No one knew for sure at the time, but in the early hours of February 4, 1992, Venezuelan history would be broken in two. A civilian-military uprising, led by then Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez would become the trigger for the Bolivarian Revolution.
“Venezuela was a colonized country. The nation was dying and 4F sowed the new nation,” Chávez would recall in 2011 when talking about the rebellion that was forged in military barracks in the early days of his revolutionary struggle.
The 1992 rebellion did not succeed and another six years would pass until the neoliberal model was finally pushed aside. It was not a defeat, only a setback. Its triumph was kindling hope for change, to drive Venezuela towards a better destiny.
Furthermore, popular struggles suddenly had a clear leader.
Venezuela had 20.6 million people, with 78 percent living in poverty and 37 percent in extreme poverty In February 1992. Carlos Andrés Pérez was three years into his second go-round as president and his popularity was just 26 percent.
Pérez rode into power through the so-called “Punto Fijo Pact”, a bipartisan, United States-sponsored political deal signed in 1958 that saw parties Democratic Action and COPEI (social Christians) alternate in power. For 40 years, Venezuela lived under a pretend democracy while living conditions worsened for the majority.
The 4th Republic (1958–98) was characterised by runaway corruption, constant human rights violations, persecution against leftist political movements and an economic policy at the service of elites and multinational corporations.
February 1989 saw the first major cracks break open in the political system. Fresh off of his inauguration, Pérez implemented an International Monetary Fund neoliberal structural adjustment plan. This economic monstrosity straight from the Washington Consensus was translated into more expensive public services, food, fuel and public transportation while surrendering more privileges to foreign capital.
The country finally imploded on February 27. In an outburst of outrage, poor people took to the streets in Caracas to reject the economic measures and decades of social injustice. The “Caracazo” would go down in history as the first great insurrection against the neoliberal era, while also marking the beginning of its end.
In the following eight days, more than four million rounds were fired against the rebellious people. The result was a massacre, with an estimated 3000 killed by the armed forces that were deployed on the government’s orders.
“I saw soldiers go out, logistical soldiers who don’t have training. These are the ones who cook, or tend to the vehicles. Even the mechanics were taken out and given a rifle, a helmet and plenty of ammunition. You could see a disaster coming and that’s what happened.” This was Chávez’s description of the state’s repression in 1989.
Three years later, the young official and Bolivarian soldiers would deal a second blow against the unpopular Punto Fijo system.
The Caracazo events pushed the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200) into action. It had been growing in the country’s military barracks since 1982 and it was not just a mere insurgency project. It was building the ideological base for a new country.
At the head of this movement was a rebellious soldier who on July 5, 1975 graduated as a second lieutenant of the armed forces while carrying a Che Guevara book under his arm.
After a decade of clandestine organising, on February 1992, now Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez, flanked by patriotic soldiers and supported by civilian leftist movements, launched the first civilian-military rebellion in Venezuela.
The uprising truly began the night before, when hundreds of uniformed soldiers went out of their barracks to change history. They all wore an armband with the country’s colors to recognise each other. In their hands they had rifles, only this time not to point them at the Venezuelan people.
In simultaneous fashion, the rebel commands deployed in Caracas as well as in Maracaibo, Valencia and Maracay. Chávez’s base of operations was the Military History Museum, close to the government headquarters at Miraflores Palace.
The mission was to take political power and hand it to the people. With that in mind, in the early hours of February 4, the Bolivarian soldiers tried to storm Miraflores and La Casona (former presidential residence) but were stopped in their tracks by the National Guard and sectors of the army loyal to the government.
In logistical and military terms the attempt was impossible and it failed. Around noon on February 4, Commander Chávez, virtually unknown until then for the majority of Venezuelans, faced TV cameras to tell his comrades and the people that, “for now”, their objectives had not been achieved.
“This Bolivarian message,” began the young leader, identifying straightaway the revolutionary and patriotic character of the insurrection. He praised the soldiers’ bravery, self-critically took responsibility for the failure and promised the people a “better future”. In a minute he won the admiration of an entire country.
Never had a leader spoken with such honesty nor taken responsibility for his actions like this before the people.
“Comrades, unfortunately, for now, the goals we set out were not achieved in Caracas. You did your job over there, but it is time to reflect and there will be new challenges. The country needs to move definitively towards a better destiny.
"I thank you for your loyalty, I thank you for your bravery, your commitment, and I, before the country and before you, take responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement.”
That memorable address sparked the fire of revolution and became a symbol of hope for a disenchanted country. Not just that, it represented Chávez’s birth as a historic leader.
The Bolivarian Revolution
Chávez and the other February 4 rebellion officers would spend two years in prison. During this time there were massive popular protests demanding his release. It was a common occurrence to see long queues outside the Yare prison where people flocked to meet him and express support for the Bolivarian cause.
Chávez was freed on March 26, 1994, on the orders of then President Rafael Caldera, COPEI leader who was elected in 1993. The pardon was a response to popular pressure, but also an attempt to deflate the influence of the revolutionary leader.
History had other plans. Upon leaving Yare, Chávez was greeted by a huge crowd and immediately called on the people to accompany him in taking to the streets and creating a “big national front” to fight for “the necessary transformations”.
“We march onwards, to take political power in Venezuela. We’ll show these career politicians how to drive a people to rescue their true destiny,” he told hundreds of followers.
Now out of the Army, Chávez would dive into the political battle. That same year, he undertook a countrywide tour to explain his project to convene a Constituent Assembly and refound the Republic under a model of social justice.
The invariable neoliberal policies of those years did nothing but fuel the Bolivarian hurricane. In 1997, Chávez and the other MBR-200 militants created the political party Movimiento V República (Movement for a 5th Republic, MVR) with sights set on the upcoming presidential elections.
Chávez finally got to hand power to the Venezuelan people when he was elected president on December 6, 1998, with a historic 56% of the vote. His triumph allowed him to steer the country towards this better destiny he foresaw in the February 1992 rebellion.
In subsequent years, and amidst constant imperialist attacks, the Bolivarian Revolution would devote itself to paying back the social debt inherited from neoliberalism. A new Constitution, approved by popular vote on December 15, 1999, introduced wide-reaching social, political and economic rights for the people.
“The spirit of February 4 was not born to be betrayed,” Chávez warned on several occasions. Thirty years later, the struggle is far from over.
[This article first appeared in Spanish in Utopix. Translated by Ricardo Vaz for Venezuela Analysis.]