Battles to Claim the “Pueblo”
From the Series: Protests and Polarization in Venezuela After Chávez
The protests that started in February 2014 in major Venezuelan cities have been unprecedented in their duration and social and geographic expanse. While they build on years of opposition efforts to reverse Chávez’s Bolivarian Socialist revolution, they also draw on widespread discontent with worsening economic conditions and growing state control over political life under Chávez's successor, Nicolás Maduro. Student protests first began in San Cristóbal, a western border city hard hit by shortages and insecurity due to the smuggling rings that sell Venezuelan subsidized goods in neighboring Colombia. From San Cristóbal, protests spread to Caracas and other cities. The clashes among security forces, protesters, and armed civilian groups, and denunciations hurled between government and opposition media have pushed the existing political polarization to a new level.
Clouds of tear gas and inflammatory rhetoric have obscured an important dimension of this struggle: the long battle over who constitutes the Venezuelan “pueblo,” or “the people” (a unitary subject), and who can lead it. The pueblo, a fluid multi-vocal symbol, has been the object of contention in contests for power and efforts to legitimate political projects since the beginnings of the republic. The term’s very ambiguity—its capacity to reference either the whole citizenry or the poor and marginalized, to encompass the nation or specify a community, and to evoke the authentically national and regional or personify it as an actor—has made it a terrain of historical struggle.
The political parties that directed Venezuela’s exclusionary electoral democracy prior to Chávez’s election in 1998 claimed to represent the pueblo as a national collectivity and to speak in the name of the pueblo. Chávez and the social movements backing him transformed the state's claim. They asserted that they themselves embodied the true pueblo: the non-elites, the poor, the indigenous, the revolutionary, and the defenders of Venezuelan sovereignty who had taken power and now spoke for themselves. In so doing, the Chávez regime cast the pueblo as active sovereign subject, rather than mere object of representation.
The noble, combative pueblo that Chávez celebrated was reimagined through the new place names, commemorations, and iconographies he helped create. Chávez dressed himself and these projects in the colors of the national flag and in symbols of a subaltern national history. In frequent speeches and chatty televised open meetings, he fashioned a discourse of the pueblo that was at once paternalistic and egalitarian.
These representations gained political salience as they acquired further material and social dimensions. In particular, the reorganization of the petroleum industry played an important role in redefining the pueblo. The national oil company, PDVSA, was charged with directing major projects designed to benefit poor sectors. This reorientation tied the shaping of an active pueblo to the creation of new forms of oil-rent distribution. What the poor had perceived in previous regimes as the trickle of oil rents from an indifferent state, appeared under Chávez as a gushing geyser.
Yet this process has been marked by tensions as grassroots organizations collide with top-down controls, groups from poor sectors challenge state authorities, and political participation expands without connection to economic production. These dynamics signal a central conflict in the chavista project that has remained unexamined: the government’s project of social and political transformation has only intensified the existing state-mediated reliance on oil exports and imported goods, with its attendant concentration of power in the executive and undermining of domestic production. While political discourse and institutions have changed, the neo-colonial petro-state that Coronil (1997) analyzed remains at the center of political life. The pervasive problems that derive in part from this conflict have become more acute in Chávez’s absence. Popular sectors share in the rising discontent with administrative ineptitude, street crime, inflation, and a host of other problems.
Although the highly visible protests launched in February built on recognized grievances, hard-line political leaders in Caracas asserted that, beyond these problems, the violations of democratic rule required the ouster of president Maduro. They presented the violence as exclusively directed against opposition protestors, despite the fact that chavistas and police were also killed. Thus escalating violence and police brutality became a cause in itself that helped change protests about crime, rights, and the economy into an attack on the government as a whole.
Opposition protests have sought to use the shared political lexicon of el pueblo in their opposition to an elected government that they present as illegitimate. Drawing on the inclusive meaning of the pueblo as the entire national citizenry, they have invoked the widely held commitment in Venezuela to democracy and freedom, placing their emphasis on respect for political rights. Presenting their movement as a patriotic effort to restore a once united national pueblo, the predominantly middle- and upper-class protesters in Caracas took over public avenues and spaces in massive numbers, dressed in white to reflect the peaceful pueblo’s innocence as victims of crime and of police violence, carrying the flag and painted in its colors to symbolize their collective national belonging. Cast in the universalizing terms of rights and freedom, however, the protests have generally not addressed the specific problems and constraints that poor sectors are facing under the current government.
Despite the student calls for peaceful protests, the spectacle of violence has taken on a dynamic of its own. The hard-line opposition has used decontextualized images of government violence to support their claims that the Venezuelan people are victims of an authoritarian regime. The state has presented the protests as the work of imperialist funded and trained agents seeking to provoke a coup against leaders elected by the Venezuelan people. To the degree that such abstract and homogenizing notions of the pueblo, emptied of social referents and severed from diverse collective perspectives, are used to affirm these opposing causes, they will further impoverish political thought and sustain hollow visions of the future.
Coronil, Fernando. 1997. The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.