Venezuela: 17 years since the 27th of February 1989

Forbidden to forget

This article commemorates the hundreds of people who fell in Venezuela in 1989, murdered by the Venezuelan army on the 27 and 28 of February 1989. This massacre had important consequences. In many ways it marked the start of the struggle against neo-liberalism in Venezuela and opened the way for Chavez to conquer power later.

17 years since the 27th of February 1989

Today marks the 17th anniversary of the 27 and 28 of February 1989. A day of dignity when the poor people of Venezuela came down from the mountains surrounding the city of Caracas and the illusion of a democratic government of the 4th Republic suffered its first setback. After this nothing was like before.

In 1989 Carlos Andrés Pérez had just won the presidential elections with 52% of the votes against the candidate of the Christian democratic party Eduardo Fernández. Acción Democrática, the party of Andrés Pérez, ruled the country from 1983 till 1988. This was a government marked by corruption.

Within a few days of assuming power Andrés Pérez spoke to the nation and announced a program of macro-economic reforms. This neo-liberal program popularly known as the “economical package” consisted of a number of measures to influence the exchange policy, the external debt, the financial system, tax policies, foreign commerce, public services and social policies under the patronage of the IMF. In return Venezuela was to get a loan of US$ 4 500 million over a period of three years.

In return, however, the Venezuelan government agreed to the deregulation of interest rates, unification of exchange rates and the elimination of the preferential exchange rate with foreign trade to be concluded on market based exchange rates. Measures with a more direct influence on the living standards of the Venezuelan population were also included in this IMF directed shock-therapy. The prices of almost all products were ‘liberated’, i.e. decided by market forces. A gradual hike in prices of public services like gas, telephone, water and electricity and an annual hike in the prices of petroleum derivates for the national market (for a period of three years) was agreed.

All these measures had a devastating effect on the living standards of millions of Venezuelans, including parts of the middle classes. For example, the average price hike for petrol was 100% over the first year, the initial rise in the prices for public transport was 30%. The government announced wage increases but these were very small in comparison. The wages in the public sector rose with between 5 and 30% and the minimum wage was increased with 4.000 Bolivares in the cities (about 1 pound 20 cents) and 2.500 Bolivares in the countryside.

All these measures were to take immediate effect. The rise in petrol prices was planned for the 26th of February, the rise in tickets for public transport on the 27th of February.

Under these circumstances an outpouring of anger followed immediately. The people who used public transport “cooled” their anger on the busses and many were destroyed or burned. The poor went and started rioting in the shopping areas of the city, destroying shops and started looting. Most of the rioting and looting, in response to neo-liberal measures which made poor people destitute from one day to the next, was done by the popular classes. We have to point out however that such was the effect these measures were about to have on the whole of the population that also individuals who belonged to the middle classes took part in the rioting.

The violence started on the 27 of February in Guarenas (state of Miranda) and in some areas of the capital Caracas, like Caricuao.

During the afternoon of the 28 February President Pérez together with the council of ministers ordered the National Guard and the army to repress the disturbances. He also declared a state of emergency for the next 10 days. The army stepped in and took control of public order. The whole country was under curfew. Once the 10 days had passed the president asked for an extension of the state of emergency which he was granted by parliament on the condition that the curfew was lifted.

The official balance of this terrible period which started with the 27 February 1989 was 300 deaths and more than a thousand wounded. However, according to unofficial reports the number of people killed by the army was closer to a thousand. The majority of the victims fell at the hands of the army and the National Guard, this in itself was one of the reasons why part of the army organised a coup on the 4 February 1992 against the regime. This coup was led by the now President Hugo Chavez.

The 1988 elections, which lead to the Carlos Andrés Pérez’s victory, had lifted expectations that the economic situation in the country would improve. Carlos Andrés Pérez had promised that he would lead Venezuela back to the economic bonanza which the country experienced when he formed his first government between 1974 and 1979. However, these illusions were wiped away when Pérez announced his economic program and it marks the start of disillusionment not only with Pérez but with the whole of the political and economical system.

These are the reasons why political parties and political organisations, mostly AD and COPEI, were questioned and found to be against change and deaf to the needs of the people. The events of the 27 and 28 of February mark the beginning of a process of change that made further steps with the breaking of the monopoly of power AD and Copei had and the election of Chavez and his Movement for the Fifth Republic (MVR).

Now when another anniversary passes we see that those who were responsible for these killings speak of the Chavez government as if it was a dictatorship and some of them were involved in the coup of the 11 April 2002.

As Simon Bolivar said “Damned is the soldier who uses his weapon against his own people”

Imprison all the murderers of the people!

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March 2006