placing a small pipe-bomb outside of Fedecámaras, the nation’s chamber of commerce, heavily implicated in the 2002 coup. In the aftermath of the botched bombing, Venezuelan security and intelligence (DISIP) services entered revolutionary neighborhoods for the first time in several years. The revolutionary community responded with armed blockades protesting DISIP incursions, hailing their dead comrade, and demanding a halt to the persecution of another, Juan Montoya a.k.a. “Juancho,” for suspected participation in the bombing.
Chávez himself came out swinging on several occasions: “these people don’t look like revolutionaries to me, they look like terrorists,” he claimed on Aló Presidente immediately after the blockade, before arguing in a speech marking his return from the short-lived 2002 coup that the revolutionary collectives of 23 de Enero “have the hands of the CIA behind them.”
Unsurprisingly, this message was not well received among the revolutionary collectives that participated in the action. Despite the fact that the collectives issue their communiqués to “our commander-in-chief Hugo Chávez Frías,” the tone among some is bitter when the President’s name arises. “Chávez is calling us terrorists!” But they are quick to add the crucial caveat that things are far different than they had been under forty years of elite bipartisan rule: “At least he isn’t coming after us… yet.” Another member chimes in: “We’re not Chavistas, we’re not Marxists, we’re not socialists, we’re not anarchists or anything. We’re just Venezuelans who want to open up a little space so that the people have a little access to power.”
After our discussion with the Radio 23 Collective, we receive the unexpected invitation to join the caravan. We pile into a car and head to the meet-up point. As we climb out, we are told that “these people are the hardest of the hard,” and indeed it’s true. We meet members of the many collectives involved in the recent actions: La Piedrita, Militia Zero, the José Leonardo Chirino Collective (named for the leader of a famous slave rebellion), the Fabricio Ojeda Collective (named for a towering figure of the Venezuelan guerrilla struggle), the Zapatista Collective, the Revolutionary Movement of Bolivarian Defense, and Lina Ron’s Venezuelan Popular Unity, among many others. These revolutionaries greet one another with a single word: “Fuerza!”
The occasion is the defense of their comrade “Juancho,” who is currently in hiding after being named by the DISIP as a suspect in the Fedecámaras bombing. “Today, we are all Juancho, because during the coup, if they were just dealing with Chávez, it would have been over much quicker and the opposition would have won. But at that time, we were all Chávez, and we were victorious.” But this is more than mere comparison, and his words are thick with irony: “Do you know who was directing the armed resistance that day?” asks one revolutionary, referring to the street battles waged by radical Chavistas against the opposition-controlled Metropolitan Police who were participating in the coup. “It was Juancho!”
And yet this same revolutionary leader who was so essential to Chávez’s return to power now finds himself a wanted man. After a few minutes, participants crowd together to chant revolutionary slogans and plan the caravan route, and we are off.
“Yes, We Are Infiltrated”
A spokesperson for the Fabricio Ojeda collective is on the microphone. Twice I was told he was a “leader” of the collectives, and twice he replied “no, I am just a soldier.” During the two-hour caravan, he repeatedly reads a statement denouncing government repression and calling for participation in the next day’s planned cultural and sporting event in defense of “Juancho.” To Chávez’s accusations that these revolutionary collectives are infiltrated by the CIA, the reply is blunt: “Yes, we are infiltrated, we are infiltrated by the workers, we are infiltrated by campesinos, we are infiltrated by students and women, we are infiltrated by the oppressed, in short, we are completely infiltrated by the Venezuelan people.”
While insisting that “Juancho” had nothing to do with the bombing at Fedecámaras, the speaker nevertheless insists that their comrade “Caimán” “fell at the gates of Fedecámaras during a revolutionary action.” For these groups, there is no possible ethical grounds to oppose attacks on Fedecámaras, since “this is the same Fedecámaras that participated in the anti-democratic overthrow of the Venezuelan government, this is the same Fedecámaras that hoards food and gambles with the people’s survival, this is the same Fedecámaras whose paramilitary squads have murdered more than 300 campesino leaders in the past three years!”
While opposition leaders associated with the violent 2002 coup, such as Mayor of Chacao Leopoldo López and Ex-Governor of Miranda Enrique Mendoza, walk the streets and are even beginning to campaign for the November elections, the voice belting out of the loudspeaker insists, the revolutionary collectives of 23 de Enero find themselves pursued and persecuted “with the intention to annihilate us.”
According to the flyer distributed at the caravan, whose text is superimposed over the face of Che Guevara:
We are making clear that we will continue to defend our demands, that neither jail nor persecution will silence our voice, to the contrary, just as our ancestors resisted, today we will do the same against the attacks of an Oligarchy and a DISIP that are disgusted by the Smell of the People and the Smell of Revolution.
“We Are Not Terrorists”
While the primary function of the caravan was to denounce DISIP and police intervention and demonstrate the resolve of the collectives, it was also meant as a public invitation to attend and participate in the following day’s events, events which many might not expect from armed militia movements. We gather along with thousands of others in the neighboring parrioquía of Sucre for what is billed as a “cultural-sporting encounter” sponsored by the same organizations who participated in the armed shutdown two weeks prior.
This shutdown was much more peaceful, with hundreds of children in the street playing basketball, soccer, and volleyball, participating in Tae Kwon Do demonstrations and boxing matches. Members of the revolutionary militias participated as referees and by providing water and box lunches to the children. “You can see,” comments one revolutionary, a clipboard in hand and a whistle around his neck, “we aren’t terrorists, we’re just people from the communities who want to do everything we can to support the development of these communities and this revolution.”
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley. He is currently in Venezuela writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.