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Opinion and Analysis: Law and Justice

Laura Roldán: A Cloak of Impunity Still Hangs over the Caracazo

2017 marks 28 years since the Caracazo, the social earthquake that changed the history of Venezuela in the 20th Century. There are no concrete figures, but many analysts speak of more than three thousand victims who died at the hands of the military repression unleashed by the then-government of Carlos Andres Perez, when the Venezuelan people rose up against the consequences of a neoliberal adjustment package on February 27th 1989. Laura Roldán, coordinator of the Support Network for Justice and Peace – an organization dedicated to the advocacy and defense of human rights – evaluates the conduct of the state during the event and discusses other cases of massacres and mass graves that occurred last year in Barlovento and Cariaco.

Is there an approximate figure for the victims, deceased, and disappeared of the Caracazo?

The figures in the Caracazo are still not totally clear. It’s speculated that there are more than three thousand people among the disappeared, the tortured, and the murdered.

What I can tell you is when the government at that moment decided that it did not have to investigate and establish the responsibility of those who committed these violations, many cases were sidelined.

In 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (CIDH) issued a ruling that ordered compensation for just 45 families of the victims.

There are even bodies that have not been found nor identified. Regarding La Peste*, we know that 300 cadavers were recorded, but it could still be more.

What was that opportune moment when the Venezuelan state ruled that it had to investigate?

In that context, the denunciations of human rights violations were not investigated with impartiality, promptness, or in an expedited way. In that era, it was even hard for us to comprehend that this was a human rights violation.

The Public Prosecutor’s office (MP) in that era was negligent and minimally efficient when it came to establishing responsibilities or opening investigations, shielded by a completely complacent Supreme Court that never safeguarded the rights of the poorest people. The result was that many of the cases denounced in that era never led to indictments. We never had a verdict on those responsible for the massacres, the arrests, or the disappearances of the victims.

This brought COFAVIC [Committee of Families of the Victims] to lead a process of denunciations in international organisms that produced in August 2002 the ruling by the CIDH against the Venezuelan government. In that era, the government was headed by Commander Chávez who was responsible for recognizing that there were violations and indemnifying the 45 victims. But President Chávez decided that not only was the government going to indemnify them, but it was also going to broaden the recognition for other victims. Later, more denunciations would be directed by way of the MP and the Ombudsman’s office.

Sadly, indemnization or reparations to the families of the victims is not enough, because today there is still a cloak of impunity hanging over the Caracazo.

But what can we say about those who were implicated?

In that moment, the order for the suspension of [constitutional] guarantees, with the state of exception, came directly from the President of the Republic (Carlos Andres Perez) in the council of ministers. Then, in turn, it was relayed to the entire chain of command. Who are they? The Metropolitan Police of that time, the PTJ that is today the CICPC (special investigative police force) and Defense Minister Italo Valle Alliegro, who was responsible for the army. But really who opened fire on the people was not the minister, nor the president, but simply those functionaries who were there and who sadly had the task of confronting the people.

How do you evaluate the response of the state, from the government of Chavez, in reviewing and attending to this historic case?

As a social organization with 32 years of work, we applaud and recognize every good policy in the area of human rights. With President Chavez at the helm, there was a change in policies in the area of human rights, which we all celebrate. He received us and we presented him with an agenda for life and for human rights in which every organization made contributions regarding what from its own viewpoint should be improved. Some things were done, others not, and the effort is to be recognized. But it’s not enough to have political will, it’s not enough to have a normative legal framework in force, which we have; rather, what’s indispensable is the attitude of the public servants at the time of implementing those laws.

The Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz has in these years tried to do an efficient job, but there’s still much to be done. The MP, after taking on penal responsibility for these investigations by way of the reform of the Organic Penal Process Code, has succeeded in training and educating prosecutors in human rights – they have criminalistics departments, human rights vulnerability units. But even so, we are still speaking of impunity in many cases that are not resolved in a reasonable timetable. We have a weak, complacent judicial branch, which in our view suffers from astounding procedural delays. 

Yes, there have been advances in public policies in the area of human rights, but it appears that that isn’t enough.

Last year, there were cases of massacres and mass graves in Barlovento and Cariaco, incidents that moreover received a great deal of media attention. Can any parallels be drawn between those cases and the Caracazo?

