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A guided tour of the political, economic, and racial geography of Caracas, Venezuela in four vignettes, courtesy of a friendly and unwitting member of the anti-Chavista opposition.
1. The Political: Parque Central
I thought the jig was up when I told Raúl where my French friends live. “Oh, they must be Chavistas!” I played dumb. Playing dumb was my only option: housing in Caracas is incredibly scarce, and I had already been looking for weeks before coming upon the empty room in Raúl´s house.
He immediately launched into a slow and painstaking explanation of how Venezuelan communism operates, under the watchful eye of president Hugo Chávez Frias. An honest, hardworking Venezuelan can’t go into the Anauco Suites-a towering if dilapidated apartment complex tucked between the 56-story East and West towers of Parque Central, Caracas. The Anauco, according to our new landlord in an upper middle-class section of town, is reserved for communists, whether from the Venezuelan interior or the Cuban-inspired conspiracy abroad.
I avoid details when it comes to my work in Caracas: “I’m an English teacher in an institute in Parque Central.” His suspicion takes a backseat to his eagerness to show a young American the political ropes of Venezuela: “This is how things work under communism,” Raúl reminds me as the subject turns to the East Tower of Parque Central, damaged in a fire in 2004 and still closed for repairs. “For every billion Bolivares that go toward it, you know 500 million go in someone’s pocket.” I bite my tongue, stifling a comment about the decades of puntofijismo-the power sharing by the center-right COPEI and center-left AD which dominated Venezuelan politics from 1958 to 1998-about the corruption rife under the exclusionary pact and its inevitably violent outcome in the 1989 Caracazo riots, in the aftermath of which hundreds were slaughtered when government troops entered the barrios.
This does not pardon corruption in the present, but the opposition wields the charge of corruption in patently bad faith: one cannot squander oil profits if these profits is already being funneled into the pockets of transnationals, and moreover corruption matters little if the government is already exclusionary in its very composition.
2. The Racial: The City Center
Like many escualidos-a term for the political opposition which designates them as feeble and sickly-our landlord has a veritable phobia of the old city center. “Here it’s dangerous, but compared to the center, this area is like a convent.” He and others go into great detail about how slick and ruthless the thieves of the center are, about how they will rob me blind and kill me for my shoes. I try to remind myself that they are speaking of the area of the city that I know best, and in which I have spent months already and where I work every day, where the food is better and the people friendlier.
Such phobias certainly echo similar sentiments expressed elsewhere.
Consider the ways in which the names of entire cities become economically-coded racial bywords for those living in the suburbs. Think “Oakland.” Think “Detroit.” That this phobia masks racial content is evident when one considers the history and structure of Venezuelan racism: the one thing that most well-off caraqueños fear is a repeat of 1989’s Caracazo riots, an event which one can often hear described as the days when “the blacks came down from the hills.”
The TransAfrica forum recently noted that racism is alive and well in Venezuela, a fact made clear to them when their own delegation was described in racial terms as quemado, or “burnt.” But the racism is explicit in my landlord’s phobia as well: where we live is described as a “red zone” after dark, but the Center is “mapache territory,” a term which refers to the lifestyle and cleanliness of a racoon, while also-not coincidentally-invoking the Spanish name given to the “Apache” in reference to their painted faces. The idea of being stalked by a masked and racialized other haunts the Venezuelan opposition, the reflection of the irrepressible guilt of a century’s crimes.
Of course, the racialization of the hills and the barrios is more stark than that of the city center, but the city center is the point of contact, where the opposition must inevitable meet this other while shopping for some goods which (regrettably, for the upper classes) are not to be found in the east of the city, and is therefore perceived as more of a threat. It is the point of penetration, the wound through which the barrios enter and multiply as a biologized and racialized danger to the organism.
3. The Economic: Sabana Grande
Sabana Grande used to be nice. Nestled between the old Center and the wealthy municipality of Chacao (reputedly the wealthiest in Latin America), it used to be a European style boulevard where the bourgeoisie could relax with a glass of lager at an outdoor restaurant. Now, Raúl reminds me, it’s choked with buhoneros, the street vendors of the massively-informalized Venezuelan economy who, he is at pains to emphasize, even “piss on the street.” But somehow the question doesn’t become one of the lack of public restrooms, or even of the lack of jobs in the formal economy. The irreducible alterity of someone from a totally different political, racial, and economic situation provides all the necessary answers.
