One Thousand, Ten Thousand, Fifty Thousand Dead

Twenty years ago, the Northern Venezuelan coast suffered one of the worst disasters in the country’s history. But we’ll never know how many people we lost.

Photo: Gabriel Osorio

On December 15th, 1999, after many days of continuous rain, the rivers of the Avila mountain flooded Caracas and, especially, towns across the central coast, to the north of the mountain, right on the narrow stretch of land that travelers landing on Maiquetía see for the first time. 

It was one of the most important catastrophes in the history of the country and without a doubt the most devastating that the generation born after the 1967 earthquake has seen. Thousands of Venezuelan families were scarred forever for the lives lost and what happened to survivors later. The landscape itself was hurt in the new drawing of our coastline. Urban destruction. The loss of an entire town: Carmen de Uria.

It was one of the most important catastrophes in the history of the country and without a doubt the most devastating that the generation born after the 1967 earthquake has seen.

It was very confusing then: the unanswered questions would begin to pile on from the first minute. In the media, we barely had enough resources to understand and inform. Private volunteers were quickly organized, from human resources to bikes and helicopters. People walked from the coast or communities by the old highway and arrived at Catia exhausted and muddy, like a Ferdinand Bellerman’s engraving. Mayor Ledezma asked people overcrowding the capital and spending their Christmas bonuses to wait a little, to alleviate traffic and help first responders bringing injured people to Caracas’ hospitals. I remember the frantic vibe of improvised shelters and the effects of flood on Northern Caracas, where there were also damages and victims. The weight of the idea that our sacred mountain was flooding over us. 

Chavismo, absolutely focused on achieving the approval of their new Constitution on December 15th to definitely assault Venezuelan institutionality, made it to the scene a lot more than late, just when disaster was consummated, without organizing an evacuation before the landslides. When they did show up, they did the same four things that they’ve ever done from then on: deny reality, offer help at a high price, commit abuses and steal public money.

Oh, and also spew anti-empire propaganda, especially by rejecting American help in the form of two U.S. Navy ships USS Nashville and USS Tortuga with personnel and equipment to re-build the area in January (after Chavez did accept an Army emergency team to help in Vargas.) 

In the state’s aid apparatus there were also legitimate solidarity and heroism from civilians and officers devoted to help while following the government’s orders. But chavismo showed for the first time its ability to kill in the same way that democratic governments did, the ones it despised and vowed to surpass: when security bodies took to the streets to stop the looting following the disaster, the accusations of abuses and patterns that would later be normalized with police death squads, OLP and FAES started. However, as it happens today, the topic of military and police abuses was replaced with the topic of the human and material impact of the tragedy. In the media, estimates by first responders, journalists and even a high-ranking executive of the Red Cross started popping up, saying that the number of deaths went anywhere from 1,000 to 80,000 people. 

No disaster allows for exact figures, but if the margin of error between the most conservative and the boldest scenario is of 70,000 passings, it’s evident that there’s a significant deficiency in the ability to measure the damage. 

Anthropologist Rogelio Altez, devoted to the study of disasters in Venezuelan society, has been taking a closer look into the very scarce evidence available about the Vargas disaster. He crosschecked the registry of the confirmed deceased, the missing and the unidentified victims with testimonies by survivors, first responders and families of the victims. He also compared the population figures before and after December 1999. 

Vargas population, before the disaster, was estimated at 308,313 people, while in December 2000, the result of the census was 230,566 people. The difference (77,737 less people) is a little over the estimated number of people that the Fondo Único Social is supposed to have sheltered (around 65,655,) so it’s reasonable to think that this drop in population meant refugees outside Vargas. Altez says that it’s reckless to say that 50,000 people died, because if that were the case, the three parishes that had it the worst, Caraballeda, Macuto and Naiguatá, would have been left almost empty: before December 1999, their combined population was of 67,858 people. 

How many people died, then? Altez counted 521 deaths in forensic records (those remains that were found) and 331 missing. Interviewing the families of the victims, he found that the reported number of dead or missing was more like the figures handled by morgues and cemeteries and not the total imagined with the rumors around 15,000 to 25,000 deaths. Nothing whatsoever has been able to confirm such a high human impact so far. 

Rogelio also found around 20 cases of minors said to be rescued, who didn’t actually reach their families. Lost children. 

The problem wasn’t only the conditions of the disaster, the rivers dragging people off to sea, mud covering houses, the effects of water and the tropics, the violence that came afterward; it was the inability to pick up the bodies and tend to the wounded. In fact, the PAHO elaborated manuals for registering bodies in disasters to correct the mistakes that were evident in our December of 1999. 

The one true thing is that we don’t have a solid figure on how many Venezuelans died. We buy and believe baseless numbers. We add a few thousand or dozens of thousands of deaths to each version of the story, not thinking that these aren’t numbers but people. We assume that 50,000 people died in Vargas because we normalize these deaths like we normalize homicide, and we don’t know how many of those occur, either. 

Chavismo showed for the first time its ability to kill in the same way that democratic governments did, the ones it despised and vowed to surpass: when security bodies took to the streets to stop the looting following the disaster, the accusations of abuses and patterns that would later be normalized with police death squads, OLP and FAES started.

From February 1989, we’ve lived through so many catastrophes that we’re used to speaking in apocalyptic terms. Like medieval peasants before a preacher announcing the end of the world, we stop seeing individuals and only see piles of dead bodies. 

As with the Caracazo, we’ll never know how many people died for sure. We’ll never know how much money was lost. The damages are incalculable because, to us, “incalculable” means not only that it’s too big, but that we lack the institutionality and the will to calculate. This is why the myths that we throw to cover the void of our knowledge last so long. Because they half-explain what nobody has been able to explain. 

The memory of The Tragedy, bred in chaos and deformed by the mythology of a nation gone to hell, is an important example of the tragedy of our memory: over and over we misunderstand what happens to us, over and over we leave certainty behind to keep the myth, over and over we go through tragedies that we refuse to understand.

Because there’s no indication that we’ve learned the lesson of how to interact with nature after this landslide. Or that we’re prepared if climate change causes a flood like this again, bringing us 900, 10,000 or 50,000 deaths.

Rafael Osío Cabrices

Journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero: cien crónicas empantanadas (La Hoja del Norte).