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Caracazo collage.png
Top, left, right:
Venezuelans cheering during the rioting; the looting of stores in Caracas; police responding to a scene
Date27 February 1989 – 8 March 1989
(9 days)
Caused byAusterity measures
  • Protests
  • Riots
  • Looting
Resulted in
  • Civilian casualties
  • $120 million of damage (2017 USD)[1]
  • Political instability
Parties to the civil conflict
Death(s)277 (officially)
2,000+ (extraofficially)[2][3]
A group of rioters attempting to push over a bus during the rioting.

The Caracazo is the name given to the wave of protests, riots and looting[5] that started on 27 February 1989 in Guarenas, spreading to Caracas and surrounding towns. The weeklong clashes resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people, thousands by some accounts, mostly at the hands of security forces and the military.[2][6][7] The riots and the protests began mainly in response to the government's economic reforms and the resulting increase in the price of gasoline and transportation.[5]


The term, “Caracazo,” stems from the city’s name, Caracas, and “-azo,” which stems from another historic event, the Bogotazo, was a massive riot in Bogotá, recognized as having a crucial role in Colombia’s history.[8] “Caracazo” is technically defined as the “Caracas smash” or “the big one in Caracas” based on Spanish dialect.


A fall in oil prices in the mid-1980s caused an economic crisis to take hold in Venezuela, and the country had accrued significant levels of debt. Nevertheless, the administration of President Jaime Lusinchi was able to restructure the country's debt repayments and offset an economic crisis but allow for the continuation of the government's policies of social spending and state-sponsored subsidies.[9]

Lusinchi's political party, the Democratic Action, was able to remain in power following the 1988 election of Carlos Andrés Pérez as president. Pérez based his campaign in his legacy of abundance during his first presidential period[10] and initially rejected liberalization policies;[11] he received 53% of the vote, while the others gained at least 40%. At the time his election, Venezuela's international reserves were only $300 million USD; Pérez decided to respond to the debt, public spending, economic restrictions and rentier state by liberalizing the economy.[10] He announced a technocratic cabinet and a group of economic policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to fix macroeconomic imbalances known as El Gran Viraje [es] (English: The Great Turn), called by detractors as El Paquetazo Económico (English: The Economic Package). Among the policies there was the reduction of fuel subsidies and the increase of public transportation fares by thirty percent.[12][13][14]

Measures taken by Pérez included privatizing state companies, tax reform, reducing customs duties, and diminishing the role of the state in the economy. He also took measures to decentralize and modernize the Venezuelan political system by the direct election of state governors, who had previously been appointed by the president. The most controversial part of the economic reform package was the reduction of the gasoline subsidies, which had long maintained domestic gasoline prices far beneath international levels and even the production costs. The economic adjustment program was announced by the government on 16 February and on the weekend of 25–26 February 1989, gasoline prices rose 100 per cent and the fuel price increase in turn needed an increase in public transportation fares of 30 per cent officially, and more in practice as some carriers refused to limit their prices to the official rate.[15] The increase was supposed to be implemented on 1 March 1989, but bus drivers decided to apply the price rise on 27 February, a day before payday in Venezuela.[12][13][14]

According to retired Venezuelan General Carlos Julio Peñaloza Zambrano, Cuban agents might have entered Venezuela during Carlos Andrés Pérez's inauguration ceremony, which was attended by Fidel Castro, and may have waited for unrest to occur in Venezuela so they could exacerbate political tensions.[16]

Protests and rioting[edit]

Looters running through the streets with stolen goods

The protests and rioting began on the morning of 27 February 1989 in Guarenas, a town in Miranda State about 30 kilometres (19 mi) east of Caracas, due to the increase in public transportation prices.[2][17] A lack of timely intervention by authorities, as the Caracas Metropolitan Police [es] was on a labour strike, led the protests and rioting quickly spread to the capital and other towns across the country.[2][18]

