Venezuela: Coup and countercoup

by Bridget Broderick

International Socialist Review, May-June 2002


The Bush administration applauded the April 12 ouster of elected President Hugo Chavez Frias in Venezuela as a victory for democracy. Chavez "provoked the crisis," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, because he called in the military to suppress a peaceful demonstration of the people. Clearly not all Venezuelans (or other Latin Americans) agreed with this interpretation of events- they recognized it for what it was, a coup. But with mass support from the poor and from middle-ranking military officers, Chavez returned to the presidential palace in less than 48 hours. His government was again in control by early Sunday, April 14. Late Saturday night, the U.S. joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in a unanimous condemnation of the "alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela." But this was too late to remove the taint. Despite all of its pro-democracy rhetoric, Washington had offered dear support to a military coup against a democratically elected president in Latin America.

After Bush met the following week with Colombian President Andres Pastrana, he was asked whether the delay in condemning the coup conflicted with his commitment to "always stand up for democratic values." In response Bush chided President Chavez for being overthrown, and found clarity in the administration's position where no one else could. "My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support for democracy. It is very important for President Chavez to do what he said he was going to do, to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil in the streets...If there are lessons to be learned, it's important that he learn them."

The past actions of members of Bush's administration betray the real meaning behind his words "lessons to be learned." Current Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich was key in organizing covert funding and training for the contras in Nicaragua under Reagan in the 1980s designed to overthrow Nicaragua's popular revolutionary government. He moved to Venezuela as the U.S. ambassador in 1986. Roger Pardo-Mauer, now the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, worked directly with Reich's State Department as a representative to the contras in the 1980s. In December of last year, Pardo-Mauer met with General Lucas Romero Rincon, who announced Chavez's fabled resignation. What else can Bush's statement be other than a warning to Chavez that he could face a second coup if he doesn't straighten up?

U.S. involvement

The White House denies that it had any direct involvement in Chavez's brief ouster. However, business and military leaders that took part in the coup, including Pedro Carmona, the self-proclaimed president for a day, visited U.S. officials several times in the past few months to discuss Chavez's ouster. Officials in Washington have admitted to the meetings, but claim that they only discussed constitutional ways of getting rid of Chavez. This claim rings hollow. Not only did the U.S.' funnel almost a million dollars to the organizations that fomented the anti-Chavez coup, through the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, but also there have been credible reports of direct U.S. involvement in the coup. A STRATFOR intelligence brief claims, from unnamed sources, that the CIA and the State Department were both involved offering direct support to the coup-plotters. And according to former National Security Agency (NSA) officers Richard M. Bennett and Wayne Madsen (also a former Naval officer), U.S. Army units in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas "assisted in providing communications intelligence to U.S. military and national command authorities on the progress of the coup." Given Washington's long history of support for friendly military coups and dictatorships in Latin America, these accusations are more than credible.

The bosses' strike

Who was involved in the "popular rebellion" against Chavez-aside from Washington? From Venezuela, the National Chamber of Commerce (Fedecamaras), management of the state oil company, and other upper class professionals, Catholic church officials, the corporate-run media, high-ranking military officers, and the corrupt trade union bureaucracy of the CTV, affiliated with the discredited AD (Accion Democratica) political party. Interesting freedom fighters.

The coup was a long-term project of Venezuela's traditional oligarchy, with tacit encouragement from U.S. officials and businesses. The precipitating event was the second bosses' strike against Chavez in four months. Management of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), organized a strike for six weeks to protest Chavez's appointment of five new members to the board of directors. Media reports conveniently blurred the lines between management, office, and production workers by saying the "oil workers" were on strike. However, employers and management were the main forces involved.

The traditional PDVSA management preferred "autonomy" to undermine OPEC quotas-lowering the price of oil exported to the U.S., but increasing market shares for private investors. Chavez wanted to keep oil prices high, since state revenues depend largely on oil exports and taxes on oil revenues. This, of course, made him unpopular with Bush's friends in the oil business.

Management's strike slowed production and refining by 20 percent in March. With oil prices rising and Iraq's threat of a boycott, perhaps the oil bosses thought it was a good time to go on the offensive. The CTV called on union members to join PDVSA employees in a general strike on April 9. Fedecamaras joined in. This was a major media event-advertised every ten minutes on private television stations (completely controlled by opposition supporters). Reports vary on the strike's success- but many businesses closed their doors to employees, and Fedecamaras offered to pay the day's salaries. In the poorer sections of Caracas, workers went to work. Public sector workers, who are members of the CTV, did not participate.

