Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

VENEZUELA: Wound Still Gaping 20 Years after ‘Caracazo’

Humberto Márquez

CARACAS, Feb 27 2009 (IPS) - As José Luis reached the bus stop, he saw a crowd of furious local residents smashing shop fronts, cars and telephone booths. Without giving it much thought, he threw himself into the mob that broke into a small supermarket, triggering the worst social uprising and biggest massacre in the last 100 years in Venezuela.

It was the morning of Monday, Feb. 27, 1989 in Guarenas, a dormitory city 30 km east of Caracas, where people enraged by a sudden hike in bus fares went beyond simply protesting in the streets and began to riot and loot stores.

“I was 17. I joined in, to be part of the chaos and the rage of people against everyone who was speculating,” recalled José Luis, who is now an established mechanic.

“But people then began to loot when they realised that provisions were going to be scarce, and that the police would just take whatever we didn’t carry off,” he told IPS.

The rioting spread from Guarenas and other outlying districts to the centre of Caracas, as it overlapped with demonstrations by students and workers. The heavy television coverage of the protests that Monday morning acted as a call for disgruntled Venezuelans to take to the streets.

The rioting and subsequent crackdown lasted a week. The clampdown on the protesters and looters was harsh after Tuesday the 28th, as the military was called out on the streets in several major cities and a curfew was set – measures that had not been used in Venezuela in several generations.

The end result: hundreds of people killed, around 2,000 injured and more than 150 million dollars in damages to shops and businesses.

The “Caracazo”, the name given to the week of violence, is seen as a turning point in Venezuelan society, which had been caught up in an illusion of social harmony, according to sociologists and other analysts.

The bloody incident marked the start of a shift in the political scene, which saw the waning of the influence of the country’s traditional parties and trade unions.

“It was the biggest 20th century massacre in Venezuela. No other popular movement has led to so many deaths,” sociologist Tulio Hernández told IPS.

The Committee of Families of the Victims (COFAVIC) that emerged after the Caracazo has documented more than 500 people killed in the greater Caracas area.

Social and political scientists describe the Caracazo as an eruption of rage after more than a decade of deteriorating living conditions in Venezuela.

The last straw was an abrupt rise in bus fares, adopted in the wake of an increase in gas prices announced just after President Carlos Andrés Pérez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993) took office on Feb. 2, 1989.

Unable to afford the new bus fares and facing serious difficulties in making it to their jobs in the second half of the month, commuters from outlying areas around Caracas were the first to erupt in anger, followed by thousands of people in slum neighbourhoods, vandals, and even police officers themselves.

Pérez, a social democrat, had raised gasoline prices as part of a broad package of structural adjustment measures agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

His long-time rival, two times president Rafael Caldera (1969-1974 and 1994-1999), a Christian democrat, stated in 1992 that “the poor smashed the glass front of the IMF building with rocks. Hungry people cannot be asked to defend democracy.”

With the police and National Guard unable to restore order, Pérez called out the army on the night of Monday, Feb. 27, and the troops brutally cracked down on the rioters, who were acting without clear objectives or political leadership of any kind.

It is true as well, as journalists witnessed at the time, that the army also attempted on a number of occasions to at least impose order among the chaos, having looters stand in organised lines that filed in and out of supermarkets and stores, and ensuring that they only took food and did not cause damages.

“It was the first breakdown of the institutional pact under which democracy had functioned since 1958, a kind of collective decision to break with the prevailing state of law. But it was also a great national failure, a fight without winners, which remains a huge open wound,” said Hernández.

“Justice and truth are still lacking,” lawyer Liliana Ortega, the founder of COFAVIC, told IPS. “Despite a sentence against the Venezuelan state by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, no one responsible for the excesses by the security forces has ever been put in jail.”

In November 1999, after current President Hugo Chávez took office, the Venezuelan state acknowledged its responsibility and paid reparations to the families of the 66 victims in the cases of killings and disappearances at the hands of the security forces that were studied by the Inter-American Court.

But the prosecutions against those who were allegedly responsible for the bloody repression are still in the “investigation” phase.

“Nor have the families of people who were shot and buried in common graves obtained identification of their remains, and their bodies have not been given back to us for proper burial,” COFAVIC activist Maritza Romero told IPS.

Her 24-year-old brother, Israel Romero, who worked in the construction industry and was active in sports, left home on the morning of Mar. 1, 1989 to use a public telephone in Baruta, southeast of Caracas. But he was shot by one of the metropolitan police and National Guard patrols as they drove by.

“We took him to the hospital, and he lived for a few hours after the operation, but died that night,” said Romero. “Another of my brothers identified his body in a pile of corpses, but the guards did not hand it over, arguing that the curfew was already in force. The next day, when we came back, they said they had thrown his body into a common grave.”

Common graves were opened in the municipal cemetery of Caracas, where COFAVIC, with the support of religious and human rights groups, recovered more than 60 bodies, which it added to its list of 466 people killed in the Caracazo.

“It was a good thing that the state admitted its guilt, and backed that up by paying compensation. But the truth must be uncovered by a serious investigation, those responsible must be brought to justice, and the remains of our loved ones should be handed over to us, so we can bury them and close this painful chapter,” said Romero, wiping away a tear.

“The Caracazo is still an open wound,” said Ortega, who also complained about the impunity that surrounds the murders of young people, a daily occurrence in Caracas, one of the most violent cities in the world.

According to human rights organisations, less than five out of 100 homicides lead to a conviction and sentence.

To help overcome that problem, Ortega proposed Thursday that the government establish and head up a broad “Coalition for Truth and Justice”, charged with clarifying high-profile killings by the security forces committed over the past two decades.

She cited the Caracazo; the case of El Amparo, where 14 fishermen were killed on the border with Colombia in 1988, falsely accused of being Colombian guerrillas; the killings of at least 150 inmates in prisons around the country; and the supposed disappearance of people at the hands of the secret police during the landslides in Vargas on the Caribbean coast near the capital, in 1999.

“It should be a broad, inclusive coalition, make up of people from the state and from organisations that have defended human rights for decades, that would build on the experience of truth and reconciliation commissions set up by other democratic countries in Latin America and allow Venezuelans to improve our own democracy by making good on this debt to truth and justice for our people,” said Ortega.

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