He was on his way to Venevisión, early in the morning that day, as usual. This time, however, he could not reach the station. Almost there, approaching the junction between Avenida Maripérez and the Andrés Bello that 28th of February of 1989, he had to stop. He knew there’d been protests the day before, that he had to get to work all the more for it, but he never imagined what was waiting for him there.

Journalists, like good doctors, are at their element when their subject matter is at its illest. Their duty is to keep a cool head, observe, examine and tell. But this time the festering body, the turba, was in no mood for questions or treatments. Boisterous, violent, indomitable, what laid ahead in Maripérez was a blockade of people, armed and plundering, so carried away by —what: ire, hysteria, ecstasy?— that it was as if the patient had suddenly woken and up punched the doctor. In utter fear and bewilderment — “from what hell had this come from?” — he retreated back home.

I’ve been asking my father questions throughout my life, yet few have elicited an answer as complex as when I asked about the Caracazo.

“I really don’t know what happened then,” he begins. “All I know is that that day the country saw itself in the mirror and for the first time it could not recognize itself”.

Prod him as I might, all I initially reaped was a collection of images and associations that spoke only dimly to each other. The carcass of a bus, a parade of looted refrigerators, fans, TV sets, microwaves; protests spreading through the city like fire through the Avila, running down its hills in deafening roars; young soldiers from the countryside going into the Valley for the first time, shooting with cowardice, in panic, indiscriminately at the hysterical masses; el policía” Alejandro Izaguirre, then Interior Minister, live on Cadena Nacional trying to explain the situation to a bewildered country, suddenly saying “perdón, no puedo” and leaving a lone microphone behind; kinsmen locking themselves up inside their homes at night, retreating from the city outside as if recoiling from a pet dog after an unexpected, vicious bite.

In short: the impossible thought of a city in the middle of an epileptic fit.

For an event that has been variously defined as the end of all attempts at macroeconomic reform in Venezuela, as the first of a series of defeats of a generation that, though educated abroad, was unable to bring back much of what it had learned and the beginning of a new, darker, more violent form of populism, such vague comprehension of the true causes of the Caracazo borders on the irresponsible.

Yet the events of that day confound our prodding questions:

Was it just the bus fare hike, contrasted with CAP’s recent coronation?

“Yes,” says my father, “but then why would people also loot vacuum cleaners?’

What made the violence spread? Was it the heavy-handed repression at the hands of security forces or was there something inherent in us that day that made us prone to it?

“The security forces made victims of looters as well as innocent protesters, exacerbating the violence, but that had started before they went out and was already on a massive scale when they acted.”

All I know is that that day the country saw itself in the mirror and for the first time it could not recognize itself.

If the macroeconomic adjustments had only just begun, then why were the people so ready to flip the table before receiving their second paycheck that month?

“I don’t know. If you see the economic data of those years it is nothing in comparison to what we’re going through these days…”

So were they really, then, that angry?

“I guess so, but hijo, it was really so over-the-top, so out of hand…”

When they were smashing the windows, was it anger, frustration or libertinage that…?

“Listen: in many ways that’s beside the point, because maybe it’s too early to know or because maybe we will never know, yet what matters most is that that day Venezuela saw within itself something it had never seen before. Something that reminds of the chaos and frustration we’re living through these days. As hard to pin down then as it is now — it simply took us all by surprise. And though no one understands what really happened, or why, its legacy is as concrete as its causes are vague”.

Yes, the myth: that day Chavismo was born and macroeconomic restructuring became the new bogeyman in the collective subconscious.

“Not only that: many have tried to appropriate that legacy. Ramos Allup never gets tired of reminding us that he has obra escrita, a publication history, opposing neoliberalism, for example. And now many within Chavismo have even tried to retroactively procure some responsibility for themselves of those days’ events, even though I seriously doubt that any given political group could have, then or now, masterminded a chaos so perfect.”

Chaos, questions that can only be answered by questions, no main, sole culprit other than this sudden and unrecognizable hysteria — can such a foundational event to our recent history be so unexplainable that it even seems accidental? Is really that the best we can do?

“I don’t know…. You’re right, maybe we were living a fantasy, perhaps all that anger had been accumulating many quinquenios before, maybe something that had started on such a sure footing, our democratic process, had really lost its way many years since” he says, turning increasingly taciturn.

“But then, if we go down that path, what is left to us but admit the Caracazo signaled our failure as a society?” He asked rhetorically.

Then it hit me. Today, I was not the one most eager for answers.

