VENEZUELA: Uprising defeats US-backed coup

Wednesday, April 24, 2002

BY FEDERICO FUENTES

The simple slogan on a wall in Caracas explained it all: "Yankee, game over. You lost". Within the space of 48 hours, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was overthrown by a military coup, only to be swept back to power by an uprising of the Venezuelan people.

The collapse of the coup was a massive setback for the United States government, which was aware of the coup plotters' preparations and aided their anti-democratic action. The coup was the culmination of the US government's attempt to isolate Chavez internationally and destabilise his government domestically.

The coup followed a series of events which had unfolded in the previous week. Managers at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), Venezuela's state-owned oil company, launched a strike on April 4 because they opposed Chavez's replaceming of five members of the company's board of directors. The claimed the new appointments were "political".

On April 9, the right-wing controlled trade union federation, the Confederacion de Trabajadores de Venezuela, the main chamber of commerce and Fedecameras called a 48-hour strike to demand the reinstatement of the sacked managers and the resignation of Chavez. The strike was extended indefinitely and a march in the capital, Caracas, was called for April 11.

The anti-Chavez march was advertised — for free — every 10 minutes on all the privately owned television stations. In response, the government ordered the closure of the anti-Chavez television stations and condemned the march as "subversive" and "insurrectionist". It stated that the opposition and the media were trying "to create panic and generate disturbances" to create a false sense of chaos.

The April 11 opposition march was estimated at between 50,000 to 100,000. In a clear provocation, the right-wing organisers suddenly re-routed the march to the presidential palace, where 5000 pro-Chavez demonstrators had gathered.

Gun fire erupted during the violent clash of the two demonstrations, resulting in 15 or so deaths and many being wounded. The anti-government media were quick to claim that Chavez had ordered the shootings and implied that the dead were anti-Chavez protesters.

However, the media refused to release the names of the dead. In fact, according to eyewitness accounts, most of those killed were Chavez supporters shot by snipers. It seems the shootings were carried out by members of Bandera Roja, a bizarre ultraleft sect which has been working with the far right.

'Resignation'

These events were the excuse for 10 top military officials to declare their opposition to Chavez and demand his immediate resignation. On April 12, army commander General Efrain Vasquez announced that Chavez had "resigned" and that Pedro Carmona, the national chairperson of Fedecameras, would be installed as president.

The national media were quick to disseminate the unsubstantiated claim that Chavez had resigned, calling the coup d'etat a "change of government". (Illustrating how closely the media bosses were involved in the plot, the head of Venevision offered a civilian aircraft to the coup-makers to fly Chavez out of the country.)

This was in spite of the fact that Chavez's daughter, Maria Gabriela Chavez, had released a fax sent by her father that denied that he had resigned. The news of the fax, smuggled out by a loyal soldier, was relayed back into the country by the international media, breaking the Venezuelan media's news blackout.

Carmona almost immediately dissolved the Supreme Court and the democratically elected National Assembly. Members of the National Assembly, 20 judges, 12 governors and all pro-Chavez mayors were arrested. Carmona also declared void the 1999 constitution, which had been written by an elected constituent assembly and passed overwhelming in a referendum.

The military-backed "president" also cancelled 49 of the Chavez government's laws which benefit the poor. These included laws which increased royalty payments from oil companies and redistributed idle land to the poor. Carmona also demanded the end to all export of oil to Cuba, and talked of the need to reestablish closer ties with the US.

Army head Vasquez immediately set out to dismantle the popular Bolivarian Circles, which had been established by the Chavez government to defend the reforms of Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution".

Uprising

In response to the coup d'etat, Venezuela's workers, unemployed workers and poor peasants launched a massive counter-offensive. Chavez supporters began to protest on the night of April 12, blocking the highway connecting Caracas with the airport for five hours to prevent Chavez being forced into exile.

By April 13, mass protests had exploded across the country. Throughout Caracas, major upheavals occurred in the sprawling slums.

Chavez supporters quickly seized control of the radio and television stations, which refused to broadcast the events unfolding in the streets. At one stage, protesters marched to the army fort where Chavez was being held.

Sections of the military also remained loyal to Chavez. At the army base in Maracay around 2000 soldiers and officers rejected the military junta. General Raul Isaias Beduel refused to obey orders from Caracas.

Police moved to suppress dissent. Police killed 40 demonstrators. Tear gas was fired into the crowds of protesters in front of the presidential palace.

However, repression could not quell the outrage spreading across Venezuela. Carmona was forced to take refuge at Tiuna Fort, south-west of Caracas, after 50,000 people surrounded the presidential palace. It was soon taken by troops loyal to Chavez.

By 6pm, on April 13, 100,000 Chavez supporters had gathered at the palace. In an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the collapse of his illegitimate regime, Carmona announced the restoration of the National Assembly.

The massive show of opposition to the coup, both in the capital and around the country, made the difference. The lower ranks of the armed forces joined the revolt. This forced the elements of the military brass that were still wavering to disown Carmona and swing behind the section of the military that had remained loyal to Chavez.

Carmona was forced to resign and Chavez's vice-president Diosdado Cabello was sworn in as acting president. By around midnight, April 14, the news spread that Chavez was to be released and flown back to Caracas from Orchila Island, where he was being held prisoner. Chavez supporters massed outside the presidential palace and the crowd swelled to more than 150,000 by the time of Chavez's arrival. Associated Press was forced to admit that "most Venezuelans seemed to accept Chavez's return".

US response

The US had been quick to support the coup. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer immediately announced the US government's willingness to work with the "new government" in Venezuela. US deputy state department spokesperson Philip Reeker asserted that the "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked [the] crisis".

It is now clear that the US government knew about the plans for the coup. The April 22 Newsweek magazine reported that the plotters had revealed their plan to the US embassy in Caracas two months before. Subsequent US support was both financial and military, according to former US National Security Agency officer Wayne Madsen.

The failed coup in Venezuela was frighteningly similar to the events that led up to the CIA-sponsored overthrow of Chile's President Salvador Allende and his elected government in 1973: the outflow of around $12 billion worth of capital since the start of 2000 from Venezuela; the bosses' destabilisation of the economy; direct US support and funding for the opposition; the virulent anti-Chavez media campaign; and the culmination of a military coup.

Latin American governments denounced the coup. The 19-member Rio Group condemned "the interruption to constitutional order" in Venezuela. The Cuban government immediately refused to recognise the coup leaders as the legitimate government of Venezuela.

Following Chavez's return to power, the US administration on April 15 declared that it would withhold its support, claiming the president's restoration did not amount to "a full restoration of democracy". A senior US official, who refused to be named, was quoted by Reuters as saying "legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of votes".

On April 14, US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said on NBC's Meet the Press, "I hope Chavez takes the message that his people sent him that his policies are not working for the Venezuelan people".

The reality is that the victory of the Venezuelan people over the Washington-backed military coup has massively boosted the legitimacy of Chavez's presidency. It now rests not just on his election victories but on a mass popular uprising.

From Green Left Weekly, April 24, 2002.

Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

From GLW issue 489