Venezuela’s Murderous “Democracy”: The Yumare Massacre 22 Years On

May 8th marks the 22nd anniversary of the Massacre of Yumare, one of the most infamous chapters of Venezuela’s murderous “model democracy.” But despite its place in the past, the event is frighteningly relevant for the struggles of the present.

Caracas. May 8th marks the 22nd anniversary of the Massacre of Yumare, one of the most infamous chapters of Venezuela’s murderous “model democracy.” But despite its place in the past, the event is frighteningly relevant for the struggles of the present.

Reconnecting With the Masses

Venezuela’s so-called “model democracy,” so frequently celebrated by foreign social scientists, was never particularly democratic. If anything, the “model” was one of stability: the exclusionary Pact of Punto Fijo signed in 1958 would guarantee nearly four decades of uninterrupted two-party rule. But while this system was unresponsive to the demands of the poorer segments of society, it would be many years before these demands would come to effectively challenge the state.

In the 1960s and 70s, low-level guerrilla warfare attracted and absorbed the energies of the most revolutionary of Venezuelans, many of whom had recognized the anti-democratic nature of puntofijismo as early as 1960. But government repression and pacification strategies were largely effective, by the end of the decade, in both inflicting heavy casualties on the scattered guerrilla fronts, and more crucially in cutting off the organic linkages between the guerrillas and their mass base. By the 1970s, the armed struggle was largely defeated (the Communist Party had withdrawn support in the mid-60s), and militants were forced into an extended period of reflection and self-criticism.

One effort to reconnect with the masses took place in the electoral realm, through parties such as ex-guerrilla (and current opposition opportunist) Teodoro Petkoff’s MAS and Alfredo Maneiro’s (also an ex-guerrilla) more grassroots Radical Cause (LCR). But many, notably students and urban activists, were skeptical about the effectiveness of electoral politics, and with some justification: government “pacification” sought precisely to corral radical forces into the enemy territory of the electoral realm, where bipartisan domination reigned. History vindicates this skepticism: while these parties were not unimportant in a general sense (and LCR specifically made significant contributions to popular organizing), none earned more than around 5% of the vote during the 1970s.

The “Socialization” of Rebellion and Repression

It was in the heart of this period of self-critical reflection on the left that economic crisis hit: beginning with the 1983 devaluation of the Bolívar, known as “Black Friday” (part of the Venezuelan government’s first heterodox effort at neoliberal reform) the economy went into a tailspin. Structural adjustment efforts meant that it would be the population that would bear the brunt of these macroeconomic difficulties: as median incomes crashed and unemployment increased, so too did everyday costs skyrocket, and unsurprisingly, levels of societal violence.

Revolutionaries and government alike were confronted with a popular rebelliousness. While this should have been an improved situation for the former, who were, after all, looking to reconnect with the masses, the government response hindered their efforts to wriggle out of clandestinity. According to Roland Denis, longtime radical organizer, as popular rebellion spread horizontally throughout society, so too did repression cast a wide net: hence the birth of what Denis terms the “socially-repressive state,” one which rather than fighting the guerrilla begins instead to fight the people whose demands it cannot meet. Alongside the everyday violence of hunger and insecurity, there appeared a “socialization of violence” by the repressive structures of the state. Or rather, whose demands it would not meet, since a series of corrupt and reactionary Venezuelan governments had abandoned all pretension toward a social will, an effort to perform social functions within society.

In this context of socialized violence, and groping toward a resolution of the contradiction of the failure of the guerrilla struggle, many revolutionaries skeptical of electoral centrism turned to what was deemed the “Social-Historic Current” (CHS), an effort to re-found mass revolutionary movements beyond clandestine organizing. The “Social-Historic Current” was a broad effort to come to terms with the failures of the guerrilla struggle. In it, according to Denis, a key participant at the time, various sectors came together, from non-orthodox Marxists to radical Christians to Afro and Indigenous movements, all united broadly under a budding Bolivarianism. This is a movement that sought to resurface as a public current, but one which also represented a critique of the existing legal leftist parties as well as a critique of the state. The CHS was, in short, a groundbreaking effort at constructing a locally-rooted bottom-up method of organizing, one which placed primary emphasis on local self-control of political, cultural, and economic organization.

The response by Venezuela’s “model democracy,” which had spent decades attempting to de-fang the guerrilla through “pacification” campaigns, was as unambiguous as it was ironic. The Venezuelan state in its “socially-repressive” phase could not afford to allow mass organizing in these newly-rebellious sectors: the “Social-Historic Current” would meet the “socially-repressive state” head-on.

A State Policy of Massacre

But before there was Yumare, there was Cantaura. On October 4th 1982, 1,500 army regulars encircled 41 alleged members of the Américo Silva guerrilla front in the eastern Venezuelan state of Anzoategui, while four aircraft dropped a total of seventeen 250-pound bombs on the location. A total of 23 guerrillas, mostly from the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) organization, were killed while participating in an unarmed meeting between guerrilla and student leaders. Foreshadowing later tactics, the meeting had been infiltrated by government intelligence agents, and the victims were dressed in military garb to simulate armed combat.

According to a recent historical analysis by Aporrea.org, the Yumare Massacre has its roots in the infiltration of the CHS by four agents of the state security agency, DISIP, who operated within the Current for more than a year. It was these infiltrators, Norberto Rebanales, Alirio Rebanales, Bergenis Beraciarte and Rafael Rojas, who then proposed a meeting to discuss the development of the CHS, and it was these same government infiltrators who selected a rural location in which to hold the fateful event. DISIP planning for the massacre began in March, a full two months prior to the event.

