Thirty Years after Venezuela’s ‘Caracazo’: A Conversation with Livia Vargas

Cira Pascual Marquina Vargas-Gonzalez teaches social theory at the School of Sociology in Caracas’ Universidad Central de Venezuela. She has published essays and books, including Entre libertad e historicidad (Between liberty and historicity, El Perro y la Rana, 2007). She is currently completing a doctorate at the Universidad Federal de Ouro Preto (UFOP) in Brasil. In this exclusive interview, Vargas discusses the challenges that the Caracazo presents to historians.

Thirty years have gone by since the Caracazo. Could you briefly contextualize that historical moment talking about the role of the people and the government’s response?

Contemporary historiography considers 1989 to be a turning point, marking a “before” and “after” for revolutionary projects. It is in 1989 that the Berlin Wall comes down. That event is a cherished symbol for the hegemonic historical narrative, which uses it to mark the end of history and the defeat of the socialist project. In the world’s eyes, 1989 represents the end of “communism” and the undeniable victory of neoliberalism as the only viable way of organizing society and going forward. The year 1989 also stands for the closure of the Cold War, and it initiates a reshaping of hegemonic relations in the geopolitical and geoeconomic world order. The truth is that 1989 represents a great defeat for the working class and for the world’s revolutionaries.

However, our own [revolutionary] historiography has to question the usual way of presenting 1989 [looking for other ways to approach that critical year]. In Venezuela, 1989 has a singular character, inasmuch as it breaks with the historiographic, social, economic and political schemes operating in the world up to that time. At the same time as neoliberal capitalism was rapidly advancing in fertile terrains of the German Democratic Republic and also the countries that made up the former USSR, a popular uprising in Venezuela thwarted the neoliberal project in a way that is unprecedented in contemporary history. That rebellion made clear that [the neoliberal] project wouldn’t be able to go forward without resistance and without risking social and political instability.

What happened in Venezuela? What was it that, for several days, managed to upset the regime of “Puntofijismo,” based on representative democracy?

On February 2, 1989, Carlos Andres Perez began his second term as president of the Republic. This charismatic leader, who in his first term nationalized Venezuela’s oil industry, was the focus of people. It was widely believed that he would save the country from a crisis that had left Venezuela almost decapitalized, and that, above all, had left ordinary Venezuelans with almost no purchasing power.

His lavish inauguration, attended by figures of the international cultural and political jet set such as Gabriel García Márquez, Jimmy Carter, Felipe González, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro, contrasted sharply with the messages of austerity which Carlos Andres Perez began to send out, giving the first glimpses of what would be his economic policy.

Carlos Andres Perez’s formula for getting out of the crisis – based on the schemes of the International Monetary Fund – was to impose a “great economic turnaround” [un gran viraje] that would end the “paternalistic years” and open Venezuela up to free market standards. That turnaround required privatizing water services, electricity, telecommunications, medicine, and education; ending price controls and exchange controls; increasing gas prices; and freezing public sector salaries; among other things. The hopes people had put on Carlos Andres Perez quickly ran aground.

Because of the way store owners began hoarding basic products and raising prices, and because of the great uncertainty about living conditions in the near future, people became very discontent and uneasy.

On Monday, February 27, Venezuelans woke up to find that bus fares had increased. Unbeknownst to the public, bus fares had gone up. The Guarenas bus terminal, which is the first stop for thousands of workers on their way to Caracas, was where people’s anger initially burst forth. There was a reversal of roles! In “normal” times the bus driver [and often owner in Venezuela] imposed bus fares on people. But in the early morning on that Monday in Guarenas, the people prevented them from doing so!

Faced with barricades, angry crowds, and anonymous leaders, the buses hightailed it. Without any kind of party leadership, the popular rage spread across the country like wildfire and the role reversal that had happened [with the buses]… well, ordinary people did the same thing with hoarding store owners, looting stores to get what they needed in the home. That night, in the barrios of Caracas and outside the capital, many neighbors shared their looted provisions, which some celebrated by barbecuing the leg of beef that they had toted on their backs a few hours before and toasting with looted whiskey. For sure, it was a festive night!

What happened thirty years ago on February 27 was a popular explosion that stunned the social and political establishment (composed of both elite parties and unions), which believed it could keep the lid on the social conflicts produced by inequalities. The non-hegemonic leftist organizations were also taken by surprise, and they ended up playing the role of spectators or, in the best of cases, fellow travelers.

The explosion’s strength and the way it spread could be compared to the collapse of a dam: while the water is contained, all is well, but if the pressure goes beyond a certain point, the water will break with all on its path. That’s what happened on February 27 and 28 of 1989: an uncontrollable popular rage that burst forth after years of accumulated discontent.

