Remembering Cantaura, 31 years later


A poster from 2009 commemorating the victims of the “democratic” massacre of Cantaura, Venezuela, which occurred 31 years ago. This is all of a pattern with US interference throughout Latin America. While Argentina and Chile suffered openly under fascist dictators imposed with the help of Washington and the Chicago Boys, Venezuela had its own, but with a veneer of “democratic” gloss, thanks to the infamous Punto Fijo pact of 1958, where the dictators basically alternated their reign under a cycle of sham elections, empty campaign promises, corruption…and covert terror, wrought by goons from the army, the police, and the DISIP, the secret political police of the era. After the exclusion of leftists from the pact, guerrilla bands in Venezuela fought to topple the succession of dictators-in-all-but-name…and paid the price in blood. And even peaceful, unarmed leftist organizers and innocent workers paid the same toll, as the massacre of Cantaura shows in no uncertain terms:

5:30 a.m. It was dawn on the morning of October 4, 1982 in the scrublands of Los Changurriales, in Cantaura. A pot of coffee was brewing and some arepas were cooking on the fire in a camp of the revolutionary “Américo Silva” front. It was the front room of an ideological congress which would have been held by 40 of its members, had seventeen 250-pound bombs not fallen from the sky, launched by Canberra and Bronco planes of the Venezuelan Air Force. Everything was blown into the air. Extermination as state policy was on the march.

It was the “pacification” policy of the COPEI government of Luis Herrera Campins to silence persons who strove for a Venezuela of justice and social inclusion. The massacre was part of this plan which, without any mincing of words, was announced to the press in August of that same year: “They must surrender or die”, read the headline of the newspaper El Mundo, which cited the warning given by the then Ministry for Interior Relations to guerrilla groups operating in the eastern part of the country.

And so it was. Minutes after the bombs fell on Los Changurriales in Cantaura, they shot 41 revolutionaries at close range in an aerial attack. Not content with that, 1,500 members of the Army, National Guard and DISIP [Venezuelan secret police] surrounded the zone, with express orders to wipe out any survivors.

After the rockets and machine-gun fire from the aerial attack, according to the account of the journalist Alexis Rosas in his book The Cantaura Massacre, the close-range firing began again on the ground, on three flanks and without a call for surrender. Those who were sounded were gunned down in cold blood by a commando of the DISIP, directed by Henry López Sisco, who in 1988 participated in the massacre of El Amparo, during the final months of the government of Jaime Lusinchi.

Even though nearly everyone had been killed, the rain of bullets continued. They were overkilled without pity. The corpses, exhumed after having been buried in a common grave by the authorities, showed evidence of the brutality of the attack. The bodies were dismembered, with bomb wounds in the extremitites, multiple gunshot wounds, and 14 of them showed signs of execution-style killing, with bullets in the back of the neck or in the head.

In that moment, before being assassinated, the “sin” committed by this revolutionary front was to meet in order to analyze the political and social situation of the land and to delineate a political proposal of inclusion, social justice and real participation of the people in a land governed at that time by the Christian-democratic party, COPEI.

“There died revolutionary and Bolivarian comrades who gave themselves to the task of teaching peasants and workers to read. All they had were political thoughts of a better Venezuela,” recalls Nayive Rincón, niece of Roberto “El Catire” Rincón Cabrera, chief of the Front, in a declaration published by the blog Cantaura Lives.

Later investigations revealed that the order of the Campins government was to destroy the “subversives” (which they were called in order to criminalize them) and definitively annihilated the “menace” which this youth front represented for the land.

This massacre occurred in a Venezuela where the left was persecuted, tortured, disappeared and assassinated by the security organisms of the State.

Parallel to the massacre, about 300 directors of student, neighborhood or union movements were indicted “and others of us were hunted to be killed or imprisoned,” recalls director Robin Rodríguez in an article published on the website Aporrea.

The Cantaura massacre was not an isolated event in Venezuela. After the toppling of Salvador Allende in Chile (1973), the right-wing governments of the Southern Cone applied a policy of exterminating the left. It was a plan that obeyed a repressive scheme which the United States distributed in all the continent, as part of its exterior policy intended to defend what it considered its “interests”.

In that military attack, near Cantaura, 23 of the 41 young revolutionaries were assassinated. The front had taken up arms in Venezuela as a form of struggle against the heavy repression which spread over the land once the Pact of Punto Fijo was signed.

“Only a small group of guerrillas could break through the military encirclement and escape across the plains of the Mesa de Guanipa, under command of Alejandro Velásquez Guerra, an exceptional witness for the reconstruction of the massacre,” recounts an article by the parliamentary deputy, Fernando Soto Rojas.

The deceased in this massacre were Sor Fany Alfonzo, Diego Alfredo Carrasquel, Eusebio Martel Daza, Carmen Rosa García, Beatriz del Carmen Jiménez, María Estévez, Emperatriz Guzmán, Jorge Luis Becerra, Mauricio Tejada, Luis José Gómez, Julio César Farías, Roberto Rincón, Nelson Pacín, Enrique José Márquez and José Miguel Núñez. Other deaths include Rubén Alfredo Castro, Baudilio Valdemar, Antonio María Echegarreta, José Isidro Zerpa, Carlos Hernández Anzola, Ildemar Lorenzo, Carlos Alberto Zambrano and Eumenidis Gutiérrez.

The majority were university students, workers, teachers, sociologists. People of the people. They were between the ages of 18 and 30. And in addition, during the attack, “none of them was armed,” confirmed Albenis Urdaneta, member of the Front, who survived because he was outside the encampment during the attack, in declarations published in 2007 by the daily paper, Antorcha de Anzoátegui.

