Friday, 14 January 2011

The Caracazo

by Eva Golinger
Source: Correo del Orinoco International, 26 February 2010.

A mass popular explosion overtook Caracas twenty-one years ago and changed the country forever.

February 27, 1989 is a date that marked Venezuela forever. Thousands were killed, slaughtered and arbitrarily detained and tortured by the “democratic” government of the time, led by President Carlos Andres Perez. Most of the dead and arrested were poor people, many of whom had been out protesting and rebelling against the neoliberal economic policies announced by the government just days earlier.

After the fall of Venezuela’s last dictatorship in 1958, the nation’s two main political parties, Accion Democratica (AD) and COPEI, made a pact to share power and align the country’s policies with foreign economic interests. That agreement, known as the “Punto Fijo Pact”, led to decades of “elected” governments from both parties, one after the other.

In 1976, Carlos Andres Perez, president at the time, nationalized the country’s oil industry, promising to invest the massive wealth in the nation’s infrastructure and development. Despite the oil boom of the 70s, Perez fell through on his promises. After he left the presidency, the economy began a downward spiral and by 1983, the currency was devalued several points, increasing financial despair amongst citizens.

The Venezuela of the 70s and early 80s, known as the “2 for 1” time - because everything abroad was so cheap to Venezuelans that they could buy two items of each product – rapidly began to disappear. Poverty grew at an alarming rate.

Infrastructure was abandoned. The agricultural industry vanished. All focus was on oil and its immense profits. But those earnings were not going into the national purse, but rather the pockets of the political and economic elite, which grew wealthier and wealthier while the majority of Venezuelans fell to poverty. The nation’s big middle class became an even larger working class, and the rich built walls to live behind to hide their stolen wealth.

In the 1988 presidential elections, Carlos Andres Perez was the candidate again for Accion Democratica. Having left the presidency in 1979 during a time of prosperity from the growing oil industry, Perez promised to return the impoverished nation to the “good ole days”. “Everyone will have a big television”, he promised in his campaign, assuring supporters that the middle class would rise again under his leadership. One of Perez’s major campaign promises was his staunch rejection of the wave of privatization policies sweeping the region. While other countries were implementing the “neoliberal package” imposed by the International Monetary Fund, promoted by the Washington consensus, Perez told his supporters he would not lead Venezuela on the path to privatization.

He would “preserve” the nationalized oil industry that he himself had helped create more than a decade earlier. Perez won the election and took office in early February 1989. To the terrible surprise of his supporters, his first official announcement as president was the acceptance of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan of $4.5 billion USD. Venezuelans reacted with shock to Perez’s blatant betrayal, and feared for the future of the country. Perez, who had referred to the IMF and the World Bank as “genocide workers in the pay of economic totalitarianism”, was now capable of handing the country over to multinationals.

Fear of privatization grew quickly. Business owners began to hoard consumer products, believing inflation would soon raise costs and products would be worth more in a matter of days. Why sell now when the price could triple by next week and more money could be made? Supermarket shelves went bare. People began to panic. The reforms announced by Perez caused an immediate raise in gas prices, based on a fear of the oil industry being privatized. Consumers were instantly affected, and reacted.

On February 27, 1989, the people took to the streets. The protests began in Guarenas, a suburb of Caracas, as commuters boarded public transportation in the early morning hours, only to find out bus fare had gone up overnight. The rejection of the price hikes was widespread, and protests rapidly became violent. Tensions were extremely high. Buses were overturned by angry riders refusing to pay the increased and unjust fare. Word spread quickly to other areas of Caracas and riots broke out everywhere.

Stores that had been hoarding products for weeks were looted by hungry and angry residents, disgusted with business owners for hiding the products from consumers so they could raise costs. Hunger was the most visible incentive of the protests. Looters weren’t stealing expensive goods, they were taking meat, cheese, milk and other food products that had disappeared from stores in the days before. Demonstrators began to organize and fill the downtown streets, calling on the President to react to the unrest and concern of his followers.

But President Perez chose to respond with force, and not with dialogue. He called out the National Guard and the police and ordered them to use lethal force to repress the protests.

The security forces under the command of Perez went into the poor neighborhoods of Caracas and shot on sight. In some instances, their machine gun fire entered homes and killed women cooking in the kitchen, or children taking naps or playing in the parks. It was a cruel and perverse way to eradicate poverty. Thousands were killed –massacred– on the days of February 27 and 28. Mass gravesites were dug and bodies were thrown in and covered up so that the true number of dead will never be known. A state of emergency was imposed and constitutional rights were suspended – indefinitely.

The event left the nation bitter, mourning for the loss of thousands of brothers and sisters, but also for the loss of dignity. Perez had handed the country over to multinationals and killed all those that opposed him.

Despite the immense tragedy that took place on February 27, 1989 - today remembered as the Caracazo (the big Caracas explosion) - the date is seen as the beginning of the Bolivarian Revolution. It was the first mass, spontaneous people’s uprising against neoliberalism and privatization – against imperialism and capitalism. Three years later, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Venezuelan Army, by the name of Hugo Chavez, led a military rebellion to overthrow the murderous and corrupt government of Carlos Andres Perez.

The February 4, 1992 insurrection failed, and Chavez was imprisoned, but Perez’s government began to rapidly fall apart. On November 27, 1992, another military uprising attempted to oust Perez, but also failed. Months later, Venezuela’s Congress impeached Perez for corruption and placed him on house arrest. He later fled the country as a fugitive from justice, arriving in Miami. Carlos Andres Perez has never returned to Venezuela again, but the Bolivarian Revolution has lived on and continues to grow and prosper. Those whose lives were lost to the brutal and repressive policies of the past will always be remembered.