Repoliticizing Modernity: Military Spectacles in Venezuela

June 23, 2017

This text adapts sections from the book: Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela 1948-1958 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).


Over recent years, modern legacies from Latin America have become more visible than ever before, as surveys of art, architecture and design have brought imaginaries of aesthetic innovation and national development back into public view. This renewed visibility is cause for celebration, but problems arise when accounts of the region’s cultural legacies shy away from the entanglement of modernist aesthetics with political agendas of modernization. In Venezuela’s case, where geometric abstraction and architectural modernism flourished in the mid-twentieth century, accounting for modernity calls for a mode of cultural inquiry that amalgamates—rather than separates—aesthetics and politics. There, this task is especially crucial because the rise of modernist aesthetics in art and architecture in the 1950s was coetaneous with the entrenchment of a military regime that seized power on November 24, 1948 and enforced its anti-democratic modernization program for almost a decade (Fig. 1).

Despite the derailment of democracy during this period, in common parlance and cultural history alike it is often evoked nostalgically as an unsurpassed peak of Venezuelan modernity. The political circumstances of the period are at best caveated, at worst willfully forgotten. While some commemorate the rise of aesthetic modernism by claiming it had nothing to do with politics, others skirt around military ideology, pointing out the sheer quantity of modern constructions built during the tenure of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez (1952–1958). Even the late Venezuelan playwright José Ignacio Cabrujas, who opposed the regime, recalled fondly its central tenet progresamos porque edificamos: we progress because we build. Pérez Jiménez’s quest to build modernity remained unsurpassed, Cabrujas confessed, adding that “It’s almost blasphemous for me to say that, but it’s the truth; or I feel like it’s the truth.”[1]

To best understand Venezuela’s so-called “modern spirit,” then, we have to ask how the dictatorship made progress feel like the truth. What discursive, spatial, and visual technics induced this sensation? And, how did the military rulers leverage modern urban design and aesthetics in their bid to justify the break from democracy? To answer these questions it helps to conceive Venezuelan modernity as a cultural formation that unfolded as spectacle: that is, a sense of reality shaped by interlocking political, social, and cultural forces that permeated a whole body of spaces, practices and aspects of life.[2] Spectacular modernity, in this sense, implies much more than a series of eye-catching feats. To invoke “spectacle” is to infer that vision, representation, and display are conditioned by power relations: a particular agenda deems certain things worth looking at; specific agents then capture those things and configure them for display; spectators are called upon to watch staged scenes and to bring them to life by participating in them.

Revisiting and politicizing cultural legacies of modernity through the connection between visual culture and political ideology brings one specific implication: it wagers that specific modes of seeing, displaying and viewing can buttress attempts to redistribute power relations. Etymologically, “spectacle” grew out of the Latin verb spectare (to behold) and the noun spectaculum (a public show or theater), hence the term suggests that by beholding these dazzling displays, spectators are drawn into and perhaps become beholden to the ideological undercurrents of the agents who stage them. Indeed, we might venture that it’s this idea that underpins regime ideologue Laureano Vallenilla Lanz’s explanation of the deferral of democratic rule, when he wrote in El Heraldo in 1955 that “The scenery and decoration call for new actors and so does the public.” Modernity in Venezuela, Vallenilla Lanz seemed to propose, meant civic leaders being cast off the political stage to allow military rulers to position themselves front and center.

/
Fig. 1. Caracas in the 1950s, looking east from the superbloque housing blocks. Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana

Phantom Limb of Democracy
One site where the entanglement of modern art and architecture with the political agenda of the 1950s comes into focus is at Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s Ciudad Universitaria, one of the most celebrated modernist projects in Latin America. No one would deny that the campus embedded aesthetic modernism in the heart of Caracas, yet its speedy construction and ceremonial inauguration served more pragmatic ends for a dictatorship eager to confirm military authority and geopolitical import on the world stage. In March 1954, when three thousand leaders and delegates gathered in the university’s Aula Magna for the start of the Inter-American Conference, all eyes were on Caracas (Fig. 2). Pérez Jiménez seized on the opportunity to lead a series of public ceremonies, inaugurating twenty-five of the campus buildings in one fell swoop the day after the conference began then moving center stage to allow Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to pin the Legion of Merit medal onto his military uniform.[3] Three weeks later, under the multicolored roof of Alexander Calder’s Nubes (Clouds), delegates signed the historic Cold War resolution that declared Communism an immediate threat to world peace and security, and provided grounds for the United States to invade Guatemala just months later.[4]

