The Execution of Columbus

In the past weeks, Venezuelans have been protesting in the streets against the current government and their oppressive system. I believe this wave of resistance started taking place in 2015, when the people gave power to the opposition leaders to be the majority in the National Assembly. For those who do not know too much about Venezuela’s electoral history, this was a significant change that gave hope to a lot of persons who oppose the Venezuelan government, including me. I wrote this essay while taking a class on Empire and Decolonization, reading different authors and trying to make sense of what colonization means for those who oppress and those who are oppressed.

Colon Estatua
The trial of Columbus in 2004. Image originally in Alexis Correia’s El martirio de la estatua de Colón de Plaza Venezuela. Source: El Estímulo Media
In October 12, 2004, during the celebrations of the Day of the Indigenous Resistance, a group of caraqueños executed Christopher Columbus.[1] The holiday previously commemorated the “day of the race,” the encounter of Europe and the Americas due to Columbus’ “discovery.” This was a common holiday in Venezuela, but after Hugo Chávez election as president in 1998, one of his decrees was to change the meaning of this day, since he considered outrageous to pay tribute to the violent colonization that followed after Columbus arrival to the “New World.”[2] In support to Chávez ideals, a group of persons performed a trial to judge the Genovese navigator for his crimes, and blamed him for leading the genocide of indigenous societies after 1492. The people made the verdict; the judges became executioners and marched together from the west side of Caracas, considered the working class area, to Plaza Venezuela in order to perform a suitable punishment.[3] At the square, there was a statue of Columbus, which stood at the highest corner, pointing to the east, considered the side of the upper class sector. The executioners covered the statue in red paint, a color representative of Chavismo, put a rope around Columbus’ neck, and together pulled until the Genovese gave in, falling from his pedestal and breaking in two pieces.[4] Then the executioners dragged Columbus’ body back to the west side of Caracas and exposed it to show that justice was served and colonization will not be tolerated.

I always wondered why the execution of Columbus was so important for its perpetrators, why they agreed with Hugo Chávez in transforming the country, re-writing the national history, and re-naming places and holidays. I was too young to understand that Europeans’ colonization was violent, that the “civilized model” was destructive. Furthermore, I was not aware of the struggles of the country in which I lived, that for many the statue represented a period of increased socioeconomic inequalities. After Venezuela’s independence from Spain in 1812, the country remained colonized by greed and exclusion. The events that occurred after Chavez election in 1998, were the product of these struggles. The execution of Columbus was just one of many rituals of possession and cleansing the people and the Bolivarian government needed to overcome past ideologies.[5] But even though the Bolivarian revolution sought to decolonize the country with a new constitution and a new national identity, the power relations of the past did not change. The name of the new conqueror was Hugo Chávez who, even from the afterlife, still calls to perpetuate a dream that stopped representing the majority of the population. The further results of the elections held in December 6 2015, when people gave the majority of seats in the National Assembly to the opposition, prove the discontent that has risen among those who once executed Columbus and fought for Chávez’s vision.[6]

The people that condemned Columbus were part of an enormous sector of Venezuelan society, mostly working class, who felt excluded from previous governmental policies. For several decades, the country was in the hands of two main political parties, AD and COPEI.[7] These parties promised progress and inclusion but, conversely, relegated the working class sectors to the peripheries of the cities. Only by crossing the highways and looking at the mountains that surround Caracas, one could see glimpses of that population which, for a brief moment was noticeable in the distance but most of the time, invisible.[8] The relationships between the upper and the working classes almost resembled an opposition between colonizers and colonized. Whether for personal merits or corruption, the former enjoyed social status and economic prosperity. Meanwhile, the latter did not have a place in the national community, did not enjoy the rights of modern citizens, were denied participation in community affairs, and did not feel like true citizens.[9] In the midst of this fractured context, Hugo Chávez offered the middle and working classes a visible place in the political debate, addressing their power to decide for a change. But in the path for equality, the roles reversed, “justice meant nothing less than a turning of the tables at the expense of the settler and in favor of the native.”[10] The new Bolivarian Republic benefited only one sector instead of guaranteeing social equality for all the society. The oppressed became powerful, and the order was to obey the new goals or to leave the country for good.

