A Huge Open Wound

On February 27th, a wave of demonstrations shook Venezuela, angered by a series of IMF-requested free trade reforms by President Carlos Andres Perez that vastly increased the cost of living and privatized many state industries. The bloody incident marked the start of a shift in the political scene, which saw the waning of the influence of the country's traditional parties and trade unions. The last straw was an abrupt rise in bus fares, adopted in the wake of an increase in gas prices announced just after President Carlos Andres Perez (1974-1979 and 1989-1993) took office on Feb. 2, 1989. Unable to afford the new bus fares and facing serious difficulties in making it to their jobs in the second half of the month, commuters from outlying areas around Caracas were the first to erupt in anger, followed by thousands of people in slum neighbourhoods, vandals, and even police officers themselves. The rioting and subsequent crackdown lasted a week. The clampdown on the protesters and looters was harsh after Tuesday the 28th, as the military was called out on the streets in several major cities and a curfew was set—measures that had not been used in Venezuela in several generations. With the police and National Guard unable to restore order, Perez called out the army on the night of Monday, Feb. 27, and the troops brutally cracked down on the rioters, who were acting without clear objectives or political leadership of any kind. It is true as well, as journalists witnessed at the time, that the army also attempted on a number of occasions to at least impose order among the chaos, having looters stand in organised lines that filed in and out of supermarkets and stores, and ensuring that they only took food and did not cause damages. "It was the first breakdown of the institutional pact under which democracy had functioned since 1958, a kind of collective decision to break with the prevailing state of law. But it was also a great national failure, a fight without winners, which remains a huge open wound," said sociologist Tulio Hernandez. The end result: hundreds of people killed, around 2,000 injured and more than 150 million dollars in damages to shops and businesses. On the 28th, Andres Perez suspended a number of constitutional civil liberties as the country had been effectively shut down within two days. The protests continued, and the military were sent in. Between 275 and 3,000 were killed, mostly civilians killed by the military and mercenaries.