April 17, 2007

You may be through with the myth, but the myth isn't through with you

Quico says: Today, it's part three of my exchange with Greg Wilpert, of Venezuelanalysis fame, about the April 2002 coup.

His original essay on the coup is here.
My open letter to him is here.
His reply is here.

Today, my reply to his reply...

Dear Greg,

Well, I'll start by noting the part of your letter I agree with. Obviously, the opposition is not free from the urge to mythologize the April Crisis. All the old canards about a "vacuum-of-power", about how it was "too dangerous to send out reporters on April 13th", are still floating around out there. They are no more credible and only slightly less fantastical than the stories about 13 million people demonstrating for Chávez's return. If I had the power to set the opposition line that Chávez has to set the government's, I can assure you they would've been buried long ago.

In the absence of a credible investigation, though, it was always likely to be so. Exactly five years ago today - just one week after the 11A massacre - Teodoro Petkoff could already see this dynamic taking hold:
What we had feared has started to happen. The sad events of April 11th have already been turned into projectiles tossed back and forth between the various political parties, who accuse each other of responsibility for the deaths. Instead of waiting for the result of an investigation from a Truth Commission, in Parliament each side went straight for "its" videos and "its" photos to sustain "its" truth. This road is totally barren and, from the start, demonstrates an unwillingness to get to the truth. Each side seems to want to keep the affair in a cloud of uncertainty, seeking to keep the events confusing enough to use as a political argument in future debates. This would be a calamity for the country.
And a calamity it has been.

Looking back, I think the central legacy of the April Crisis has been the way all the parallel mythologizing cemented the fracture of society. The failure to produce a shared understanding of what happened became a festering wound, just as Teodoro predicted. It underpinned all of the stupid confrontation that came afterwards and deepened the extremism on both sides. It confirmed the opposition's sense that Chávez had to go by any means available, as well as the government's sense that no holds are barred when it comes to protecting itself against "people like that."

And that's why my own write-up on the crisis stresses so heavily the fact that no credible investigation was carried out in the weeks and months after the coup. Because we could sit here and argue all day and all night about what Plan Avila was or what Otto Neutsaldt did or didn't say about what when. But the reality is that we'd be basically guessing, because the Truth Commission was never set up, the conflicting testimonies were never systematically confronted and the evidence was never rigorously weighed by a credible, independent body. That's why a single version of events never arose.

Definitely, yes, both sides have mythologized, but the moral equivalence between the government's mythologizing and the opposition's only takes you so far. Because only the government could've organized the kind of investigation that might have been able to prevent these parallel mythologies from becoming entrenched. Globovisión doesn't have subpoena powers; Primero Justicia can't put people under oath. Only the state has the power to do that; only the state has the responsibility to do that.

From the start, though, it was clear that chavismo was much more interested in imposing its own version of events than in creating a shared history. Neutsaldt's account was used not as the basis for an impartial investigation, but as fodder for propaganda videos repeated incessantly on State TV for openly partisan purposes. The official criminal inquest was pawned off to an openly partisan prosecutor who used it to extort money from the people he was investigating, and who ended up being murdered in circumstances the state also failed to investigate credibly and that, in a macabre twist, itself became grist to the mill of partisan mythologizing.

Under those circumstances, it's no wonder that the actual story got buried so deep under a mountain of obfuscation: when the state abdicates its obligation to flesh out the facts, the myth-makers have the field all to themselves. Who needs a truth commission when you have The Revolution Will Not be Televised?

For me, the question of why the April Crisis was never credibly investigated is as important, as revealing, as the crisis itself. I think there was no credible investigation because everyone in the ruling clique realized that uncovering facts that ran counter to the Official Version could be a career-ending offense. Worse still, the official version keeps shifting: there's no guarantee that today's ideologically correct account will not become tomorrow's heresy. Nobody (other than you) has been willing to take that risk.

Chávez wanted his own Bay of Pigs, Greg. He needed to win a defining battle for the soul of the people against the gringos to flesh out the epic arc of the revolution. And if the evidence out there fit that narrative arc rather awkwardly, too bad for the evidence: he sure as hell wasn't going to take the risk of setting up an investigation he couldn't control, and that might end up contradicting his version. As early as April 18th, 2002, that drive to seize symbolic control of the crisis had already trumped the petty concerns of people like you and me who care about what actually happened. Up against Chávez's steadfast commitment to subordinating reality to ideology, the "evidence" never stood a chance.

Had there been any official institution with the autonomy to hold this drive in check, something like a shared understanding might still have arisen. But there wasn't, because even back then chavismo treated "state," "government," "nation," and "Chávez" as synonyms. The ruling ideology flattens the distinctions between these concepts, making it impossible for those in positions of authority to imagine that something that's in Chávez's interests may not be in the National Interest.

So it's not surprising that those called on to investigate quickly fell into line: an ideology that can't tell the difference between the National Interest and factional interests and that interprets every call for impartiality as a subterfuge to empower the class enemy can't see the value in institutional independence, whether it's in order to investigate the April Crisis or for any other purpose.

When it comes down to it, it was Chávez's authoritarianism that made it impossible to generate a shared understanding of what happened in April 2002. And here, I mean more than just his run-of-the-mill political authoritarianism. I mean a deeper, more sinister drive to dictate the official understanding of the past, a kind of epistemological authoritarianism that dismisses "dissident historical facts" with the same virulence chavismo has always shown to dissident political figures.

From the start, Chávez intuited the need to assimilate the April Crisis into the revolution's storyline, to turn April 13th into a symbolic milestone along its historical path, just like February 27th, 1989 and February 4th, 1992. Dates suffused with such symbolic resonance they can be summoned with just a number-letter combination (27F > 4F > 13A ), the three were threaded together into a compelling narrative of national redemption, with Chávez himself cast in the indispensable role of redeemer. When that's the game you're playing, facts are just a nuisance.

In the end, Chávez won the power struggle his symbolic hijacking of the April Crisis helped configure. His myth won. This might be a "non-issue" for you, but the fact remains that it's his mythologized version - with its gaping omissions, delirious exaggerations and outright falsifications - that kids will learn in school. It's the one that will enter the popular consciousness.

And it's this power over our collective memory-making process that ultimately alarms me. By taking on enabling powers to re-write history, Chávez exerts ultimate control over our collective identity: the control over what we think we know about the past that Orwell understood so clearly as the key to sustaining power permanently.

You may not see that as your problem now but, in time, it will be. As Chávez's power continues to grow, he will silence more and more dissenters and he will imposes stricter and stricter loyalty tests on his followers. The scope and depth of his epistemological authoritarianism can only grow, Greg, because there's nothing in the structure of his ideology to limit its growth.

And while we're not there yet, the day will come when an account of the coup like the one you wrote will mark you out for suspicion. It might seem far fetched to you now, but we're approaching the era of indefinite re-election, so you have to adjust your time horizon: the future lasts a long time, you know?

If there was anything in Chávez's conception of power that could lead him to think, at some stage, "this much power is enough power, this much control is enough control" then you might have some room for comfort. But that's just the thing, Greg,...there isn't.