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by GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER
Those seeking the origins of the global rebellion against neoliberalism will need to look further back than Seattle 1998 (U.S.-centric activists are notorious for claiming that the movement began in Seattle), and before London’s J18 protests earlier the same year. We would need to look before even the public emergence of the Zapatista movement on January 1st 1994. Before all these events, there was the Caracazo. On this, the 18th anniversary of this epic struggle, it is worth looking back at this singularly important but oft-overlooked event which has been described by Fernando Coronil as «the largest and most violently repressed revolt against austerity measures in Latin American history.»
Carlos Andrés Pérez was inaugurated on February 2nd 1989 for his second (but non-consecutive) term, after a markedly anti-neoliberal campaign during the course of which he had demonized the IMF as a «bomb that only kills people.» In what has since become a notorious example of «bait-and-switch» reform, Pérez proceeded to implement the recently-formulated Washington Consensus to the letter. The precipitous nature of this about-face is evident from the fact that Pérez’s neoliberal economic «packet» (the «paquetazo» as it is called) was announced scarcely two weeks after the inaugural speech which had attacked international lending institutions and preached debtor-nation solidarity. The country must prepare itself, Pérez warned in this later speech on February 16th, for a «Great Turnaround.»
While Venezuelan elites had been toying with neoliberalism for several years, and president Jaime Lusinchi had even enacted a heterodox neoliberal package in 1984, Pérez’s package was notable for its orthodoxy. In a Letter of Intention signed with the IMF on February 28th, while most large Venezuelan cities were in the throes of generalized rioting and looting, the basic premises of the Pérez plan were laid out as follows: government spending and salaries were to be restricted, exchange rates and interest rates were to be deregulated (thereby eliminating what were essentially interest rate subsidies for farmers), price controls were to be relaxed, subsidies were to be reduced, sales tax was to be introduced, prices of state-provided goods and services (including petroleum) were to be liberalized, tariffs were to be eliminated and imports liberalized, and in general, foreign transactions in Venezuela were to be facilitated.
In brief, this plan meant a potent cocktail of stagnating incomes in the face of skyrocketing prices and monetary devaluation. As might be expected, poverty reached a peak in 1989, claiming 44% of households (a figure which had doubled in absolute terms during the course of five years), with 20% of the population in extreme poverty. While rising prices had been a source of anxiety at least since the 1983 devaluation of the bolivar still remembered to this day as «Black Friday,» it was the common (and inarguably correct) perception that Venezuelans have a common right to what lies under their soil that fanned the angry flames of revolt early in the morning of February 27th.
February 27th 1989 was a Monday, and over the weekend Pérez’s liberalization of petroleum prices had kicked in, the first stage of which was an immediate 100% increase in the price of consumer gasoline. While the government had attempted to force small transporters to absorb the majority of the increase, convincing the National Transport Federation to pass on only 30% of the increase to passengers, many smaller federations and individuals refused to respect this agreement. Since their gas costs had doubled overnight, one can hardly blame them.
Protests kicked off during the early commute of informal workers into Caracas. Upon discovering that fares had doubled, many refused to pay. Resistance, rioting, and the burning of buses was reported from a number of suburbs and in cities across the country well before 6am. Demonstrations in the eastern suburb of Guarenas (where looting was reported as early as 7:30am), sparked off broader resistance in the region. By 6am, students had occupied Nuevo Circo station in Caracas, at the other end of the Guarenas-Caracas line, and were publicly denouncing the drivers.
Joined by informal workers, the crowd at Nuevo Circo moved north onto Avenida Bolívar, building barricades to block traffic on this major artery. By noon, blockades had spread eastward to Plaza Venezuela and the Central University, southward to the Francisco Fajardo highway, and westward to Avenida Fuerzas Armadas. Revolutionary ferment united students, informal workers, and hardened revolutionaries, and the initial anger at increased transport prices (an anger directed predominantly at individual drivers) was successfully generalized to encompass the entire neoliberal economic package (thereby directing anger directly at the president).
The structure of the informal economy provided more than the constituents of the rebellion: it provided the means of coordination and communication as well, with motorcycle taxis zipping back and forth across the city, drawing the spontaneous rebellion into a broader coordinated picture which more closely resembles what we would consider a revolutionary situation.
Meanwhile, a similar pattern was appearing spontaneously in every major Venezuelan city: protests emerged early in the morning in San Cristóbal, Barquisimeto, Maracay, Barcelona, and Puerto la Cruz, and Mérida, and later in the afternoon in other major cities like Maracaibo and Valencia. Some have argued, and rightly so, that the common moniker «Caracazo» is misleading, concealing as it does the generalized and national nature of the rebellion.
Deaths were reported in Caracas as early as the afternoon of the 27th, as police opened fire on students near Central Park. As night fell, sacking and looting became widespread (often aided by the police), touching even the generally untouchable sectors of wealthy eastern Caracas, and more than 1,000 stores were burned in Caracas alone. While many were looting necessities (most video evidence shows people hauling away household products and food, especially large sides of beef) luxuries were not exempt, and as a result many barrios enjoyed a taste of the life so habitually denied, celebrating with fine food and imported whiskey and champagne.
The morning of February 28th saw a mixed picture: in some areas, the police fired indiscriminately with automatic weapons, while in others like the Antimano district of southwestern Caracas, police agreed to permit controlled looting. The government’s first attempt to control the rebellion was a spectacular failure: the minister of the interior appeared on live television calling for calm, only to faint on live television thereby forcing the suspension of the broadcast.
