On February 27, 1989, a social outbreak known as “Caracazo” occurred in Venezuela. I see news headlines that recall this date, and a march held to commemorate what happened on that day 31 years ago. Neither this episode of the story nor information from the media, explains what happened that day which I personally experienced in my own body. Some images of that day are stored clearly in my memory with the same emotional charge as if I were reliving them.
I was working at that time in a television plant in the center of Caracas. At the end of the workday when I left, I found a lot of people hurrying through the middle of the street, some running, heading for the highway. I found it very strange, but the idea of running to unknown streets did not attract me at all, so I kept walking as I always did hoping to finding a bus which could bring me home.
As I walked, the atmosphere was increasingly strange and threatening: cops beating people with nightsticks and opening small business bars so that people would come in to get what they wanted without paying. My confusion was total. Even though I worked in a medium of communication I had no idea what was happening. While walking, I saw increasing violence. I could not elucidate in my mind a sensible response to the thinning feeling in the environment because red danger lights had come on inside me. Nowhere was there transportation–no vehicles on the streets, just people, lots of people, some scared like me walking hurriedly and others running, carrying bags of looted products from businesses.
The more I saw, the less I understood. I kept walking with the intention of crossing the center and reaching a street from which I knew the way back. Without running, I hurried the pace and not understanding what was happening, in my mind I firmly repeated, “This has nothing to do with me” … “This has nothing to do with me”, trying to make me invisible with that mantle.
In some streets of the center near government institutions (at that time of Carlos Andrés Perez) police and military armed with rifles prevented passage. I do not like weapons, especially in the hands of scared-faced children. Why so much fear? What or who were they protecting themselves from? There I already had something clear, not only those on foot were scared, those of the government as well.
Finally I arrived at a main avenue that runs from east to the west part of the city, neither here I found transportation, only to the west and I was going in the opposite direction. When passing through an elevated pathway, I found a stopped bus and two hooded men who were violently beating people with bats. I stopped dead without daring to move forward. The noise of the blows was intimidating. People got out of the bus in despair–some by the doors, others by the windows and when they reached the street corner, they found a supermarket and several shops that were being looted. Many ran with bags of food in their hands, pieces of meat, televisions and those from the bus dragged by the crowd added to the chaos. No private security was seen anywhere. Neither was the military nor the police.
I was paralyzed waiting for the street to clear and to calm down but it was only getting worse. It was getting late and I armed myself with courage to cross through the middle of that terrible situation by strongly repeating my mantra … “This has nothing to do with me”…“ This has nothing to do with me ”… and confident of my invisibility I crossed the street carefully and happily without any external incident, only my heart racing a million beats a minute. It seemed that I was going to leave my body.
I continued walking along the avenue. I could have made a much shorter journey, but I was following the bus route with the remote hope of seeing a bus appear. After blocks and blocks walking and following that route, I arrived at a taxi stand in the area where I lived. To my surprise it was working and there was one available as if waiting for me–it was a blessing! The long stretch I needed was on the way. The streets where I had walked were desolate and I had already had the idea of not finding transportation to climb that steep slope.
At that time, I lived at the top of a hill. The hills of eastern Caracas are differentiated from the hills that surround the periphery of the city, full of “ranches” where poor people live. On the way I appreciated being able to rest and feel safe again, I was really scared. When at home and watched the news on television and after this experience, I felt that people had suddenly gone mad.
No one expected a social outbreak of that magnitude. “Nobody saw it coming” – a pressure cooker that exploded in our faces, a slap of reality, with people eating dog food in the popular neighborhoods. The invisible poverty in which most of the country lived was present. Human misery for 40 years had been silently incubating a social blowout. The economic measures imposed by the IMF announced without anesthesia by President Carlos Andrés Pérez, especially the increase in the price of gasoline, lit the wick of the angry protest of passengers in the popular neighborhoods, since the drivers had transferred the increase to the ticket price.
People outraged by the abuse of years went out to burn, loot and destroy whatever was in front of them. Images of people coming out of the butchers with a leg of a beef on their shoulders, or people plundering shops from those who took out refrigerators, televisions, sacks of food and even liquor toured the world. And before the overflow, by instructions “from above”, the police became complicit in the acts of vandalism, giving them excuses to repress people and taking the military to the street.
As expected, the government reacted and announced the curfew, within the decree of suspension of constitutional guarantees. The repression was relentless and to this day the exact number of deaths due to the militarization of the country is unknown. It was intended to put out that social fire by massacring people at the point of bullets, with every shout of rebellion out of the buildings. From the popular neighborhoods during the three days of curfew, shrapnel ensued against walls and windows.
Only with the passage of time this insane experience acquired a different meaning and now that story is like the character of Forrest Gump. I witnessed a defining moment in the country that marked a before and a later–at that moment I didn’t realize. Or perhaps precisely because of that experience, my subsequent understanding reached the depths, or as years later Commander Chavez would tell us, referring to how the military lived through this situation, “It shook us all, each one in his circumstances”, but they, the military, had the most ungrateful task, obeying orders they went out to slaughter the protesters.
“Caracazo” happened 10 years before Commander Chávez won the presidency. At that time, he was already a military man and that day he was highlighted in the barracks in charge of the defense of Miraflores, the seat of government. In several interviews, the commander revealed the importance of the “Caracazo” social explosion that confronted the armed people against the defenseless people in his future political determination.
This is what Commander Hugo Chávez described what he saw on February 27, 1989, a day that remained in the history of Venezuela. This was the day when the people of one of the richest countries in the world, the fifth world oil reserve was at unrest against a system that had plunged it into poverty and despair.
“I entered Fuerte Tiuna and it was my turn to see that war. I went to get gas with a friend who was a colonel. I sat in his office and I saw that disaster on the television. I go out to the yard, the soldiers running and some officers sending training and looking for the rifles. And I said: “My colonel, what are you going to do?” ‘Oh, Chavez! I don’t know what’s going to happen here. But the order that arrived is that all the troops go out to the street to stop the town.’ “But how are they going to stop it?” “With rifles, with bullets,” he even said: “May God be with us, but it’s the order.” I saw the soldiers leave, the logistic soldiers who are not trained soldiers. Those are the ones who make the food, the ones who serve the vehicles. Even the mechanics took them out and gave them a rifle, a helmet and enough ammunition. What was coming was a disaster, as it was.” Hugo Chavez.
When “normality” returned and the suspension of guarantees was lifted, those of us who lived those days of fear and bullets were no longer the same. That day, the “paradise” that was publicized about Venezuela in relation to which the country had become, was over. Venezuela changed forever. And any resemblance to what is happening in the world today is not a mere coincidence.