What was El Caracazo? Part I

The Caracazo is ingrained in our collective psyche so deeply it’s now more myth than event. There are as many different versions of what happened out there as there are agendas prompting them. But what really happened? In the first of a three-part series, we look at what actually happened in Venezuela betwen February 27th and March 2nd, 1989.

The Caracazo is history, but it is also one of our founding stories: a narrative that marked a before-and-after moment in the lives of all those who lived through it. Today we launch a three part series that reflects the Caracazo’s two faces, weaving the history of the Caracazo as recounted by Rafael Osío Cabrices (marked ROC) with one of the many personal stories of the Caracazo as remembered by Cynthia Rodríguez (CR)

CR: “Please, stay here with me. Let’s play here, the three of us. Let’s bring some toys and hide here.”

I must have told my sisters something like that. The little one was only 7 months old, so I just grabbed her in my arms. The other one was 7 years old. I don’t know how much she really understood. I didn’t understand almost anything myself, actually. I was 13 and I just followed my dad’s instructions: “if you hear plomo o gritos, just grab your sisters and take them to the corridor. And don’t move. Don’t go anywhere else. Don’t open the door. We will be back as soon as we can, but I don’t know how long it’s going to be.”

And plomo I did hear. From the back street. I didn’t think. I just grabbed my two little sisters and told them to stay there and wait. We waited a long time. A long time. I couldn’t help thinking what would happen to us if mom and dad were at that place where the plomo came from. And I prayed.

It was March 1st, 1989.  

ROC: It’s a foundational myth for chavismo. A usual suspect in the search for the date when Venezuela stopped being a nice country. A collective trauma. The 27F — or more precisely El Caracazo, because events didn’t end that February 27th — is one of those moments in our past we don’t want to talk about, they are too painful. Like the Vargas disaster in 1999 or the 2002-2003 PDVSA strike. But it’s unavoidable if you want to understand how Venezuela became what it is today.

El Caracazo has attracted all sorts of interpretations. Let’s focus on the facts.

Many Venezuelans really were mad in 1988 and the beginning of 1989. The press and the walls were full of anger. It was normal to see hooded radicals clashing with police one or more days a week in the accesses to Ciudad Universitaria in Caracas. There was even a discreet, now forgotten attempt at a military coup, two months before the December election, led by an Army officer, J. D. Soler, who was jailed and pardoned (yep) after trying to take Miraflores one night with a couple of tanks. Things were bad: that same month, 14 unarmed fishermen in Apure were killed by a police and military task force who mistook them for Colombian guerrilleros.

The present was ugly, so millions of people tried to board a time machine to the past by voting for Carlos Andrés “El Gocho” Pérez. They hoped for a return to the “Saudi Venezuela” that existed before the so-called Black Friday in 1983, when the bolivar collapsed under speculative attack and the US dollar went from Bs.4.30, the exchange rate it had for 22 years, to Bs.7.50.

CAP ran on a promise to make Venezuela great again, after five years of economic decline and corruption scandals (like discretional sales of preferential US dollars to government’s friends. Yep, again.) Those who voted for him expected another consumerist orgy like the one Venezuela enjoyed during his first administration in the 70s. It wasn’t to be. Though oil prices were about the same that in 1977, the national debt was twice the size of the international reserves, and there were many more people around.

Few could foresee that instead of jacuzzis filled with Scotch and El Puma songs, we would have blood and gunfire.

When elected President on December 1988 with 52% of the votes, CAP had in mind a completely different program: his “Gran Viraje” platform of economic liberalization, dismantling controls, privatization, competition. He threw a great big party for his inauguration, on Feb. 2. Even Fidel was there. Days later, he said we were broke.

For the first time in history, a Venezuelan government sought a deal with the International Monetary Fund. In exchange for a loan of $4.3 billion, the IMF demanded a set of measures that the Venezuelan press christened as the Paquetazo: among others, some allowances to the poorest, price hikes in all but 18 cesta básica items, taxes and cuts of subsidies for everyone.

On Sunday Feb. 26, after days of nationwide violence among radical students and police, the government announced gas prices would rise 30%. That implied bus fares would go up too. On Monday Feb. 27, a protest in Guarenas made the country explode, to the surprise of everyone: the government, the ultra izquierda, the police, the ordinary people.

