Tuesday Venezuela “commemorated” February 27 1989. Well, some people in fact seemed to celebrate it and are very actively trying to make that date the starting point for the chavista era. Though a preposterous argument, it is interesting to visit the issue as it illustrates quite well how the hagiography and history retelling operate under authoritarian regimes, even if they are of the banana republic type.
February 27, El Caracazo
For the newcomer to Venezuela let’s summarize briefly. After years of relative deprivation and economic hardship, the failed policies of Carlos Andres Perez 1 (CAP 1), Herrera and Lusinchi had brought to office a new government who had decided to apply some more neo liberal tools to try to solve the problem of no growth, persistent inflation and general decrepitude of the country. Unfortunately CAP 2 was elected the in December 1988 on a platform that suggested much more the return of good times and easy money such as during the CAP 1 years than the draconian plan (by Venezuelan standards) that he had decided to apply.
This by itself would not have been so bad if some measures to protect the lowest social groups had been taken. But CAP, his authoritarian self only matched by Chavez, decided to go ahead before the whole plan was duly explained and before any social protection measure was announced in a convincing way. Thus a gas price hike was announced and bus drivers were not told yet whether suburban bus fares would be increased or whether they would receive some subsidy. They of course decided to increase bus fares anyway, people got upset, they started burning buses in Guarenas and soon enough as TV was showing live the disaster of Guarenas this riot took all over the country.
This spontaneous rioting turned out quickly into a massive sacking of stores all across Venezuela. While a minority had the time of their lives the immense majority of Venezuelans rushed back home to hide in fear expecting the slums to knock at their doors, if polite. CAP had to launch the army to restore order and the army, as ill trained as they always are to restore public order, started shooting happily. Now, looting is one thing and being shot at for looting is another thing. Debate can be endless on these matters but what aggravated the situation is that the army got carried away and more than likely some units decided to take the opportunity to eliminate some “undesirables”. Many “mistakes” also were made as a few innocents at the wrong place and the wrong time ended up in mass graves. The death toll will never been known. Officially it is in the few hundred of people, allegedly it could be way above the 1000 mark. What is certain is that after 18 years only a tiny fraction of the potential abuses has been duly investigated, and even less judged and condemned (looters and soldiers alike it must be said).
Lessons of February 27
The first thing to understand is that the movement started as a spontaneous uprising or irked suburbanites who simply could not stand a bus fare increase. That within a few hours a few organized subversives, inherited from the then distant guerilla years, joined by some gangs finding a good opportunity to do dome looting, started fishing in trouble waters is quite possible. But the Venezuelan left in 1989 was at its lowest point ever, and certainly not able at all to organize rioting on that scale. Organized crime on the other hand would have stood a much better chance to coordinate some of these events.
However, the day marks definitely a cleavage in Venezuelan history. Until that date Venezuela had lived through 4 decades of relative peace and quiet and internal order. Yes, there was the overthrow of Perez Jimenez in 1958, and the guerilla of the 60ies, but for the immense majority of Venezuelans, for the 4 decades that preceded el Caracazo if you were not into politics and if you were not into organized crime you could have a fairly decent life as far as personal security, peace and quiet were concerned. Since 1989 violence has climbed steadily and has even reached Miraflores where verbal violence is now the norm of government, a telling omen of what is ahead for us. Any gentility in Venezuela was crushed on February 27 1989 and since then we have been living in increasing fear, a fear exploited by all sorts of politicians from Caldera 2 to Chavez. To their great everlasting shame of course but unfortunately atonement will happen years from now.
There was also some collateral effect to that day. TV was abundantly accused of promoting looting by showing images of how easy it was to loot, how absent were security forces from the streets before CAP decided to send in the army. This has generated a sort of self censorship within TV from then on, which includes April 13 2002 when the looting that was taking place in some of Caracas areas was not shown, nor the few people that were claiming for Chavez return.
The army decided that it was not going to be punished for its abuses. Thus 1989 starts the return of the army as something that could not be touched by the political power, bringing us to what is now a military regime disguised behind the Chavez election. After 8 years of rule Chavez has done very little to correct for the 1989 abuses, and even less to avoid a reoccurrence of such an event. But the army is now in charge in way that it was not in charge since even Perez Jimenez time! Katy is not even afraid of talking of a military cover up as many of today’s “public servants” were obeying orders in 1989 and nobody knows exactly what they did then.
Recuperating February 27 1989
But beyond national regret or military cover up what is perhaps most indecent is trying to make El Caracazo look like what it is not. And chavismo has been hard at work since it reached office in transforming that date as the original date of the Bolivarian revolution. Certainly it is more palatable than the 1992 coup by Chavez. And it could well excuse the coup if the collective in Venezuela were to embrace El Caracazo. But this has not happened yet, no matter how hard chavismo has tried to appropriate for itself a date where it had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do, even as Chavez and his little pals were already plotting.
