Venezuela: Remembering the Caracazo rebellion against neoliberalism


On February 27, 1989, the poorest Venezuelans took over the streets in protest against price rises.

Thousands of Venezuelans took the streets in February 1989 in a wave of protests that highlighted the right-wing misrule in the South American country. The protests came to be known as the Caracazo — an uprising that began in the capital Caracas — and ultimately shaped the country's future.

On February 27, the poorest Venezuelans living in the barrios, many in the mountains surrounding Caracas filled with shanty towns, took over the streets in what began as a protest against a new hike on public transport prices. It became a nationwide movement.

As the police began repressing the demonstrations, a growing number of people joined the protests. Events soon turned violent; the police opened fire after some protesters began targeting shops and supermarkets in a desperate attempt to get food.

Violence continued throughout the following week. Official figures place the death toll at just under 300, but other estimates indicate up to 3,000 were gunned down in the wave of protest.

Social explosion

A hike in public transport prices may have sparked the Caracazo, but the underlying crisis had begun much earlier.

Economic decline meant that from 1977, Venezuelans' incomes fell by a third over a 25-year period. It was only reversed after a military coup against elected the left-wing government of Hugo Chavez was defeated by a popular uprising in 2002, which led to a period of restored growth.

Declining oil prices in the early '80s provoked a series of crises. With the falling prices, Venezuela began accumulating an increasingly unbearable foreign debt.

President Jaime Lusinchi began his term (1984-1989) by following an adjustment plan agreed to with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This plan led to a disastrous situation; Venezuela's currency devalued almost 100% in 1986 alone.

The poorest people bore the brunt of the economic freefall. The situation was so critical that people in Caracas' slums would eat dog food to sustain themselves. Salaries fell and poverty rose.

During this period, Venezuela was forced to allocate 50% of all its export earnings to the IMF to pay its debt, with the majority of people losing out.

Venezuela's old oligarchic order became so discredited by the '80s, that it began to disintegrate. Political crises broke out as various governments were elected, each promising alternatives to the free-market policies that were creating such deep suffering among the people.

As each government reneged on these promises, demand for a meaningful change grew.

Carlos Andres Perez was elected president in 1989 on the back of a campaign promising to oppose further economic liberalisation. But within weeks of being elected, “CAP” had done an about-turn and called in the IMF for a new reform package.

On February 15, Perez announced a new set of measures — capitulating to IMF demands — that directly punished the population. Perez liberalised all prices except for the basic staples, raised oil prices, privatised state-owned companies, eliminated import taxes and created a free market in interest rates.

By the time of the Caracazo, prices of oil, electricity, telecommunications and water had risen by 100%. The decree that sparked the Caracazo, increased public transport 30% overnight.

It was the straw that broke the camel's back. Anger exploded, with the Caracazo becoming a mass uprising of tens of thousands of people across the country.

As waves of protest swept Venezuela, the president declared a state of emergency, suspending many constitutional rights. The government sent the army to large cities to take control of the situation.

Forced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, tortures, raids and other police abuses happened throughout the week.

Blaming the victims

The official narrative presented the Caracazo as an anomaly; a problem the government was able to swiftly control. The killings were justified by portraying the victims as thugs, criminals or politically-motivated troublemakers.

However, eyewitnesses to the events that day reject this official version of events.

Henry Gamboa, a community leader who survived the Caracazo, explained in the book Venezuela Speaks: “The people took to the streets, and what the political police — the DISIP — did was repress social groups all over Caracas. They locked us up for 16 days in jail cells.”

Torture was used indiscriminately. Father Matias Comunas, a priest in the Petare neighbourhood, one of Caracas' poorest, said in the same book: “A young man was tied to a window with handcuffs by one of the Metropolitan policemen … and with a lighter the police man began setting the young man's arm on fire. The kid fainted in pain.”

It is now known that, contrary to official claims at the time, the DISIP launched a breathtaking full-scale offensive against the protests.

Gidilfredo Solzano, a resident in the 23 de Enero neighbourhood — one of Caracas' biggest barrios — said in Venezuela Speaks: “I remember that the police went up there above Apartment Block 22, and shoved the bodies in plastic bags, threw them below, picked them up with a truck and bam, that was that.