Despite initial debate within the government over how to manage the situation, a heavy-handed approach was implemented as a state of emergency and martial law were imposed.[2] On February 28, Pérez suspended a number of articles of the Constitution, including Article 60 (right to individual liberty and security), Article 62 (inviolability of the home), Article 66 (freedom of expression), Article 71 (right to gather publicly and privately), and Article 115 (right to peaceful protest).[19] The rights were not completely restored until March 22, and in the interim, there was no official decree or resolution to define how government authority would be exercised in the absence of those constitutional rights.[19]

Smoke billowing from fires throughout Caracas
Large crowds of people gather during the rioting

By the time authorities encountered the scenes of rioting, citizens began firing weapons at officers, with the ensuing firefights resulting in many bystanders being killed by "bullets from army troops and from sniping protesters."[1][2] In many poor areas, citizens destroyed their own local commercial facilities, with food markets so damaged that their food distribution system was ruined.[1] Much of the rioters destroyed properties indiscriminately, with no motives related to initial protests.[1] According to Amnesty International, tactics used by security forces included "disappearances," the use of torture, and extrajudicial killings.[7] As part of the government's security forces, members of Hugo Chávez's MBR-200 allegedly participated in the crackdown.[20] Chávez himself was sick that day with measles.[21] As tensions eased, troops began to sweep through neighborhoods collecting appliances and cash registers and informing citizens that if they provided a certificate of purchase, the items would be returned.[1]

The initial official pronouncements stated that 276 people had died[17] but many estimates put the number at above 2,000.[3] Shortages of coffins were reported and many Venezuelans had to line up at government food distribution centers since markets were destroyed by rioters.[1] Insurance estimates of damage caused during the rioting were $90 million USD ($120 million CAD).[1]

Aftermath and consequences[edit]

On March 3, 1989, President Carlos Andres Pérez spoke with U.S. President George H. W. Bush. President Bush offered Pérez a US$450 million emergency loan. Pérez thanked Bush and asked him to support a change in debt policy toward Latin America: "I want to tell you if there is no change in [international] debt policy then whatever we may do here may be useless."[quote citation needed] Pérez told Bush that he had sent him a letter several days earlier and that he would appreciate it if he would read it.[22] Pérez also visited Bush in Washington on April 1, 1989.[23]

Political instability[edit]

The clearest consequence of the Caracazo was political instability. The following February, the army was called to contain similar riots in Puerto La Cruz and Barcelona and again in June, when rising of transportation costs ended in riots in Maracaibo and other cities. The reforms were modified.[citation needed]

The MBR-200, which in 1982 had promised to depose the bipartisanship governments,[24] repudiated the Caracazo and accelerated its preparation for a coup d'état against the Perez government.[25][page needed] In 1992, there were two attempted coups in February and November. Pérez was later accused of corruption and removed from the presidency. Chávez, a MBR-200 leader and an organiser of one of the coups, was found guilty of sedition and incarcerated. However, he was subsequently pardoned by Pérez's successor, Rafael Caldera, and he went on to be elected president after the latter."[25][page needed]


Military response to the rioting.

A commission was established in the Venezuelan Congress with all its political parties to investigate the events during the Caracazo and unanimously voted for a report that concluded that 277 people were killed.[26]

In 1998, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the government's action and referred the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 1999, the Court heard the case and found that the government had committed violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings. The Venezuelan government, by then headed by Chávez, did not contest the findings of the case and accepted full responsibility for the government's actions.[17]

