The Coup in Venezuela:
An Interview with Temir Porras
by Justin Podur
Z magazine, May 2002
On April 11, 2002, the elected President of Venezuela, Hugo
Chavez, was overthrown in a military coup. The coup started with
a business-called general strike and a media campaign against
Chavez. Demonstrators marched on the presidential palace and,
according to several eyewitness accounts, exchanged gunfire with
Chavez supporters and some-probably mostly Chavez supporters-were
killed. Members of the military claimed that Chavez ordered the
military to open fire on an unarmed demonstration and used this
as a pretext to order his arrest. The coup leaders circulated
the rumor that Chavez had resigned, when he in fact had not, and
he was subsequently imprisoned.
The United States immediately denied that there had been a
coup, while simultaneously denying that they had anything to do
with it. The replacement president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved the
National Assembly and Supreme Court, promising new elections in
The governments of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, and Cuba refused
to recognize the Carmona government. Pro-Chavez demonstrations
erupted. The demonstrators occupied a major television station,
surrounded the presidential palace, and parts of the military
who were still loyal to Chavez began to mobilize. Many demonstrators
were killed in clashes with police. By Sunday, April 14, 2002,
Chavez was back in power. He gave a speech Sunday afternoon in
which he said there would be no "witch hunt" against
the opposition and that those who plotted the coup would be punished,
but in accordance with the law.
Condoleeza Rice of the Bush administration stated that she
hoped Chavez had learned his lesson and that he would " respect
constitutional processes" and take the opportunity to "right
his ship." Given that he was constitutionally elected and
that the U.S. had supported (and likely helped to bring about)
the 24-hour dictatorship, this was a remarkable display of hypocrisy,
even by State Department standards.
Chavez's program, the "Bolivarian Revolution," calls
for using the country's resources for the benefit of the people
of the country. Chavez helped revive OPEC, resulting in a rise
in the price of oil. His foreign policy included close relations
with Cuba and diplomatic relations with U. S. enemies such as
Iraq and Libya. He initiated land reform programs, reformed the
tax system, and increased spending to health and education. These
are the kinds of policies the U.S. consistently opposes and punishes
The day after the coup Z Magazine received an email from some
workers in the Chavez government, asking if we could interview
them. They had serious security concerns, but by the time we finally
connected with them, their government was back in power and they
could give us their names. Temir Porras Ponceleon and Maximilien
Arvelaiz were hired just weeks before the coup to work as Chavez's
press relations advisors. Temir Porras provided an eyewitness
account of the coup and the counter-coup, and some background
on the "Bolivarian Revolution."
JUSTIN PODUR: Who carried out the coup and how much support
do anti-Chavez forces have in the population ?
TEMIR PORRAS: The opposition to Chavez is an alliance of the
most reactionary groups in society. They're opposed to social,
political, and economic changes. The opposition has a base in
the upper and the upper-middle class.
There are a few things you have to understand, though, about
the changes that we are talking about and the level of opposition
that we are talking about. Let's take just basic levels of taxes
and government services. If you look at Europe, where neoliberal
governments are in power, where they have slashed taxes and public
spending, then most neoliberal countries in Europe are like the
USSR compared to Venezuela in terms of taxation and social spending.
The changes Chavez is proposing don't put Venezuela at even half
the taxation levels of the United States.
So these are very mild changes and they have met totally systematic
refusal by the opposition. The refusal is, of course, because
they stand to lose, but there's also a cultural component. That
is to say, Chavez is black, he is indigenous, he speaks to the
people. That is also something elites can't stand.
Why did the coup fail ?
In part, because of the army. The army is mostly of the people.
It's poor people. It's not an army made up of aristocrats. There
are very few people in the army who come from a wealthy background-60
percent of the country is poor and that's reflected in the army.
As a result, the dictatorship couldn't win. Besides that, the
tactical mistakes they made, their program was so blatant that
they couldn't get international recognition.
What were these tactical mistakes ?
