Prometheus Unbound in Caracas



Pity the self-despising slaves of Heaven, Not me, within whose mind sits peace serene, As light in the sun, throned… How vain is talk! Call up the fiends. -- Percy Bysshe Shelley

Along with the ‘new world order’ that has been violently imposed over the past couple of decades, few can doubt that a ‘new spatial order’ has come into existence as well; one that likewise has an outer, global dimension as well as an inner, local dimension. It is little wonder, therefore, that radical new approaches to geography, and more specifically reflections about space, have become such determinant, vanguard disciplines in the contemporary era, right at the cutting edge of explanation as well as struggle. As Élisée Reclus – that pioneering human geographer of universal libertarian ideas – emphasised long ago, geography is a vibrant lived experience, never immutable, always made and re-made every day by our own actions. In short, it is history in space.1

This was no utopian image of living landscapes of course. Long before the likes of Michel Foucault made fresh use of the term, this was always a heterotopian image, full of fragmentary, disjointed unities and always subject to a spatial form of power that sought to divide and rule. It was for this reason that Henri Lefebvre could make the just claim that: ‘Today more than ever, the class struggle is inscribed in space.’2 Just as there are dominated spaces from on high, so there can be appropriated spaces from below. But what there can never be are innocent spaces.

There are few more decisive experiences of space than the lives we lead in cities – the quintessential theatre of the vita activa. And there can surely be few greater heterotopian cities in the world at the present moment than Caracas, capital of the new self-styled Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, and a city that has become, even more than in the past, a naturally confined space of mutually suspicious, ‘repellent’ forces, ‘absolutely not superimposable [superposables] on one another.’3 In what he called his ‘heterotopology’, Foucault outlined a number of principles, some of which, he argued, were only relevant in primitive societies. Had he seen Caracas for himself, one suspects that he might have changed his mind. While for some, Caracas has always been ‘apocalyptic, unreal, inhuman’, not so much a city as an atro~city, for others it is the city of eternal spring, some would even say a South American ‘Shangri-La’. Neither of these perspectives, however, is any longer fully appropriate. One description and one description alone unites Caracas today – it is a heterotopia in crisis. To try to deal with this crisis it has become an urban laboratory; one in which formal and informal relationships are being completely reversed. The stakes could not be higher. Caracas will either be a city with no future, or it will be the city of the future.

From Maiquetia to the Centre

Long before one reaches the centre of Caracas, its heterotopic nature has already impregnated the mind and consciousness. We associate airports today as the ‘non-place’ par excellence; a frictionless space that uniquely combines anonymity with similitude. But this is not the case at Maiquetia airport. Here, the friction is palpable to the touch right from the outset. To be sure, the barricades at this stage are only semiotic ones, but they are no less important for that. Western-style advertisements must compete with revolutionary slogans and exhortations. One’s arrival in this new bastion of ‘twenty-first century socialism’ retains that enviable condition of being an anticipatory space.

On the other side of the customs barriers – how powerful remains the illusion of territorial control – one is immersed in a different kind of reality as one becomes bombarded (‘hijacked’) by black marketeers, unofficial taxi drivers and ‘offers’ of all kinds. Informal taxi drivers in Venezuela, it should be noted, are a rather strange breed, for the most part comprising bored Country Club wives or boring retired executives. However, make no mistake about it, once you are inside their firmly barred ‘terrain’ you know immediately that battle is about to commence. The class venom against the current regime and its Comandante hits you full in the face and, if passions are really high, not always via the rear-view mirror.

Caracas itself lies some 24 kilometres away from the airport at the western extremity of the coastal mountain range known as the plain of Chacao. The two are linked by the Caracas-La Guaira autopista, which weaves its ascending way through the mountains until the road finally descends to a height of approximately 3,000 feet above sea level. As you sit and stare in silence – prudence demands it – at the passing landscape, the contrast between the ranting voice of the driver and the unspoken images of the encroaching urban scenery could not be greater. It is a landscape dominated by hundreds of ranchos, the ramshackle huts and settlements that literally cover every square inch of the mountain range, climbing their way to its very pinnacle. This topographical, not to mention geological, setting is itself a veritable act of resistance in a constant war against natural forces; one in which ‘acts of God’ are invariably and almost instinctively inscribed with the marks of ‘holy’ political vengeance. This was certainly the case in December 1999 when mud and landslides claimed at least 30,000 (some estimates say 50,000) lives, and which was immediately portrayed as an act of divine retribution against the first electoral victory of Chávez a few months before; just as it was equally the case in March 1812 when a major earthquake reduced Caracas and the surrounding areas to rubble and was seen as an act of divine punishment against the birthplace of Simón Bolívar which had had the audacity to throw off the yoke of Spanish imperial rule. On both occasions, in the debris that remained the human bones of those who had died in the catastrophes became mingled with the unearthed remains of thousands of African and Indian slaves, whose forced encomienda labour had made the original urban settlement of the city possible back in the late sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century.

It is an ethnological truism that in the union between the gaze and the landscape, a fictional relationship is always constructed. For many first-time visitors to Caracas the outlying hillside ranchos often conjure up comparisons, admittedly long distant, with classical medieval towns like those of Tuscany. It is a comparison that bears some logic in that both are considered examples of vernacular, or sculpted, architecture that is shaped and designed by the natural landscape. But it was not Tuscany that was uppermost in my own mind. What struck me most – having arrived in Caracas from Paris, where I had just seen an exhibition of Anselm Kiefer – was the way in which the ranchos, and later on the barrios as well, were an almost exact copy of the Babel-like towers that are such a hallmark of Kiefer's work. Kiefer’s towers – the most well-known of which are called the ‘Seven Heavenly Palaces’ – have often been described as expressive of great violence and great humanity, but more than anything they are concrete expressions of the global immiseration of today's urban landscape. Emerging out of a desolate, grey wasteland they look not so much as if they have taken root, but more like they have been deposited there, abandoned, even frozen from above. And as they ascend higher and higher, layer upon layer, not only do they defy any sense of order and meaning, they seem to defy the very laws of gravity itself. Only a mysterious counterplay of forces holds them upright. Looking up at them, not only do they give you a sense of claustrophobic suffocation and precariousness but you can literally feel yourself teetering on the (existential) edge.

But there is more to it than this. In some of his more recent constructions, Kiefer has added a significant symbolic difference. The precariousness is still there, but emerging out of the left-hand side of the towers can be seen fragments of sunflowers. True, they are black and withered-looking, but they are not dead. Their seeds have been sown. Something is clearly astir. The precarious structures now rise above the storm clouds of despair and one can almost feel the clouds tremble. It was this image that had more than anything motivated my journey to Caracas. In short, I was here to assess John Berger’s beautifully-evoked prophecy that ‘from the garbage, the scattered feathers, the ashes and the broken bodies, something new and beautiful may be born.’4

The View from on High

One has approached the city from a West-to-East direction, and the linear (left-right) perspective will certainly remain dominant throughout one’s stay. As one looks down on the city from on high, its general contours can immediately be comprehended and translated not just into an urban-geographical narrative, but into a historical, social, economic, and political narrative as well. Caracas in this sense is an open book; easy to read, easy to decipher. The city itself nestles at the narrow end of a valley at the foot of the Cerro de Avila. The total metropolitan area is approximately 800 square kilometres, administratively divided into five municipalities. It is in this naturally enclosed space that in recent years a population explosion has taken place. In 1955 Caracas had a population of one million; by 1983 two million; and by the end of the century four million. Two million more inhabitants have been added since then, and at its present rate of growth the current population of six million is widely expected to double by 2020. Where all the extra ‘bodies’ are going to fit remains an unanswered question. Human ingenuity and creativity, here more than anywhere else, seems almost endless but it is by no means infinite. Vertical densification tends to be the usual solution, but even this has its limits.