These questions, as obvious to me as to anyone confronted with the facts, found their urgency not in the simple curiosity of knowing about something I had not lived through. It isn’t like when I would sit and ask him about the Romans or the World Wars, letting him impart his knowledge and satisfy my nosiness in a simple exchange; or when I would ask about my grandfather, whom I never met.

These questions found urgency in the cloud of fear and mystery he, alongside most in his generation, had evasively shrouded them in 27 years ago. It was to himself and to his generation he was seeking both the right questions and the answers to them. The urgency was not mine: it was his.

You say you were afraid those days, as were the young soldiers from the countryside and policía Izaguirre in his retreat from the cameras. You say that going to Venevisión that day you saw a throng of people going down the street in what you describe as an irate frenzy, that throughout its existence Chavismo has made use of that very fear you then felt — what, then, in essence were you all fearing?

“The fear of realising that after so many years of prosperity we really did have that frustration, anger and humiliation within us. That that violence there was ours. That it came from us. And that it could come again — as it did indeed, as we now see on a daily basis. Which maybe is why we don’t want to think much about the Caracazo — why remember the threat when you have its daily manifestation? All fear is in essence fear of oneself.”

I don’t know what caused the Caracazo. But perhaps I now know why we don’t know. We still fear the reflection that springs from it: the Venezuela that was to come, that we now see and after all these years still struggle to recognize.

Previous articleRadicalized
Next articleThe Violent Innocence of The Caracazo
M.A. in Economics from the University of Edinburgh. Madrid based. Wealth management, roots in banking and microfinance. Voracious reader of Classics, specially the Russians, and History. Caraqueño and Caraquista, inescapably a lover of Salsa, wheat talk and Rum. Fascinated by South America's indigestion of modernity, owes his political understanding mostly to Octavio Paz, Ivan Karamazov and dad.

26 COMMENTS

  1. From my perch atop Santa Paula I saw the city burn, and the sounds of war those days. I was in University.

    I stood amazed at the level of violence while remembering my experience as a child in the 70s in Lima. During the Lima riots of February 1975 my dad and his coworkers had to fight back arsonists, machine gun in hand, trying to burn the ministry they worked in. However the decline of Peru had been going for a while with the hard-left-Soviet-aligned government of General Velasco Alvarado. People were fed up and the police had gone on strike.

    This time around I was more aware maybe my due to my age or perhaps the fact that Caracas is a valley and one could see and hear the whole city from the hills, but the violence seemed far more intense than what I had felt like a child. The TV broadcast placed you in the midst of the violence.

    The harsh economic measure had just started to be implemented with the Carlos Andres’s new government and then this. I thought of Peru, things were bleak for the longest of time leading to February 1975. But my impression was that Venezuela was extremely impatient and responded with an incredible level of violence. Of course, I was a privileged kid unaware to the difficulties people in the mobs had lived through during Herrera Campins or Lusinchi.

    I do think the Carlos Andres was disingenuous by playing up his Venezuela Saudita first government to get himself voted in. His ‘coronation’ was garish even having Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand sung to him.

    But those years in Venezuela were also my first experience of the consumerist society. The flaunting of wealth was common in places like Santa Paula while looking down on the poor because they did not have those items. “Niche” is certainly venezuelan’s N-word.

    The oil rent of 50s through the 70s lifted a cosmopolitan middle class, but as the mobs showed the majority felt stiffed and felt entitled to rampage.

    • The police where also on strike in ccs leaving many sectors without police presence as the few remaining officers where moved around. Leave poor (anywhere including USA) sectors without law enforcement and looting ensues. In this case the Leftist groups of the day like Bandera Roja etc., incited the rioting and looting. This is one chief component IMO

    • Ours is an even darker N-word, infinitely more telling about the society we belong to, though it’s actually an M-word: mono.

  2. I agree with your take, El Caracazo scared us because we saw waht we actually were capable of!
    100 years of savagery during our XIX century runs deep. Chavismo has masterfully taken the nation 100 years back alright.

  3. “All I know is that that day the country saw itself in the mirror and for the first time it could not recognize itself”.

    Or dawg help us all, finally recognized itself?

    Your Father is a wise man.

