February 28, 2007

El Caracazo: The unseen military cover-up

Katy says: Yesterday was the anniversary of El Caracazo, a day that no Venezuelan can ever forget. On February 27th, 1989, thousands of poor people poured into the streets to protest a hike in the prices of gas and public transportation. As the crowds grew larger, people began looting, and pretty soon Venezuela's major cities were undergoing massive riots.

The rioting continued and grew worse through the night and onto the next day, when newly-inaugurated, democratically-elected President Carlos Andrés Pérez suspended constitutional guarantees and installed a curfew. What happened in the aftermath left a permanent stain on the country's soul.

To enforce the government's curfew, the Venezuelan military began killing people randomly in a desperate attempt to restore order in the country. Estimates say that more than 1,000 Venezuelans were killed during those days, most of them poor, many of them in their homes, while many more are missing. Numerous bodies were found in mass graves, while some were never recovered.

Yesterday we had a commemoration of sorts, with the government holding an official ceremony while at the same time vowing to end impunity. For all the grandstanding, though, the government's record in bringing those responsible to justice is dismal. The inescapable fact is that after eighteen years, not a single one of the people who murdered innocent civilians is in jail. More than a few of them have ended up, instead, in cush revolutionary jobs.

He has been in power for 8 of the eighteen years since el Caracazo. He has controlled the courts for plenty long enough to put the people responsible in jail and to implement measures to ensure abuses like this never happen again. Voices from inside and outside Venezuela, including respected human rights campaigner and victims' defender Liliana Ortega, have blasted the current administration for not doing enough to bring justice to victims' families.

Other criticism has come from an unlikely source: People's Ombudsman - and staunch Chávez supporter - Germán Mundaraín. Mr. Mundaraín came out with a report yesterday blasting the Prosecutor General's Office for not doing enough to bring about justice, only to be strongly rebuffed by Prosecutor General and former chavista Vice-President, Isaías Rodríguez. It was a rare instance of public disagreement between two men who have always worked in tandem to defend the government at all costs.

Why would a government that has made the memory of February 27th so central a part of its ideological memory fail so badly to bring those responsible to justice? The reason is that this is a military government, and the main perpetrator of the abuses during those days was the military.

President Chávez was a Lieutenant Coronel in the Venezuelan army when he tried to overthrow Pérez in February of 1992. Yet Chávez did not act alone that day: some of the officers who took part in or sympathized with the coup are now in the President's Cabinet, including the Interior, Defense and Telecommunications Ministers (Secretaries) and the head of the national tax-collecting office SENIAT. Even more are in positions of power in official chavista bureaucracy. They are now ambassadors, under-secretaries, superintendents, governors, mayors and even judges.

If all these people were active in 1992, they were also active in 1989. The fact that they remained in the military between 89 and 92 makes them immediate suspects in the 89 massacre, since they obviously did not disobey orders to shoot indiscriminately. And while certainly not all of them participated, it's safe to bet that some of them did, and they probably either hold positions of power or are connected to someone who does.

Take, for instance, the case of Crisanto Maderos. Maderos was murdered during those tragic days, a crime for which three military officers were charged: Col. Pedro Colmenares, Col. Jesus Francisco Blanco Berroterán and Maj. Carlos Miguel Yánez Figueredo. All three were active officers in 1992.

The trial ended in an acquittal, with the judge arguing that the crime had prescribed. Last July, the Chávez-appointed Supreme Tribunal upheld the acquittal. This acquittal was unrelated to a lack of forensic evidence; these guys got off on a technicality: a new low for chavista justice.

It turns out that Colmenares used to be Venezuela's military attaché in its Embassy in Washington. Colmenares has also represented the Chávez administration in the Interamerican Defense Board, and for a time was part of Chávez's personal security. Furthermore, Blanco Berroterán's brother has recently been appointed to a government post within the military justice system, having previously worked as one of the directors of the Palo Verde military jail, from which imprisoned union leader Carlos Ortega famously escaped several months ago. Yánez Figueredo, still in active service, is known for being part of the graduating class that controversially named Fidel Castro as its godfather. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the real reason these guys got out.

So while we all remember the terrible days of 1989 with sadness and thirst for justice, let's keep one thing straight: the impunity surrounding el Caracazo is not due to government foot dragging or to the usual delays of a sclerotic court system. It's the outcome of a carefully orchestrated cover-up.