On a Sunday, at the end of March 1989, Moisés Naím hosted a lunch for a group of friends. I was among them.

Just under a month earlier, we had witnessed the social explosion and the riots and looting that had bloodied Caracas, which were consigned to Venezuela’s collective memories as el Caracazo.

Naím was Minister for Economic Development (Fomento) in the second government of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993), and as such, he was part of the cabinet that accompanied Pérez in his attempt to introduce far reaching economic reforms.

It’s been nearly thirty years since those events, and my memories of those days, at the end of February and March of 1989 are blurry. Including terrible events I witnessed personally, because I happened to be out and about when the looting started.

I was still living in Prado de María, where I grew up. At the turn of the 20th century, Prado de María had been a vast swathe of grazing land, some 10 miles Southwest of downtown Caracas. It slowly turned into a lower middle class neighborhood during the late 30s. In 1989, this nice, picturesque Caracas neighborhood was still very far from plunging over the abyss into one of the most violent and deprived areas of the city.

The main thoroughfare in the area was and is the Avenida Principal del Cementerio. After hundreds of fear-stricken troops, hastily flown into Caracas to reinforce the local garrison, finished machinegunning the slums that skirt the hills on the North side of the avenue, at dawn of the third day of rioting, you could see dozens of people guarding the bodies of their loved ones, right where they had fallen, waiting for the curfew to be lifted so the dead could be hauled off to the morgue.

The casualty count all over the city rose into the hundreds. Many gruesome scenes were captured in barrio Las Luces by my younger brother, who was a press photographer at the time.

 
I joined the stunned onlookers in witnessing these three women convincing the uniformed officers to tie up a metal cable from their vehicle to the sliding door of a shop advertising itself as a jewelry workshop.

Unlike my younger brother, I didn’t get to see bodies piled up on the sidewalk, but I did run across looting. There’s one incident, in particlar, I’ll never forget.

Three women, ostensibly from the barrio, all of them heavily pregnant, began to negotiate with the policemen on board a Policia Metropolitana Jeep. This was on the intersection of Avenida Roosevelt with Avenida Principal del Prado de María, a downmarket commercial area.

I joined the stunned onlookers in witnessing these three women convincing the uniformed officers to tie up a metal cable — the proverbial “guaya” derived from “wire” by our oil sector work crews — from their vehicle to the sliding door of a shop advertising itself as a jewelry workshop, which had been cautiously shut down by its owners when the looting started.

The guys on the Jeep hurried to do as they were told, and after a few failed attempts, they managed to yank the santamaría clear off. The women rushed inside and began to carry off the deplorably crafted jewelry. One of the three cops was armed with an old, Belgian Vigneron sub-machine gun. They could not have looked more dejected.

They’d clearly hoped for a different class of booty. The women, on the other hand, ran jubilantly with their stash of bisutería, which they would go on to resell, possibly at the Mercado de El Cementerio.

By then the three cops had become the laughingstock of the onlookers. The one with the submachine gun fired a burst into the air to disperse us and, I suppose, to vent his frustration. Seconds later, the jeep took off and was soon out of view.

 
Like any calamity of a certain caliber, those events were almost immediately explained by the pundits with hypothesis that often made absolutely no sense and still elicit a grin.

Vignettes like this one come back to my mind as goyaesque sketches, interspersed with photos and grotesque bits of video, together with borrowed memories that over time have begun to feel like they’re my own.

Like any calamity of a certain caliber, those events were almost immediately explained by the pundits with hypothesis that often made absolutely no sense and still elicit a grin. Certainly, as T.S. Eliot put it, “humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and is always eager to accept the most far-fetched conjectures to give the inexplicable a place in the world.

And yet I cannot think back on those times without a little nostalgia for the country that blindingly, unfoundedly and fleetingly we managed to become in the decade that ended with el Caracazo.

So the convivial afternoon offered by the Naíms could not give rise to any sort of celebration, after the hundreds of lives lost, of the collective assault on the right to property that configured the final fracture of the “illusion of harmony” that had preceded its own idea of itself, if not Venezuelan society as a whole, then a good part of its enlightened elite. (We’ll come back to that expression, the “illusion of harmony”, but not for quite a few paragraphs.)

As I said, it wasn’t a celebration, and though I cannot recall Naím’s exact phrasing when he called with his invite, I am certain that his idea was to put together a handful of Venezuelans alive to public affairs without seeking greater efficacy than to bring them together to share the perplexities and stupors each of us carried in those times.

And although the tenor of the event was never lugubrious, I remember the gravity in the air and the consternation that suffused our conversations.

Most of the guests were part of the Pérez Cabinet, and I was struck by the heterogeneity of the group: young people from academe, like Naím and Miguel Rodríguez; seasoned veterans of political party militancy who may have doubled them in age, such as the dour and measured Alejandro Izaguirre, the interior minister nicknamed, inexplicably, “el policía”; an active duty military officer, General Italo del Valle Alliegro, defense minister, and others. They’d all finished a very tough month, perhaps the toughest in their lives, and it showed.