  4. Pillaging is an old tradition in Venezuelan history , during the War of Independence both Boves and Paez troops were offered the chance of pillaging the towns they captured as a prize for their efforts , all throughout the civil wars of the XIX century, same thing , in the 20th century on Gneral Gomez death and thereafter after every govt overthrow you saw excited throngs of people pillaging the houses of persons identified with the fallen govt , whenever there is a natural disaster pillaging is automatic. During the deslave of 99 ( the rock mud slides that destroyed much of the Vargas seashore) , the road from Naiguata to a group of middle class condo buildings in Camuri was cut off for several miles ( a whole town located in the road was destroyed by the slides with much loss of life) , and yet the whole town of Naiguata walked among the debris to the Camuri buildings , like an ant army to pillage the buildings , every thing portable was ransacked and taken , when the weight of the TV sets didn’t allow their being taken they were thrown out of the balconies ……there is something about getting something you don’t own for free that makes people become frenzied animals ……….well see it happen on the fall of the regime ……!!

    • Things didn’t change much since Julius Caesar went for plunder in Gallic lands after he claimed the Helvetii were plundering there. Our Spanish ancestors did quite a lot of plunder in Flanders
      and so did the French there and in Germany and elsewhere.

      • how nice of you to remember that we did quite a lot of plunder in Flandes but not in Latin America, as if Pizarro, Hernán Cortés… were not thinking only about gold.

  5. You don’t really understand what civilization is… until you don’t have it. The capacity for barbarity lies within all of humanity. No matter how modern or urbane, you think you, your family, and your friends are, scratch the surface and we are all wild animals. Of course, those whose basic moral values are not built upon a solid foundation will revert to barbarism faster.

    Venezuela is not unique in this regard and certainly not the first people in history to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war”. You say that Venezuela did not recognize itself. I say that we all recognize the beast within us. We may fear the beast, or even deny his existence, but deep down we all know he is there.

    • The recognition of what is right, and to live that, is most important. As you say, ” … those whose basic moral values are not built upon a solid foundation will revert to barbarism faster”.

      By which principles do civilizations exist and prosper, for example? If we appreciate civilization, then these principles must be valuable. These are individual principles, passed to others by speech and by example.

      I am happiest and most satisfied when I know I have done something right. You do not make a man happy and satisfied with himself by giving him things for nothing.

      • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs may be a bit too simple, but the principle is the same. All those values are important, but you cant expect people that have a lot of trouble meeting more basic needs like “do I eat today” would have them in mind a lot.

    • Civilization is one with the teaching of self control , with the capacity to keep a tight leash on ones primitive spontaneous impulses , the opposite of civilization ( i.e. being civil to other people and acting respecfully towards others and what they owe and prize) is barbarity , primitiveness , When Ortega described ‘mass man’ one of the features which identified him was his barbarity , his primitiveness, his self indulgence , his incapacity to demand things of himself , his proud self sattisfaction and sense of entitlement …..,!!

      Hoffstede in his multicultural studies of the cultural predispositions of people in different countries noted that Venezuelans were particularly self indulgent , i.e uncomfortable with rules, discipline and social restrictions , with authority and controls, they loved the freedom that a disordered , happy go lucky , fun loving life gave them ……., others have noted our love of dance and play and what Miranda would call making Bochinche…….. !!

      The Caracazo was one great bochinche , an explosion of merry lawlesness, a sudden cathartic explosion like what kids feel on their last day of classes , or on partaking of a pinata or when enjoying the chaotic spirit of carnival , other people share in this temperamental template but according to Hoffstede not quite with the same excess that us Venezuelans . were really good at letting go……..its one of most endearing qualities as a people , its also one of the curses of our national ethos….!!

  6. Inequality and its realization likely played a role in the anger and violence that ensued. Venezuela could not be spared of the main issues that continue to plague Latin America. All of that aside, the pieces on the caracazo are fascinating!

  7. “All I know is that that day the country saw itself in the mirror and for the first time it could not recognize itself.”

    The most brilliant description of the feeling evoked by the violence of El Caracazo.

    “For an event that has been variously defined as the end of all attempts at macroeconomic reform in Venezuela”

    Considering that CaracasChronicles has decided to embark on this week-long reflection exercise, I think an important aspect to pin down and clarify would be to what extent had actual economic reforms been implemented by February of 1989.

    It’s my understanding that the raise of bus fares hadn’t even been yet made oficial, Recadi was still in effect and Pérez’s “neoliberal” reforms would be carried out up until 1992, despite the riots that took place within his first month in office. Yet we still see that the event is attributed to these reforms which had yet to be effected and there is little consciousness as to what reforms were actually pursued.

    • There are several factors you are leaving out. The annoucements of measures to come already triggered prices being rised – the bus fare stuff that was the spark was because the bus drivers wanted to start charging more already.

