Speaking at a rally held in the Caracas neighborhood of Petare, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez referred to the uprising, known as the Caracazo, as the day “when the people woke up”.
“[The Caracazo] opened the doors of a new history and here we are, 22 years later,” he said.
Understood to be the historical antecedent to Venezuela’s current Bolivarian Revolution, the street rebellions of February 27, 1989 swept across the country in defiance of a structural adjustment package implemented by the International Monetary Fund under the presidency of Carlos Andres Perez.
Spurred on by egregious price hikes in public transportation and scarcity of important consumer commodities, street riots, looting and spontaneous political protests rocked the poor areas of the capital Caracas and other urban centers throughout the national territory.
The protests lasted for more than two days as the Perez government implemented a curfew and sent the armed forces into the streets to put down the uprising.
Although the official death toll resulting from the massacre that ensued has been put at 300, experts and witnesses estimate the number of disappearances as a result of the repression to be closer to three thousand.
“Thousands of Venezuelans were massacred in 1989 by the so-called ‘democrats’ who today accuse me of being a tyrant and who today say they are the hope of the nation,” Chavez said, pointing out that neither the United Nations nor the Organization of American States came out against the Perez government after the bloodshed.
As part of the commemoration events on Sunday, the Venezuelan Public Attorney’s Office oversaw the burial of more than seventy cadavers determined by forensic anthropologists to be victims of state security forces during the Caracazo.
The cadavers, exhumed from a common grave, were laid to rest in the General de Sur cemetery in Caracas where a monument was erected in their honor and in remembrance of all those murdered during the uprising.
“These acts will never happen again in Venezuela… We will never allow an official or police force to act as they did during the Caracazo,” said Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz.
According to Diaz, the security bodies of the current government represent a drastic break with the past because they “respect life and understand what it means to respect human rights and love the Venezuelan people”, she said.
With respect to bringing those responsible for the violence of the Caracazo to justice, the Attorney General informed that the investigations are on-going. “We will continue with the investigative work. We already have some information to indict some people,” Diaz said.
As the first popular and widespread revolt against the free-market policies of the Washington Consensus, the importance of the Caracazo in relation to Venezuela and Latin America’s leftward turn cannot be understated.
According to Chavez, the rebellion marked the “beginning of the 21st century, not only [for Venezuela] but for the world”.
Indeed, the events of February 1989 served not only to shake up the institutional architecture of neoliberalism but it also served as inspiration to Chavez himself who had been planning a revolutionary movement within the military for years.
“February 27…was a catalyst that drove us patriotic military officers,” the head of state recalled during the rally on Sunday.
Three years after the Caracazo, the then lieutenant colonel alongside a group of other military officers attempted a rebellion against the Venezuelan government of Carlos Andres Perez. Although the uprising ultimately failed and Chavez was imprisoned for subversion, his call for change resonated with the Venezuelan public and led to a significant boost in the charismatic leader’s popularity.
After being released from prison in 1994, Chavez built a movement nationwide and later ran for president in 1998, winning by a landside. In 1999, the new President called for a constitutional convention, ushering in his Bolivarian Revolution and marking Venezuela’s definitive break with the imported economic and social policies of the nation’s past political establishment.
Venezuela like Egypt?
Refuting claims that Venezuela is somehow on the brink of a popular revolt, Chavez affirmed on Sunday that the protests and revolutions currently sweeping across the Arab world are of the same character of what already took place in Caracas in 1989.
“Yesterday there were more large protests in Cairo and in many other countries. Right now there are gigantic popular protests against an economic model that still causes more poverty,” he asserted.
“A little while ago I was watching an analyst who was saying that what happened in Egypt is about to happen here. How ignorant this man is. He doesn’t realize that what happened in Egypt is what happened here 22 years ago. This already happened in Venezuela,” the President argued.
Chavez said his conservative opposition’s origins are linked to previous governments’ repressive policies, and that he is confident that he will emerge victorious in the nation’s presidential elections next year.
“[The opposition] will not return [to power], not by elections and not by any other way that they invent or that their masters in the Pentagon and the Southern Command of the US imperialist Army invent,” the head of state assured.
“In 2012, the country will decide if it is to continue on the path of liberation or if it is to return to the years of massacres. In December 2012, I’m sure that the people will elect me again as president of Venezuela,” he said.