In August 2009, Defense Minister Italo del Valle Alliegro was charged in relation to the Caracazo.[27] In July 2010, the Supreme Court overturned an appeal court ruling, which had declared the case covered by a statute of limitations.[28]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "Riots leave Venezuela short of coffins; Up to 700 reported dead while hospitals say most of the injured were shot: B1". The Gazette. 5 March 1989.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Uppsala Conflict Data Program Conflict Encyclopedia, Venezuela, One-sided Violence, Government of Venezuela – civilians, Archived 2014-01-15 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ a b Crisp, Brian F. (1998), "Presidential Decree Authority in Venezuela", in John M. Carey and Matthew Soberg Shugart (eds, 1998), Executive decree authority, Cambridge University Press. p157
  4. ^ UN, Venezuela: Wound Still Gaping 20 Years after ‘Caracazo’, By Humberto Márquez, Caracas, Feb 27 2009 (IPS,
  5. ^ a b Venezuela exhumes unnamed dead in riot investigation, Reuters, 22 September 2009.
  6. ^ UN, Venezuela: Wound Still Gaping 20 Years after ‘Caracazo’, By Humberto Márquez, Caracas, Feb 27 2009 (IPS),
  7. ^ a b Amnesty International, March 1990, Reports of Arbitrary Killings and Torture:, February/March 1989, AI Index: AMR 53/02/90,
  8. ^ Minster, Christopher. “Colombia's Legendary Riot of 1948.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 24 July 2019,
  9. ^ Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, Jaime Lusinchi, (Spanish)
  10. ^ a b Márquez & Eduardo 2018, p. 131
  11. ^ Fastenberg, Dan (2011-01-10). "Carlos Andrés Pérez". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2021-04-09.
  12. ^ a b Márquez & Eduardo 2018, p. 132
  13. ^ a b Rivero 2011, p. 102
  14. ^ a b Margarita López Maya, 2003. "The Venezuelan Caracazo of 1989: Popular Protest and Institutional Weakness", Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol.35, No.1 (2003), pp 120-121 (See #Further reading).
  15. ^ Margarita López Maya, 2003. "The Venezuelan Caracazo of 1989: Popular Protest and Institutional Weakness", Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol.35, No.1 (2003), pp 120-121 (See #Further reading).
  16. ^ Peñaloza, General Carlos (2014). El Delfín de Fidel: La historia oculta tras el golpe del 4F. p. 185. ISBN 978-1505750331. On February 5, 1989, the transmission of Lusinchi's command to Pérez was effected with a lavish ceremony unprecedented in a democracy. Fidel ... was pressured by the "perestroika" that threatened the existence of the Cuban communist regime. The Soviet economic problems made it urgent to control Venezuela to enjoy its oil income ... Fidel stole the show with his Bolivarian allusions of the Latin American Union and a call to fight against Yankee imperialism ... the Cubans and their materials arrived at Caracas on a bus and the buses and trucks to the Eurobuilding hotel ... they were delivered three days before the arrival of Fidel to Cuban G2 officers who paid their rent in advance and made strange demands. ... After the "coronation", part of the Cuban contingent left the country ... sources reported from Maiquetía that fewer Cubans had left than those who had entered
  17. ^ a b c El Caracazo Case, Judgment of 11 November 1999, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, accessed 1 May 2007
  18. ^ Rivero, Mirtha (2010). "10". La Rebelión de los Náufragos. Caracas, Venezuela: Editorial Alfa. p. 109. ISBN 978-980-354-295-5.
  19. ^ a b Crisp, Brian F. (1998), "Presidential Decree Authority in Venezuela", in John M. Carey and Matthew Soberg Shugart (eds, 1998), Executive decree authority, Cambridge University Press. p150
  20. ^ Nelson, Brian A. (2009). The silence and the scorpion: the coup against Chávez and the making of modern Venezuela (online ed.). New York: Nation Books. p. 24. ISBN 978-1568584188.
  21. ^ Kozloff, Nikolas (2007). Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 45. ISBN 9781403984098.
  22. ^ Bush Presidential Library, 3 March 1989, Memcons and Telcons,
  23. ^ "Meetings with Foreign Leaders"   (Bush Library)
  24. ^ Márquez & Eduardo 2018, p. 124
  25. ^ a b Hellinger, Daniel (2014). Comparative Politics of Latin America: Democracy at Last?. Routledge. ISBN 9781134070077.
  26. ^ Rivero 2011, p. 118
  27. ^ BBC, 18 July 2009, Former Venezuela minister charged
  28. ^ Latin American Herald Tribune, 2 August 2010, Venezuela’s Ex-Defense Chief May Face Charges for ‘89 Repression