But the regime has been trying to build a golden legend for people who were raised in the safety of the hated 4th Republic educational system, who did not have to pay much for their military education, and who were allowed to run for president 5 years after they had tried a coup d’etat. No grand epic there. So we must invent one.
The basic problem is to erase the “illegal” side of 1992. That is where El Caracazo comes in handy. If we accept that premise that February 27 1989 was the starting point of a popular sentiment for political reform, then it can be argued that the 1992 coup was a natural consequence by some politically enlightened officers. Unfortunately this cheap revisionism does not work well outside of hard core chavista radical core. Too many people still remember that day and too many people remember personally, or know of people, hiding at home and putting mattresses against the windows to stop bullets. Too many people also remember that shopping malls were ransacked even in middle and upper class neighborhoods too far from popular districts to have a significant crowd coming form there: how could they carry back home the loot? Nobody remembers people lining up to march against Miraflores to unseat CAP who had just been reelected 2 months before by way more votes than Chavez ever got, that is until Chavez managed to manipulate the electoral rolls enough last year.
Facts are hard sometimes…
But that does not stop chavismo to try every year since it took Miraflores and everything else. After all, what is a second month of the year riot for someone who is revising the whole colonial history of Venezuela to adapt it to a concept that even Marx in a drunken stupor would not have penned. So we saw the National Assembly on Tuesday gathering for an outdoor session to proclaim that from now on February 27 would be Human Rights day in Venezuela. Huh? Is there no other more suitable date to commemorate Human Rights in Venezuela? Even December 15 1999 would be better as it would commemorate the expansion of Human Rights in the Venezuelan constitution. That they are not applied is another matter but for then on they were written on pseudo stone.
However there are also other things to mask. For example Chavez has its own repressive February 27 in 2004. Something that he is managing to get forgotten up to a point, but that day he had a few people killed, you know. You can check the posts from February 27 and 28 in of this blog to refresh your memory.
He also has to make forget that the so much vaunted 1999 constitution is now been overhauled largely without any public debate, just a group of chavista yes-people secretly preparing a revised draft to present to Chavez. Participation is now a dead letter in Venezuela even if the words still might appear in the constitution after its changes.
The fun moment
But as usual chavismo provides us with the comic relief.
There are many mediocrities in chavismo who think that they are great folks, tending to forget that if they are where they are it is strictly because of Chavez. One of them is the Miranda state governor, Diosdado Cabello. In all truth within chavismo he is one of the few that have demonstrated that they have some modest managerial skills. Now that he is in charge of the second biggest state of the country his skills are seriously challenged and he seems to have reached his level of incompetence according to Peter’s principle.
So, to create a stunt and come back to public light (chavista sent him to Miranda as he was taking too much weight inside the government and Chavez does not like any luminary around him, no matter how faint that one might be) Diosdado decided to change a district name. He decided to change the popular neighborhood name of the Guarenas district called Menca de Leoni. The new name? “27 de febrero”!
Unfortunately the folks around protested even if they probably voted overwhelmingly for Chavez, and even if the original riot started from that same district 18 years ago. See, not only many folks living in that district are still embarrassed that this great stain in Venezuelan history started among its men folk mostly, but they also remember even if vaguely Menca de Leoni. She was the wife of Raul Leoni who served between 1963 and 1968. Arguably he is the best president of the so ill called 4th republic. During his tenure he had to face violent guerilla but he managed to consolidate the nascent democracy to the point that in 1968 for the first time the opposition received power after winning an election. Something unheard of in Venezuelan history. And his wife was one of the most famous first ladies of the era, probably the one with the highest social concern of the lot, including Marisabel de Chavez, now enjoying a life of riches in Barquisimeto far from any ghetto where Menca had no fear in visiting.
But such are things in the Bolivarian revolution.
I remember as one of my first political memories the funeral of Menca de Leoni. I was impressed that young by the crowd that was following the hearse. I was even more impressed that my mother who never had a kind word for Leoni (she voted for Uslar) was actually sad watching the hearse passing by. I am sure that Diosdado does not remember Menca, nor does he care for that matter. Then again what kind of general education did Diosdado receive in the military barracks where he let Chavez bewitch him? That is why he made a total fool of himself this week, trying to go back to public notice, trying to please Chavez, trying to think that he also could rewrite history. Alas, he is only the governor of Miranda state, happily erasing anything that was done before by way more competent people than he is. I suppose that he expects that erasing the past people will not notice what a lousy governor he is turning out to be.
When everything is said and done, the more mediocre you are the more you need to rewrite history. This is exactly what we are witnessing, the normal course of any medirocre authoritarian state on its ways to some form of totalitarianism.