Once organizers had arrived at the chosen location, driven by the infiltrators themselves, they were captured by the DISIP, tortured, and executed. Autopsies showed that the victims were shot through the head and chest with military weaponry, and that some had been shot execution-style at point-blank range. At some point, members of the SHC captured and tortured elsewhere were brought to the site and executed as well. The total death toll was nine. At some point, a guerrilla ambush was simulated, and after the massacre, the corpses were dressed in military fatigues and paraded before an uncritical press, which duly repeated the official line regarding the massacre.

The novel hope represented by the “Social-Historic Current” was embodied in the victims of Yumare. To mention only a few: Dilia Rojas was a barrio organizer and founder of the Carabobo Neighborhood Association (who had previously participated in the epic 1976 tunnel escape from Cuartel San Carlos in Caracas), Pedro Jiménez a transport union organizer, Ronald Morao was active in the Popular Culture Front and edited a radical newspaper in Catia, José Silva founded the Francisco de Miranda Cultural Center in Valencia, Simon Romero (not to be confused with the lazy and reactionary New York Times editor of the same name) was an accomplished singer-songwriter, and Rafael Quevedo was a student leader at the Pedagogic University of Caracas.

While there certainly remains in these two massacres the targeted policy used against the guerrillas, we can nevertheless discern a trend, and one which overlaps directly with the onset of economic crisis and the concomitant social rebellion. While the Cantaura Massacre targeted some actual combatants engaged in the Américo Silva Front, Yumare was an attack on unarmed social and cultural leaders, whose activities were nevertheless forced into clandestinity. This is why Denis, who lost some close friends at Yumare, nevertheless deems Cantaura “the end of the guerrilla struggle.” And Yumare, with its unashamed killing of non-combatants, prefigured the Amparo Massacre two years later in 1988, in which 15 fishermen were slaughtered in Apure under the bogus claim that they were preparing a guerrilla attack. And both of these bloodbaths represented a perverse prelude to the 1989 Caracazo riots, after which government troops would be sent to the poor barrios to slaughter thousands.

Henry López Sisco’s Bloody Trail

If there is a single bloody thread that ties these massacres together, his name is Henry López Sisco. López Sisco, former head of state intelligence agency DISIP, was in charge of nearly the entire Venezuelan state policy of massacre and targeted killings, including not only Cantaura, Yumare, and El Amparo, but also the 1976 torture and murder of Socialist League founder (and father of the recent Vice President of the same name) Jorge Rodríguez and countless others.

In 1989, after a sham trial in which the victim’s families were threatened and not allowed to testify, a military judge ruled that since the victims were themselves guilty of an amorphous charge of “rebellion,” the DISIP was not guilty of criminal activity in their deaths. A higher military court would later contradict this decision, finding various contradictions in the original ruling. These included: the fact that photographs from the scene showed vegetation unsuitable for an ambush, the manner in which the victims were killed, the lack of police casualties in the alleged ambush, the lack of any indication that the victims had fired weapons, etc.

In 2005, the National Assembly of Venezuela created a “Special Commission to Investigate the Murder, Disappearance, and Torture of Venezuelans During the Decades of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. However, the commission lasted only five months, before being dissolved amid budget issues, but not without first carrying out significant research into the crimes of the era. At present, the lawyers previously associated with the commission are working in the courts and the Interior Ministry to fully investigate these events. 22 years later, this investigation is nearing completion. In September of 2006, some 29 participants in the Yumare Massacre were charged, including both then-president Jaime Lusinchi and López Sisco himself. Moreover, given the centrality of the latter’s role, he was ordered immediately detained, but managed (as is all-too-often the case) to slip out of the country. López Sisco, this mastermind of the Venezuelan political massacre, is currently seeking political asylum in Costa Rica.

Today, we cannot let this event pass as a mere unfortunate episode from the past, for it weighs equally heavily on the present. Firstly, by remembering the Yumare Massacre, we can properly understand how drastically Venezuela has changed in a few short years. Slowly but surely, police forces are being purged and the DISIP is being reined in. As a result, thousands of revolutionaries representing hundreds of organizations that would have been forced into clandestinity in the past are now able to operate above ground, openly disseminating revolutionary ideas and recruiting new members. No matter what our inevitable critiques of the equally inevitable shortcomings of the Bolivarian Revolution, we should never forget how things were before.

More importantly, however, is that the Yumare Massacre, and the state violence of the 1980s more generally, helps to tell us who the Venezuelan opposition really is and what it represents. Behind the discourse of unity, behind the nominally social-democratic orientation of the anti-Chávez opposition’s main party A New Era (UNT), lies the ugly face of a violent past. Without even a hint of irony or apology, former opposition “unity candidate” and UNT head Manuel Rosales worked alongside the very same Henry López Sisco, his security chief in Zulia State from 2002 on. Later, upon being questioned, Rosales insisted, somewhat incredibly, that he knew nothing of López Sisco’s past when he named him security chief. Despite his best efforts to distance himself from the “socially-repressive state” of the past, Rosales’ “New Era” promises to be but a murderous repetition of the all-too-familiar Old Era of Venezuela’s “model democracy.”

George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at U.C. Berkeley, who is currently in Venezuela writing a people’s history of the Bolivarian Revolution, entitled We Created Him. He can be reached by email at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.