The Carmona government was so stupid and brutal, that they
alienated the army almost immediately. Carmona's government dissolved
the National Assembly. They dissolved the Supreme Court. They
dissolved the Constitution and promised to reinstate it in a year
with fresh elections. They detained many government ministers
without charges, using municipal police. They suppressed the demonstrators
They immediately started persecuting anyone with "Bolivarian"
leanings. They started a campaign to criminalize Bolivarians and
also they would do things like take literature from the Chavez
government and show it as evidence of criminal intent. All this
in the first 24 hours. One mayor, Leopoldo Lopez, called Chavez
a criminal on television.
They did it all in front of cameras, so that everyone could
watch on television. It became so obvious that they were going
to be a disaster, so quickly, that they couldn't rule.
Do you think that your movement is in a better or worse position
to carry out your reforms ?
I think we're in a better position. We are on the high ground,
morally, now. The opposition has revealed itself and is thoroughly
discredited and isolated now. The U.S. cannot say that Chavez
is a dictator. As badly as they want him to be, he is not a dictator.
I'm pretty sure this is historically unprecedented. Can you
remember one case of a dictatorship overthrowing a democratically
elected leader and then having to return him to power, triumphant,
within 24 hours?
Did your movement make any errors, errors that made you more
vulnerable to the coup, that made your reforms more vulnerable?
We were vulnerable to the coup for many reasons. One is that
we were overconfident about the incompetence and isolation of
the opposition. Another is that we were overconfident about the
unity of the army behind us. We just didn't think Chavez could
be in such trouble so quickly.
I hope that in the future Chavez will avoid useless conflicts,
like that with the petrol company, PDV. We alienated ourselves
from people who might have supported us, with that kind of politics.
The thing to do now is to continue with the reforms and affirm
their democratic character, keep them solidly on course, and avoid
There are other weaknesses, and strengths, in the movement.
One obvious weakness is how much of it is centered around the
charismatic figure of Chavez. I hope that we can admit that. Another
thing I hope we can admit is that this whole Bolivarian movement
is fairly new and has a unique history. It doesn't have a long
history of opposition the way the Worker's Party (PT) in Brazil
has, for example. In a sense, the Bolivarians won before going
through that whole process of struggle and popular organization.
We are now organizing from a position of power. I hope we don't
neglect organization as a result.
Still another difference between the Bolivarian movement and
Brazil's PT is-and I'm not a "vanguardist"-but our movement
is new and as a result we have a deficit of skills and expertise.
We lack people who share our ideals and also have the kinds of
administrative skills we need. To remedy this is a whole process
of education, formation, and building a movement. It's the kind
of thing the PT did in their long years in opposition.
Were there any weaknesses internationally that can be remedied
to help prevent this from occurring?
Yes. On the one hand, there were these internal weaknesses
in our movement. On the other hand, we had a lack of international
protection. There are reasons for this, but the result is-well,
let me give you an example. Let's take the Worker's Party in Brazil
again The PT is in power in Porto Alegre. The mayor of Porto Alegre
makes changes in the city's budget-good changes-and the social
movements of the world applaud. I don't think we see that level
of applause for the changes made in this entire country-the fourth-largest
oil producer in the world.
It's an unusual situation. Chavez is one of the most emblematic
leaders of the Third World today. He is the model of resistance
to neoliberalism. He is, in many ways, one of the most important
figures of the anti-globalization movement. But I think that two
months ago, he didn't know it. His politics, without him having
advisers from ATTAC [a strong part of the anti-globalization movement
in Europe], consists of ATTAC's suggested policies and alternatives
to neoliberalism. Yet he didn't know ATTAC until recently and
ATTAC didn't pay much attention to him either.
In part, this is because of the nature of the Bolivarian movement.
It is a real people's movement. That means it's not so Internet
savvy. Most of its members don't get online. Many of its members
don't know people like Galeano. It's not a perfect, ideologically
sophisticated movement in that sense.
It is an authentic movement of people who are learning as
they go, as they make changes. It's as emotional as it is intellectual
and this is a strength and a weakness. It's not people doing things
because a book tells them to do it.
In a way Chavez is like that too. Eclectic, curious, always
changing and learning as he goes. He's almost an instinctive revolutionary.
Justin Podur is a graduate student in environmental science
at the University of Toronto and a commentator for Z Magazine
and ZNet. See Venezuela Watch at www.zmag.org/venezuela watch.