Venezuela: Collective panic over organised poor

Activists representing communes in Merida state march through Mesa Bolivar on May 24.

A spectre is haunting Venezuela ― the spectre of the colectivos. All the powers of old Venezuela have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise these colectivos: political parties, NGOs, the foreign press, and of course, Twitter users.

“Armed thugs”, “vigilantes”, “paramilitaries” ― these are just a few of the hyperbolic terms attached to what has suddenly emerged as the central bogey of the Venezuelan opposition today: “los colectivos.”

The story goes something like this: amid the recent protests by mostly middle-class opposition-aligned students, it was not only Venezuela’s police and military that repressed the “peaceful” protesters, but also groups of pro-Chavista thugs who terrorised and attacked the well-meaning demonstrators.

The recently popularised term says so little but seems to mean so much. It is in the gap between what the term says and what it means that we find its function.

Empty signifier

On the surface, colectivos refers to the grassroots revolutionary collectives that make up the most organised element of “chavismo” ― supporters of the revolutionary political project identiied with the late president Hugo Chavez. Beyond this, the term loses all clarity.

On February 12, for example, it was widely claimed on Twitter that a student, Bassil da Costa, was shot by armed collectives. On February 19, videos were circulated claiming colectivos were rampaging through the wealthy zone of Altamira in Caracas firing hundreds of live rounds. And when the young beauty queen Genesis Carmona was killed, her death was immediately blamed on the colectivos.

As it turns out, da Costa was almost certainly killed by intelligence officials who have since been arrested and charged. Those present were not colectivos, even according to Altamira’s opposition mayor Ramon Muchacho, and were not firing live rounds.

According to both ballistics evidence and her friends, Genesis Carmona was shot from behind, while the only Chavistas nearby seem to have been at least several blocks in the opposite direction.

And yet these claims circulated instantly throughout social media, feeding a gullible mainstream and foreign media, often mediated by English-language blogs like Caracas Chronicles.

We could add to these many other imagined “aggressions”, as well as the overall death count from the protests. According to one detailed account of those killed by “unidentified gunmen” ― the category we would expect to correlate most directly to the colectivos ― less than one-third were opposition protesters.

So how can we make sense of the spread of this shadowy concept? The label was certainly not taken on voluntarily. But “colectivos” emerged and gained its recent force as a denunciation invented by its enemies.

According to the opposition's definition, the colectivos are armed. But only a small sector of revolutionary groups are in fact armed, while most tarred with the term are not, making the choice of the term peculiar indeed.

All of which leaves us with a well-worn set of markers that are economic, political, and racial: being poor, dark-skinned, and wearing a red shirt is enough to be deemed a collective member these days.

Rather than obscuring its meaning, however, the term’s sheer emptiness speaks directly to its function. The use of “colectivos” today says more about the one speaking it than the one spoken of.

It is not a description of an actual thing, but a confession of a desperate fear that has grown among Venezuela’s privileged classes in proportion to the increasing political visibility and influence of the poor and darker-skinned.

Pathological myths

“Colectivos” thus joins a long and sordid list: from the traditional epithets like the rabble, the mob, the scum, the lumpen and the horde, to more specific and recent variants like “terror circles” (widely used to smear the Bolivarian Circles around the time of the 2002 coup against Chavez).

Since nothing strikes more fear in elites’ hearts than the unpredictable movement of the poor beyond the bounds of informal segregation, there’s also motorizados, a term so vague as to trouble translation.

Are they motorcycle couriers, moto-taxistas, or simply anyone who happens to be on a motorcycle? Even in more tranquil times, one often sees tweets whipping up a panic that “Tupamaros” (a term created by police in the 1980s to describe urban militants) are in Altamira, with a blurry photo of a red-shirted motorcyclist provided as evidence.

The recent popularisation of the term colectivos is thus a powerful exercise in opposition myth-making.

The dangers of this myth should not be understated. By dehumanising all those it broadly describes, the term colectivos legitimises violence against them (just as the bizarre, racist rumour that the National Guard is infiltrated by Cubans no doubt serves to legitimise sniper attacks).

Thus when the retired general Angel Vivas tweeted the brutal suggestion to hang barbed wire at neck height on the barricades to “neutralize the criminal motorcycle hordes,” seamlessly connecting several fear-inducing pejoratives,multiple deaths seem to have resulted.

In this expression of elite anxiety is something more fundamental. Minister for the Communes Reinaldo Iturriza put it recently: “The collectives are synonymous with organisation, not violence.”

To demonise them is to demonise the organised capacity of Venezuela’s poorest. Such “expressions of hatred” are part of what Iturriza calls the “psychological work” of a small sector of the Venezuelan opposition that is, in his words, “truly and literally fascist”.

The revolutionary grassroots groups represent the backbone of the Bolivarian process. A fundamental contradiction pulls at opposition discourse on the colectivos: they are simultaneously denounced for being blind followers of their (now departed) charismatic leader, and also for operating dangerously beyond the authority of the state.

The reality is much more the latter. Popular revolutionary groups like those slandered today as colectivos both preceded Chavez and exceed Chavismo in the autonomy they demand and maintain.

These revolutionary groupings were active in the mass popular upheaval in 1989 against neoliberalism, coalesced in support of the 1992 coup attempts against a neoliberal authoritarian government, and played major roles in supporting Chavez’s election and government.

They also insisted on building their own spaces for autonomous participation, often in tension with that government (sometimes productively so, sometimes not).

From Collectives to Communes

It is no coincidence that Iturriza, for whom the collectives are synonymous with organisation, is also minister of communes. Much popular energy has been directed toward the communal project in recent years.

This is because those popular groups slandered today as colectivos have always stood at the forefront of the struggle for a new kind of state and productive apparatus that the communes promise.

The demand for both socialism and a more direct form of democracy to replace Venezuela’s corrupt, two-party liberal democracy emerged directly from decades of struggle.

Long before the Bolivarian government institutionalised communal councils in 2006 for democratic participation and decision-making on the local level, those engaged in grassroots struggles had pioneered barrio assemblies. Years before Venezuela’s communes entered into law in 2010, movements were building these from below.

What the communes embody today is the hope that popular participation will continue to expand ― and that it will gain some economic teeth.

By drawing together institutions of political and economic production, the hope is that socialism will be able to emerge hand-in-hand with the ever-more-ambitious claim to popular self-government.

The task is far from an easy one and the future far from certain. The nascent communes frighten not only the Venezuelan opposition, but also entrenched Chavista political and economic elites.

[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis. George Ciccariello-Maher is author of We Created Chavez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution.]