Venezuelans Commemorate 26th Anniversary of the Caracazo

Dozens gathered in the South Cemetery of Caracas on Friday to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the "Caracazo", the 1989 popular rebellion which saw Venezuela's poor and excluded majority rise up against the IMF structural adjustment package imposed by President Carlos Andres Perez.

By Lucas Koerner
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The armed forces massacred thousands of people on February 27th 1989 (Archives United Socialist Party of Venezuela)
The armed forces massacred thousands of people on February 27th 1989 (Archives United Socialist Party of Venezuela)

Caracas, February 27, 2015 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Dozens gathered in the South Cemetery of Caracas on Friday to commemorate the 26th anniversary of the "Caracazo", the 1989 popular rebellion which saw Venezuela's poor and excluded majority rise up against the IMF (International Monetary Fund) structural adjustment package imposed by President Carlos Andres Perez. 

Popularly known by the abbreviation of the date, "27-F", the Caracazo is solemnly remembered as one of the most brutal instances of state repression in contemporary Venezuelan history.

Responding to two days of popular social unrest against his government, Perez suspended constitutional guarantees and sent the armed forces in to "restore order". The result was mass human rights violations, including killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances.

Over the course of 72 hours, somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people were killed or disappeared by the state, although the real figure is still unknown due to the existence of mass graves. 

Organized by the National Human Rights Network, Friday's ceremony was attended by survivors, human rights activists, local political leaders, and students of the National University of the Armed Forces (UNEFA). It was also broadcast on national television. 

Assembled beside the 27-F monument, those present accompanied survivors and family members of the dead, as they presented testimonials, mourned the loss of loved ones, and honored the memory of those who rose up. 

"He disappeared, they disappeared him": Survivors Tell Their Stories 

One the women who participated in the ceremony was Francisca León, 75, of La Vega, who recounted how her fourteen year old son José was disappeared. 

"My experience was very hard, I was working. In those days, they would knock us down with the water cannon. The mayor, who was Ledezma, would knock us down all of the time in order that they could keep paying us [only] every 6 months [...] And one day, my son went to the house of an aunt. My son was hardly 14 years old, and he disappeared."

"I only know that I saw him, and he told me, 'I'm going to my aunt's house.' And I don't know where he is now. He disappeared, they disappeared him," she told Venezuelanalysis. 

Silvia Zerpa, 63, from Cementerio Santa Rosa also lost her seventeen year old son who was shot by soldiers through his bedroom window on March 1, 1989. 

"[...] Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I stayed shut in my house with my kids glued to the television. When they said they were going to suspend the constitutional guarantees, I saw it and said, 'my god they're going to kill people.' I went running to see what was happening with my children, but they were calm, watching television, innocent kids." 

"At four in the afternoon, I was seated on the bed near the window. My husband comes and says, 'Look what's going to happen, Silvia, they are going to kill people,' and I went running upstairs where my children were. They were sleeping, and the girl was playing, so I returned to the bedroom, I see the guys  [soldiers] who are pointing [their guns], so my husband yells "get down, they're going to shoot," and I duck under the bed. But it wasn't us they were shooting at, but my son in the window on the floor above. When I run upstairs, [I find him] sprawled out on the bed with a bullet in his chest," she recounted. 

Ms. Zerpa went on to explain that it was only because her brother knew someone who worked in the morgue that she was able to retrieve her son's remains amidst "mountains of dead". 

If not, it's possible that her son would have ended up as one of the countless unidentified bodies that have since been laid to rest in a mass tomb in Caracas' South Cemetery. 

For his part, Óscar Ortega, 51, relates how his experience as a young man during 27-F compelled him to join the struggle in the streets alongside the people.

"In that moment I said 'I need to be where the people are now, in the street.' In fact, many of us saw from the Banco Venezuela building how the state security organs and the army acted inhumanely against the people, and immediately we joined the masses to participate in this rebellion [...] They shot me [...] It was a very very hard moment." 

"However," he added, "I think that the more the state repressed the people, the more the people armed itself with courage and continued the struggle, [...] I was lucky not to lose my life on that date. Nonetheless, I was present the whole time supporting the people in that rebellion that was totally legitimate." 

"The Undefeated People" 

Twenty six years on from the massacre and the Caracazo continues to be a watershed moment in Venezuelan history. For many activists today, it not only represents the violent repression of a brutal state apparatus, but also a spirit of rebellion. 

"In the current moment, February 27 represents the tip of the spear from the epistemological, strategic, and political points of view, in which this process denominated the Bolivarian Revolution is initiated. February 27 is the historic reference par excellence, its essence based in the rebellion of the people," explains Mr. Ortega, who is a member of the Augusto Cesar Sandino Foundation based in the revolutionary 23 de enero neighborhood. 

For Ortega, it was precisely the macabre events of February 27 that spurred a group of young officers led by Colonel Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías "to take up arms against a government that was oppressing the people" on February 4, 1992, catapulting Chavez into the national spotlight and prefiguring his electoral triumph in 1998. 

"Without this date [27-F], we would not be talking about a revolutionary process at the present moment."

Francisca León expressed a similar view of 27-F as a moment of rupture between the neoliberal pacted democracy of yesterday and the revolutionary society of today.

"Yesterday [in the Fourth Republic] my daily bread was denied, and now thanks to the Revolution, we can speak. You are interviewing me thanks to this Revolution, [...] And here in my government, my vote is respected. Yesterday, it was a simulacrum, it wasn't respected. I chose them [the politicians], I supported them, and they didn't take care of me. They never gave me sports nor healthcare or education. [...] Today, we all have faces, people's faces, [...] I am living and savoring a beautiful Revolution." 

Today, the popular uprising and bloody massacre that mark the event of 27-F are remembered by the slogan of the time, "the undefeated people". 

For Ortega, this slogan refers to "a people that never gives in, a people that never surrenders, never renounces its rightful objectives and demands, no matter the repression, no matter the difficulties."

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