“And the same thing happened with the bodies on the road. They put them in plastic bags and threw them in a truck.”

It was not until 2006 that Chavez publicly recognised the government's role in the massacre and provided compensation to the victims.

Death of the old order

Despite the role played by the IMF, the architecture of the Venezuelan economy was an ideological project crafted by two parties: the Christian Democratic Party (Copei) and Democratic Action (AD).

Copei and AD signed the so-called Punto Fijo pact in 1958, after the fall of dictator Marco Perez Jimenez, in which they, along with the Democratic Republican Union (URD), agreed to build coalition governments to preserve democracy and stability.

By co-governing throughout the modern history of Venezuela, both AD and Copei crystallised and deepened an economic model that was highly dependent on oil revenues and foreign debt. Politically, the alliance governed through authoritarianism and exclusion.

Left-wing parties were systematically excluded from the pact, including the Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) that had led the battle against Perez Jimenez.

The Caracazo represented the end for this system. Modern Venezuelan history can be traced to this moment. Jose Vicente Rangel, a prominent journalist and later vice-president under Chavez, described it as the moment “Venezuelan history split into two”.

In his biography of Chavez, Richard Gott highlights how deeply the Caracazo buried into various sectors of society as people rejected the government and its treatment of the people.

In one telling anecdote, an ally of Chavez in the military stopped his soldiers shooting at protesters, asking each one where they came from, if any were from areas where there were country clubs. When people answered “no”, soldiers were told that the people protesting were their brothers and sisters from the same barrios — and they should hold fire.

As many analysts have suggested, the Caracazo was the moment that Venezuela's poor — after years of inequality and exclusion — represented a serious political force which, with the appropriate leadership, could threaten the established order.

It was against this backdrop of crisis in state legitimacy, with the Caracazo massacres still sharply in mind, that a military rebellion, led by Chavez, erupted in 1992, which was largely popular among Venezuela's poor. The then-colonel was seen as a brave soldier fighting a corrupt, failed, decades-old system.

Social movements continued to gain prominence as the crisis continued to bite. By the mid-90s, the same policies people had rejected during the Caracazo led to poverty peaking at more than 60%.

This eventually culminated in Chavez, who came from outside the corrupt, stagnant established parties, sweeping into office in 1998 with 57% of the vote and a mission to transform the country.

A year after the Caracazo, several communication experts analysed the media coverage. The scholars found interesting patterns in the way the media depicted the violence and death.

Using constant references to “the poor” as the key protagonists of the incidents, and labelling the IMF conditions as the catalysts, some media outlets avoided blaming the government. Others pointed at the private owners of the public transport system.

No news outlets considered what happened to be a result of the political system as a whole, or as a symptom of years of failed policies that had culminated in the Caracazo.

This stands in stark contrast with today's coverage of Venezuela, where every problem seems to be blamed on socialism and the policies implemented since Chavez came to power.

Most of the media focused on presenting the riots and violence as spontaneous outbursts, which reinforced the apparent irrationality and class-oriented character of the protests. The disappearances, killings and other events that followed the Caracazo were largely under-reported.

Opposition then and now

Some of the current figures heading Venezuela's opposition have ties to the traditional parties dominant during the Caracazo — a fact often downplayed by national and international media.

Perhaps more importantly, the policies put forward by Venezuela's right wing today draw on those that caused the Caracazo.

Last year, key figures in Venezuela's right-wing opposition signed and distributed a communique encouraging a coup plot that was thwarted by Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro. The coup, in all likelihood, would have involved a widespread crackdown on civil liberties and violence like during the Caracazo and the short-lived 2002 coup.

This so-called National Accord for the Transition aimed to return Venezuela's oil industry to its pre-Chavez state, when it served international oil companies rather than Venezuelans.

It also called for a “review” of the state ownership of companies nationalised under the Chavez-led Bolivarian Revolution, and to remove “controls that stifle the economy”. The aim was to take the country back to its free-market past that caused so much suffering — of which the Caracazo is but one example.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]