Back then, I wouldn’t have known how to answer if someone had asked me what I did. I worked halfheartedly as a telenovela scriptwriter, after a long internship as a professional activist, first in the Communist Youth (Juventud Comunista) and later in the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), but by then I was no longer a political militant. I wrote a weekly newspaper column in El Nacional that I peddled as satirical, but in my day to day life what really moved me was the theater.

As happens in true friendships, I wouldn’t know when or how I met Naím, given that his world and mine were, to say it in terms of set theory, a ‘void intersection”, but I think Juan Nuño had something to do with it.

I said earlier that I’d give the phrase “illusion of harmony” its due. It’s the phrase with which Moisés Naím and his colleague, Ramón Piñango, had brilliantly christened, just three years earlier, a book that shook not just Venezuela’s academic circles but Venezuela’s whole public sphere.

 
Many of the men and women who, together with Naím, had set into motion those urgent reforms, and with whom I lunched that Sunday, would soon be satanized as soulless technocrats. The most benevolent described them with contempt as “muchachos bien, carentes de burdel,” sorcerer’s apprentices, hamfisted officiants of the Washington Consensus. I know it because I too joined that accusing chorus.

It was a one of a kind book, no question: part survey of the most paradoxical findings on Venezuela, from the point of view of economics, statistics and sociology, and part an incisive essay that fisked the most deep seated certainties about Venezuela that the country’s elites held to. It’s a book that, reread today, has a predictive streak that, on that Monday in February of 1989, crystallized in a way I’m almost sure its own authors were stunned by.

Many of the men and women who, together with Naím, had set into motion those urgent reforms, and with whom I lunched that Sunday, would soon be satanized as soulless technocrats. The most benevolent described them with contempt as “muchachos bien, carentes de burdel,” sorcerer’s apprentices, hamfisted officiants of the Washington Consensus. I know it because I too joined that accusing chorus.

And here we come to the nut of this evocation. The arguments put forward against reforms did not go beyond, for the most part, the discursive level of the brilliant liberal pamphlets of Antonio Leocadio Guzmán in his struggle with the “manchesterian” oligarchs, no less brilliant, who surrounded General Páez, circa 1840.

Very soon, public debate became engorged with the most misleading, simplistic and ill-tempered narrative possible about what had happened and its causes.

I hasten to add that, since that time, I’ve been convinced that the caracazo was what the French call a “jacquerie”: a leaderless communal revolt, more or less violent, that expands and gains territory and blows itself out soon after, in a way that Malcolm Gladwell could probably explain much better than Venezuela’s “reactionary left”, to use the expression coined by the departed Argentine-Catalan thinker, Horacio Vásquez-Rial.

In fact, the Venezuelan left, reactionary as a whole, wasted no time in attributing the looting spree to a popular rebellion on the scale of the Revolt of the Comuneros. And even if it was without leaders known beforehand, it would amount, according to that narrative, to an action explicitly directed to denouncing the World Bank, Public Choice theory, the IMF and Milton Friedman himself.

Apparently the three women and the cops I saw in Prado de María were devoted readers of Noam Chomsky and Tony Negri.

Those who would, in time, take the lead alongside Chávez, began their pilgrimage from the Enchanted Castle at Cendes to Yare jail. They were the future ministers who, when the time came, would think up mass expropriation, exchange controls, and vertical chicken coops.

Starving for fresh ideas since the mid-1960s, in need of a caudillo to galvanize its longstanding, maggot-infested militarism, it was only a matter of time for a gifted ad-libber of historicist themes named Hugo Chávez equaled the Caracazo with the blinding voice that knocked Saint Paul off his horse to reveal the road to Damascus to him. A road that, in Chávez’s case, went straight past Havana and onward to the destruction of our democracy.

And yet, there’s one thing I’m sure of. None of the guests in that March luncheon could have imagined the dystopian hour that chavismo has brought our erstwhile beautiful and vibrant nation.

13 COMMENTS

    • Much more than that …a brilliant piece from a brilliant writer , he is always good but sometimes he is over the board insightful and dazzling, ” …….Apparently the three women and the cops I saw in Prado de María were devoted readers of Noam Chomsky and Tony Negri…”….priceless!!.

  1. We know more about the casualties of the Greek at the Battle of Termopilas 2496 years ago than about the murdered people in the Caracazo 27 years back.

    Hundreds Ibsen says and he is right. Probably it was not just the +-275 official murders but: was it so much more?

    Almost every Venezuelan with a few exceptions has connections, some relatives, friends.
    How come we do not have a list of people claiming to have lost someone? Back then already almost everybody over 14 years old had a cédula. Where are the numbers of those who disappeared?
    In Colombia they were talking about many thousands of extra judicial killings through many years but those happened all across a country with a less dramatic population distribution as in Venezuela. El Caracazo refers to what happened in very urban areas, from Caracas to Barquisimeto…urban areas, not jungle.