/
Fig. 2. The Aula Magna at Carlos Raúl Villanueva’s Ciudad Universitaria, with Alexander Calder’s Nubes. Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana

Against the backdrop of the ideological battles of the Cold War, military state propaganda and covert public relations campaigns ensured that Venezuela looked like a success story of capitalist development—a nation buoyed up by firm rule, rising GDP, and the forward-looking aesthetics of its architectural overhaul. All the while, the regime reduced the elections enshrined in Venezuela’s Constitution to dead letters. Reneging on a return to democracy as it installed Pérez Jiménez as president through the electoral fraud of December 1952, the Junta Militar in power since 1948 cemented the shift from dictablanda (soft dictatorship) to dictadura (hard dictatorship). Thus, even as exiles and opponents circulated counter narratives denouncing that Venezuela was living bajo el signo del terror (under the sign of terror), and adversaries were persecuted and imprisoned, the military regime levied censorship to impose an official libretto that assured the public that “Everything about the dictatorship is perfect.”[5]

Indeed, it was no secret that democratic choice was presented as a threat to progress. Speaking in the run up to the 1957 plebiscite in which he kept his grip on power, Pérez Jiménez warned Venezuelans: “Think of a country convulsed in political battle between different parties, each trying to get votes by speeches filled with threats and defamation mixed with promises and offers of well-being; of streets in cities and towns painted and papered to saturation point with posters designed to incite; of the populace abandoned to discussion and mental struggles, to screaming and tumult.”[6] With political debate cast as a senseless cacophony, the official tenet held that modernizing deeds would “speak for themselves.” In turn, Venezuelans were no longer posited as political agents, but spectators of military-led modernity.[7]

In this redistribution of political representation, the legitimacy of military rule was contingent on convincing displays of progress. The dominant paradigm of Venezuelan modernity was founded on the positivist beliefs of the Nuevo Ideal Nacional (New National Ideal), a short text whose central tenet was that radical transformations of space would bring about qualitative changes in the social body. In line with high modernist ideology, top-down modern designs were viewed as levers of progress, which would discharge national and individual betterment, or superación as the regime dubbed it. This meant that the construction and inauguration of the Ciudad Universitaria, the Centro Simón Bolívar, the mass-housing superbloques, and other monumental buildings, became litmus tests for the efficiency of military-led modernity. State propaganda and public spectacles thus administered modern buildings and photographic and filmic representations of them as palliatives that would assuage the discomfort Venezuelans might experience from the phantom limb of democracy.

Choreographing Progress
This positivist ethos of spatial and social transformation assumed that users’ experiences of new constructions would be in synchrony with official narratives, yet this was not necessarily the case. Although the Centro Simón Bolívar was lauded as the epicenter of the symbiosis of military state, modern space, and transformed (modernized) subject, a chronicle published in 1953 tells another tale, casting it as an illegible zone, a “dark underground labyrinth of a new, unknown city"[8] (Fig. 3). The author recounts how after losing sight of the Teatro Municipal, a nearby nineteenth-century landmark in downtown Caracas, he got lost in the Centro Simón Bolívar’s modern maelstrom and couldn’t find a way out. This counter-narrative to official accounts of transformative space points toward the dialectics underpinning the production of space, shedding light on the realms of affective and bodily experience that exceed capture either by blueprint designs or by state ideological apparatuses.

/
Fig. 3. Cipriano Domínguez’s Centro Simón Bolívar in downtown Caracas. Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana

As Henri Lefebvre theorized, planiform, geometrically ordered urban designs picture ideal encounters between space and body, but in so doing they risk becoming congealed caricatures of the discourse of power, divested of the vitality of the lived experiences and dynamic processes that re-shape built environments as space becomes place. Precisely because blueprint spaces sketched onto blank pages by architects and urban planners conform to “the delusion that ‘objective’ knowledge of ‘reality’ can be attained by means of graphic representations,” they are vulnerable to slippages and interferences that create feedback loops in the discourse of power.[9]  This might explain why the military regime devised public spectacles that would choreograph Venezuelans’ encounters with the changing landscape and encourage them to participate as spectators of—and actors in—the nation’s performances of progress.