Chávez, who in 1992 led an attempted coup d’état against the former president Carlos Andres Pérez, saw his way to leadership through electoral power in 1998. The most remarkable image of that moment is a military tank that climbed the steps of the Miraflores Palace seeking to oust the president.[11] In the same way as Columbus’ punishers, Chávez and his military allies judged the actions of President Perez as unsuitable for the country and wanted to destroy the embodiment of an unfair system. In this endeavor, Chávez did not accomplish his plan and surrendered arguing the impossibility to control the capital, saying a phrase that would forever change the fate of the country: “for now, we did not accomplish the goals we had set.” The “cleansing” was not fulfilled in that moment, but it did signal a new path for the invisible other, the people from the periphery, to open channels for that transformation. Since then, those who felt oppressed saw in Chávez’s leadership a route to detach themselves from their subaltern condition, and elected him as the new head of state. They also followed his vision by destroying elements associated with the colonial past. The statue of Columbus was one of them. The fragmentation of society into “enemies,” who opposed the socialist revolution, and “patriots,” who defended the patria, was another.

Chávez may have failed in accomplishing his military goals back in 1992, but his ideology strengthened during the following years and became the ideals of the nascent Bolivarian nation. Unfortunately, the colonial struggles of the past justified the colonial struggles of the present and the prerogative of the state was justice and entitlement instead of deracialization and equality.[12] The colonizer was not the Spanish settler anymore, but envisioned in the oligarca that lived in the east side, who was white, of European descent, wealthy, and educated.[13] Meanwhile, the pueblo, the working class, was dark-skinned, emerged from indigenous and African ancestry, lived in the west side of the city, and sought to reach a better socioeconomic position by replacing their “eastern enemies”.[14] Perhaps the class struggles Chávez brought to light were necessary to accomplish the victory of the Bolivarian revolution, but once the power changed hands the social and racial disparities increased the resentment among the population. The transformation of the country stopped being a matter of inclusion and turned into a matter of us against them, an unbalanced fight between people who lived in the same space, but did not felt part of the same nation.[15] The “patriots,” availed by the left-wing ideology, could destroy statues of the colonial pasts. They could also reclaim the land and take the place of the “settlers” they imagined in the upper classes. In the same way they felt rejected by past administrations, they decided to reject those who reminded them of their colonial condition.

The problem with this Bolivarian conquest is that it never fulfilled the decolonization of the mind.[16] The people remained in a state of confrontation; dialogue was not possible unless it was under the government’s terms. Chávez’s presidency became a colonial enterprise, which gave prosperity and political agency only to a minor sector that no longer represented the majority. Meanwhile, the people who gave their vote for the revolution, who marched on the street destroying the reminders of colonialism, remained waiting patiently for a transformation that never happened.

Nowadays, after Chávez’s death in 2013, the social and economic disparities have increased and the new government, the heirs of the deceased conqueror, controls the country perpetuating resentment, violence, and corruption while profiting from the nation’s wealth. The pueblo Chávez addressed in the past only serves to continue a colonial fight in the streets, they are only addressed when they need votes. Likewise, the “patriots” remained loyal to old ideals to prove their loyalty to the Bolivarian dream that never came true. They continued voting for an administration that did not represent them anymore. And while the statue of Columbus remains hidden in a storage, the eyes of Chávez are the new symbol of this colonization. These eyes stare from the high levels state-funded building, houses created to bing low-income families from the periphery to the center of the capital.[17] These eyes have a colonial purpose, they surveil those who want to rebel, they remember the “patriots” who gave them power, they surveil any attempt to confront the new colonial condition. Hence, they new residents of the center have located to a new space, but they remain colonized by the gaze of the Bolivarian leader. Chávez’s eyes remind them loyalty is everything and defiance is an act of treason.

These colonial conditions in which the country remains made the population look for an alternative during the 2015 parliamentary elections. This people have tried to detach from violence and did what Chávez encouraged them to do back in 1998, to raise their voice against oppression, an opportunity to transform the country. For the heirs of the deceased leader, this meant an act of treason, a window for the old “settlers” to conquer them again. However, for the people in every corner of Caracas, this was an opportunity to reevaluate past mistakes, to change the course of the country, a new route in their path for decolonization. In a moment where violence did not give a cleansing force, elections provided a new channel for restoration. I think the results of the parliamentary elections prove people is tired of fighting against each other. The need for change does not come solely from the fictionalized enemy of the east, but from every sector of the country that has experienced the failure of the Bolivarian revolution.

