CARACAS, TIME-SPACE OF A SUBMERGED CITY. THE DESPOTIC ORDER OF THE GAS STATIONS

CARACAS, TIME-SPACE OF A SUBMERGED CITY. THE DESPOTIC ORDER OF THE GAS STATIONS

To Valentina

The defeat, as well as the rise of political projects, have an impact on the space of the cities. Historical transformations, discourses, bodies, movements overlap with spatial and temporal structures, to conquer a profile that can then express an epoch. When the chronological 21st century dawned, this was what happened to the Bolivarian process. Soon the spaces of Caracas were not only going to be the immovable seat of the expansion of a project that interpellated the majority, but those spaces were going to be composed, (more clearly, they were going to be socially produced), as the constituent scenarios for the performance of a highly politicized popular subject. That cosmopolitan character that Caracas had taken strongly from the successive expansions of the oil economy during the 20th century, but especially in the mid-1970s, was now to be linked, not without tension, with the emergence of a powerful movement of national liberation.

A basically populist movement capable of containing imaginaries, traditions, tendencies that could even be inherently contradictory to each other, forces that constantly disputed their internal prevalence to drive the process at certain times. Precisely, from that heterogeneous character, the chavismo could finally embody better and more complexly, the demands of a radically plural society. But I would certainly dare to say that it already existed in some way without the name of the caudillo, in the various forms of resistance to structural adjustment policies during the last decades of the 20th century.

It’s probably that in historical terms, its violent, street and democratic irruption is likely to have occurred during the popular uprising of February 27th, 1989, and the subsequent days. This event is inscribed in social memory, but basically objectified in a certain space, it is about the avenues, the streets, the neighborhoods, and the hills of Caracas where the broken-down crowds spread. The same spaces as the hours after the festive plenitude of the protests and looting were to be occupied by the military repressive forces, in the task of quelling the insurrection and restoring a failing order. An insurrection that posed decisively the end of the social pact that supported the modern party regime. Our social struggles during most of the 20th century had the city as a natural space for confrontation. With this it is not affirmed that the peasant world did not have forms of expression, it certainly did, but always subordinated to other imperatives. The expansion of the oil economy surely explains this specificity.

Capitalist modernity had space in the city for the transformations that should be inevitable. So social movements, salaried workers, and ideological policies themselves constituted the components of a dominant modern narrative whose natural setting was the city. The social sciences were articulated in the 19th century as the most convenient epistemological strategies to redirect the planned transformations towards more politically drinkable conditions for the elites. Certainly, such narrative implied the establishment of strong exclusions within a discourse that founded its historical legitimacy and its supposedly universal character, on the paradigm of progress. However, the imaginary of the peasant world, for example, or the demands of women thrown into the private domestic space, persisted “polluting” the space of the city. The struggles of the movements, especially in the territories of the capitalist peripheries, incorporated not without incessant internal tensions, specific demands of the peasantry. The case of the Chavista movement is symptomatic. From the beginning, it articulated some expressions, although diffuse, of the Venezuelan fields, discarded as a possibility of development, especially after the country had radically transformed into a basically oil society. It is not difficult to detect the perception that a part of the force-ideas that constituted the popular tradition of the beginning of the present century, were nourished by discourses that demanded a certain nostalgic return to a romanticized cultural version of the rural world.

The closure of the experience in the power of a popular movement that shocked the Latin American region implies that the dispute of the imaginary, tendencies, and social traditions alluded to above came to an end. This supposes that the internal “war of positions” was going to be “resolved”, (in the imperative of conserving power), privileging the most retrograde, militaristic, hierarchical, corporate and sacralizing expressions of a project that in this way emptied itself of popular sense, it was depoliticized. It was supplanted by a corporate logic that privileged loyalty rather than the dispute of the differences. The social result of this social correlation of forces was expressed in the political manifestations in Caracas, for example, made up mainly of officials who came mainly from the middle classes. The now patently whitewashed conglomerate “came out” of the majority of the different instances of the public and even private institutions. It was revealed by the speeches that accompanied the disciplined and disciplining mobilizations, when they called the sectors that made up the mobilization from their specific labor instance: human resources, executive management, legal affairs management, administrative management, international relations, etc. The harangues were no longer aimed at mobilizing the popular sectors of the country’s regions, or the city: La Vega, Catia, San Juan, Sarria, 23 de Enero, San Agustín, El Valle, etc.

The fall of a government administration, the expansion of an unprecedented deep economic and social crisis, the incessant blind polarization within the same bureaucratic-military-business class, (emerging sectors that are contending for diminished forms of criminal accumulation, subordinate to world powers). And the Imperialist aggressions directly aimed at affecting the exhausted and politically disoriented civilian population, (which can be read as an imperial reprimand towards any project that seeks to challenge the global order), suppose danger to the very viability of society. The complex terminal juncture can be seen in the space of gas stations in Venezuelan cities, seen as a microcosm that reproduces locally, a borderline national situation.

The absence of fuel in the context of a social life not regulated by legal principles has led to the creation of chaos in which the actors who have the possibility of using force on others, (basically the National Guard and other groups), they impose the rules for the sale of an elemental product for the attainment of life. These “rules” that come from the specific interests generated in the here and now of the strongest, insofar as they are the expression of a general polarized and depoliticized context, are not subject to any appreciable continuation in time, but permanently they are updated, adjusted, as the dominant actors change the orientation of their interests towards another strategy that may be more profitable for them.

Here the general interests of a society do not count in the game. More clearly, society is an enemy instance that must be fought in all its expressions. Among other reasons, that is why the so-called citizenship is treated as what it really is in this microcosm marked by social anomie, an irrelevant creature, but that in specific conditions could change the structural conditions of the game, (in more global terms), and consequently in the microcosm of the gas station. For now, people overwhelmed by the immeasurable disadvantages of implanting this factual order, (deepened by the certainty of institutional helplessness at the time of the spread of a global virus that kills without major distinctions), unable for now to act with more distancing, to the extent that they are risking their own lives and that of their people, they literally fight among themselves. While an expectant majority outside the gas station simply watches and comments.

The imposition of this local despotic order (which is nourished by the global despotic order) is developed in its entirety because such dominant actors know that at any moment they will be displaced by others who would no longer have absolute control of the business, but that its equally broad privileges would be the consequence of a previous more extensive and dilated distribution of power. As a result of other actors in the bureaucratic-military-business chain have taken note of the possibilities opened up by the business. The unscrupulous dexterity of accumulators is based on the certainty that these possibilities of criminal accumulation open and close abruptly, according to the logic marked by the order of chaos.


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Leonardo Bracamonte

Historian, professor from the Universidad Central de Venezuela, researcher asociated to Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos Rómulo Gallegos

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