Back in 1998, two of the most celebrated musicians in the Spanish-speaking scene, Joaquín Sabina and Fito Páez, got together to record an unlikely, uncharacteristic, and ultimately divisive album called Salt and Pepper. Sabina, a onetime exile of Franco’s dictatorship in Spain, composed a love song to Madrid, his adopted home; Páez, the poster child of the protest rock movement in Argentina in the 1980s, responded with a disenchanted melody punctuated by the chorus “Buenos Aires, tough times to write you a song.” Those very words came to mind when I thought of writing a piece about Caracas on the 450th anniversary of its founding, except they fall short, way short, of the trepidation with which I compose the following lines, cherry picking from a swarm of calamities to build an image that might be meaningful, or insightful, or at least evocative of something more than horror.
Along with the rest of Argentina, Buenos Aires in the late 1990s was spiralling into a cycle of mismanagement that quickly sent the country into a prolonged period of poverty and misery. Venezuela, on the opposite end of the vast South American continent, was undergoing a transformation that would ultimately have similar effects on the whole fabric of the nation, though things took substantially longer to degenerate. I have never been to Buenos Aires, and in any case establishing a hierarchy of pain is neither easy nor helpful, but if 1998 was not the right time to sing the praises of Buenos Aires, celebrating anything in Caracas in 2017, even something as symbolic as this anniversary, is simply out of order.
Like every other modern metropolis, Caracas is and isn’t as old as the history books say it is. Proud of the key role it played in the war of independence, which triggered a domino effect across the northern provinces and eventually signalled the end of Spanish rule across the continent, Caracas does have a faint connection to its colonial past. It’s mostly lip service – parish names dating back several centuries, no longer denoting onetime plantations but commercial and residential zones instead – though certain areas near the historic centre, La Pastora, Altagracia, the triangle between the cathedral, the national pantheon and congress, retain the traditional look of colonial architecture as a throwback to the 18th century.
The oldest building in the city, the cathedral, was first built in the 1600s but its present incarnation, with its tall belfry, its ostentatious volutes, and its monumental dimensions dates from 1771. That, roughly, is as far back as memory goes in Venezuela, a country obsessed with independence but oblivious of the colony. Simón Bolívar’s birthplace, just a few blocks away from the cathedral, is ostensibly from the 1600s, though in reality it’s a reconstruction from the early 20th century; the old Government House, La Casa Amarilla, also from the late 1600s, was totally wrecked by the 1812 earthquake and only brought back to life in 1874 by orders of President Guzmán Blanco; indeed, Guzmán Blanco’s plan of beautification of Caracas accounts for a large number of the city’s most emblematic structures, from the Casa Amarilla to Capitolio, the distinctive building that houses the country’s congress.
In all fairness, if Caracas is obsessed with the war of independence, it’s not without reason: not only did the long conflict displace much of its population and affect all of its infrastructure; to add insult to injury, an absolutely devastating earthquake rocked the city in 1812, right in the thick of its resistance against royalist forces, and brought the nascent republic to its knees. Legend has it that the clock of the cathedral, the only public clock in the city at the time, stopped at the exact time when the earth began to tremble, 4:37 pm, and was left unrepaired by the triumphant royalist forces as a reminder to the people that God had willed the revolt to fail.
Yet, while Caracas has always been intimate with calamity, little remains in the city to point to earlier encounters with disaster. Nothing recalls the fierce clashes between the first Spanish settlers under the command of Captain Diego de Losada and the indigenous people, led by the cacique Tamanaco, before he was captured in 1573, six years after the establishment of the city, and fed to the dogs of the Spanish contingent; nothing in Caracas points to the horror spread among the local population by the English raid of 1595, led by Amyas Preston, which saw a major portion of the city consumed by arson; indeed few, very few, recall the legend that harks back to the earthquake of June 11, 1641, the so-called Earthquake of Saint Barnabas, which earned its name after a madman or a clairvoyant, depending on which version you credit, predicted the total destruction of the city on the feast day – June 11, of course – of the aforementioned saint.
There is more, of course there is more, but why should we remember if even Caracas doesn’t care. Nor should this be a source of surprise or disappointment. After all, cities are meant to change. Which calls to my mind, not so much flexible as erratic these days, the beautiful poem that Eugenio Montejo, Venezuela’s most accomplished poet, dedicated to his city in 1978: “The buildings are so high / nothing can be seen now of my childhood / I’ve lost my patio with its lazy clouds… I’ve lost my name, and the dream of my home.”
Perhaps the best way to explore a city is precisely through literature. Cities are not, after all, archaeological sites, they are not historical records; they are living entities, like the people that conform them.
Like any book, Caracas is full of symbols, from the lion in its coat of arms, a direct reference to the city’s original name, Santiago de León (lion in Spanish) de Caracas, to the statue of the exuberant María Lionza, the deity of fertility in local santería rituals, riding tall over her tapir by the main artery into the city, to the belt of slums surrounding the capital, landlocked by poverty.