We shouldn’t overlook, however, that the chaotic nature of this popular uprising, which broke the existing political system, also led to its defeat. Without the ability to channel this spontaneous force towards goals (of a strategic, political and self-defensive character) the popular rebellion was defeated by state power. The latter managed to return to being the hegemonic force, with the ability to set norms and wield the apparatuses of repression: in the afternoon of February 28, in a nationwide televised message Carlos Andres Perez announced the beginning of a curfew and the suspension of constitutional guarantees. At the same time, the army went to the streets with the aim of restoring “social order.”

These were days of terror in which a container of margarine was worth more than a life. Hospitals and morgues were overflowing and dead and wounded people kept arriving. It led to the wartime practice of saving only the people in best shape and not even registering the dead or those who couldn’t be expected to survive. The dead were buried in mass graves… To this day, there is still controversy about how many died: whereas the official number is 300 to 400 dead, there is growing evidence for 3000 to 5000 having died. Since then, survivors have been struggling constantly to find or identify their dead and, in general, to recover their memory. They are still clamoring for justice.

The uprising was, in effect, a cry of “Enough is enough!”, but its redemptive power couldn’t be carried through to the end.
Three moments of the February 27, 1989 insurrection, known as “Caracazo.” (Archive)
Three moments of the February 27, 1989 insurrection, known as “Caracazo.” (Archive)

Sometimes the Caracazo is interpreted using Alain Badiou’s concept of the “event.” An event in his view is something that marks “a before and an after.” Of course, it is trivially obvious that everything that happens has a “before” and an “after,” so an event in the richer sense has to open up a new historical sequence. Is that the case with the Caracazo? And if it opens a new historical sequence, does that mean that the Venezuelan guerrillas of 1960s or the anti-Gomezist resistance of the 1920s is not relevant to what comes after the Caracazo?

My thinking about the Caracazo uprising as an event is based on its being an interruption in Venezuela’s historical continuum. It derives from a Benjaminian interpretation (as developed by Daniel Bensaïd), rather than from Badiou’s “miraculous” conception of the event.

However, both perspectives incorporate the idea of the event as an untimely, unprecedented eruption which opens up possibilities that were previously not present in the historical continuum.

So it’s a question of theorizing the novelty of something that breaks with the historical continuum and as a result cannot be a consequence of that history. Further, it’s about reflecting on the limits of an event-like irruption that doesn’t have strategic dimension (strategic, by the way, is not the same as having a plan), because everything that comes to be in the human world results from praxis.

Additionally, it is about thinking about the situation in which the event emerges, which does not mean using the logic of cause and effect. Instead, it’s about trying to think about the event in the way in which Jean-Paul Sartre conceived the idea of freedom with the idea of situation that goes along with it, or in the way that Marx conceived the idea of concrete determination to theorize the specific character of capitalist social organization in a way contrary to the method of positivist historicism.

One could begin to characterize what I call the situation of the Caracazo by pointing to the following elements:

1. At a structural and economic level:

a. An economic crisis that began with Black Friday [18 February 1983, collapse of the Bolivar], when the myth of “Saudi Venezuela” begins to fall apart and, with it, the possibility of working out social inequalities through representative democracy and with an economy based on dependent rentier capitalism

b. The paying of the foreign debt during Jaime Lusinchi’s government, which not only paid Venezuela’s public debt, but also emptied the public coffers to pay the foreign private debt (that is, the one acquired by private businessmen from international lenders). This made for a significant decapitalization of the country’s economic reserves and led Carlos Andres Perez to say, on taking power, that he had inherited “a mortgaged country.”

c. The most obvious issue of the time is how Carlos Andres Perez’s government had accepted the IMF’s neoliberal structural adjustment package which involved privatizing services, raising utility rates, freezing public sector salaries, etc.

2. At an institutional and political level:

a. A crisis of political legitimacy that has its climax with the government of Jaime Lusinchi: the RECADI corruption case [government agency that, from 1983 to 1989, controlled exchange rates in Venezuela, and was considered to be highly corrupt], the Blanca Ibañez controversy [private secretary and lover of President Lusinchi, she was considered the one in charge during the long periods when Lusinchi was drunk], increased repression, etc.

b. A crisis inside the Democratic Action (AD) party that involved both the rivalry between former President Jaime Lusinchi and Carlos Andres Perez and a dispute about forming a new cabinet composed not only of party militants, but of also Chicago-trained “experts.”.

c. Two similarly ostentatious events: the Cisneros-Tinoco marriage and Carlos Andres Perez’s inauguration as president of the Republic, which came to be known as the “Coronation.” Both events were widely publicized in the media, highlighting the social and economic inequalities in the existing social order.