The underlying cause of the population growth is certainly not hard to decipher – petroleum (of which the country as a whole has 15% of the total world market share). It was first discovered in 1920, but the boom in its production came only really after 1946. Prior to this date, Caracas was generally considered to be at least several decades behind the most developed city in Latin America at that time, Buenos Aires. But it was very quickly to overtake it. Indeed, so dominant has the influence of petroleum been that one tends to measure time here in the category of years ‘BP’ and ‘AP’ – ‘Before Petroleum’ and ‘After Petroleum’.

In the early period of the discovery of oil, European – and primarily British – oil companies were the dominant exploiters. By the mid-1930s, however, American companies started to take the lead. And a similar trajectory, from European (mainly French influences) to North American, can be seen as well in the architectural development of the city. Here too, in other words, the gaze has been increasingly forced skywards as concrete and plate glass structures scrape and scramble higher and higher into the looming clouds – not so much frozen music as ‘defrosted’ architecture. The real unsung architects of the city, however, are the poor people in the working class barrios, and the figures could not be more striking. Out of the six million inhabitants of the city, four million reside in these barrios, the overwhelming majority in houses ‘illegally’ built by themselves.

It is also interesting to note that as the topography of the city changed, so too in many ways did the nature of political and class struggle. In the 1960s, for example, many of the emerging barrios were transformed into urban Sierra Maestras. With the defeat of the various guerrilla movements by the 1970s, and the much-trumpeted transformation of Venezuela into a Latin American Saudi Arabia, more community-based movements started to appear in the barrios, concentrating much more on consciousness-raising activities independent from party structures of any kind. Then, as economic stagnation, unemployment and growing levels of poverty – even amongst the middle classes – hit the capital hard in the 1980s (as a direct result of the transition to explicit neo-liberal readjustment programmes), the political resistance became ever more direct and ever more popularised. In February 1989, this produced the massive social and political explosion of the Caracazo, rightly considered ‘the first genuine mass revolt by the poor against neo-liberal capitalism’,5 resulting in the deaths of hundreds, almost certainly thousands, of insurgents. In the 1990s it was back to a lot of clandestine activities in the aftermath of considerable state repression (and it was in 1992, one must remember, that the then ‘Colonel’ Chávez led his unsuccessful military intervention). But in 2002, the by now highly politicised, mobilised and organised masses in the barrios finally got their revenge for the defeat of 1989 when they marched down in their hundreds of thousands to besiege the presidential palace in order to save the popularly elected Comandante Chávez from the Washington-financed coup – a real sign of new radicalised social agents imposing their will on the changing political landscape of the capital.

Down on the Ground

‘Heterotopias’, to return to Foucault for a moment, ‘always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable. In general, the heterotopic site is not freely accessible like a public place. Either the entry is compulsory…or else the individual has to submit to rites and purifications. To get in, one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures.…’6 Traversing Caracas at ground level from East to West, one immediately begins to understand the meaning and significance of Foucault’s words. Commencing in the East of the city – Maripérez, La Florida, El Recreo, Country Club and beyond – one is immediately confronted with the gated, fortified quintas (villas) in the archipelagos of the numerically small, but of course still highly significant, wealthy Venezuelan social elite. While nowhere near as grandiose as their counterparts in, say, São Paulo, these quarantined fortresses of solitude are nevertheless dominated by the same principles of fear and terror. Here, the hygiene and the purification are absolutely clinical of course, and the cleansing reaches deep into the pores of ethnicity, race and class.

To get an impression of what these fantasy places are like, it is enough to reflect that each year more than 1 billion dollars is spent just on private security alone. In this ‘gilded captivity’ (as Jeremy Seabrook calls it),7 not only is there a total disengagement of the social elite from the rest of society; even the very notion of ‘citizenship’ has been effectively privatised, not to mention exported. Not for nothing do members of this class still refer to Venezuela as that ‘filling station just south of Miami’. Many commentators talk about the invisibility of the poor here, but really, especially in today’s context, one should talk more about the invisibility of the rich, for either they are absent or they are locked away behind their 24-hour video-surveilled walls and high voltage fences, sealed inside their ‘bubbles of fear’.8 Ironically, it is the members of this class who now regards themselves as ‘victims’, and it is this that most fuels their fear and terror. No wonder Julio Cortázar’s short story, La casa tomada (The house taken over), is a particularly recurring nightmare on their brain and evokes such anguish amongst them. Ask them what time it is by Cortázar’s clock and rightly or wrongly, misguided or not, many will respond that it is close to striking eleven (the hour at which they too will be forced to leave the house by the encroaching, never identified occupiers).

As one (quickly) moves out of the luxury enclaves and heads towards the so-called ‘historic centre’, what one discovers is a kind of no-man’s land. The endless array of shopping malls, literally one after another after another, whose entrances are like carnivorous, salivating mouths waiting to swallow you up whole, suggest that this is a ‘non-place’ à la Marc Augé.9 But it is much worse than that. The centre of Caracas is a veritable ‘junkspace’ in the fullest, most complete sense of Rem Koolhaas’s meaning: it is the space that has remained ‘after modernization has run its course or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fall-out.’10 It is meaningless and unmemorable, colourless and drab in the extreme; a ‘consumption gulag’ if ever there was one and absolute proof of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s allegation that modern man is capable of committing acts of unparalleled anthropological genocide.11

Commercial shopping malls aside, it is a ‘centre’ that has been almost completely abandoned and left to rot over the course of many years. Essential services like schools, hospitals, even supermarkets are completely lacking, and every movement, every action is subject to perpetual gridlock. Yeats was right. When things fall apart, the centre really cannot hold and this centre was never designed for, let alone capable of, holding anything together. Not even the roads link or connect but deliberately fragment and isolate. As one urban study of Caracas has emphasised, up until recently only five per cent of the traditional infrastructure (transport, telecommunications etc.) connected the two extremities of the city.12 Indeed, the only thing that really binds Caracas together is the stifling, humid air. There is no such thing as a breathing space here.13

It is neither the East nor the centre, however, that is my true destination. It is to the West of the city that my bearings and my moorings lie, for it is here that the vast bulk of the sprawling ‘deliriums’ of the self-constructed barrios can be found. After experiencing the other parts of the city, one can fully understand how the barrios are often considered places of refuge, and not only for their inhabitants. Today these refuges are proving to be fertile ground for all kinds of experimentation. Indeed, where just about everything else in modern-day Caracas is a copy of something, one is immediately struck by the creative innovation of all the different barrios. As one commentator has aptly summarised it: ‘In these urbes, the enormous weight of the informal – or that which is not contained in ‘historical order’, which overflows and defies the [normal] hegemonic rules – is generating new representations of the urban, distinct from those that fed the original foundations and its development.’14 Here too, of course, in the manner denoted by Foucault, ‘one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures’ in order to be able to enter. But this proved to be no real problem. In this kind of instance, the sign of solidarity is sufficient to unlock all doors.

