1989: Venezuela Caracazo food riots

1989: Venezuela Caracazo food riots

In the 1980s Venezuela was suffering a major economic crisis, in response the government imposed extreme austerity policies that led to massive hikes in the cost of food, fuel and services. By 1989 protests had erupted and escalated to major rioting and government imposed a state of emergency.


https://youtu.be/n1kKu5jU9zs

Venezuela 1989

The Caracazo Protests

Mike Lanchin:

Hello and thank you for downloading Witness with me Mike Lanchin, and today we take you back to February of 1989 when Venezuela was hit by days of protests and rioting sparked by government austerity measures. In the crackdown that followed security forces killed more than 300 people; many of them innocent bystanders. I’ve been speaking to one woman inadvertently caught up in the violence.

[Shouting, screaming and the sounds of smashing windows and violence]

Its early evening on February the 27th 1989, protestors and looters are out on the streets of the Venezuelan capital Caracas. It’s the first day of a wave of disturbances that have spread across the country. Ordinary Venezuelans many of them residents of the poorest neighbourhoods that surround the capital are venting their anger at a raft of new government economic measures.

[Archive report]

Reports speak of a frenzy of rioting and plunder. The position in the capital Caracas and major cities is bad enough for the US and Britain to have advised their nationals to visit the country.

Mike Lanchin:

Venezuela’s populist president Carlos Andres Perez had only just been re-elected for a second term. But now he faced a perfect storm of economic woes.

[Archive report]

Venezuela has foreign debts of around £18 billion, and its petroleum dominated economy has been hit by falling oil prices. In response President Peres has put up petrol prices, bus fares and the cost of basic foods.

Yris Medina:

People were really angry, shouting at the shopkeepers “you’ve got sugar stored in there, why don’t you sell it to me?”

Mike Lanchin:

19-year old Yris Medina was on her way home when she first came across the looters.

Yris Medina:

I saw lots of people carrying food and bags of meat on their backs, but also, they were carrying freezers, washing machines and furniture. I think that after they’d finished looting the food shops they moved onto the furniture stores.

Mike Lanchin:

And what did you think when you saw this happening?

Yris Medina:

Well I’m quite scared when it comes to seeing violence on the streets. And also, was quite young at the time and had my baby girl with me. So, all I wanted to do was get home safely.

Mike Lanchin:

And could you recognise any of the people who were doing the looting?

Yris Medina:

Yes, yes, I recognised many neighbours. But I didn’t get involved with them, I understand that some people needed to do it, but for me that’s not justifiable. It’s just vandalism and I don’t support it.

Mike Lanchin:

In those first hours of protests which became known as the Caracazo. Hundreds of shops and businesses were stripped, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. The country teetered on the brink of a total breakdown in law and order. The authorities seemed at first taken by surprise.

But on Febraury 28th President Carlos Peres Andrez decreed a nationwide state of emergency and a night curfew. And he sent tanks and soldiers onto the streets.

[Archive report]

Police and troops have cracked down hard on the rioters and the looters. Civil liberties have been suspended, Venezuelans who have had 30 years of democracy in one of Latin America’s most stable countries, now have lost for the time being anyway the right of assembly and freedom of speech.

Mike Lanchin:

The army set about crushing any sign of protest.

[Gunfire]

Yris Medina:

That first night we hardly slept, we were very worried, there was lots and lots of shooting outside it felt like a war. My husband said we should sleep on the floor upstairs. I’m afraid he said that a stray bullet could come in.

Mike Lanchin:

For the next 48 hours, Yris and her husband Wolfgang and their baby girl didn’t dare venture out of the house. Food was running low.

Yris Medina:

On March 2nd we eventually went out because we needed things, milk, some cereals for the baby, but all the shops nearest to us had been looted and so were totally empty. So, we had to go to another larger market further away across town. The soldiers were there making everyone queue up. And they told us “do your shopping quickly, you must get home before the curfew begins at six”.

Mike Lanchin:

And so, they hurried home in good time. Later that same evening as the curfew began Yris was upstairs doing some housework when Wolfgang joined her with the baby in his arms.

Yris Medina:

We were both standing there by the window and moved away just for a minute, turning around to go out of the room and that’s when I heard the shot.

It was like an explosion and I turned around and asked him “what was that?” and all he could say was “I”. I looked at the baby she was covered in blood but she wasn’t hurt. He turned and started to go down the stairs, but as he went down, he fell bleeding.

Mike Lanchin:

A single bullet fired by a soldier from the street had hit Wolfgang, gone through him and lodged itself in the wall.

Yris Medina:

I tried to stop the bleeding but it was like a tap had been opened, and I couldn’t close it and I said to him “try to hold on, try to hold on!” he was going unconscious, bleeding.

It was so hard because I wanted- I was getting so desperate, I couldn’t do anything.

Mike Lanchin:

By the time Yris and her brother-in-law managed Wolfgang to the nearest hospital he was dead. He was just 20 years old. They then made their way through the empty streets to the city morgue; the curfew was still in force.

Yris Medina:

A group of soldiers aggressively stopped us and demanded to know what we were doing. They said they had orders to shoot anyone outside. We told them we were taking the body of my husband to the morgue and they said to us “you can’t do that” and so they took his body from us and told us to go home.

Mike Lanchin:

That must have been so difficult for you.

Yris Medina:

When I got home, I just sat down outside on the pavement. I don’t know I said I was waiting for someone. Not wanting to go inside, my mind just went blank and all I could do was sit down and think what is going to happen to us now?

We were so young; we were just starting a family. We had lots of dreams, and now a bullet had finished all that. I still haven’t come to terms with all that, its been so hard to get over the terrible tragedy.

Mike Lanchin:

Yris’s husband was one of more than 300 people killed by soldiers during and after the protests. Many were innocent bystanders. Some say the final death toll was much higher since many of the victims were buried in unmarked mass graves.

Yris who did get her husbands body back to bury later formed a campaigning group with other relatives of victims. And in 2004 the Venezuelan government awarded them compensation. But no one has ever been convicted of the killings.

Yris Medina:

For me the truth and an explanation why, that’s what counts for me. That would mean justice for me, how is it possible that after 27 years I’ve still not been given an explanation about the death of Wolfgang.

Mike Lanchin:

The events of February and March of 1989 marked a dramatic change, not just in the lives of ordinary people like Yris Medina. Three years later an army officer called Hugo Chavez staged two coups in Venezuela setting in motion decades of instability. From which some say Venezuela has never recovered.

Yris Medina still lives in Caracas with her daughter whose now 27 years old.

Posted By

Reddebrek
May 23 2019 07:49

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  • A single bullet fired by a soldier from the street had hit Wolfgang, gone through him and lodged itself in the wall.

    Mike Lanchin

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Comments

Khawaga
May 23 2019 14:53

Interesting, reminds me of the excellent book "Free Markets and Food Riots" which demonstrates that there was a wave of food riots in the wake of structural adjustment programs imposed on many developing countries.