His rhetoric doesn’t dress itself in neoclassical economics, as is the case with much of the immigration debate in the U.S. The problem is less that the buhoneros drive wages down (after all, they aren’t immigrants, so can’t be told to leave). Rather, the concern seems to be more aesthetic, but what the aesthetic in turn masks is a dream about the world that neoliberalism and capitalism has been incapable of fulfilling. After all, it was neoliberalism that created the conditions for increasing informalization: the eight years prior to Chávez´s election (1990-1998, the years directly following president Carlos Andrés Pérez´s acceptance of the neoliberal Washington Consensus) would see the urban informal sector increase 14 percentage points-from 34 to 48 percent of total employment-according to CEPAL/ECLA. Sure, the buhoneros need to work, and sure, there’s no other work for them. But rather than asking the hard questions, Raúl and many members of the opposition just wish them away-a wish reflected institutionally in the banning of buhoneros from wealthy Chacao, which borders Sabana Grande on the east-choosing instead to picture the Sabana Grande that best represents their imagined capitalist utopia.
4. The Opposition: Altamira
The further east one moves in Caracas from the city center, the more forcefully the colonial imaginary asserts itself. This is perhaps most visible in terms of fruit: in wealthier areas, imported apples and pears replace such local treasures (and staples of the old center) as parchita (passionfruit), mango, and guanabana (a barely translatable but sumptuous relative of the cherimolla). Even the Lechoza, where one can find it still on the menu, goes by its more universal name: Papaya.
Our rented room isn’t even as far east as Altamira, playground of the über-wealthy caraqueño -resting just north of Sabana Grande, still well within the sprawling western Libertador municipality-but aspiring members of the middle classes gaze ever eastward. When we arrive, an initial query regarding food yields two suggestions: a local bakery and pizzeria which boasts incredibly expensive $15 pizzas and four armed security guards, and perhaps even more striking, an Italian import store. The local arepa (made of corn, and priced as low as $1.50 by comparison) is surprisingly scarce, having lost out to the more westernized consumption of imported wheat pasta (here it is worth noting that the reversal of this trend is a central aim of Chávez’s Bolivarian Revolution and its program of “endogenous development”).
Here, too, we find the reputedly largest mall in Latin America-the Sambil-which boasts free wireless and such western delicacies as Wendy’s, Chili’s, and Subway. In fact, of more than 500 locales that make up the Sambil, only one offers comida criolla (local food). It is through structures like the Sambil that not only American food, but also the architecture of American consumption habits, enter into the everyday experience of elite Venezuelans.
This same aspirational tendency that we see in the consumption habits of much of the middle class of Caracas extends as well to political association, and colonial self-hatred is deeply intertwined with anti-Chavismo. It’s useful to remember that the anti-Chávez opposition are not all far right conservatives-Raúl reminds me of this by making clear that he’s no big fan of Bush-but we must equally bear in mind that the far right in Latin America is far worse than many are willing to admit, and this means that moderate anti-Chavistas have some pretty nasty bedfellows (we’re talking photos of Pinochet on the wall). I shudder to think that this contact with such bedfellows extends, quite literally, to me given my living situation.
Centrist anti-Chavistas like Raúl and opposition presidential candidate Manuel Rosales-running on a populist platform of improving the social missions that Chávez and others created and distributing oil wealth directly-are useful pawns for these arch-conservatives. A local friend, certainly more Chavista than not, remarks: “Rosales isn’t from the right, but the right sees him as an intermediate step. First, get rid of Chávez, then elect a conservative.” The success of popular organization in Venezuela is so striking-and Chávez’s return to power after the short-lived April 2002 coup was proof enough of this-that the radical opposition is left with only one option: the poor must be mobilized so that they can be smashed.
For now, I keep my Chávez t-shirts tucked safely away, and our cat-named after a well-known Latin American revolutionary-has been granted a temporary alias.
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D candidate in political theory at the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Caracas. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org