No, for me, they are totally different events. The Caracazo was a massacre of a people who came out to protest what we were living through in that era: problems of shortages, inflation, hoarding of essential products, the increase in transportation fares, and above all what was crucial was the increase in the price of gasoline. I cannot say that this is similar to what happened in Barlovento and Cariaco, which arose from a response plan to organized crime together with insecurity.

From the very moment that the OLP was launched, the Support Network repudiated it and declared that it should be eliminated because it didn’t satisfy the needs of the population and was not contributing anything. In these two cases, we see the mobilization of the military, but not in response to a protest by the population, but rather in order combat the high levels of insecurity and organized crime among those sectors. Unfortunately, we see once again the same conduct of some military officials, though in another context.

And how to you evaluate the response of the state in these two cases?

As you said, they are emblematic, headline-grabbing cases. In the case of Barlovento, we already have an indictment – a team was rapidly assembled by the MP, the CICPC, and the military. So in less than a month and a half, we already found the bodies of the kids. The final result was to have found the bodies of the twelve murdered, and an indictment was achieved against those military officials.

Sadly, the situation continues. The violation of human rights persists in different contexts. Personally, I insist that it should be prohibited to forget: these situations cannot be allowed to recur. Therefore, it’s important for the events of the Caracazo to always be in our memory and on our agenda, above all for the authorities.

You said that military officials are not trained for these tasks. Is the solution to train them or not to include them in these types of operations?

Beginning in 2006, there is a police reform in the country – a change in paradigm, of the culture of what we understand to be the institution of the police. With regard to this, the Support Network is a pioneer in affirming that it’s not enough to denounce a police officer and send him or her to jail. We began to think much deeper and to collect signatures to petition the National Assembly of that era to reform the police. Many people told us that this wasn’t going to happen. But it was achieved.

All that was necessary was the political will of one person, President Chavez, in order to launch this entire process. We managed to organize ourselves with tons of people and other groups in order to attain a change towards a new police. Unfortunately, I don’t know what happened along the way in that we have not succeeded in getting the institution and the functionaries to change their mentality of being arbitrary and abusive with the citizenry.

There were many advances along this road, and yet, you see denunciations in which the National Bolivarian Police is involved. There are regulations that say how they should act. There is even a Security University, dedicated to the education and training of non-military police. They are even trained to handle protests, with a division specialized for that. History tells us that when the military is involved in this type of operation, the results are terrible and they are not the ones tasked with controlling protests or managing citizen security.

Are there other cases like that of La Peste or the massacre of Barlovento?

There are many organizations that have put forth denunciations regarding the OLP. In the Support Network, if a victim or a family member does not want to make a denunciation, we don’t mention them in our figures. We document the cases but the decision of the family members is respected. We accompany them in all sorts of ways, but it doesn’t reach the point of a legal denunciation. With this I mean that in the Support Network itself, there are very few cases. We have cases of people who come to us as victims of the OLP but don’t want to make a denunciation out of fear of the consequences that might arise, although there should not be any type of consequences.

Within the Support Network, we only have the case of Barlovento.

Nearly three decades after the Caracazo, what message would you send to the Venezuelan state and society?

First, we pay homage to all of those men and women who in spite of the pain took on the denunciation and the vindication of their loved ones, something that we will always honor. Then, our solidarity with all of the victims of the Caracazo and the defenders of human rights who worked together with many families to establish responsibilities and take on the defense of human rights as a life option.

What do we ask of the government institutions in this moment? That in the investigations the victims be heard and responsibilities are established in a reasonable time frame. Family members should receive attention and here the top leaders of the state have an important responsibility in ensuring that there are well-trained and capable people to control social commotions.

We call on all police officers to carry out their duties, always in accordance with the norms. We have manuals, regulations that oversee the police and even military conduct in situations of danger when human rights and dignity should be protected and respected.

We also want to remind all those who feel that their rights have been violated to make a denunciation, because this strengthens the constitutional framework and the rule of law despite the fact that our institutions sometimes appear weakened.

We have to have an independent and strengthened judicial branch. Our judicial branch has never been reformed – just a few band-aids to modernize the system – but never have we been able to examine its structural problems.

* La Peste is a mass grave in the South Cemetery in Caracas where the bodies of countless civilians gunned down by the military were buried during the Caracazo.