By all accounts, the Caracas carnival celebrations of 1954 (which overlapped with the start of the Inter-American Conference at the Ciudad Universitaria) were among the most lavish, exuberant, and memorable in the city’s history. A mock dragon filled with devils, a huge papier maché tiger on a chain, floats decked out as naval ships, giant orchids set among neo-classical columns, life-size model horses, a huge globe of planet Earth… All these visions wheeled through the city streets. Beyond the “sparkle and splendor”, however, there was a more propagandistic agenda at work in the parades, as shown by the floats entered by the Banco Obrero (Workers’ Bank), the state institution tasked with waging the regime’s so-called Batalla contra el rancho—a battle to replace makeshift homes with modernist superblocks.[10] The Banco Obrero had two floats in the processions. One was a jeep refashioned to emulate the rocky topography of Caracas’ hills, decorated with model cardboard shacks, each finished off with a tin roof (Fig. 4). There was left no room for a carnival queen atop this hectic microcosm of a barrio; hence the float paraded solo, adorned only with a banner declaring: “The Workers’ Bank builds Venezuela”. The other float could not have been more different. The long trailer pulled along by a modern tractor was packed with young pageboys and attendants in sparkly dresses, then topped with a model-sized superblock housing unit, measuring some two meters in height, which provided a backdrop for a carnival queen decked out with fur stole and ceremonial scepter. As the institution’s magazine put it, by contrasting “the dilapidated and miserable ranchos, a strikingly realistic scene; and the superblock, with its sober, elegant lines”, the floats posited the temporal leap from the “backward” nation the military regime promised to demolish and the flagship modernist blocks that heralded instant modernity. As another state report reminisced, the parades “marching among the crowds along the modern and beautiful avenues of Caracas spoke with their optimistic language and smiling face of the Venezuela that grows and becomes powerful”.[11]

 

/
Fig. 4. One of the Banco Obrero floats at the 1954 carnival parades in Caracas. Photo: Archivo Histórico de Miraflores
/
Fig. 5. A ministerial float topped with a model of the Hotel Humboldt and the Maripérez cable car system built in the 1950s. Photo: Archivo Histórico de Miraflores

Evidently, the carnival parades were no spontaneous spectacle; they put state propaganda on wheels, leaving nothing to chance as carnivalesque topsy-turvy was recast in a mold of military precision. In the run-up to the four-day extravaganza, full-page announcements in the press primed participants and the public on carnival choreography. One full-page notice featured no less than eighteen rules and two sub notes explaining the order of the inaugural parade.[12] Floats should gather along the Avenida Victoria, close to the Ciudad Universitaria, ninety minutes early so as to ensure optimum organization. Once assembled, participants would then be allocated their predetermined positions: horseback riders would lead off, followed “at a distance of no less than fifty meters” by motorcyclists from the military and transit police. Then, after “no less than twenty meters” would come the Distrito Federal’s carnival queen, followed “no less than ten meters” later by floats representing seven different social clubs from the capital. And on it went.

The painstaking organization ensured that spectators would apprehend the full scope of the bureaucratic apparatus of the military regime through a moving tableau of hierarchically-ordered floats, starting with the fifteen government ministries, then followed by their dependent institutes (Fig. 5). Not only this, the scope of the parades covered the length and breadth of the territory, represented first by carnival queens from Caracas municipalities, and then by their counterparts from each of the nation’s states. Trailing the state floats came the private sector entries by banks and corporations, in an equally meticulous order, finished off with pairs of elephants ridden by sequin-clad girls representing the new residential housing development at Prados del Este, in Caracas’ suburbs. Once this multitude was assembled, the regime’s Dirección de Espectáculos Públicos (Office of Public Spectacles) carried out the final pre-parade check to confirm that each float displayed its given number on a seventy-five-by-fifty-centimeter board attached by a two-meter pole. With no glimpse of irony, organizers reminded entrants that these numbers must only be on show during the assembly line; if not, the parade might seem labored or unspontaneous.

As they led off, ministerial floats served as literal vehicles for public works projects, some presenting supersized architectural maquettes of as yet unrealized projects, like the Maripérez Cable Car and the Hotel Humboldt. As an overture to the modern city to come, the floats made it clear that these novel constructions were worthy of people’s fervent applause. Yet, spectators were not just an immobile, applauding mass. In this choreography of progress, the spectacle offered a kinesthetic spatial experience that mobilized people along four urban itineraries held over the successive days of parades, establishing viewing circuits that encouraged people to trace the city’s expanding limits along new arterial routes. The inaugural parade on February 27 headed south across the city, following the Avenida Los Ilustres before culminating at the new military parade ground past the Avenida de Los Próceres, still under construction at the time. Subsequent parades rolled down the new Avenidas Urdaneta and Bolívar, beacons of modernization built over the rubble of the historic center, before tracing the city’s eastward growth along the Avenida Francisco de Miranda toward Plaza Altamira, and westward along the newly inaugurated Avenida San Martín and the housing blocks that flanked it. In sum, by mobilizing spectators throughout the changing city, the carnival parades served to stimulate and mediate public uses of modern spaces in ways that would shore up official missives of spatial transformation and put Venezuela’s changing landscape on display.