At 6pm, Pérez appeared on television himself, to announce the fateful decision to suspend constitutional guarantees and establish a state of siege. The simultaneous claim that the country was experiencing a situation of «complete normality» was hardly credible given the decision. This marked both a green light for government repression and the beginning of the end for the rebellion. A curfew was imposed, and those violating it were treated harshly.
Repression was worst in Caracas’ largest barrios: Catia in the west and Petare in the east. Police directed their attention to the former, and especially the neighborhood of 23 de Enero, as the organizational brain of the rebellion. Known organizers were dragged from their homes and either executed or «disappeared,» and when security forces met resistance from snipers, they opened fire on the apartment blocks themselves (the bulletholes are visible to this day). In Petare, the largest and most violent of Caracas’ slums, up to twenty were killed in a single incident, when on March 1st the army opened fire on the Mesuca stairway.
Much of the country was «pacified» within three days, while Caracas saw rioting for more than five days. The human toll of the rebellion has never been entirely clear, especially since the Pérez government obstructed any and all efforts to investigate the events. Subsequent government investigations set the number killed around 300, while the popular imaginary places it around 3,000. Rumors of mass killings led to the 1990 excavation of a mass grave in a sector of the public cemetery called, perhaps not coincidentally, «The New Plague.» There, 68 bodies in plastic bags were unearthed, and no one knows how many more deaths were concealed by government forces.
Birth of the MBR-200
Internationally, the democratic façade that had obscured Venezuelan reality for decades was shattered in a single blow. Among other leaders, George Bush Sr. and Spain’s Felipe González called Pérez directly to express their shock and dismay that such a dependable client state had evidently unraveled overnight. In a hopeless attempt to maintain the image of democratic exceptionality, leaders even attempted to blame the mass rebellion on a small number of extremists and even foreigners (read: Colombians).
Politically, the Caracazo represented the death knell of the old regime. Former Chavista vice president José Vicente Rangel put it clearly: «Venezuelan history split into two.» Juan Contreras, head of the revolutionary Simón Bolívar Coordinator, argues that it was the Caracazo in 1989 rather than the pair of coup attempts in 1992 (the first led by Chávez) that definitively destroyed the corrupt «partyocracy.» And the proof of this is the fact that those coups were the direct result of the 1989 rebellion, or as Contreras puts it, «Chávez didn’t create the movements, we created him.»
A clandestine revolutionary movement had formed within the armed forces years earlier, led by Hugo Chávez, Jesús Urdaneta, Raúl Isaías Baduel, and the late Felipe Antonio Acosta. 1982 to be precise, the 200th anniversary of the birth of the liberator, and hence the name MBR-200: Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement-200. During the next few years, the conspirators worked to recruit lower-level officials to their cause, but the MBR’s plans to support a coup were still in the works when the Caracazo caught them off-guard.
The polarizing effect of the rebellion and subsequent massacre was as powerful within the ranks of the military as in the general population. Young soldiers, largely drawn from the lower classes, were sent into the barrios to slaughter their own, and many refused to do fire. The importance of the Caracazo for the subsequent coup attempts is described by Chávez himself as follows: «without the Caracazo we wouldn’t have been able to do it, it was a death-blow for Pérez, more military officers refused to participate in the repression that took place during those days.» The Caracazo «reactivated» a waning MBR-200, sharpening the movement’s opposition to the prevailing political system and providing it with new recruits.
The Caracazo Remembered
While the history of the Caracazo may be neglected outside Venezuela, efforts to erase this mass popular rebellion have failed, and it remains etched in the memory of both its protagonists and the elites for whom the Caracazo reinforced a fear of the poor and marginalized masses. With the successful election of the Chavista government in 1998, this memory found its institutional basis, and while previous governments had attempted to erase the Caracazo or deny its significance, the Bolivarian Revolution has converted this rebellion into its own moment of birth.
Recently, the anniversary of the Caracazo was celebrated in a public session of the National Assembly held in El Valle, one of the large barrios in Caracas that had seen some of the harshest repressive measures. Speaking at the event, vice president Jorge Rodríguez, whose own father died at the hands of police torturers in 1976, argued that: «We still need to challenge impunity, indicating those responsible for the massacre that occurred in February and March of 1989 The memory [of the Caracazo] cannot die, and Venezuelans cannot allow the violations of human rights that have occurred throughout the period of the republic to be forgotten.» Toward this end, the government’s «defender of the people,» Germán Mundaraín, has emphasized the importance of constructing a massive monument in Caracas to honor those killed during the Caracazo.
Moreover, Mundaraín has opened proceedings to request the extradition of Carlos Andrés Pérez from Miami (where else?) to face charges over the executive’s participation in the massacre. While it will be difficult to punish those who participated in the massacre which ended the Caracazo, and it will be nearly impossible to extradite Pérez from the United States, this should suggest that the legacy of the Caracazo has been forgotten.
As Luis Britto García, radical poet and political writer (recently named to the presidential committee for constitutional reform) has long argued: «World War IV began in Venezuela. WWIII was the Cold War, which culminated in the fall of the Soviet Union and the apparent triumph of neoliberalism. World War IV began in Venezuela on February 27th 1989, with the first rebellion by an entire nation against a neoliberal package. As a result, we have discovered that a global extension of neoliberalism into the economic, social, political and cultural fields is impossible.»
As the opening volley in the war against neoliberalism, the legacy of the Caracazo lives on as long as that struggle continues.
A five-part video about the Caracazo is available from Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg7mvx3IYRw.
An incredible gallery of photos from the rebellion can be found here: http://abn.info.ve/galeria/
GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Caracas and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.