Parroquia 23 de Enero

23 de Enero (23 January) – time converted into space; anthropological space.15 After the junkspaces of the alienating city centre, what a blessed relief to find oneself in this extremity of space. And here I must insist on the word ‘space’ rather than ‘place’. As Michel de Certeau reminds us, there is a fundamental distinction between the two. While a ‘place’ is always ordered, proper, stable and ‘excludes the possibility of two things being in the same location (lieu)’, ‘space’ (espace) is instead full of different vectors, velocities and variables of both movement and time. It is ‘composed of intersections of mobile elements… actuated by the ensemble of movements deployed within it.’ It functions like a ‘polyvalent unity of conflictual programs or contractual proximities’ and it is always ‘produced by the operations that orient it, situate it, temporalize it.’16 This is not to say that there is no connection at all between space and place. There invariably is, and here in this space there most certainly is. But the connection is a highly determined one. Space here represents a ‘practiced place’; one that is agitated, explosive, swarming (within a hive-like bustle).

Approaching the entrance to this ironically named ‘parish’ – whose name commemorates the day of the 1958 overthrow of the dictator General Marcos Pérez Jiménez – the immediate impression that strikes you is of the utter chaos, human and architectural in equal measure, that abounds in this labyrinthine topography. From a distance, one’s gaze is inevitably drawn to the ‘super blocks’ of 15 and 4 storeys, which sit on the hills in a posture of defiance or pride, one is never quite sure which – just as one is never quite sure whether they represent a menace or a promise.17 What one can say for sure is that these Villanuevian constructions of the early 1950s were originally designed to be the nucleus of a new model ‘suburbia’, replete with schools, shops, cultural centres and open recreational spaces. And at the time, in fact, it was a project unequalled in scale and dimension, not only in a fast growing Caracas but in the whole of Latin America. But it was never to be. Expropriated at first by the military elite – Venezuelan and North American alike – in 1958 during the height of the popular uprising which spontaneously erupted in the country, thousands upon thousands of poor campesinos stormed these ‘deserts of control architecture’ (to use the term of Raúl Zelik), broke in through windows and doors, and illegally occupied not only the finished but also the unfinished (in some cases barely started) apartments. Without planning to, then, Villanueva had paved the way for a new school of architectural composition – ‘participatory architecture’. And to this day, the Venezuelan middle classes will happily regale you with their prejudicial and stereotypical stories of these marauding, barbarous, revolting ‘dirty black hordes’.18

As one gets closer to this labyrinth, however, it is not so much the super blocks as the self-assembled cinder-block settlements that have sprung up mushroom-like in the spaces between the blocks, that begin to dominate the perceptions. A space that was originally designed for no more than 55,000 people is now home to some 600,000, although of course no one knows the actual number for sure. Penetrate this labyrinth and one finds oneself cast adrift in a marea of colours, forms and shapes, each one built lego-like onto the other, weaving their way up the steep hillsides like a trailing vine. To reach the top-most homes seems an impossibility, and indeed only an adjusted form of perception and perspective allows one to spot out the narrowest of winding steps which will often literally, and not just metaphorically, slice through individual rows of houses. ‘These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms.’19 How far it all seems from the grey drabness of central Caracas.

To know this space, to begin to understand it, requires an act of reconnaissance, in both senses of this term. Indeed, to walk around the streets of this ‘embroiled quarter’ is to give one the sense of being not so much a Baudelairean flâneur, as a voyeur, so strong is the intimacy conveyed. One would need to have the poetic sensibilities of a Pasolini to fully describe and convey it. I think of him traversing the slums of Rome of yesteryear and his description comes flooding to the mind of how they were ‘naked in the wind’, cast in a ‘most pertinent light… light of life, full / of a chaos not yet proletarian.’20 Or of how, ‘There’s no lunch or dinner or satisfaction in the world / equal to an endless walk through the streets of the poor / where you must be wretched and strong, brother to the dogs.’21 And I recall as well the words of John Berger, written on the other side of the globe, in a Palestine whose plight is frequently invoked here as well:

They are accustomed to living in close proximity with one another, and this creates its own spatial sense; space is not so much an emptiness as an exchange. When people are living on top of one another, any action taken by one has repercussions on the others. Immediate physical repercussions. Every child learns this.

There is a ceaseless spatial negotiation which may be considerate or cruel, conciliating or dominating, unthinking or calculated, but which recognizes that an exchange is not something abstract but a physical accommodation. Their elaborate sign languages of gestures and hands are an expression of such physical sharing.22

It is an intimacy of course born of many things, but three elements stand out more than others – solidarity, danger, hope. Binding them together, characterising each of them, is a red thread, the kind that Goethe described so well; one that cannot be extracted without unravelling the very essence of life here.


One does not have to spend too much time in 23 de Enero to appreciate that this has always been, and certainly remains, an antagonistic space. A permanent sense of struggle touches on every aspect of life – one that is based on nothing less than absolute necessity. But in the manner in which this struggle takes place, it undoubtedly represents one of the highest categories of being-for-others. The struggle, in other words, is spatially expansive, opening itself out, reaching out to others. It is, one might say, a solidarity built on (ac)complicity. After all, most things here have not just had to be self-constructed, they have also had to be stolen. From the material to construct their homes to the electricity that heats and illuminates them, you name it, in its origins it was invariably the product of a ‘popular expropriation’. The depth of solidarity likewise impregnates the very fabric of daily existence. Each home literally leans on another for support. One is embraced by the courtyards, and the stairs cloak themselves around the connecting spaces. The ‘architecture’ itself lends the place a natural conspiratorial essence; the structures, like their inhabitants, are protagonists in the struggle. ‘Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.’23

No one appreciated the kind of forces at work here better than Walter Benjamin. Writing about his experiences in the slums of Naples, he understood the primordial existential depth of lived space, and of how subject and object constantly interpenetrate. Everything assumes the guise of an animated theatre. ‘Balcony, courtyard, window, gateway, staircase, roof are at the same time stage and boxes.’24 And certainly no one appreciated more how in the spaces of the poor neighbourhoods the very distinction between object and subject, private and public, inside and outside are completely displaced. The ‘house is far less the refuge into which people retreat than the inexhaustible reservoir from which they flood out… Just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so… the street migrates into the living room.’25 Nothing stretches the frontiers of imagination and freedom of thought quite like poverty. And what was true of Naples remains even more true in 23 de Enero.

Above all, however, it is the intimacy of the solidarity in a strictly political sense that is most striking. ‘Life is revolution’, Antonio Gramsci once remarked. But here the contrary is equally true. Revolution is life. Never has a space deserved the label ‘combative’ more than this one. Never has a space more merited the label ‘symbol of the revolution’. And given its proximity to the centre of the city, it can rightly call itself a ‘spatial vanguard’. Benjamin’s ‘animated theatre’ of balconies and courtyards is here nothing less than a theatre for insurgency. Militant activism is not just born here, it is bred and nurtured like nothing else.

In its more than fifty years of existence, 23 de Enero has been at the heart and soul of every popular struggle in Venezuela. As they themselves proudly proclaim: ‘There are no protests, no riots in Venezuela that don’t meet with response in the neighbourhood.’ The popular overthrow of the dictatorship in 1958 and the Caracazo of February 1989 are just two out of the many key events in which activists from the neighbourhood played a leading role. And either side of these uprisings, the neighbourhood has been at the forefront of clandestine resistance to military regimes, post-transition guerrilla struggles, movements against urban displacement, opposition to IMF-imposed privatisation and trans-national infiltration, as well as all manner of cultural resistance.26 ‘Chávez did not produce the movements, we produced him’, is their naturally proud response to the frequent foreign misconceptions of the current President’s role in changing the face and features of the country.

