: Useful Lessons for Nigeria

??World War IV began in Venezuela on February 27th 1989, with the first rebellion by an entire nation against a neoliberal package. As a result, we have discovered that a global extension of neoliberalism into the economic, social, political and cultural fields is impossible.? ? Luis Britto Garc?a

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Certain events in history remain epochal for many countries of the world and one of such was the Caracazo which sadly erupted on February 27, 1989 in Venezuela. It was an event that shook not only Venezuela and the Latin American continent, but of course the rest of the world. The event is significant for two reasons. First, it came to be a revolutionary turning point in Venezuelan history which did not only expose the destructive tendencies of neoliberalism whose consequence fostered the rise of the current Bolivarian regime, but also sparked up an emerging populist-leftist movements across Latin America. Second, the Caracazo inadvertently but steadily weakened the American hegemony that had taken centre stage over the region for decades, leading to the emergence of populist leaders and the sudden political awakening of the rural-urban poor. The Caracazo however goes beyond this reality.

The word Caracazo comes from the name of Caracas, the capital city where a brutal repression against demonstrators who had created a strong wave of protests and looting on February 27, 1989, took place, challenging the imposition of International Monetary Fund (IMF) reforms which accompanied series of socio-economic consequences. The demonstration which began in Guarenas (a town in Miranda State near to the capital) and spread to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas led to riots and burning after it appeared the IMF induced reform had led to increase in bus fares and shortage of basic needs.

What made the Caracazo so remarkable is the fact that it captured the mood of a people desperately in need of institutional reform, especially at a time of socio-political and economic decline in Venezuela. This mood became tensed when Carlos Andres Perez, who had once ruled Venezuela amidst a massive oil boom in the 70s with commensurate people-centred program, became president once more in early February of 1989. His campaign was marked with vituperations against the IMF which he had demonized as a ?bomb that only kills people.? With this, one would have thought Mr Perez?s administration would follow on the promise to institute reforms and help stem the worsening socio-economic crisis that had characterised Venezuelan life since the early 80s; things however took a dramatic turn. According to George Ciccariello-Maher, Mr Perez who had attacked international lending institutions and preached debtor-nation solidarity suddenly turned a notorious example of a ?bait-and-switch? by instituting a program of free-market reforms following the recommendations of the IMF. Simply called the Economic Package, its aims were to privatize state companies, eliminate subsidies and the State?s protection over private companies, and promote decentralization among other IMF induced reforms.

Among the first measures taken was an increase in fuel prices which as a consequence, led to increase in bus fare. The situation became even more dramatic when many workers woke up to discover bus fares had skyrocketed to as high as 100 per cent. University students who had enjoyed transport subsidies also woke up to the rude shock of an increase. The high prices of cheap food, other basic items and daily needs became unbearable to the mass of the poor who relied on these basics for their survival. The news of the increase quickly spread, leading to demonstrations in the capital, Caracas and other cities in Venezuela. The demonstrations eventually turned into mass riots and led to massive looting and burning of shops, supermarkets, bodegas and stores for the most critical needs ? food and clothes. The looting became more massive and organized towards the night hours such that Caracas alone descended into a state of anarchy.

Faced with a dire situation, Mr Perez quickly suspended constitutional guarantees, established a state of emergency and imposed a curfew with those violating it harshly punished. This event alone marked the beginning of a massive and brutal state repression against the population which Fernando Coronil and Julie Skurski had observed was ?by far the most massive and severely repressed riot in the history of Latin America.? For three days, between the 27th of February when the riot started and 29th of the same month when it had withered, several costly damages had been done in both human and material terms. The massive over-reaction of the armed forces and brutal repression left about 300 dead even though it was believed twice that number had cruelly been killed.

The aftermath of the Caracazo led to series of chains of events in Venezuela. Mr. Perez was eventually impeached on corruption charges and placed under house arrest while two coups, one in February led by Hugo Chavez and the other in November by disgruntled military officers, though failed, almost plunged the country into further chaos. Despite the fact that all those who had participated in one way or the other in the repression and death of hundreds of poor people are still to be apprehended or prosecuted 25 years after, most especially Mr Perez who though late and key executive and military officers, the Caracazo reminds us of familiar situations where power belongs to the people and anything contrary to reality necessitates revolution and political change. The will to empower the poor had unfortunately never been the pre-occupation of the Venezuelan political elite who had ruled the country since the Punto Fijo Pact of 1958 and so the Caracazo had to forcefully erupt, even when no known group or leadership had emerged to lead the epochal event.

The Caracazo not only led to the collapse of the Punto Fijo and all its contradictions within the Venezuela political system, it played a crucial role in advancing the idea that Venezuelans needed to be removed from being hewers of wood and drawers of water in a country with vast reserves of oil wealth. There is no doubt that the Caracazo led to the emergence of the Bolivarian movement in 1998 whose impact had witnessed quite an impressive number of transformational structures in Venezuela. The massive oil spending on social welfare programs called Missions have not only removed more than half of poor Venezuelans from acute poverty but also given them a voice and role to play in a country historically driven and dominated by a greedy middle-class and big business. More than ever before, the average Venezuelan now sees the need to live in a society where wealth should necessarily be shared among the people and not for a privileged few.

As the Caracazo is remembered today and 25 years after, Venezuelans must understand that they have a duty to play in ensuring that that sad period in their history never occur again. The current Bolivarian revolution which unarguably the poorest section of the country helped to initiate must not be lost in their senses and day to day life. It must be guarded jealously and seen as the hope of the last man. Venezuelans must ensure they do not go back to the days of elite driven politics which had drawn them backwards for decades. They must struggle to keep the enduring legacies of the budding Bolivarian revolution alive. The memory of the Caracazo truly lives on!

 

Raheem Oluwafunminiyi wrote via [email protected]

 

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