Enlisting Venezuelans in Modernity
The carefully orchestrated carnival parades were not the only public spectacles to put social bodies into the city. Military and civic processions also did the work of putting subjects onstage and imbuing space with what Tony Bennett (in relation to the modern museum) terms “a performative imperative in which the visitor, exercising in the intersections of the evolutionary time of progress and the evolutive time of discipline, is enlisted for the limitless project of modernity.”[13] If Venezuelans were “enlisted” into the project of modernity, the goal of getting them to march in step with the nation’s military leaders was taken to its most literal realization in the Semana de la Patria—the Week of the Fatherland, which ran annually from 1953 until 1957. Culminating on July 5 to mark Venezuela’s declaration of independence in 1811, the roster of activities tapped a deep sense of nationalism and progress. New public works were unveiled nationwide; hotels held gala dinners; theaters put on patriotic concerts and folklore festivals; the Church honored Venezuela’s patron saints, and Pérez Jiménez lit a flame at the foot of Liberator Simón Bolívar’s statue. After sporting competitions at the Ciudad Universitaria’s Olympic stadium, new cohorts of officers were graduated, and military arsenal, soldiers and citizens paraded together along the Paseo de Los Próceres, part of the Sistema de la Nacionalidad, a new urban complex of monuments, avenues and walkways designed by Luis Malaussena to link the Ciudad Universitaria to the Academia Militar, and thus uniting civic and military spheres (Fig. 6). In the “main event” of this military spectacle, which received wide-ranging media coverage, sirens brought the city to a standstill as people turned out the lights at home and stopped their cars in the streets to watch the lightshow of firepower staged in simulations of nighttime bomb raids, which, as state propaganda put it, delivered a pragmatic lesson in citizen self-defense.

/
Fig. 6. Parade at the Paseo de los Próceres, Caracas, during the Semana de la Patria. Photo: Archivo Fotografía Urbana

In general, the Semana de la Patria was cast in a similar mold to other spectacles that shaped public life and legitimized military rule—but with one difference. While the carnival parades were voluntary, the Semana mandated that Venezuelans participate in the civic-military parades that displayed adherence to the regime. In 1953, more than 120,000 people from public and educational institutions nationwide, as well as private companies with ties to the government, were assembled into uniformed groups to march in formation through the city to the drumming of school bands. At the crowd-filled Olympic stadium at Villanueva’s campus, the dictator and his entire cabinet watched as thousands of young men in identical white sports kits paraded past the grandstand making a fascist salute, before presenting mass displays of synchronized gymnastics and leaping through rings of fire. Putting subjects on stage in these different ways composed live tableaux of support for military rule, literally mobilizing patriotic sentiment through parades and displays. “The Fatherland is not just material progress. Some light, true light, must be placed in humanity’s route so people march decidedly toward their own truth”, went the official script.[14] Hence, disciplina recreativa (recreational discipline) and scripted parades were to lead Venezuelans to enlightenment, no less.

Through this act of conscription that acted out an official script, bodily movements were marshaled into intricate choreographies of saluting, marching, twirling and jumping, which harnessed the microgestural terrain associated with individuals’ affective and tactile experiences of space.[15] Quite to the contrary of leisurely strolling, marching shuns sensorial improvisation and physical autonomy, replacing them instead with collective coordination and discipline—the articulation of a human mass that leaves little room for unpredictable movements or meanderings. Just as Lefebvre notes that “Gestural systems embody ideology and bind it to practice”, so the patriotic parades of the Semana de la Patria performed the ruling ideology of military-led modernity. They created a gestural idiom to be repeated year on year, enlisting Venezuelans to transform their bodies through choreographed experiences of space that enshrined discipline and order, and that would perform Venezuela’s collective advancement toward the horizon of progress. The government-endorsed carnival queens, the parading civil servants, the marching youth of Venezuela—this troupe of normalized characters served the dictatorship as a cast of honorific role models of social improvement whose beauty, order, vigor, and discipline were made the center of attention.

