What was El Caracazo? Part III

27F filled our homes with ghosts, with espantos. The faces of the dead, which some tried to erase from memory. The sense of what it's like to lose any trace of the rule of law. The voices of the prophets who told us that other tragedies would come. We were never the same after those days in 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 have the final instalment of 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).

ROC: The consequences of those days in 1989 became evident immediately, and some can still be felt in today’s Venezuela.

Pérez’s government was unable to complete its reform agenda. El Gocho became the target of an unprecedented campaign of vilification: everyone, starting with his party, AD, ended up working for the same goal: to oust him. His unpopularity — which led to his impeachment in 1993 — is one of the reasons the putsch attempts in 1992 were praised by so many people.

Meanwhile, NGOs like COFAVIC, Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz and Provea struggled to pressure the Pérez government —and its succesors— to accept responsibilities, find the disappeared, and compensate the victims’ families. First, they forced Fiscalía General to order exhumations in La Peste, in 1990, which helped to confirm the burial site of some of the dead during the riots. In 1991, they sued the government when a fire in La Peste erased, presumably, some of valuable evidence.

In 1999,  judges ordered the case be kept open because no one had been held accountable yet, but nothing really happened. COFAVIC had to go to the Inter American system, where the Commission on Human Rights had been calling, since 1995, for the Venezuelan State to identify and punish the officers who killed people. To this date, aside some minor measures and decisions, the police and military officers involved in abuses during El Caracazo have not been punished.    

Venezuela’s human rights community — the network of human rights organisations that later joined in the so-called Foro por la Vida — was born largely in response to the Caracazo. Chavismo has kept them busy, fighting against all kinds of abuses. But the human rights side of the Caracazo story faded from view in the years that followed. That wasn’t the case for the Caracazo itself, which was established among common people, in Caracas especially, as a permanent menace that could come back at any time.  

CR: I remember the saqueo syndrome. Months and even years after those events, every time we visited the area around Plaza Bolívar we were vaguely concerned that something could happen. Every now and then you would hear a wave of santamarías coming down, one after another, when the rumor of a saqueo would spread through the area. One December my dad and I went downtown to buy some Christmas presents and we ended up trapped inside a store because one man entered screaming an incomprehensible perorata in which the only clear word was saqueo. The shop owner wasn’t about to take any chances: he shut down every access without a second thought. Nothing happened.

Because El Sacudón changed everything, not just our political history.

In Caracas at least, people learned to fear another estallido, just as they learned to fear tragedy after heavy rains after December 1999. Media chiefs embraced a new dogma of self-censorship: never broadcast looting. The city never saw itself again as a quiet Caribbean metropolis. We stopped trusting each other. Upper middle-class neighborhoods closed down their streets and built checkpoints, looking at the cerros and their inhabitants with contempt and horror. Crime began to rise. The seeds of polarization and chronic conflict were laid on fertile ground, all covered by the ashes of the Caracazo eruption.  

It’s a complex legacy, that of the Caracazo, not very easy to contemplate in hindsight, because some of it was hidden from view, in the closed circles of military men with putschist ambitions who saw that the moment to strike was approaching, despite the tenacious struggle by human rights organisations to get justice from a State more interested in covering up the past.

Soon, we reached a point when the country just didn’t want to talk about it anymore. It’s a bit intriguing that the subject is so seldom touched on in art. In fiction, 27F wasn’t at all as explored as in history and journalism; just a few exceptions like Hector Bujanda’s novel La ultima vez comes to mind.

La Vida Bohème sang about it, but no one else did. In cinema, it’s been above all the interest of the Chavista “Cinecitta”, the now abandoned state-owned structure to produce propaganda films, and only one movie, Roman Chalbaud’s El Caracazo (2005) embraced the subject with the same objectivity of a Leni Riefenstahl or a Sergei Eisenstein (though not with the same artistry).  

Notwithstanding the shadowed zones of the Caracazo trauma, Venezuelan society could see the evident trace of the 1989 disaster in the spectacular collapse of the AD-COPEI political order, in the way the old barons like Rafael Caldera left their original parties to fund new ones, or in the ascent of outsiders, via regional elections, like Causa R’s Aristóbulo Istúriz and Andrés Velásquez.  

Apparently many missed the overwhelming irony that El Caracazo, the worst military human rights abuse Venezuela had witnessed in decades, ended up helping an Army man who, as fate had it, didn’t participate in the repression at all: Hugo Chávez spent the days between February 27 and March 2nd, 1989, in bed with measles.

As the anthropologist Paula Vásquez has said, after 1989 the political parties realized that they didn’t control the Armed Forces anymore. By summoning the army to fulfill a task that humiliated the police and DISIP, the sons of the Punto Fijo-pact political order opened a Pandora’s Box that no one has been able to shut since.

So, we can hardly talk about the return of the military to political power without considering Caracazo as one a turning points. Witin the FAN, there were some changes, starting with a new subject in the cadets’ curriculum: human rights.

And as people like Alberto Garrido and Chávez himself repeated, 27F gave new strength to the conspirators logias around the MBR200 (Chávez, Arias Cárdenas, Baduel et al, the guys who took that oath at the Samán de Güere) and other officers like aviator William Izarra.

From then on, we all knew what this society was capable of. And what the institutions charged with protecting it were capable of, too. 

CR: Centro Comercial Anauco was a little shopping plaza in the San Bernardino neighborhood adjacent to Central Caracas, where my family used to go to buy groceries, books and toys or have an ice cream. It was practically erased by the saqueos. We never went back again after we saw on TV the classic image of 27F: a man carrying in the premises of the Anauco a complete side of beef in his bare hands. Some years later, I visited a friend and found at her family apartment that huge wall full of CD’s and that powerful HiFi equipo.  It really amazed me. She was a middle class girl like me, studying at La Católica thanks to a partial grant. Chama, where in hell did you guys got all those CD’s?!, I asked imprudently. She replied with a giggle: Mis hermanos los saquearon del Anauco.

My mother had advised me to never ask that kind of questions. Just then, I understood why.