Now, I wonder what will happen to Chávez’s patronizing eyes during the next years. I wonder if this is the beginning of a true decolonization of the mind for Venezuelans. I wonder if the people is coming to an understanding that power does not rely in one man nor corrupted governments, but on themselves. For now, only time will tell.

On May 5, 2017 protestant destroyed a statue on Hugo Chavez in Villa del Rosario, Zulia state, as a form of resistance against the Bolivarian legacy and its oppression. More statues have been destroyed since then.  

Chavez Estatua
Statue of Hugo Chavez lying in the floor, waiting for its own execution. The images and videos have been circulating on social media and more statues have been destroyed in other regions of the country. Source: Tal Cual Digital.
 

 

[1] Caraqueños is the demonym used for the people who is from the capital of Venezuela. Anyimar Cova Lugo, “La ciudad desterró a Cristóbal Colón,” El Universal, 2013 http://www.eluniversal.com/caracas/131012/la-ciudad-desterro-a-cristobal-colon ; RNV, “El Paseo Colón de Caracas se llamará Paseo de la Resistencia Indígena,” Aporrea, 2008 http://www.aporrea.org/tiburon/n117409.html

[2] Mercedes Aguilar, “Al decretar el Día de la Resistencia Indígena Chávez puso al descubierto la verdad histórica,” Correo del Orinoco http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/tema-dia/al-decretar-dia-resistencia-indigena-chavez-puso-al-descubierto-verdad-historica/;

[3] Plaza Venezuela is one of the major squares located at the “center” of Caracas. Its location marks the borders between the east and the west sides of the city.

[4] Chavismo refers to the political ideology based on the ideas, programs and governmental policies created by the former president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez Frias, which based on left-wing ideals.

[5] Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968).

[6] Eyder Peralta, “Opposition Party Wins Big In Venezuela, Ousting Maduro’s Socialists,” NPR, 2015 http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/12/07/458750336/opposition-party-wins-big-in-venezuela-ousting-maduros-socialists

[7] AD and COPEI stands for Acción Democrática and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente. Both parties signed the Funto Fijo Pact in 1958, an agreement to respect electoral results and concede to governmental coalitions to maintain basic shared programs. In the following years, the elected presidents will be from one party or the other, which for many, including Chávez, constituted an imbalance of power. Brian F. Crisp, Democratic Institutional Design: The Powers and Incentives of Venezuelan Politicians and Interest Groups (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 26.

[8] Caracas is a valley surrounded by mountains. Some of them were invaded by low-income families throughout the early 1900s who established barrios -informal residential areas- due to their impossibility to acquire households in residential sectors. This division of the city resembles the thesis of Achille Mbembe about the distribution of the space in townships, places of severe oppression and poverty based on racial and class basis. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 1 15 (2003): 11-40, 26.

[9] Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), 96.

[10] Mamdani Mahmood, When Victims Become Killers (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 31.

[11] Miraflores Palace is the presidential household, located in the northwest area of the city. This video shows a clip of the tank coming into the palace and Chávez declarations before surrender: “Hugo Chávez golpe de estado en Venezuela (1992),” courtesy of DiFilm  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t40oa9Ohhm0

[12] Mamdani, When Victims Become Killers, 31.

[13] Oligarca (oligarch) is a term that referred to powerful sectors of Venezuelan society in the nineteenth century during the independence. The term was latter used by Chávez as a derogatory term for previous governments and the people who opposed his ideology. Other terms used were “neoliberal capitalist” and escuálido (scrawny). Now, the government refers the opposition as the ultra-derecha (extreme right-wing).

[14] Pueblo means the common people.

[15] In analyzing the geopolitical relations that emerged after 9/11, Derek Gregory offers a very compelling thesis on how colonialism stills pervades in our discourses and practices, which applies greatly to the sociopolitical landscape of Venezuela. Derek Gregory, The Colonial Present (Malden, Blackwell, 2004), 37.

[16] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonizing the Mind. The Politics of Language in African Literature (Oxford, Nairobi, Portsmouth: James Currey, EAEP, Heinemann, 1986).

[17] Prior to the presidential elections of 2012, in which Chávez was reelected president, the government re-launched the Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela, which planned to construct 2.000.000 residences across the country for working class families. While some of the buildings were occupied prior the elections, the project is still in progress and has not reached the goal. The buildings have the signature and the eyes of Chávez painted in the highest level.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s