For the last fifteen years, the main base of its militant political and cultural activity has resided in the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar. And nothing could be more symbolic of some of the recent dramatic transformations in the country’s politics than the current headquarters of the Coordinadora. Originally constructed in 1975 during the first government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, it was for many years the principal site of state-sponsored repression against the population of 23 de Enero, where political activists and dissidents were always detained, always tortured, and occasionally assassinated at the hands of the police and the military. Following a series of attacks against the building, and its direct occupation by local residents, ownership of the building has now been legally transferred away from the police to the community. From being an all too tangible symbol of repression, it is now an equally tangible symbol of direct revolutionary action in progress. ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce’ has never had more salience than here.

For the activists of the Coordinadora a number of key tasks have always underpinned its work: the organisational task of preparing the neighbourhood to participate directly in the resolution of the concrete problems that confront it as a ‘collective social subject’; the strengthening of a true collective basis of leadership; the development of a strong form of critical consciousness and awareness; the recovery and protection of traditions and artistic expressions as a means of enhancing the cultural identity of the neighbourhood; and the preservation of a strong sense of public space. And conjoined with all of this is the very strong belief that there are no thoughts, and certainly no actions, without struggle, resistance and conquest.27

Nowhere were these beliefs and convictions put to the test more than in April 2002 and in the spring of 2003 when, first of all they led the popular resistance against the right-wing coup which attempted to depose Chávez, and when several months later they infused a different kind of resistance campaign to the economic sabotage led by the President’s opponents. Just as it was the massed ranks of highly vocal slum dwellers from 23 de Enero and all over Caracas which saved Chávez personally in April 2002, so it was the fortitude and resistance of their stomachs which saved the revolutionary process as a whole in 2003. Subjected to massive food shortages, electricity blackouts and transport failures, the population nevertheless held firm. Opposition gibes about the slum dwellers’ incapacity and unwillingness to suffer the deprivations of beer and alcohol, proved to be nothing more than hot air. In the offices of the Coordinadora, amongst other things, a system of collective rationing was organised and their example of hardened resistance spread like bush fire across the rest of the city’s barrios. As one observer put it afterwards: ‘The people of Venezuela are no longer the same. Ten years ago, we could not have withstood an oil stoppage with all of its shortages. Only a country inspired by a process like this one is capable of withstanding something like that. This means that there has been a change in people’s behaviour and convictions.’28

Chávez too could not help but be emotionally moved by the resistance of the poor. During a visit he made at the height of the ‘blockade’ to a hillside barrio, he recounts the following:

There was a lot of activity in the streets, people searching for a little rice, a few bananas. We were walking around and people started to greet us. I was talking to them, asking them how they were, when a strong, old, black woman grabbed me by the hand and yanked me over saying, “Come here, Chávez!” There was no arguing with her! “Come here, Chávez, follow me, I want you to see my house.” We walked up some steps and they were cooking rice, potatoes, and plantains in a pan over firewood.

The old woman looked deep into my eyes and grabbed me by the lapels, “Chávez, I’ve got no chairs left in my house. That firewood you see burning are the legs off the bed, We’ll burn the furniture, the roof, and we’ll even break down the doors and cook with them, but don’t you dare give in Chávez.”29

What was it Brecht once said? ‘[It] is… the poorest of all that makes Honour their guest / It’s out of the meanest hovel that comes forth / Irresistible greatness.’30

Outside of the new headquarters of the Coordinadora, and indeed along all the pathways that lead you like a magnet to it, no one can be left in any doubt about the seriousness of the political convictions at work. They are literally on display everywhere. Never have I seen a territorial space so covered in revolutionary murals. Not even Belfast, or Orgosolo in Sardinia, come even close. And what ‘spatial stories’ they tell as one wanders through this ‘echoing labyrinth’ of signs. For here, the walls not only embrace the words and pictures lovingly grafted onto them, they speak to you directly. To this day, most of the official maps of Caracas only show grey or white spots where the barrios and the ranchos are located. Most streets are not detailed, and indeed in many cases they have only ever been informally named, if at all. But this is no problem whatsoever in 23 de Enero. One simply orientates oneself here with reference to the murals. “Turn left at the José Martí, carry on down the Che Guevara with cigar, left again at the Jesus with assault rifle and second right at the Ho Chi Minh.” In fact, the only name not spoken by the walls is that of Chávez; very deliberately and consciously no mural bears his image (although of course there are plenty of speaking posters).

Michel de Certeau once wrote that the relation between spatial and signifying practices is established by ‘the believable, the memorable, and the primitive’, and that these ‘three symbolic mechanisms organize the topoi of a discourse on/of the city (legend, memory, and dream) in a way that also eludes urbanistic systemacity.’31 Here in 23 de Enero one understands exactly what he meant by this. There is similarly a ‘residing rhetoric’ at work here that carries almost Proustian overtones, especially if one recalls that the art of rhetoric was originally an art of perspectival space and not just of speech.32 In a Caracas newspaper editorial devoted to “The Urban Personality”, the question is asked: ‘How does one know where one’s true home is?’33 Vincent Descombres in his study of Proustian ‘philosophy’ would reply: where there is a pays rhétorique. That is to say, one feels truly at home where one is most at ease in the rhetoric of the people who share the space of one’s life; where one can be instinctively and intuitively understood without the need for long supplementary explanations. The borders of this pays rhétorique, meanwhile, are where your interlocutors no longer understand or comprehend the reasons either of your words, your acts or your gestures, or of the grief that you formulate or for the admirations that you manifest.34 There are parallels here too with Henri Lefebvre’s desire to make physical space, mental space, and social space overlap; to overcome the distortions and schisms that have come to separate space.35 The ‘rhetoric of wandering’ around 23 de Enero goes some way at least in achieving this desire.


If red is the natural colour of politics in 23 de Enero, it is also of course the colour of danger. As we might expect, there are plenty of dangers associated with the neighbourhood. Whether the association is justified is a different matter. As always it is a question of perspective. Seen from the outside, it is a dangerous ‘breeding place’ of the worst kind of ‘sordid diseases’; a pitch black ‘ghetto’ of criminal gangs, vigilantes, death squads and even, if some tales are to be believed, ‘voodoo worshippers’. Perhaps more than anything, however, it is considered a haven for drug pushers and users. Viewed from within, the images are somewhat different. That there are problems with violent crime and drugs, no one denies. Some of the housing blocks, for example, were long considered ‘no go areas’, particularly the super block above the metro station ‘Agua Salud’, which was locally nicknamed the ‘block of the seven machos’ – seven brothers who were the biggest narcotraficantes in the neighbourhood. What is most contested, however, is the actual source of these problems. Not only is there a good deal of evidence incriminating police complicity in the drugs trade, there are also many who insist that it was a deliberate, intentional policy of previous regimes to flood the area with drugs, partly as a means of discrediting political militancy, and in good part as well so as to serve as a necessary pretext for a state campaign of constant violent repression against the local population.

