The history of Barrio 23 de Enero dates back to the mid-20th century, when scores of migrants fleeing economic hardship poured into Caracas to seek their fortunes in Venezuela's booming oil industry and businesses. Their arrival, atop a swelling local population, prompted Marcos Perez Jimenez — then the country's dictator — to build superblocks like Barrio 23 de Enero to satisfy the growing demand for housing. The pressure to pacify the people living in these superblocks has not eased much over the years, and it continues to create problems for the Venezuelan government.
After Jimenez was overthrown on Jan. 23, 1958, the residents gave their superblock (formerly known as 2 de Diciembre) a new name to commemorate the birth of Venezuelan democracy: 23 de Enero, or "the 23rd of January" in Spanish. But as the years passed, social inequality and poverty chipped away at the optimism that the coup had engendered among the Venezuelan people. Eventually, these factors gave rise to left-leaning urban movements, such as the Tupamaros and the Simon Bolivar Coordinator, which became fierce opponents of the center-right governments established in the wake of the Jimenez dictatorship. These movements also became some of Hugo Chavez's strongest backers when he assumed the presidency in 1999, and under his rule, they flourished.
Deconstructing the Colectivos' Political Identity
But knowing the history of Barrio 23 de Enero is not enough to understand its colectivos. We must also understand how their political identities are formed, so that we can better analyze their goals and constraints, as well as how they might shape the course of Venezuela's socio-economic and political crises. To get more insight on the issue, I interviewed the neighborhood's residents and members of its colectivos. The answers they provided were telling.
A Legacy of Pain and Purpose
Traditionally, colectivos are understood to be radical, left-wing armed groups that support Venezuela's ruling party in exchange for patronage. But they see themselves as much more than that, as social organizations born from repression. I spoke to colectivo members in Caracas, including several high-ranking figures of the Simon Bolivar Coordinator and Alexis Vive — two of Barrio 23 de Enero's most powerful groups. Together, the words those interviewed used most were "repression," "revolution," "revolutionary," "the fight," "social transformation," "recovered spaces," "bourgeois," "stateless opposition" and "Fourth Republic" (a reference to the period in Venezuela's history between the fall of Jimenez and the rise of Chavez). One colectivo member even told me:
"You have no idea how much pain we endured during the Fourth Republic… the security apparatus of Carlos Andres Perez, with the objective to keep us at bay because of our ideology and activism, without previous warning would bring the police into the neighborhood and shoot us like dogs if they have to."
Aside from social inequality, it is this history of pain and unaddressed grievances that has molded the identities of the colectivo leadership and that has been passed on to recruit and assimilate new members.
Tightly interwoven with this narrative is the pressing need to push ahead with Chavez's revolution, his goals for social transformation and justice — a cause popularly termed "the fight." As another colectivo member told me, "We are not going to be ruled by a stateless opposition that receives orders in English; they have no identification with Latin America and so the fight must continue." Many of the colectivos in Barrio 23 de Enero use the fight as a cause around which to rally their ranks. One woman in a Bolivarian militia even told me: Chavez "made the invisible visible. And we will not go back to the Fourth Republic… We will fight for what our commander gave and left us."
It is clear that the fear of losing the benefits they enjoyed under Chavez's rule is driving the colectivos to support his legacy — even if, for now, it means supporting the increasingly unpopular President Nicolas Maduro in spite of the economic hardship their families and neighborhoods are suffering.
Symbols of Solidarity
The colectivos' shared sense of past and purpose is reflected not only in their discourse but also in the symbols that appear in the murals scattered throughout Barrio 23 de Enero. One in particular, a depiction of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper accompanied by, among other revolutionary heroes, Simon Bolivar and Karl Marx, left me in awe. A resident commented, as I looked at it,
"Jesus Christ, if you think about it, was a true revolutionary, for he challenged the status quo of his epoch, fought and gave his life for the poor. To me, as a resident of 23 de Enero, seeing the picture of Jesus motivates me to be a collectivist and less individualist, even if I am suffering as much as my neighbor is suffering."