Although numbers apparently dwindled on April 10, Fedecamaras and the CTV prolonged the strike "indefinitely." On April 11, they had organized protesters at the PDVSA headquarters to confront Chavez at the Miraflores presidential palace. An estimated 150,000 anti-Chavez protesters marched to the palace and faced off with the National Guard and Chavez supporters. Initial media reports claimed that pro-Chavez snipers, on orders from the president, killed 14 protesters. Subsequent investigations revealed that the municipal police and anti-Chavez opposition fired into crowds as well. Over 200 people were wounded in the confrontation.

Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco (a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas) declared in a news conference April 11 "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but today's deaths cannot be tolerated." More than 40 top officials joined the "rebellion" against the Venezuelan president, a former lieutenant colonel. National Guard forces arrested Chavez and whisked him to a military base. National Guard Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz announced late April 11 that Chavez's government was out of power and that the armed forces were now in control of the country. The Bush administration used the incident to denounce Chavez's undemocratic regime, and praised the military's bravery in turning against the president's authoritarianism. Chavez, who never signed his resignation, was arrested and sent to a military base to be investigated.

The media spread rumors that Chavez had resigned his presidency. The head of the Fedecamaras, Pedro Carmona, was immediately installed as president. Giddy with success, but apparently without the consent of all the plotters, Carmona immediately abolished the 1999 constitution and 49 reform laws affecting taxes on foreign oil companies, land use, and fishing rights. He dismissed the elected National Assembly and the Supreme Court, and ended oil sales to Cuba. He called for elections within one year, and promised to revisit Venezuela's role in OPEC. The IMF offered immediate assistance to the interim government, and cited its concern for human rights.

Popular forces

While the poor and working class (at least 80 percent of Venezuela's population) did not come out immediately in massive numbers to support Chavez during the coup of April 11, many were outraged by the upper class's forces imposing their leaders and dictatorial policies. By Saturday, April 13, tens of thousands of Venezuelans from the poor neighborhoods and the countryside expressed their support in the street for the democratically elected Chavez and National Assembly, and against the bosses' organizations and their military supporters who had seized power. They faced tear gas and bullets from the metropolitan police (trained by former New York City Police Chief William Bratton, no less) and the National Guard in various cities. Over 60 people were killed during the repression. Private media, owned by the opposition, refused to report the protests or the repression. Carmona shut down the state-run media. Venezuelans could find information only through foreign media. On Saturda, Chavez supporters took over the state television station and began running footage of the street protests.

The private media refused to report these spontaneous demonstrations, claiming the masses "endangered" their journalists. On Saturday, April 13. Caracas residents literally had to go to the streets to find out what was happening. As the plazas) filled with protesters and rumors that Chavez had never resigned spread throughout the country, many in the lower ranks of the military sided with the elected president (a former paratrooper). Protesters surrounded and invaded the presidential palace, and Carmona, fearing the growing unrest and seeing his support collapsing, relinquished the power he never quite held. Chavez returned early Sunday morning to cheering crowds and military salutes-reported on the state-run television station that had been taken over by Chavez supporters.

Carmona's "coup within a coup" was a political miscalculation, to say the least. Once the business leader took power, he not only dismissed all democratic institutions; he abandoned key sectors of his opposition coalition-military leaders, top union bureaucrats, and influential anti-Chavez intellectuals who participated in overthrowing the elected president. Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco, "a key supporter of the coup"-demanded Carmona reinstate the National Assembly, and CTV president Carlos Ortega warned Carmona that he would have to address urgent labor issues such as billions of dollars in wages and pensions owed public workers.

Moreover, the coup was not supported by all high- and mid-level military officials. Some organized against the coup in a major air force base in Maracay, and in other cities in the interior. Chavez was part of the air force, and still had the loyalty of many mid-ranking officers and soldiers. Sections of the military refused to recognize the transitional government, and reportedly worked with Chavez supporters in forming neighborhood defense committees.

Chavez returns ... to what?

The popular uprising and the support of sections of the military reversed the right-wing coup of Fedecamaras and military officers. Vice President Diosdado Cabello claimed his right to be president until Chavez safely returned, and Carmona could not inaugurate his cabinet as planned. Chavez was greeted by thousands of supporters at the presidential palace. The "transition" cabinet members were held briefly, then released.

Chavez immediately called for the opposition to reflect on its actions and rectify its ways. He promised he would not retaliate against employees in the oil industry. The president then announced a Federal Government Commission for a national dialogue-a conciliatory proposal he had already made to the opposition hours before being arrested.

The defeat of the opposition gives Chavez a new lease on life as his weakened and divided enemies figure out their next step. His popularity with the poor-and most importantly to Chavez, with the military-is reaffirmed. His opposition is discredited because it overplayed its authoritarian hand, believing its own rhetoric about its own strength and Chavez's lack of support.