In this massacre are also counted the shootings of six cooks, who, even they were far away from the zone, were executed by the army, according to a denunciation by a former parliamentary deputy of the time, Héctor Pérez Marcano, who explained that these women had no relation to the revolutionary meeting. Even though they were only cooking for the attendees, the women were captured alive and “a squadron of army rangers rounded them up and later shot them,” recounted Pérez in declarations compiled for the book by the People’s Ombud, Systematic Violations of Human Rights in Venezuela, 1958-1998.

As implacable as the army was at that moment, the press of 31 years ago had no thoughts about the event. The informative treatment banalized the massacre of insurgent groups. From “gangsters” to “criminals” — such were the descriptives which the communications industries used to refer to the victims of this military ambush.

The Campins government came to call to the massacre an “armed encounter”. However, the exhumations of the bodies demonstrated that the majority of the victims were executed, their bodies bore signs of torture, and coups de grâce in the skulls.

An investigation was solicited of the now-extinct National Congress and the Attorney General’s Office of the Republic, but all the information remained archived.

This massacre was hidden, silenced and discredited during the 40 years of Acción Democrática and COPEI governments. It was with the Bolivarian Revolution that the Attorney General once again took up the case.

In recent years 18 bodies have been exhumed in Caracase, Barcelona, Anaco, Cumaná, La Guaira, and Puerto Cabello, in which it was confirmed that the majority of the victims of the October 4, 1982 massacre were executed.

As well, in October 2011, the National Assembly approved, with the socialist majority, the Law of Sanction for Crimes, Disappearances, Tortures and Other Violations of Human Rights for Political Reasons in the Period 1958-1998.

With this law, a special commission was created, tasked with clearing up this and other cases of massacre and violations of human rights in the governments of the Fourth Republic.

“The governments of the Fourth Republic used death as an expression of democracy and torture as a method of peace,” was how parliamentary deputy and peasant leader Braulio Álvarez summarized the matter in 2009.

While the investigations in to the case advanced, the Public Ministry implicated Ismael Antonio Guzmán, former commander of the Rangers Battalion of the Army, in charge of the massacre. Also implicated were the former director-general of the DISIP, Remberto Uzcátegui, as well as the former director of intelligence of the same extinct organism, José Domínguez Yépez.

31 years after the fact, there was a memorial ceremony for the dead of Cantaura, on Friday afternoon and on Saturday morning at 9:30.

“For those who spattered the land with blood, I demand punishment. For the traitor who rose upon the crime, I demand punishment. For the executioner who commanded this death, I demand punishment. I do not want to shake the hand soaked with our blood,” wrote Fernando Soto Rojas in the invitation to the ceremony, citing a poem of the Chilean, Pablo Neruda.

Translation mine.

I was 15 when this massacre took place, and the media up here were silent — silent as the mass grave, one might say — about it. I recall no reports of it at all; quite the contrast with the Caracazo, which occurred seven years later and was so violent that it raged for five days and could not be ignored; I remember the Maclean’s feature on that one well, and I also remember thinking how stupid the media here were to consider it incomprehensible, as they did. How could there not be riots (which are just protests where the cops showed up to break heads) if a government decided to all of a sudden impose higher prices on everyone, in conformity with “market” dictates, but not raise their wages by the same percentage to cover the costs? What did they expect — that the people would just take all that lying down?

Of course, the rage that precipitated the Caracazo began long before that penultimate day of February, 1989. One might say it began 31 years before, when the last military dictator of Venezuela fled the country in a panic before angry revolutionary crowds, only to be replaced with a succession of civilian puppets. But the only difference between Marcos Pérez Jiménez and the AD/COPEI presidents who followed him is that the one wore a uniform, and the others, the badges of their respective parties. Other than that, there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between any of them. All served Washington’s interests, and all were respectively called “great friends of democracy” by various US presidents and secretaries of state, without the slightest sense of the irony of the utterance.

The present-day Venezuelan opposition is a direct outgrowth of this festering cancer we might otherwise call the traditional ruling class. They take their power as a birthright, although it is unearned and, frankly, stolen. But might made right…at least until 1998, when a democratic election finally drew the line under that and placed in power a former military man who openly rebelled against his anti-guerrilla, anti-leftist orders. Hugo Chávez, far from being yet another putschist military dictator, was the catalyst of a movement that had been in ferment since the end of the 1950s, when he himself was but a child. It was around him that a civilian/military alliance of Bolivarian leftists converged, forming the voting base that made him the first truly democratic elected leader since the fall of the dictatorship in 1958.

And of course, since Chavecito was a wild democrat, Washington and its regional puppets went to work right away…first to prevent him from coming to power, and then, when that proved impossible, to depose him by all means possible, up to and including assassination. (The old DISIP dogs have learned no new tricks, as we can see.)

It would be tempting to see his unexpected illness and death as separate from all this; after all, the stupid media have to keep portraying him as the lunatic he most certainly was not, and his followers as paranoid fanatics. And they’re now doing the same to his successor, Nicolás Maduro…another popular, very long-time democratic leftist activist whose sanity is actually not in doubt. To do otherwise would require some serious digging…the kind that exhumed the dead of Cantaura, and Yumaré, and the Caracazo, and many other covert mass murders from the “democratic” pre-Chávez era. And that, in turn, would mean uncovering the roots of the rage that sparked the Caracazo, the military uprising of 1992, and so many other episodes that are highly inconvenient to Washington’s incoherent “democratic” fictions.

Couldn’t have THAT, now, could we?

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