There are many things we don’t know for sure, and most likely we won’t know ever. To the confusion of those circumstances, we must add the censorship on the media once the government decided to tackle the crisis, and the deliberate obscurity the same government threw over the events in order to shirk its responsibilities. Weak institutions did little to deliver justice, and later administrations -Caldera’s, Velásquez’s and Chávez’s- were definitely more interested in using El Caracazo as a rhetorical weapon than in prosecuting and punishing the officers guilty of abuses and compensating the victims’ families.

We don’t exactly know, for instance, how many people died. The official death toll is 276. The human rights NGO insist that victims could have been more than 1,000. 27 years later, El Sacudón is still opaque, a family’s taboo we prefer not to discuss in detail, like a Father’s Day when a drunk uncle went crazy and beat his wife to death.

For those who remember those days and nights, the memories are as fresh and moving as a last night’s nightmare.

CR: We lived in La Pastora, a quiet place at that time. It was like a pueblo and I have somehow idealized those childhood years. The church, the Plaza Real, the Escuela Parroquial I went until 6th grade. The bodegas where we got simple things like toilet paper, harina PAN and refrescos… That night, I went to the window immediately. I had never heard screaming like that. I glanced a multitude running by the Puente Miraflores, doing something I couldn’t understand: they were moving carritos full of goods from the corner’s abasto.

My mom was as shocked as I was, but she had a word for that. She said to my dad, with fear: “¡Amable, están saqueando!”.

Dad told me to get off the window and to sit still at the living room. They started coming and going by the apartment, speaking nervously, making phone calls. I remember asking what saquear -that word that would then enter my vocabulary forever- meant.

Then came the real shock, when my mom explained to me that they were stealing food in the abasto they used to go everyday, the one we also used to shop in.

“Pero, mamá ¿por qué hacen eso?” That question still resonates in my mind because it wasn’t answered then. Many years would pass until I came to understand why they were doing it. By then, it was too late”.

ROC: It’s an accepted fact that all started in the morning of Feb. 27, 1989, in the city of Guarenas, 20 minutes from the Eastern tip of Caracas. It was a quarrell like many we can see today in Venezuela —none of the people involved could have imagined that they were changing their country’s history. A bunch or ordinary citizens argued with some bus drivers about the new fares they were demanding for rides to the capital, Bs.16 to Caracas, instead of  Government-approved bs 10. Things turned ugly. A group set a bus on fire, someone broke a window and looting started. Miranda police couldn’t stop the riot, so Caracas’ Policía Metropolitana and Guardia Nacional were called in to help.

The TV reporters were there, and for the following hours there would be a lot of live broadcasting of the riots, which attracted many more to join the looting. People saw the news, or listened to the radio, and started doing the same in Caracas. There were shortages of some basic groceries at the time, and according to the government, those items were being stocked by store owners who were waiting for a price increase decree to put them back on the shelves. Looters went for those things, and for TV sets, clothes, whisky, toys, anything, first in modest grocery or liquor stores, then in supermarkets and shopping centers.

CR: I had to contrast my memories with mom’s because sometimes I’m not sure if what I link to the 27 y 28 de febrero events actually corresponds to those dates or to the other zaperoco situations we lived later (I’m talking about 1992 4 de febrero and 27 de noviembre).

She tells me that her most vivid recall is the horror that watching our neighbors saqueando in real time brought to her.

She adds another detail that I didn’t catch then: there was a group of motorizados. She could see that they were in charge of the saqueo. They pulled apart the santamaría of the grocery store and entered, and they took out everything and laid it out on the street. And the people grabbed the things directly from there.

Now I see that it’s not an unimportant detail.

ROC: We call it El Caracazo because the capital was the main theater and the main source of victims. However, starting at noon on Feb. 27 the contagion reached dense commercial areas in La Guaira, Los Teques, Maracay, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Maracaibo, Mérida, San Cristóbal, Puerto La Cruz and Puerto Ordaz. Police, GN and DISIP were unable to stop violence also there, that in some cases -according to the government- was kindled by radicals from universities or public high schools.

By the morning of Feb. 28, looters were at ease in western and central Caracas. Clearly outnumbered, the Policía Metropolitana seemed paralyzed, thus the riots spread. No political leader was conducting the violence. Some streets and avenues in Central and Western Caracas were blocked by barricades or burning buses and trucks. It was a feast of rage and also joy, desperate poverty and pragmatic opportunism. Police and soldiers were there, but doing nothing; they were waiting for orders. Meanwhile, from the barrios in the slopes of the mountains surrounding the Caracas valley, the poor descended in masses. Finally, the prophets of disaster were right: “el día en que bajarán los cerros” had come. 

Taquito CMárquez





This is part I of a three-part series. Part II will be published on Wednesday