Chavez could easily take this opportunity to push his agenda for social reforms further to left, given the weakness of his conservative opposition. He could build strong political organizations to increase participation by the poor and by workers in his Bolivarian society. But part of the reason for the coup's initial success was because Chavez has not organized a mass political movement of his supporters. The Bolivarian circles, Chavez's community centers, are tightly controlled groups given government funding and centered in poor communities. Chavez has relied more on the military-a force he sees as central to the Bolivarian revolution-than on real popular mobilization.

But Chavez is not a revolutionary. He is a populist, seeking to reconcile various social forces to advance his own nationalist agenda. From recent actions, Chavez seems to be continuing where he left off before military leaders arrested him: reconcile with the upper class, union bureaucracy, and church officials through attempts at dialogue such as the Federal Government Commission initiative. Directly after retaking power, the president withdrew his appointees to the PDVSA board that had allegedly sparked the oil strike, and assigned Ali Araque Rodriguez, the current head of OPEC, to head the company. For the chair of the truth commission to investigate the coup conspiracy, Chavez appointed Edgar Zambrano of the AD party, one of the traditional political parties involved in opposing the president. And in a bizarre nod to the opposition, Chavez recently appointed Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon-who helped lead the coup and had announced Chavez's resignation-to the top post in the armed forces.

To be sure, Chavez has been trying to push back the U.S., criticizing Washington for its role in the coup. His appointment of the former OPEC chief indicates he is trying to do a balancing act. But his internal attempts at reconciliation by granting concessions to the opposition will strengthen their hand. Rich Venezuelans and their well-connected opposition

forces are not going away quietly. The CTV is calling for a referendum to approve Chavez and his cabinet. In either scenario, the majority of Venezuelans do not benefit from Chavez's appointments or concessions. Chavez's position will weaken, as the right sees him conceding ground and his poor and working class supporters become disillusioned.

Conditions for increasing explosions are just under the surface. The armed forces are clearly divided. With the Colombian civil war intensifying as Bush pushes for greater U.S. military involvement, a military conflict in Venezuela could engulf the region in violent war. The real victims would of course be workers and the poor.

Many of the sectors that supported Chavez in the street still criticize his tight control, the militarization of the regime, and the inefficiency of his social programs, according to Provea (Venezuela's human rights agency). "Some of these sectors defend the possibility of change more than a reality [of change], and when they back the government, they are basically opposing a 'return to the past."' Chavez was elected, and was reinstated, because he represented a break with the past of oligarchy, corruption, and two-party control. He implemented relatively mild social reforms of investment in education, health care, and small businesses. But the resources needed to address the mass poverty in the country mean a mass redistribution of wealth that Chavez has not advocated, nor is willing to advocate-despite right-wing hysteria about his left leanings.

The president's main reforms have focused on fighting corruption and writing the progressive constitution of 1999. He has also sought independent relations with Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East in order to make Venezuela competitive on the world market, and he has refused to support Washington's military initiatives in Colombia. Although he has used nationalist rhetoric to defend Venezuela's right to control its resources, he does not oppose international markets, and has conscientiously made payments on Venezuela's foreign debt to the IMF each month. He has opened the country to oil exploration and foreign investment, and deregulated the bolivar in February. Venezuelans today face increasing unemployment, inflation, crime, and poverty. Chavez does not have answers to these problems.

Here in the United States, socialists must defend Chavez's right to the presidency against the right-wing coup attempted by the elite of Venezuela and the U.S. But the left also must push for more than the possibility of change-Venezuelans need the reality of change. So while socialists defend the right of the Venezuelan people to defend the president they democratically elected, this is not equivalent to endorsing his political project. Venezuelan workers and the poor who came out in the streets to fight against Chavez's opposition must use that energy to organize independently of Chavez for real change in their communities and workplaces. The reversal of Chavez's fate is an indication of where real power lies-not with Chavez but with the majority of poor and working class Venezuelans.

There are definitely challenges the left faces today. Chavez's opposition, though weakened now, will try to rise again. The CTV will try to legitimize its role as "democratic" opposition, and will use the economic crisis to organize for another coup. At the same time, the Bolivarian circles may hold a certain prestige as defenders of the "revolution," but they are government organizations that will-according to their own documents-suppress all left forces that fall outside of their control. They represent a huge hindrance to any independent left organizing. Much of the left, moreover, still follows Chavez uncritically. Yet the events of April show the pressing need for and the enormous potential for an independent, revolutionary working-class movement in Venezuela.


Bridget Broderick's last article for the International Socialist Review was "Venezuela's president under attack" in issue 21, March-April 2002.

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