The stereotypical images from without also belie just how much the local community leaders have achieved by themselves in combating violent crime and drug abuse. Many public spaces, for example, have been reclaimed from drug cartels; many health and rehabilitation initiatives have been introduced (especially in more recent times with Cuban medical support); and dozens of different projects have been set up to promote alternative cultural and sporting outlets for the youth of the area, and indeed the parroquia has produced several stars for the national first division baseball league. There is also the equivalent of ‘neighbourhood watch schemes’, suitably adapted of course to the unique conditions of the neighbourhood. As one barrio resident explained it: ‘We’ve defeated crime [here]. We positioned ourselves on the balconies and screamed whenever someone attempted to rob people. We’ve reintroduced law and order on the street.’36 Last but not least, there is no attempt to hide the fact that community groups, at least in the past, have occasionally resorted to more overt forms of armed retaliation against the criminal and drug gangsters. The fact that only one of the seven brothers from the ‘Agua Salud’ super block remains alive is something that is recounted with pride above any other emotion.

More than anything else, however, it is the danger directly stemming from political engagement that most defines the reputation of 23 de Enero. Before the days of President Chávez, police harassment, systematic torture, political persecution and brutality were an everyday occurrence here. And since its construction in the early 1950s, at least one hundred compañeros have been assassinated; either directly by state forces of repression, or indirectly by state sponsored paramilitary organisations. Many hundreds of others, meanwhile, only avoided death by making use of an escape route that gave them a period of respite and safe haven in Cuba. In response to this, any moral qualms about supplementing the instigation of a popular insurrection with an armed form of struggle have been largely muted.

By far the biggest political and ideological influence across the length and breadth of the neighbourhood is that of the Tupamaros. When the original Tupamaros in Uruguay were brutally crushed by the dictatorship in the 1970s, some of the movement’s support base and relatives managed to find refuge in exile in 23 de Enero. With many political sympathisers in the neighbourhood, the new Venezuelan form of the movement quickly struck deep roots, and although the most prominent phase of its own urban guerrilla struggle petered out in the 1980s, it has remained a powerful force ever since, and its black and red flag with a five-pointed red star is openly on display in many locations. Some of the leaders of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, for example, were themselves Tupamaros, and notwithstanding their newfound commitment to ‘aboveground’ struggles, they remain very proud of their old allegiances.

Once again, however, perspective is everything. Seen from without, the Tupamaros are often portrayed as nothing more than ‘street gangs’, if not outright ‘terrorists’. No longer physically assassinated by their right-wing opponents, they are nevertheless subject to immense character assassination. They are invariably portrayed as having a misplaced sense of entitlement, ‘just because they represent the poor’. Their emotions are ‘psychotic’, and they take a false sense of pride in being an ‘outsider’ from a ‘squatters neighbourhood’. To cap it all, they are also ‘welfare dependent’ and are always the first in line to seek any additional handout that they can get their ‘blood-stained’ hands on. Very bizarrely, in one profile – admittedly by the U.S. National Gang Crime Research Center – they are even likened to the Ku Klux Klan.37

Seen from within, needless to say, the perspective could not be more different. Without the Tupamaros and the struggles that they waged, and continue to wage, it is almost universally acknowledged that many of the recent positive developments in the neighbourhood would have been impossible. Nor are the Tupamaros the only armed organisation in 23 de Enero. Several other similar organisations also continue to exist to this day, including the Unidad Táctica de Combate Néstor Zerpa Cartolini,38 and the Colectivo Alexis Vive, to name but two of them. Indeed, the latter organisation is particularly interesting as it is this group who are also responsible for the vast majority of the murals in the neighbourhood. Set up to honour the ‘martyrdom’ of Alexis González, a young activist who died in the spontaneous uprising during the brief 2002 coup against Chávez, this semi-clandestine group openly combines the paint brush with the Kalashnikov in their armoury of weapons, and came to particular national prominence in 2007 with two ‘artistic’ onslaughts: against the offices of the dominant private media sect Globovisión and of the main business sect Fedecámeras. It accused Globovisión of leading a campaign of blatant lies and disinformation; it charged Fedecámeras with conspiring to create the food shortages that were plaguing many parts of Venezuela.39

What relationship, if any, such groups have to President Chávez has long been a question of considerable interest and much speculation (at least amongst the right-wing gossip columnists). Judging by the response to some of their most recent actions, however, they might have stepped over the line of implicit, if not explicit, official toleration by the government. This was particularly apparent in April 2008 when thirty organisations, most of them with a direct connection to 23 de Enero, and including Colectivo Alexis Vive, Frente Guerrillero Venceremos, and La Piedrita, erected barricades in the neighbourhood and paraded a range of different calibre weapons (while wearing masks to cover their faces). The main reason for the action was to launch a ‘popular revolutionary protest against continued acts of repression and political persecution’ by the Security and Political Intelligence Service (DISIP). It was also designed to send a clear message to the government that many of its recent actions (particularly following the constitutional defeat in the referendum the previous December) were not welcomed; actions which in their view had only strengthened the interests of the national bourgeoisie at the expense of the poor.

The government’s response to the protest, however, could likewise not have been more clear. Using the language more associated with Globovisión, it denounced the protesters as ‘ultra-radicals’ and, for the first time ever, labelled them as ‘terrorists’, and made it clear that such actions would not be tolerated in the future. Moreover, in more cryptic terms, it likened them to the ultra-Left revolutionaries in Chile, ‘responsible for betraying President Salvador Allende’, and even hinted that given their attempts to split the forces behind the Bolivarian revolution, they must be ‘on the payroll of the CIA’. For some of the more ‘neutral’ onlookers, meanwhile, it all sounded like the language of a still distant but encroaching rupture between the government forces and some of the social movements that had always been considered its key social base, especially since April 2002. The political ‘dangers’ of old it seems – from both sides of the barricades – have not been entirely put to rest.

If young Alexis González was the only fatality from 23 de Enero during the April 2002 coup, it ought to be acknowledged that things might have turned out differently if certain anti-Chávez military officers had had their way, for it seems that at one point during the plot, there were serious contingency plans to bombard the ‘communist infected’ barrios and ranchos, with 23 de Enero of course top of the list.40 One cannot help but reflect on this, as well as recall those graphic images of hundreds of men, women and children being rounded up and escorted away by heavily armed soldiers during the February 1989 Caracazo, as one wanders around the neighbourhood and sees a very strong military presence just about everywhere. Thankfully, the reason the soldiers are there is far less sinister than one might at first think. When they forced their way into the neighbourhood in February 1989 ‘they shot at anything that moved’. Now they are there primarily to fulfil their social and humanitarian-welfare obligations under the so-called Plan Bolívar. They are there to build not to destroy, and long may that continue to be the case.


