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?
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.