Samuel Grove interviews George Ciccariello-Maher, author of We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, George Ciccariello-Maher, about the Bolivarian Revolution.
Samuel Grove: Who is the ‘we’ that this book is about?
The “we” that “created Chávez” in my title refers to the “people” of the subtitle, but this is an answer that simply begs more questions. Namely, who is or are the Venezuelan people? Thinkers like Paolo Virno and Hardt and Negri insist, on the basis of European history, that “the people” is a conservative category, one that is unitary and unifying, one that excludes difference and upholds the state. In Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, this has not been the case. Instead, while the concept of the people has been used by some toward such ends, it has also been mobilized by others toward the opposite. The people, or el pueblo, has also served as the fundamental category for popular resistance and combat, much more so than either strictly national or class identities, although it involves some of both.
This double-meaning of the people, in which the pueblo is itself a terrain of struggle to be fought over, is also itself doubled in the radical resignification of the national anthem, ‘Gloria al Bravo Pueblo’ (‘Glory to the Brave People’). In Venezuela, bravo also means angry or fed-up, and so as popular resistance developed in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of the brave people was increasingly replaced with the idea of a broad class of poor and oppressed people unwilling to accept the status quo. In fact, in the popular rebellion in 1989 known as the Caracazo, which was the fundamental moment that catapulted the Bolivarian Revolution to national prominence, graffiti appeared in Caracas reading ‘el pueblo está bravo’ (‘the people are fed-up’).
SG: You began your history of the people’s struggle with the establishment of representative democracy in 1958; that is after the popular uprising that brought down the Marcos Pérez Jiménez dictatorship. Why?
In writing a history of popular struggles, there is a danger of infinite regress, and in We Created Chávez, I occasionally point back to even the first moments of colonisation and the indigenous and later slave resistance that developed in Venezuela. But my starting point is above all 1958, which might seem counterintuitive since it marked the beginning of stable formal representative democracy in Venezuela. The reason is that this is still, after all, a history of our present, a history that seeks out the basic parameters of struggle that constitute the Bolivarian Revolution, and one fundamental aspect of this is the critique of and resistance to a certain understanding of democracy.
After 1958, it became perfectly clear that formal representative democracy would not solve the problems of capitalism and imperialism that plagued Venezuelan history, and moreover that this form of democracy soon became a barrier to the expression of popular demands from below. As a result, many of those who participated in the overthrow of Marcos Pérez Jiménez in 1958 found themselves within two short years in the mountains,