Leaving aside for the time being any further speculation about a possible rift between some of the political forces in 23 de Enero and the Chávez government, the emotional force that has dominated the intimacy of life in the neighbourhood in most recent times has undoubtedly been that of hope; the ‘red rag of hope.’41 Hölderlin was spot on. The place of rescue and hope does indeed grow where there is most danger. These are not the humiliating hopes often associated with humble quarters. Nor are they the desolate shattered hopes of many earlier forms of poverty. And they are certainly not the resigned hopes of nihilism or fatalism. Not for the first time, no one has expressed this sense of hope better than John Berger:

The whole of history is about hopes being sustained, lost, renewed. And with new hopes come new theories. But for the overcrowded, for those who have little or nothing except, sometimes, courage and love, hope works differently. Hope is then something to bite on, to put between the teeth. Don’t forget this. Be a realist. With hope between the teeth comes the strength to carry on even when fatigue never lets up, comes the strength, when necessary, to choose not to shout at the wrong moment, comes the strength above all not to howl. A person with hope between her or his teeth is a brother or sister who commands respect. Those without hope in the real world are condemned to be alone. The best they can offer is only pity. And whether these hopes between the teeth are fresh or tattered makes little difference when it comes to surviving the nights and imagining a new day.42

In short, the residents of 23 de Enero are ‘professionals of hope’ (to use the language of Subcomandante Marcos); of hopes that have the political as well as emotional power that enables them to be so intimately connected. An optimism of the will is here accompanied by an optimism of the intellect as well. There exists the conviction that no matter how bad things are, ways can be devised to extricate oneself out of the circumstances which weigh people down. More than just a sense of hope rekindled, then, this is a belief in future hope, liberated hope; the energising of a longing for a future which can transcend the injustices of a false present. Or, to put it in the terms of Ernst Bloch, hope is not an act of wishful thinking, but serves as a definite historical potential waiting to be actualised. And this potential is being actualised. What one is able to witness is the transformation from defensive resistance or reaction to protagonistic action; action that has a positive impact on the day-to-day environment. One is tempted to say that there is almost the belief that they have truly been given hope for the sake of all the hopeless ones.43 There is no boredom here, no ennui, no guilt; just the sheer pleasure and enjoyment of the hope that is shared.

I am standing in one of the principal squares in 23 de Enero. A festival of emancipation is taking place. One painful memory is being expunged, another painful one is rightly being honoured. The name of the square, “Diego de Losada”, and its associations with imperial conquest and genocide of old, is being replaced by a new name, “Plaza del Combatiente Revolucionario”, in honour of 23 of the comrades who have died in combat over the last few decades, assassinated by the ‘blood-stained hands of bourgeois dictatorships’. The list of subscribers to the name change reads like a veritable roll call of revolutionary militancy – Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, Frente Popular Revolucionario Tupamaros, Colectivo Alexis Vive, Frente Antifascista de Venezuela, M-28, Marea Socialista… and so the list goes on. It is both a confirmation of ‘protagonist power’, as well as an act of historical justice. At the end of the commemorations a new space is declared liberated. More than that, it can now join the ever-expanding realm of truly autonomous, self-governing spaces. The tree of popular power always had strong roots here, but now it is fair blossoming. One recalls Anselm Kiefer’s sunflowers, but one thinks of them now turned towards the sun ‘by dint of a secret heliotropism’; a ‘sun which is rising in the sky of history.’44

Looking all around from the vantage point of this free space one can see many of the signs and symbols of change on display. Just in front of me is one of the new ambulatorios, a medical centre and pharmacy set up and run with the aid of Cuban volunteers, where all visits and medicines are free of charge. Over there is the Bolivarian primary school with its mural-painted playground. Not so long ago, this building was in a complete and utter state of disrepair, but as a result of a campaign of popular mobilisation, its auditorium and class rooms have been fixed up and it now legally belongs to the community. And as an earlier visitor observed and testified: ‘In forty years of travelling the world and visiting schools, never have I encountered children so sure and confident of themselves, autonomous, without inhibitions, festive, and with none of the usual engrained neurotic feelings of subalternity to adults. Here, the world of the child and adult are co-equal, the one sustaining the other.45 Nor is it a world apart. As with all community buildings, its doors are open very late into the night as it transforms itself into a forum for cultural activities and meetings. From the primary school these children will not only have the opportunity to go on and complete a full secondary education, but will also now have the unique chance to go to one of the new, free Bolivarian universities for the poor. And soon they will not even have to leave the neighbourhood to get a university education. In an agreement signed between the “Revolutionary Experimental Simón Rodríguez University” and community leaders (known as the Proyecto Simón de los Pueblos), an affiliated branch of the University will be situated right in the heart of 23 de Enero.46

Looking across the square, one can catch a glimpse of the “House of Encounter”, which also serves as the main location for the adult literacy programme, where morning, noon, and night hundreds of senior citizens learn to read and write for the first time in their lives. ‘Toda la patria una escuela’, it says at the entrance, and it is far from being an exaggeration. According to official statistics, 18 million citizens, out of a total population of 26 million, are currently enrolled in an educational institution of one kind or another.47

It is here in this location as well that one will find the recently launched local community radio station – Al son del 23 – whose stated mission is to help in the process of raising consciousness and awareness in the residents of the neighbourhood. Indeed, so successful has it been that its broadcasts are now received across the length and breadth of Caracas, and it is one of the most listened to radio stations in the city. Not for nothing has radio, unlike television, been such a staunch ally of modern revolutionary forces. Think of the role, for example, of RTL in Paris throughout the événements of 1968. Moreover, had it not been for the initiatives of community radios like Radio Perola and Radio Rebelda (to name just two), located in the heart of the poor barrios back in 2002, who knows whether the reactionary coup at that time might have succeeded. It was across their airwaves that the citizens were kept informed of what was going on and were encouraged and mobilised to ‘take to the streets’.

Across the square in a different direction, meanwhile, past the “Ali Primera Community Centre”, and further down from the offices of ‘community water provision’, one can just make out the sign of the Mercal supermarket – the state subsidised chain of stores providing cheap food and basic provisions for all the city’s poorer neighbourhoods.

Coming back across the bridge, one can also pick out the local ‘land committee’, which amongst other things has led the campaign to re-awaken the memories and history of the area (the “Slum Charter”), and which is also helping to sponsor a much desired Museo de los Barrios 23, which will contain the ‘living archives’ of the neighbourhood. As one participant in this project put it, the real purpose and task of such a self-created museum is to stimulate ‘an internal search in the barrio’s subconscious… to find out how it sees itself… In other words, a self-portrait museum that will benefit not only the viewer but the subject as well.’48

Last but not least, as one’s gaze and perspective returns to the newly christened “Plaza del Combatiente Revolucionario”, one can spot the roving, ambulant Banco del Libro with its latest provision of books for the neighbourhood. And as the gaily covered van, with its clearly visible motto, leer para vivir, begins to move off, an advertisement display is uncovered announcing the latest cultural event – an Encuentro de la Palabra; a festival of oral culture in which the word of the people is alive, organic and in perpetual search of new paths. Nothing could be more fitting than this to end the day’s celebrations.

If these perhaps sound like basic things, do not be fooled. For the citizens of 23 de Enero they represent fundamental innovations in their lives. As many residents expressed it: ‘These are the visions and adventures of Don Quixote made real.’49 Just as importantly, all of them, without exception, are the direct product of community activism in local participatory forums such as the government sponsored, but locally run and controlled “missions”, and in particular the revolutionary popular assemblies. These latter are not the government-sponsored consejos comunales, which are often promoted, and not without justice, as being themselves one of the most important democratic gains of the Bolivarian revolution. No, the popular assemblies are much different. They are almost completely non-institutionalised, and to see them in action is to experience high intensity democracy of the kind that is only found in the streets or, as in days not long past, in the factories.

