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domingo, febrero 27, 2005

El Caracazo

Today is the anniversary of the 1989 poor people's uprising in Caracas, known as the Caracazo.

Throughout the 1980s, neoliberal economic measures brought about growing poverty in Venezuela, with more and more families finding it impossible to make ends meet. The last straw came on February 27, 1989, when President Carlos Andres Perez, complying with the IMF, announced the imposition of "austerity measures" which dramatically increased the prices of gas and public transit. The barrios in the hills of Caracas erupted.

In Caracas and other cities across the country, poor people took to the streets. In many areas they systematically looted grocery stores, arguing that is the government tried to keep them from the essentials of life, they would take what they needed for themselves. Perez declared a state of emergency and called in the armed forces, ordering them to shoot the rioters. Many obeyed, and death tolls for the Caracazo range from 257 (the official estimate) to over 2,000.

But many other soldiers refused to shoot, some instead organizing the people to carry on looting in a more orderly manner, and much of the armed forces was radicalized by the experience. The Caracazo not only ended Perez's political career, but in the end brought down the two major parties, Accion Democratica and Copei, that had jointly ruled Venezuela for forty years.

One of the soldiers influenced by the Caracazo was Hugo Chavez, then a young paratrooper. He went on to lead a coup against the government in 1992, which failed but catapulted him to popularity among Venezuelan people demanding a change. In 1998 he ran for President calling for a "revolution" and a new constitution, and won, inaugurating the current "Fifth Republic" of Venezuela.

In the historic town center there is a wall with a long mural depicting Venezuela's history, from the time of the indigenous people up to today. (Sometime soon I'll get some photos up here.) One of the final scenes is of the Caracazo. A friend was showing me the mural and explaining the history, piece by piece. When we arrived at the Caracazo he said (I'm paraphrasing and translating roughly here), "That was when Chavez got his start. But if it hadn't been Chavez it would have been someone else. The people were ready."

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