On the one hand, Carlos Andres Perez was announcing an epoch of austerity and sacrifice for those who were exploited, oppressed and excluded in the society; on the other hand, the affluent, the bourgeoisie and the political class were making extravagant displays of wealth. This situation was exacerbated because Carlos Andes Perez, faced with the Lusinchi government’s crisis of legitimacy, had kindled a “hope” for an important sector of Venezuelan society that remembered his first presidency. Yet that hope was destroyed during the first days of his government.

3. Regarding respect (or lack thereof) for human rights:

a. The Amparo Massacre, which took place on October 29, 1988 in Apure (a state on the frontier with Colombia) was a joint operation between the DISIP [Venezuelan intelligence agency] and the Army, in which 14 fishermen were killed and two survived. To justify the massacre, the officers of both state forces alleged that the fishermen were Colombian guerrillas, but that was proven false by the two survivors. They had been able to escape thanks to a group of Jesuits and some grassroots human rights and social organizations. Unable to silence them, the Venezuelan state charged the fishermen with military rebellion. The Amparo Massacre brought to light the fragility of human rights under the governing regime.

b. State forces repeatedly violated university autonomy, by searching and entering several autonomous universities such as LUZ, UDO, and UCV in 1987 and 1988.

c. The relentless repression of the secondary and university student movement: in 1987 and 1988, hundreds of students, employees and teachers were murdered or injured. Just days before the Caracazo, Carlos Raul Villasana, an engineering student at the UCV, was killed in a protest. Somewhat later Carlos Yépez, a university employee, was killed in a protest against the murder of Villasana.

4. Regarding class struggle:

a. There was a clear crisis of legitimacy and lack of strategy on the part of non-hegemonic left organizations, inasmuch as they were unable to capitalize on social discontent. The strategy of armed struggle espoused by some leftist parties (PCV, MIR and Bandera Roja) ran aground, leading them to shift towards working within the institutions and legal framework of the existing regime. That shift in strategies combined with the usual bureaucratic practices of these parties generated splits in the popular and social movement.

The PRV, for example, had built an important social base in the popular sectors using its legal front called “Ruptura,” but it had to face an important split in 1979, with serious consequences in the social movement. In effect, the “party form” entered into crisis, which made it difficult to reinforce expressions of discontent. This crisis of legitimacy among leftist organizations affected the trade unions. They remained linked with the existing regime’s institutions, and that ended up separating the unions from their social bases. In that way, the unions lost the ability to interpret the mood of social discontent.

A double narrative began to take shape: on the one hand, a discourse based on the settled or the established, the surface, the visible, the “stable” and the continuous; it was the narrative operating in the existing regime’s institutions. On the other hand, there was a narrative focused on the underground, the material, the unrecognized and the invisible. That narrative began to be produced and developed in diverse excluded, exploited and oppressed sectors of Venezuelan society.

b. A growing conflict in society, in which the student movement played an important role. From 1987 on, there were frequent university and secondary education strikes involving professors, employees, and students. Some protests were for democratic liberties; others were against repression or opposing hikes in student bus fares. In barrios, people staged protests about the lack of water, gas, electricity… These were all expressions of social discontent that were invisible to those in the institutions, but little by little they began to erode what existed and thus create a new social fabric.

El Marzo Merideño” should be also taken into account. With its disruptive character, it was a precedent to the Caracazo. It was a social revolt that occurred in 1987 in reaction to the shooting of a recently‐graduated university student, because he was urinating in the garden of a house. That event set off a social rebellion of such a magnitude that the state lost control of the city streets for five full days. The enraged student body began by destroying the house, but then spread through the city. Many from the barrios joined in the rebellion. There were diverse expressions of popular anger: barricades were set up, there was looting and the students occupied and destroyed the local office of the Democratic Action party. The rebellion was put down by militarizing the city and implementing a set of repressive measures: arrests of popular and student leaders and police raids became commonplace.

d. Merchants took to hoarding goods after the new economic policies were announced in early 1989. That led to shortages of basic products such as milk, coffee, sugar and oil. That situation made poor people desperate.

These are some of the key elements that made up the “situation” preceding the Caracazo, even if we cannot say that they were the causes of the event. The form, time and place of the rebellion (which took place on the February 27 and 28, 1989) were all as unpredictable as they were unprecedented. Does this mean that the Caracazo uprising came out of a vacuum? Keeping in mind the elements discussed above, I would say no. Still, it would be incorrect to affirm that the Caracazo was “destined” to occur.

That is one of the things that made me recognize the Caracazo as an event. I believe that nothing in history is destined to happen. On the contrary, history is always open and, for that reason, every one of its dimensions is the result of struggle: the past because of what the historiographical narrative hides and what it doesn’t; the present because it is the moment in which struggling forces make, write, and construct history and its narrative; the future because of the projects and conceptions of the world and life that compete with each other.