‘Where… is our [contemporary] version of the [Paris] Commune?’, David Harvey recently asked.50 The answer is simple. It is here, in an adapted form, in 23 de Enero and in many other locations today across the length and breadth of Latin America. While many have made of the poor quarters, the slums, the periphery, an aneu logou (a place deprived of sense and meaningful speech), here at least they have made for themselves the beginnings of something completely opposite – a new kind of polis. This new polis is very different to be sure from the original ancient Greek version, but it nevertheless does possess some of its essential constituent features. It is a political space that knows only ‘equals’. It is one that possesses a similar conception of ‘freedom’. It is one that primarily acts as ‘a guarantee against the futility of individual life.

And equally as important, it is a political space founded upon courage. As Hannah Arendt often stressed: ‘Whoever entered the political realm [of the polis] had first to be ready to risk his life, [for] too great a love for life obstructed freedom, [and] was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence...51 Once again, though, it is disappointing to admit it, but perhaps it is no real surprise to say that key members of the Venezuelan government do not like this sort of thing. It smacks too much of, dare I say, a (real) revolution within ‘the revolution’.52

‘21st Century Socialism’ in One Barrio?

Too often the poor of the barrios and the ranchos (and their differently designated equivalents across the whole of Latin America and elsewhere) are politically chastised for lacking ‘historical agency’, for only being concerned with immediate gratification rather than with future-oriented goals, for being too impulsive, too spontaneous, too ‘primitive’, for being atomised and disorganised, or for being prone to blow with whatever prevailing populist wind there might be. Worse still, they are accused of being too precarious for their own collective salvation. And lurking behind all of these charges is the ultimate denigration, that of being lumpen – that old stigma that has never quite been forgotten or forgiven in certain quarters of the Left. But if 23 de Enero is anything to go by, nothing could be further from the truth. Of course, one must certainly avoid idealising the ‘slum dweller’ as an almost natural, inevitable revolutionary class; there are simply far too many counter-examples, such as Johannesburg at the end of May 2008. Yet, notwithstanding this, it undoubtedly is the case in 23 de Enero that basic survival in an informal, precarious economy can be translated into a broader category of social and political agency; that these social forces can play much more than a subordinate role in the course of historical change; that they are not condemned to passivity. It is also equally the case that the overall condition of precariousness is present in consciousness itself; not just occasionally perceived, but permanently lived. Indeed, in many ways it is a much stronger form of class consciousness than that arising from the old style exploitation of wage labour. Last but not least, the struggle of place does not necessarily replace the struggle of class in the poor quarters, but instead the two can be combined. In short, the ‘precariat’ is not a marginalised subproletariat. It is a class force in the making.53

Yet nothwithstanding this, another key question remains: how typical is 23 de Enero, even within the confines of Caracas, let alone Venezuela, Latin America or the world? Isn’t this nothing more than a contemporary equivalent of an all too backward, primitive – how can I put it? – ‘socialism’ in one… barrio? The basic response here is that 23 de Enero may be atypical in the depth and breadth of its revolutionary engagement from below, but it is often a matter of extent and degree and not something more fundamental. A not dissimilar portrayal and analysis could easily be made of other barrios in Caracas, from La Vega to El Valle to Caricuao and myriad others. And if the time and space is insufficient to demonstrate this, it is enough to pay a visit to the Jacobo Borges museum, situated in the neighbouring parroquia of Sucre, and which is now popularly known as El Museo del Barrio. Here, in a series of exhibitions collectively entitled Cartas del Barrio: el despertar de la memoria, dedicated to displaying the social and political evolution of many barrios all over Caracas, one can see very categorically just what a font of political mobilisation and radicalisation has always existed in the poor neighbourhoods. Once again, this is not to say that counter examples could not be found. As the November 2008 mayoral elections in the greater metropolitan area of Caracas showed, even some of the most populous and poorest barrios, most notably Petare, can be tempted out of the revolutionary frontline by the populist rhetoric of the right-wing opposition playing the old crime, corruption and high inflation cards.54 As the state-sponsored project of change from above begins to falter and hesitate at the hands of the unreliable ‘Bolivarian bureaucracy’ and the ‘Bolibourgeoisie’ who have never accepted the idea of the poor and the dispossessed taking direct action for themselves (which Chávez himself does undoubtedly support); and as the right-wing opposition recuperates some of its lost strength and bile, so the political virtue of Promethean courage is needed now more than ever.

Back in 23 de Enero it is nevertheless the positive images that most leave their mark. First, if we think of barrio life or slums in general only as spaces of misery and degradation, then we need to think again. They can also be places of immense internal cohesion, identity and solidarity. Second, after years of defensive resistance, the moment has arrived – here at least – of pro-active action. The inward gaze forced on the barrios in the past has now transformed itself outwards. Third, there is a dialectical process at work here as regards the experiences of exclusion-inclusion. The latter is not an automatic desire stemming out of the experience of the former if the inclusion being offered is not qualitatively different. If necessary, one can freely choose a preferred radical space of marginality. Exclusion, in other words, is not an end point from which there is only a ‘return’. It can also be a starting point for a new journey altogether. Fourth, so accustomed are the residents and citizens of the barrios of taking care of their own concerns, that this makes them (rightly) reluctant to cede authority and control to ‘politicians’, no matter how ‘progressive’ they might be. They are, and they want to be, the ultimate makers of their own destiny. Fifth, while some of the middle class and all of the socio-economic elite in Caracas (and Venezuela as a whole) see themselves as ‘victims’, it is precisely the fact that the residents of the poor barrios have rarely, if ever, seen themselves cast in this light that is the true foundation stone of their current revolutionary consciousness. And last but not least, as was made very clear in a ten-day gathering that took place in 23 de Enero towards the beginning of 2008 – the fourth of its kind – there are growing efforts to ‘internationalise’ the common struggles of the urban poor, not just in a Latin American context (from where most of the delegates came), but more globally as well. Of course, no one is yet raising the banner “Precariat of the World Unite!” in formal terms, but let no one doubt that what is at work here is more than just the fragmented emergence of new political actors arising out of conditions of acute disadvantage.55 In the words of Henri Lefebvre: ‘Before our eyes, under our gaze, we have the “spectre” of the city, that of urban society and perhaps simply of society. If the spectre of communism no longer haunts [us], the shadow of the city… [has] replaced the old dread.’56

Looking around one last time one cannot help but reflect on what is perhaps a sad, yet extremely true, irony. We do not have the advantages of their disadvantages. Pasolini understood this, I think, more than anyone.


1. See Joël Cornault, Élisée Reclus: Six études en géographie sensible (Paris: Editions Isolato, 2008). The author would like to express his thanks to the British Academy for making research funds available for a trip to Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil.

2. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), p. 55.

3. Michel Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’ in Dits et écrits II, 1976-1988 (Paris: Quarto Gallimard, 2001), p. 1574.

4. John Berger, ‘Rumour’ in Latife Tekin, Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills (London: Marion Boyars, 1996), p. 8.

5. Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean. Axis of Hope (London: Verso, 2006), p. 49.

6. Foucault, ‘Des espaces autres’, p. 1579.

7. Jeremy Seabrook, In the Cities of the South: Scenes from a Developing World (London: Verso, 1996).

8. See Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World, trans. Mark Fried (New York: Picador, 2000), pp. 11-12.

9. See Marc Augé, Non-Lieux. Introduction à une anthropologie de la surmodernité (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1992).

10. Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace (Macerata: Quodlibet, 2006), p. 63. I have used the Italian edition because it gathers together a useful collection of many of Koolhaas’s writings.