    What is it about Venezuelans that numbers are used so lightly? Dorothy Kronick knows a bit about this.
    http://www.caracaschronicles.com/2016/07/01/our-dead/

    The exact numbers and names matter…of victims and perpetrators.

    Chavismo doesn’t want us to count. It doesn’t want us to teach others how to count either.
    Reactionaries left and right in Venezuela want us to experience life through myths.

  2. CC is really crushing it these days. Ibsen Martinez’s meditation addresses and stimulates reflection about the deepest causes of Caracazo and its mystification in political narrative. It’s such a valuable art to be able to write like this.

    • Ibsen Martinez is an accomplished professional writer, part of a group of brilliant Venezuelan writers which begun writing telenovelas for Venezuelan TV but then went on to write as journalists or as novelists or as dramatists, They formed a wave of public intellectuals of first rank . Among them one can mention Cabrujas (now deceased) , Alberto Barrera, Orlando Padron, Many of them are at the forefront on the struggle for the defense and restoration of Venezuelan liberties….. !! We are lucky to have them !!

  3. They lacked whorehouse.

    They day gringos incorporate that phrase, vzla politics will suddenly become clear.

    I wonder what they would feel if they realized that we view proper corruption as an indispensable skill?

    That is the vzla worth saving.

  4. How many DID NOT riot and loot?

    What percentage of the population of the rioted areas actually rioted? What percentage actually rioted AND looted? Two percent? Five percent?

    • Sadly many Venezuelans continue to loot and riot first chance they get. To some extent you have to understand, because many are literally hungry now. But the looting goes on every week.. if a truck with food breaks down on the road, it’s Mad Max 3.

      That and crime. Thievery and world-record crime are everywhere. At every grocery shop or abastos. And those are perpetrated by average people, not just the organized “pandillas” or drug delaers. The situation is so dire, and there is so much impunity, lack of police, that many, many ordinary people are stealing.

      • Juan, you could argue and many probably easily see for themselves, that the situation today is dire. Many admire the patience of the population, and obviously the call and mandate, by MUD – by Capriles, by Lopez – for peaceful resolution through democratic vote, is drawing admiration and attention.

        I would just like to know what percentage of the population actually rioted, and what percentage of those actually looted, during the days of the Caracazo.

        As Ulamog and others here would probably agree, creating riots and violence is a tactic to justify armed repression. As news media are prone to be flashy, fires and murders and such get headlines. Drawing unnecessary attention and emphasis on riots tends to polarize a population. It makes it seem as if many are dangerous rioters and looters, by nature. This makes peaceful people afraid.

        I would like to know how many actually rioted and looted during the Caracazo. I’ve read all the articles and comments, and didn’t see anything like “Estimates are that 5% of the population of 23 de Enero were actively involved in street violence, 6% of El Guarataro north of Ave. Urdaneta, 4% of Petare … etc..” Or “Rioting across the country involved similar percentages.”

        A lot of time and thought was put into the dark side of human nature which was revealed. That does exist, but it is not the prevalent, dominant, characteristic – we do not wake up in the morning thinking, “Oh, good! Another day! Now let’s see … today I can loot the corner store early before the rest of the city wakes up, then I can blow up a gas station, meet up with my fellow rioters and rob a bank … it’s going to be a productive day!” If the majority thought that way there would be no city at all within a week.

        So, OK, there is a dark side to humans! And I myself over my own life have punched two holes in wallboard, and two holes in interior doors. I have not punched any holes in people and have only been in small, very short fist-fights (one or two punches then a stand-off and back-down – everyone has seen those and many have been in them). I yell at the TV set, wad up paper napkins and throw them at faces on the screen. And boxing is a popular sport – watching two men beat the sheets out of each other – (rationality at its finest?). We call rioting and looting “bad” because we recognize that we can’t have a society based on that.

        How many were on the streets during the Caracazo? Clearly the majority stayed indoors.

        The true nature of man is much better illustrated by the amazing patience of the population today, and the crowds filling the central avenues and colas surely outnumber the violent rioters and looters. I’m not minimizing the situation or the frustration or the loss of property or the loss of lives at all. There are times for civil disobedience. It is sad that bad guys come to dominate by force and brutality. But the majority are not bad and brutal. I’m just trying to draw attention to that. It is much more rational and much more effective to resolve things rationally.

        Today is Sunday, a holy day in Christianity, a day of rest and reflection.

      • Juan – Yo vivi alli en Caracas por muchos anos. Me causa dolor ver lo que esta pasando, y sentir la frustracion. Hago lo que puedo aqui en los EEUU para que los socialistas no continuen con sus vainas exaltando a la pobreza y los desaventajados como si eso todo fuera la culpa de los “ricos”. Los Democrats son los ricos – hipocritas – Buffet, Gates, actores y directores “activistas” de Hollywood (pendejos). Trump representa la voz de la poblacion aqui que se canso de las hipoteticas enredaderas, inutiles, destructivas, del socialismo, pero parece que (equivocadamente) Trump no es popular aqui en este blog.

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