History and historiography are, therefore, crisscrossed everywhere by relations of power. We can see that in the different stories that are told about the Caracazo, not to mention the attempts to strip it of any narrative whatsoever, that is, to erase this event from memory and from history.
On February 2, 1989, Carlos Andres Perez assumed the presidency of Venezuela, in an act that came to be known as the “Coronation.” (Archive)
On February 2, 1989, Carlos Andres Perez assumed the presidency of Venezuela, in an act that came to be known as the “Coronation.” (Archive)

To what extent was 27F something organized and to what extent was it spontaneous? In evaluating the degree of organization involved we should guard ourselves against the tendency to deride the poor’s organizational forms: the poor’s organizations are always seen as “gangs” and their leaders as “thugs” or “gangsters.”

It is almost “natural” for us to try to see conflicts and social upheavals using a logic of causality. Perhaps that is because we fear the possibility that historical processes and changes happen for no reason, so we look for a sense. For that reason, it seems that the unfolding and changes of history can only occur in two ways: from laws and forces that transcend individuals (“the causes” of the Caracazo, for example); or, on the contrary, from the “macabre” plans of a few who are able to twist the course of history. According to this second way of seeing things, social outbursts tend to be understood as the result of a plan. They do not derive from forces that develop underground or that are outside the limits allowed by the narrative of social order.

However, these two ways of understanding history can be contrasted with a third one that tries to get out of the causal parameters, favoring a fragmentary viewpoint. From that third perspective, social outbursts respond to their own emergent logics and to their singular nature. They do not result from either teleological designs or conspiratorial plans.

There are several interpretations of the Caracazo’s “origin” that, to a certain extent, fit into these two ways of understanding historical episodes

In the historiography of the Caracazo, it is common to find some narratives that are built on the logic of economic causes. They more or less follow this scheme:

Immediate causes of the “Caracazo”:

• The rise in the gas prices and public transport fares

• The hoarding of basic goods, especially milk, oil, and coffee.

• The approval and announcement of the neoliberal structural adjustment package that Carlos Andres Perez and the IMF agreed on.

Structural causes of the “Caracazo”:

• The “Black Friday” of 1983.

• The corruption scandals during the government of Jaime Lusinchi, especially the Recadi case and the businesses of Blanca Ibáñez.

From this perspective, the Caracazo is a rebellion that comes about as a result of popular discontent with the neoliberal turn of Carlos Andres Perez’s second presidency.

The problem with this reasoning is that it ends up confusing conditions with causes. Can we really say that the Caracazo was the product of those alleged causes? I believe that would be falling into reductionism and it would result in serious inaccuracies and would make it impossible to understand the concrete expression of this event (that is, the multiple determinations and forces that came together at that point in history).

Then there is the conspiracy reading, which explains the Caracazo as a plan orchestrated by some leftist organizations and grassroots social movements that had broken with the forms of party organization. I refer particularly to parties like Bandera Roja and movements like the Tupamaros and the Corriente Histórica, better known as Desobediencia. In this view, a social upheaval that could spread in a few hours across the country, could not be explained without supposing it to be a conspiracy…

Both readings, the conspiracy one and the determinist view, share two things. First, they underestimate the role of randomness, conjuncture and unpredictability in historical processes and, especially, in disruptive moments. Second, both explain the upheaval by appealing to causes external to its own movement: on the one hand, the Caracazo is presented as a rebellion whose reasons are found in economic measures and, on the other hand, it is presented as the result of planning. Finally, there is another reading, which sees the Caracazo as an eruption that is totally spontaneous and lacks any form of militant organization.

What is certainly true is that, beyond the economic and political crisis which made up the context from which it emerges, the Caracazo was an unpredictable eruption, one that developed at the nexus of a set of aleatory forces, actions, situations and elements.

On the one hand, there were the life practices, relationships, traditions and forces that took shape invisibly and covertly outside the established order and its perspective: the accumulated discontent, the disappointment and frustrated expectations regarding Carlos Andres Perez’s government, the traditions of struggle not recognized by existing political institutions, and the demonstrations and protests not recorded in the narratives told by the mass media and not recognized by public opinion or the institutional order.

On the other hand, there was the economic and political crisis of the governing regime and its “pact for social peace.” Along with it was the crisis of legitimacy of the unions and parties (and their forms of organization). Then there came together an array of random events: collective malaise and a harangue in the Guarenas bus terminal that ended up bringing transportation to a halt, barricades springing up, tire-burning, the blocking of a major highway, a takeover of the city, protests by middle school students in defense of the subsidized bus fare, protests by university students in the UCV campus, televised demonstrations and looting, families concerned about the provisions in their homes, anonymous leaders coining slogans and identifying targets for public rage, policemen looting, organizing looting, shooting and repressing… in short, a constellation of factors that we can hardly reduce to a logic of either causes or conspiracies and that we have to investigate.