The stage-managed spectacles of the 1950s certainly encouraged mass gatherings and public assembly in the changing landscape of the city, creating opportunities to explore at the visible (and concrete) transformations that modern urban design was bringing to Caracas. Yet, without democracy such events were also governed by the militarized crowd control that had curbed civic freedoms since the coup of 1948. It is telling that the accent placed on enlisting Venezuelans to perform progress emerged alongside the shift from dictablanda to dictadura hastened by Pérez Jiménez’s entrenchment in power. For all the claims that the Nuevo Ideal Nacional transcended politics and responded only to the good of the nation, the military-led rupture of democracy fostered a new political order that was characterized by the increased regulation of the properties of space and time, of what could be seen and said, and of who could see and speak, to adapt Jacques Rancière’s terms.[16] This redistribution of political roles—and with it the restructuring of narratives and imaginaries linked to national life—hinged on the principle that democracy was a hindrance to rapid modernization. As we look back at the modern past from the vantage of hindsight, it is important to remember the political conditions that shaped the experience of modernity, for they are not mere contingencies or caveats. As the logic of spectacle seeped into the texture of everyday life, forward-looking aesthetics and cutting-edge architecture were leveraged to reinforce one fundamental claim: that modern ends justified dictatorial means. This was the “real world” that Cabrujas remembered; one built in reinforced concrete, but with its foundations cast in military spectacle.


[1] Milagros Socorro, Catia, tres voces (Caracas: Fundarte, 1994), 60. Socorro paraphrased the interview with Cabrujas, attributing to him the reflection: “Pensábamos que era de cajón que Pérez Jiménez hiciera lo que hacía, que no faltaba más, pero que alguien podía hacer mejor . . . a la larga descubrimos que no, que nadie lo hizo mejor—es casi blasfemo para mí mismo decirlo, pero es la verdad, o siento que es la verdad.”

 

[2]Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 108.

 

[3] The campus was inaugurated on March 2, 1954, and the “Caracas Declaration of Solidarity” was signed on March, 28. The resolution was not the priority of the Latin American countries, whose delegates focused on economic issues and trade agreements such as high price guarantees for raw material exports. Nevertheless, the United States managed to lobby the vote, which passed seventeen to one, with abstentions from Argentina and Mexico.

 

[4] “Top Secret Eyes Only” documents reveal the U.S. agenda; see “Memorandum of Discussion at the 189th Meeting of the National Security Council on Thursday, March 18, 1954,” in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1952–1954, Vol. 4, The American Republics, ed. N. Stephen Kane and William F. Sanford Jr. (Washington, DC: Department of State, 1983), 304–6.

 

[5] José Agustín Catalá, Pérez Jiménez: El dictador que en 40 años olvidó sus crímenes (Caracas: Ediciones Centauro, 1997) 25. On the shift from dictablanda (soft dictatorship) and dictadura (hard dictatorship), see Ocarina Castillo, Los años del buldózer:  Ideología y política 1948-1958 (Caracas: Tropykos, 1990).

 

[6] “Adhesion,” Time, December 16, 1957. The quote comes from a speech Pérez Jiménez gave before the plebiscite of 1957 in which free elections were replaced by a yes/no vote to ratify his rule.

 

[7] Fernando Coronil, The Magical State: Nature, Money and Modernity in Venezuela (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 167.

 

[8] Augusto Márquez Cañizales, “La ciudad cambia,” El Nacional, November 1, 1953, 4.

 

[9] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Blackwell, 2005), 361–62. On the distinctions between space and place, see Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

 

[10] “Carnavales de Caracas,” Revista del Banco Obrero 1.1 (May, 1954)

 

[11] “El Carnaval de Caracas,” in Servicio Informativo Venezolano, Venezuela bajo el Nuevo Ideal Nacional (Caracas: Imprenta Nacional, 1955), n.p.

 

[12] “Orden para los desfiles de carrozas durante los días 27 y 28 de febrero y 1 y 2 de marzo,” El Nacional, February 26, 1954, 32.

 

[13] Tony Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1994), 214.

 

[14] “Semana de la Patria,” Revista del Banco Obrero 1.3 (July, 1954): 10.

 

[15] Lefebvre, Production of Space, 212–18.

 

[16] Jacques Rancière, “The Distribution of the Sensible: Politics and Aesthetics,” in The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

Repoliticizing Modernity: Military Spectacles in Venezuela