But reading Caracas is a complex and extremely dangerous exercise, a task only to be undertaken with the guidance of an expert, for the signs it posts aren’t always to be trusted. In fact, sometimes they aren’t even to be seen. That is one way Caracas has chosen to track its recent history: through absence. Like Paris, in some sense (Caracas has always been fond of comparisons like that, Paris, New York – it has always fashioned itself on foreign models, always failed to recognize its tropical vein), whose most emblematic building, La Bastille, no longer exists.
The equivalent in Caracas is La Rotunda, the most notorious prison in the country, the embodiment, really, of the abuse of power that characterized the longest dictatorship the country has ever endured, and it has endured many: that of Juan Vicente Gómez. The storming of La Rotunda, though, unlike that of La Bastille, only took place once Gómez had died, ill and calm, in his home in the neighbouring city of Maracay in 1935.
Venezuelans, however, had internalized the lesson, for by the time the next dictator, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, tried to perpetuate himself in power, the people took to the streets en masse and forced him out of the country. The symbol of Pérez Jiménez’s implacable rule was not so much a prison (though there was that too, La Modelo, demolished in 1983), but his secret police, the Seguridad Nacional, which sadly foreshadowed with its thuggish behaviour that of today’s Guardia Nacional – the national guard, ironically supposed to safeguard the rights of the people.
Indeed if one thing isn’t scarce in Caracas, now as ever, it’s irony – sometimes of the worst, most cruel kind. I’ve always found it deeply ironic, for instance, that the largest social housing complex in the city was renamed after the date – January 23 – of the overthrow of Pérez Jiménez, the very man who commissioned its construction. Especially since a development that was meant to provide for a better standard of living to people of low income has succeeded in doing little other than further alienate them.
Irony can quickly descend into sadness too, as pointed out by Doménico Chiappe, one of many Venezuelan writers in exile, in his essay “The Airport as a Metaphor.” In a perfect example of the sort of splurge that defined the 1970s in Venezuela, the once proud airport of Caracas (which is actually in the coastal town of La Guaira) had its floors tiled in kinetic art patterns by the renowned Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diez as a means to place art at the service of the population. Today, the floor of the airport reveals the effects of years of neglect, and the wear and tear brought about by the thousands upon thousands who for months have crowded every terminal in a bid to abandon the country before the international airlines suspend their flights – a metaphor in deed.
Caracas, a city of violence: more than 500 people murdered in the capital in January this year alone. Caracas, a city in fire: as I write these lines, on the evening of Wednesday July 26, less than 24 hours after the 450th birthday of my hometown, I’m forced to flick the screen back to Twitter every few minutes to keep up with the situation developing in La Vega, in Coche, in Montalbán, on the western portion of the city, in Palo Verde, to the east, in La Candelaria, not far from the centre, from Bolívar’s birthplace, from 450 years of history.
In Caracas today, no one is celebrating, not even the government. In its insatiable appetite for totalitarian control, Chavez’s revolution deployed an all-embracing strategy of appropriation that hinged on renaming and sometimes even reassessing every aspect of public life. It was often just a symbolic gesture, devoid of any substance, but it affected everybody, entity and every individual in a country that even saw its official name and time zone altered. Caracas was swept by this phenomenon over 10 years ago, when a fiery controversy arose as to the “real” date of foundation of the city.
An upshot of that controversy, albeit likely an unintentional one, given the current state of things, is that the contrast between the 450th anniversary of the founding of Caracas and the 400th anniversary 50 years ago could not be more marked. Back in 1967, when Venezuela was still at the threshold of its great period of bonanza, a major celebration was planned, encompassing the production of commemorative coins, stamps and books, and a program of activities that would reach its climax with the launching of the first Rómulo Gallegos Literary Prize, the most lucrative (and in time respected) award of its kind on the continent. It was a lavish occasion, cut short by the arrival of a veritable cataclysm: on July 29, 1967, yet another earthquake wreaked havoc in the burgeoning east end of the city, causing the collapse of several buildings, claiming over 200 lives and dampening the spirit of an entire nation.
Caracas seems to dislike birthdays; and at that age, who can blame her? There’s something tragic about Caracas, something sinister. But there’s also something uncanny about her, something immutable. Amid so much constant change, Caracas, entrenched in the steep valley of the coastal mountain range, confronts you with the power of nature – and with its beauty. There is something irresistible about Caracas, a city that seduces you despite your deliberate efforts not to be seduced. There’s something deeply feminine about Caracas, something that cries out to be celebrated (despite its historical reticence) even in these tough times. There is no room for fanfare in Venezuela at the moment, but even in these hours of uncertainty, of anxiety, this much must be granted: there is something special about Caracas, something indomitable.