The mural was only one of hundreds dotting Caracas' superblocks and shantytowns, telling stories of Latin American identity through the eyes of the nation's left. But upon closer inspection, I realized that it was not just Latin America being represented in those murals; in some neighborhoods, Palestine and Spain's Basque country featured prominently as well. When I asked one of my guides why there were so many "solidarity murals," as the locals called them, he bluntly replied, "Their fight is our fight." The response was not wholly surprising, given Chavez's vocal support for the Palestinian cause and Madrid's numerous accusations of Venezuela harboring Basque separatists suspected of terrorism.
After piecing together the many symbols Barrio 23 de Enero's residents have chosen to represent themselves, I've realized something important: To the colectivos, Chavez embodied them all, from Simon Bolivar and Karl Marx to the Palestinians and the Basque separatists. He fought for unity and for the underdog, for a cohesive Latin America and for Venezuela's poor. Though Maduro has tried to capitalize on this powerful image, using the symbol of Chavez to secure the votes of the late president's ardent supporters, the colectivos know that Maduro is no Chavez. Instead, the president's failed economic policies have only worsened the identity crisis afflicting Barrio 23 de Enero.
Competition and Conflict
This is not to imply, though, that the colectivos have a single identity — quite the opposite. The colectivos are individual clans, each seeking to serve as a counterbalance to the others as they vie for resources, territory and power. The clans generally recruit their members from among the residents living within the superblocks of Barrio 23 de Enero. The superblocks often have their own colectivos, which, in turn, have their own "coordinators" or leaders. According to one of my guides,
"There are more than 60 colectivos, some of them have their own personal objectives, like education, where others are inherently linked with government officials, and others, yet the smallest and newest self-label themselves as colectivos, just to inspire fear, but in reality they are criminal bands."
Though colectivos are often described as government-sponsored militias, their structures and objectives are typically far more complicated. In fact, many of the most well-known colectivos today — Alexis Vive, La Piedrita and Tupamaros, to name a few — no longer define themselves as such, but as "social organizations" or "foundations." (The Tupamaros are even evolving into a political party.) Some of the colectivo leaders I spoke to told me the reason for this was to gain legitimacy and funding, particularly for social projects, which have become the biggest focus of Barrio 23 de Enero's colectivos. Health care, education, recreation and environmental initiatives have become the groups' primary method of achieving their goal to transform the social spaces that they manage.
Of course, not all of the colectivos' activities are so charitable. Some also lead security operations at the government's behest or assist the police in handling opposition-led protests, a fact that has created friction in the neighborhood. One resident said,
"It is one particular sector of La Piedrita Colectivo that is heavily armed — and this is why some residents, including other colectivos, have had problems with them; they think they own certain areas of the neighborhood when they don't or they give other peaceful colectivos a bad image."
A Structure That Will Not Fall Easily
Appeasing, stabilizing and controlling the colectivos of Barrio 23 de Enero is one of the most important imperatives of the Venezuelan presidency. The neighborhood is less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Miraflores and White palaces, which respectively host the presidency and the military elite, and it will vehemently protect its funding and autonomy. But the colectivos gained what power they have by aligning with Chavez; even if they disagree with Maduro's policies, they still have reason to serve the government to keep its patronage flowing.
The opposition-led protests, then, are unlikely to unseat Maduro on their own. But if the residents of Barrio 23 de Enero, who number more than 120,000, become dissatisfied enough to break ranks with the government, the legitimacy of Maduro's administration will be undermined, particularly if Barrio 23 de Enero were to encourage the nearby low-income neighborhoods of La Pastora and El Polvorin to join it. One thing became clear over the course of my research: The colectivos are angry and are frustrated with Maduro's economic policies. Even if his administration sticks to Chavez's model of supporting the groups with money and government aid, there is no guarantee that it will be enough to stop them from protesting his measures.
But Maduro's unpopular policies raise an even bigger concern for the colectivos. Should the president's plummeting popularity give the Venezuelan opposition room to unseat the ruling party, the next government could seek to rein in the colectivos by reducing their power and autonomy. Such an outcome would provoke heavy resistance, whether through violence or protests, because as I was repeatedly told in Barrio 23 de Enero, "Once you are part of this place, we protect our own, even if we have to die in battle."