Photo: Collection Archivo Histórico de Miraflores
The “New Caracas,” or the Spectacle of Modernity in 1950s Venezuela.
Skyscrapers, space-age hotels, record-beating motorways, cutting edge hospitals, opulent social clubs, designer shops. From the end of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, the military government inscribed a visual shorthand of modernity onto Caracas, carving away at the valley with what was officially termed the “axe of progress.”
This conscientious effort to construct modernity through the transformation of the urban landscape posited Caracas as a privileged signifier as it came out of the secondary position it had been relegated to during the 1908-1935 rule of Juan Vicente Gómez. During the 1950s Caracas’ identity was transmuted as undesirable ways of life stigmatised with poverty or “backwardness” were literally bulldozed aside to pave the path to the future. The city, thus, became a promise. No longer simply a dynamic reflection of rooted ways of life and social networks, Caracas was positioned as the flagship of a set of ambitious national projects, such as the Plan Nacional de Vivienda, that came under the banner of the Nuevo Ideal Nacional.
It is not only current tendencies in Latin American cultural studies and the economically polarised realities of the postmodern world that call for a reappraisal of the optimistic project of modernity. In Venezuela certain modern landmarks built in the period of military dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez continue to be strategically deployed in the polarised discourses of the current political debate. We can diagnose here a persistent faith in the symbiosis of place and identity which suggests that an essentialist discourse of identity constructed through civic spaces continues to represent solid symbolic capital in the bid to signify Venezuela.
The conflict surrounding the relationship of signifier-signified of certain modern constructions and their position in a narrative of development signals an ongoing relationship between the urban imaginary and anxiety about the country’s future. While some of modernity’s symbolic spaces are renovated, others fall to pieces in a repositioning of the affective landscape within a discourse of an optimistic revolutionary future. The successful legacy of the discourse surrounding the visual icons of Venezuela’s “modernity” are also suggestive of the aggression with which Pérez Jiménez’s government disseminated their message of progress and modernity.
This study will take an interdisciplinary approach to this period of urban and cultural change to answer the question: In what manner and with what mechanisms was the so-called “New Caracas” constructed? Using an array of primary materials I will show how the government doctrine of the Nuevo Ideal Nacional managed to permeate numerous levels of cultural production which allowed for it to be broadcast at home and abroad by the creation of a powerful ideological apparatus which took in mass visual and print media. Although the focus will mainly be on Caracas, some materials require the analysis to be extended to encompass the re-plotting of the national landscape beyond the capital.
I will consider how national and urban space was redefined with the support of official publications, photographic archives and documentaries which bear testimony to the visual practices employed to create a spectacle of modernity. I will also discuss how the drama of modernity was played out through carnivals and national exhibitions, which used the city as a mirror-image modern backdrop to present progressive urban projects. I will analyse the concept of constructing modernity in miniature forms to create ideal modern landscapes through the selection, compilation and repetition of certain images which were disseminated in official publications. Furthermore, I will argue that these sought to repress a visual experience of the burgeoning city’s undesirable underbelly by substituting it with compensatory representational microcosms of modernity.
Additionally, I will consider how different social and economic groups collaborated in producing cultural products designed to repeat the government’s triumphalist claims of the dawn of the “new Venezuela.” I will demonstrate how novels, documentaries and advertising by individuals or companies, whose relationships with the government were either contractual or tangential, functioned as echoes of the official discourse. By employing discursive strategies which replicated the official line either word-for-word or image-for-image or through more subtle means, these agents contributed to the successful construction of an idea of modernity in Venezuela that persists even now.