Desde la puerta de ‘La Crónica’ Santiago mira la avenida Tacna, sin amor: automóviles, edificios desiguales y descoloridos, esqueletos de avisos luminosos flotando en la neblina, el mediodía gris. ¿En qué momento se había jodido el Perú?
Those are the first two sentences in Mario Vargas Llosa’s masterpiece Conversation in the Cathedral. As he wistfully looks out his window into the drab capital, the protagonist asks himself at which point Peru screwed itself up. The author does not say someone, something screwed Peru over – he clearly believes they did it to themselves.
We Venezuelans have a pretty good answer for the same question: Venezuela screwed itself up twenty five years ago today.
Much has been said about the Caracazo, about its causes and its consequences. The short version for the uninitiated is that after several years of a slowly deteriorating economy, after we basically ate up all our savings in the vain illusion that the debt crisis of the 80s was merely a mirage, after a new President was inaugurated and found a bankrupt Treasury, the government decided to implement a shock therapy program that, among other things, eliminated gasoline subsidies. The people rioted. A serious crackdown on protesters ensued, one much more serious and deadly than the one we see now. International courts found that the government had violated human rights, because it clearly had.
But the Caracazo was more than that. Anyone who lived through it knows it marked the end of the illusion that Venezuela could become a developed country, that our democracy was strong, and that our society could count on solid institutions.
After the Caracazo, the Pérez government carried on as if the riots had been but a blip, but the President´s popularity remained in the basement. Politicians of all stripes began undermining his administration, in spite of his program showing its first achievements. In 1991, intellectuals such as Arturo Uslar Pietri began warning that a coup was inminent, and so it was.
In 1992, Hugo Chávez led two coup attempts, one of them from his prison cell. A former President, one of the founders of the Venezuelan democracy, basically agreed with the coupsters, legitimizing them in the eyes of the majority. A year later, he carried this position to victory at the polls, winning with a pathetic 31% of the votes. This was the same year that Pérez was impeached and removed from his office, substituted by an aging historian who was a nice old man, but did not even know what he was signing sometimes.
The Caldera administration began with a banking crisis, one that dragged with it most of the government’s attention along with a considerable chunk of the Venezuelan economy. And while 1996 was a good year thanks to massive investment in the oil industry, by 1998 we were in a recession again, and the price of oil was struggling to stay in double digit territory.
And then Chávez came.
It’s hard to overstate how pivotal the Caracazo is in contemporary Venezuelan history. I remember the Lusinchi years. You would hear the grownups talk about “la crisis” as this horrible thing, but the country remained essentially the same. Everyone’s purchasing power decreased, that’s for sure, but it wasn’t as severe a drop as one would have expected. Politically, the parties in power continued to talk, negotiate, and compete as if Venezuela was a normal democracy. Rival politicians would frequently chat, and meet, and dine, and the illusion that we could survive the downturn was strong. The conflicts that ensued were child’s play with what we have now.
The Caracazo introduced violence in our political discourse. The “barbarians” had stormed the gate, and nothing was safe anymore. Instead of reacting by heeding to the calls of the poor, politicians acted as if revolution in Venezuela was inevitable, and they scrambled to see what could be saved. Venezuelans who didn’t think like you stopped being seen as simple citizens anymore, as people amenable to being convinced, but rather as people who could come and raid your house, your shop, or your power.
Venezuela now is a fight to the death between brothers, and that is very much a consequence of the Caracazo. The roles have changed, and now the ones holding the government’s guns are those who were on the other side of the barrel back then. Neither side is willing to cede an inch, and even calls for dialogue are all theater and no substance. The country is ripped apart, and some days there does not seem to be a way out.
But perhaps acknowledging that we have been fighting this same war for twenty-five years can make us stop and think. Perhaps this realization can convince us that, try as we might, “the other” is not going to go away, that this battle will not have a victor and a vanquished.
Waking up and seeing the streets turned into a battleground littered with the blood of the children of the Caracazo should help us understand that it has been too long, and that it’s time to just let it go and find some common ground.
Twenty-five years is a might long time to keep fighting the same tired battle.