11. See Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lettere luterane. Il progresso come falso progresso (Torino: Einaudi, 1976).

12. See ‘Worldview: Perspectives on Architecture and Urbanism From Around the Globe’,

13. If Caracas can be considered a ‘modern’ city, this is largely due to the architectural and cultural influence of Carlos Raúl Villanueva. Notwithstanding this influence, though, the city is certainly not underpinned by a Villanuevian vision. Where the architect himself always had a dream of integration and synthesis, his political masters during his working life in Caracas – from Juan Vicente Gómez to Rafael Caldera Rodríguez – dreamed of nothing but fragmentation, partition and clearly identifiable borders.

14. Nestor Garcia Canclini, ‘The Megapolis and its Informal Order’, in Brillembourg et al, Informal City, p. 265.

15. 23 de Enero is one of 12 parroquias making up the metropolitan area of Caracas. Situated in the North-West of the city, it covers more than 200 hectares of terrain and is itself divided into 11 administrative barrios. See Teolinda Bolívar and Josefina Baldó, La cuestión de los barrios (Caracas: Monte Avila, 1996), p. 331.

16. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 117.

17. See Raúl Zelik, ‘Hecho en Venezuela’,

18. A term often used is chusma – a very derogatory and offensive word for rabble or mob.

19. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 93. I am reminded as well of a line of prose poetry by Baudelaire: ‘It seemed to me odd that I could have passed this enchanting haunt so often without suspecting that here was the entrance.’ Charles Baudelaire, ‘Le Joueur généreux’ in Le Spleen de Paris: La Fanfarlo (Paris: Flammarion, 1987), p. 138.

20. Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The Tears of the Excavator’, in Poems, trans. Norman MacAfee (New York: Noonday Press, 1996), pp. 33 & 35.

21. Pasolini, ‘Lines from the Testament’, in ibid., p. 213.

22. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear. Dispatches on Survival and Resistance (London: Verso, 2007), p. 98.

23. Ibid., p. 92.

24. Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: Verso, 1992), p. 170.

25. Ibid., p. 174.

26. See Peter Grohmann, Movimiento Popular en los barrios de Caracas (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1996).

27. Interview with Juan Contreras, one of the main leaders of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar, 23 January 2008.

28. As cited in Tariq Ali, Pirates of the Caribbean, p. 190.

29. Chávez, Venezuela and the New Latin America. An interview with Hugo Chávez by Aleida Guevara (Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2005), pp. 16-17.

30. Bertolt Brecht, ‘Supply and Demand’ in John Willett (ed and trans.), Bertolt Brecht. Poems and Songs from the Plays (London: Methuen, 1992), p. 98.

31. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, p. 105.

32. See Victor Burgin, ‘The City in Pieces’ in Laura Marcus and Lynda Nead (eds), The Actuality of Walter Benjamin (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1998), p. 67.

33. Héctor Torres Casado, ‘Personalidad urbana’, todosadentro, 5 January 2008, p. 2.

34. Vincent Descombres, Proust. Philosophie du Roman (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1987), p. 179. The notion of ‘rhetorical acts’ finds many of its origins, of course, in Aristotle. And as Descombres goes on to stress: ‘Elle fait savoir qui doit quoi à qui et qui peut compter sur qui et pour quoi. Une cosmologie declare un ordre de justice. De qui suis-je responsable? Qui viendra à mon aide? Qui appeler à mon secours en telle occasion? Qui m’appellera moi-même? Quels sont les droits et les devoirs de quelqu’un dans telle function? Qui est fondé à se plaindre, auprès de qui et de quoi? Qui a lieu d’être fier? Les réponses à toutes ces questions supportent les actes rhétoriques du groupe.’ Ibid., p. 188.

35. See Henri Lefebvre, La Production de l’espace (Paris: Anthropos, 1974).

36. As cited in Raúl Zelik, ‘Utopian’ in Brillembourg et al, Informal City, p. 197.

37. George W. Knox, ‘The Tupamaro Gang of Venezuela’,

38. This clandestine organisation takes its name from a revolutionary hero in Peru.

39. These actions were even the subject of a special report, not exactly sympathetic or friendly of course, in the New York Times on 18 June 2007. (‘Behind the Che Bandannas, Shades of Potential Militias’ by Simon Romero).

40. Isaac Rosa, ‘Caracas, casa tomada’,

41. Pasolini, ‘The Tears of the Excavator’, in Poems, p. 53.

42. Berger, Hold Everything Dear, pp. 33-34.

43. This phrase is most associated with Walter Benjamin, but of course he himself took it from Goethe.

44. Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Hannah Arendt (ed), Walter Benjamin: Illuminations trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1992), p. 246.

45. Fulvio Grimaldi, ‘Venezuela: sarà dura. Cronaca di uno “scontro finale” tra rivoluzione e restaurazione imperialista’, l’ernesto, Jan-Feb 2003, p. 51.

46. Gustavo Medina, ‘Simón de los Pueblos llega al 23 de Enero’, Núcleo Abierto, No. 28, March 2008, p. 7.

47. The figures are cited by Farruco Sesto, the ‘Poet-Minister’ of Culture. See his interview with the weekly supplement to the Italian newspaper il manifesto, ‘Un movimento di penna e governo’, Alias, No. 47, 2 December 2006, p. 4.

48. The comment is by Gustavo Dal Vo, a member of the Coordinadora Simón Bolívar. See also Felix Madrazo and Helena Chevtchenko, ‘Oral Urban Regulations’ in Brillembourg et al, Informal City, p. 163. The reawakening of barrio consciousness and memory rehabilitation is palpable in all the poor neighbourhoods in Caracas, and was the subject of a major exhibition at the Jacobo Borges museum in Parroquia Sucre between November 2007 and March 2008.

49. This, and many other constant references to Don Quixote, is not surprising given the fact that in 2007 the Ministry of Culture launched its Operación Dulcinea – the free distribution of the book to all Venezuelans.

50. David Harvey, ‘The Right to the City’, New Left Review, 53, Sept-Oct 2008, p. 37.

51. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chigaco: University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 36.

52. And given the fact that the warnings about Allende’s Chile had no effect, government spokesmen are increasingly raising the spectre now of Civil War Spain. See, for example, Farruco Sesto, ‘La peligrosa quimera del anti poder’, todosadentro, 1 March 2008, p. 37.

53. In terms of the doubts raised about slum dwellers’ capacity to be a meaningful ‘historical agent’ in any broad Marxist sense of the term, see Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso, 2006). For a very different perspective, meanwhile, see Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London: Verso, 2008), pp. 424-27.

54. What was most noticeable in Petare and some other barrios in Caracas (unlike in the rest of the country where for the most part the new United Socialist Party did reasonably well) was a similar phenomenon that occurred in the December 2007 constitutional referendum; namely, while the Right only marginally increased its overall share of the vote, abstention levels here were nevertheless relatively high, which thereby resulted in a considerable loss of support for Aristobulo Isturiz, the Afro-Venezuelan candidate of the PSUV.

55. See, for example, Saskia Sassen, ‘Fragmented Urban Topographies and Their Underlying Interconnections’ in Alfredo Brillembourg, Kristin Feireiss and Hubert Klumpner (eds), Informal City: Caracas Case (London: Prestel, 2005), pp. 83-87.

56. Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, trans and eds. Eleonore Kofman and Elzabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 142.