      And the “coronation” of CAP is more than symbolic. He won by that sense of Venezuela Saudita coming back just because the man that represented it was back. When the people that voted for him found out that inmediatly after the coronation the annoucements were “actually, no, we are broke and have to do sacrificies”, that felt as betrayal.

      • Right, but what I feel often get’s omitted from the story is the panorama pre-Febuary 16, 1989 which is a massive part of the story. Leaving this out and simply attributing El Caracazo to the announcement of a series of economic measures, implies that were it not for Pérez opting for liberalization the situation would have been manageable, at least in the sense that it would not have triggered Caracazao levels of social backlash. But it we step back for a second and consider that price increases and shortages where what motivated the riots, we know that the announcements weren’t the only reasons these things happened, had Pérez not decided to pursue these reforms and buckle down to maintaining the welfare state then we would have likely faced hyper-inflation and an even greater acute scarcity. As was pointed out a few weeks ago here in CaracasChronicles, the Venezuela of 2016 is the counterfactual Venezuela of 1989 without el paquetazo.

        In synthesis I believe it’s important to go beyond the attributing of this event to “attempts at reform.” It’s become a widely accepted truth and while it is a part of the story, it’s a gross simplification of it.

  8. Inequality. Isn’t that the spark on the tinder per any popular revolt? It’s like the country had to bankrupt itself to start to pay the debt, to even the playing field till even the richest stood shoulder to shoulder with those who for years had been ignored. Maybe there was no other way for all Venezuelan’s to look each other in the face. Then again, maybe not. Explanations only take us so far.

    I do know that my wife’s family all came from “Dog Town” in El Tigre and grew up with nothing. And to these people, Chavez was Dios incarnate just for seemingly taking their side.

    Very well told story.

  9. An important factor in the rapid spread of protest around the country was the television and news reporting of the original disturbances in Guarenas. It seemed that this was the spark that set off the chain reaction.

    • And of looting. Yes, it was news, but for a lot of people, the news was “I have to go and loot NOW or I’ll be trapped here without food/see how everybody else got a new TV and call me pendejo/etc”

  10. There’s not another “Caracazo” right now, only because people are scared of the Chavista corrupt guardia, police and the bribed military. They are scared of repression, violence and going to jail.

    The economic and social conditions are certainly as bad as they’ve ever been. And hundreds of thousands just leave the country whenever they can. They know that public protest is futile. What happened after Capriles’ “march” last week? Nothing. It’s laughable.

    Looting? There’s looting every week, as soon as there’s a truck with food or something easy to steal. It’s just not mass-looting because the Chavista regime would crack down and jail people immediately. So the looting is sporadic nowadays. What you have now is corruption everywhere. More subtle ways to cheat and steal. You have Bachaqueo. Extorsion. Guisos. And record-high crime and murders, and drug dealing.
    That’s tolerated by the criminal Chavista dictatorship.

    When the MUD finally grabs the power, then, there could be another Caracazo. Because the economic conditions will not get magically better, oil won’t hit $100/barrel, and people won’t start producing and exporting products suddenly. So if people don’t see any improvements, and they won’t, they’ll start blaming the new MUD government, and possibly hit the streets. Because they will be much less afraid of repression.

    Also, if the MUD new government starts taking the tough austerity measures that are required, no “precio justo”, no more freebies, no more bogus public jobs, repay the foreign debts, money and food won’t suddenly grow on trees, so people will get pissed off. It’s an explosive situation as it is, as Capriles always says, but it could get even more explosive in years to come.

  11. For me, Caracazo ranks as one of the worst periods in my life. I left from El Hatillo for work in Los Teques early that Monday morning. I never made it to work. The Panamerican Highway on the way was a war zone with dead and wounded on the side of the road. Somehow, I made it back late that day via La Mariposa and camped out with two of my friends at the top of hill, watching Caracas burn from a distance. Over the next few days, there was no food to be found. The country was paralyzed. I had only been in Venezuela six months after 5 years earning a Ph.D. and one years worth of postdoctoral work. It struck me then I had made a big mistake.

    CAP made a bigger mistake though. He certainly picked the right people to run the government. I knew some of them from my time at USB and thought highly of them. CAP blew it because he was not enough of a leader to explain the difficulties and the path forward. Basically, he won the elections on a lie that he would effortlessly restore prosperity to what it was during hist first term. He did not explain that gas prices would go up and that Venezuela would be transitioning to a true market economy.

    CAP Part 2 was a wasted opportunity. The right ideas but the wrong sales strategy.

Leave a Reply