[For the fifth
anniversary of the defeat of the April 11-13 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Venezuelanalysis.com editor Gregory Wilpert offers a comprehensive account of what happened and an examination of the
most pressing questions around the events of those days. --Ed]
An Account of April 11-13, 2002, in Venezuela
The 47-Hour Coup That Changed Everything
By Gregory Wilpert – Venezuelanalysis.com
April 13, 2007
The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.
Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.
Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.
Each of these victories against the opposition heightened consciousness in Venezuela about the need to take the Bolivarian revolution further and thus also allowed Chavez to further radicalize his political program. The coup attempt represented a crucial moment in this process because it was the most dramatic expression of the Venezuelan conflict between a charismatic President and a mobilized poor population on the one hand and the country’s old elite and their supporters on the other.
Preconditions for a Coup
With Chavez’s popularity rating apparently sinking in late 2001 and early 2002, especially among the middle class, and the general inability of the country’s old governing elite to accept Chavez as the legitimately elected President of Venezuela, it became just a matter of time for this old elite to form an alliance with dissident military officers and to organize a coup. The events in 2001 that led up to the coup can be summarized as the following:
- The departure of key former supporters from Chavez’s coalition (half of the MAS – Movement towards Socialism – party, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, and MVR – Chavez’s party Movement for a Fifth Republic – co-founder and Minister of the Interior Luis Miquilena).
- The business sector’s uproar over 49 law-decrees passed in November 2001 that revamped the country’s banking, agriculture, oil industry, and fishing industries, among other things.
- The union federation’s (CTV) anger over the government’s push for union elections in October 2001.
- Chavez’s opposition to the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.”
- The mass media’s active participation in the political conflict, largely taking the place of the discredited centrist and conservative parties.
- A developing recession, due to a rapid decline in world oil prices following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.
Many of these development were a consequence of Chavez refusing to play along in the “politics as usual” game of accommodating the established powers in society, whether the old union leadership, the church, the business class, the private mass media, or the government of the United States. In his first three years in office (1999-2001) Chavez thus proved himself to be a political leader of a completely different sort than the kinds the country’s old elite and the middle class had expected. Until 2000, following the mega-elections, it still looked like Chavez could perhaps be the kind of leader who talked tough, but who acted like a moderate. However, with the 49 law-decrees, especially the land reform and the new hydro-carbons law, Chavez proved that he was a different kind of leader.
Preparing for a Coup
Therefore, the radical sectors of the opposition, which could not accept Chavez as the legitimately elected president, began plans for a coup, which it put into motion in early 2002. One of the first elements in this plan was to demonstrate to the public that there supposedly was widespread discontent within the military. The first to launch this wave of disapproval was Colonel Pedro Soto, a former assistant to President Carlos Andrés Perez, who announced in a public event on human rights, on February 7, 2001, that the president should resign because Venezuela had become a dictatorship. Soto declared himself to be in rebellion, basing himself on article 350 of the constitution, which says that citizens have a right to civil disobedience, should the government violate constitutional norms. Immediately, the mass media were all over Soto in a frenzy. It seemed as if they were desperate for a new face that would take the lead. Soto, however, was quickly arrested for insubordination and would eventually flee to Miami.
Chavez put the incident off by saying, “He was a traitor together with a group companions… Then he did not get promoted to general, filed a complaint for not being promoted, with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled his claim without merit…” Shortly thereafter, another officer, Captain Pedro Flores Rivero, of the National Guard, joined Colonel Soto in demanding the president’s resignation. Both Soto and Flores gave speeches against the in the Plaza Altamira, in one of Caracas’ most upscale neighborhoods, where they accused the government of being a totalitarian dictatorship.
Eleven days after Soto’s first denunciation, on February 18, another military officer, Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, made similar statements, saying that Chavez had violated the right to freedom of the press, eliminated the separation of powers, and was attempting to set up a regime similar to the one in Cuba. Each officer, in addition to their charges against the government, also claimed that there was much discontent within the military. The series of military officers’ pronouncements thus began to appear planned to coincide with the opposition’s gathering momentum, to create an increasing impression that Chavez no longer had the backing of the country’s military.
PDVSA Management Take the Lead
All along during the time of increasing tensions, ever since the passing of the 49 law-decrees, managers from the country’s state owned oil company, PDVSA, complained about the law that was supposed to reform the oil industry. However, the conflict with the management had been on a relatively low burner until Chavez decided to name a new board of directors for PDVSA. Since the Venezuelan state is the only owner of PDVSA, the president has the authority to unilaterally name its board of directors. Chavez had repeatedly complained to the public about his frustrations about getting direct answers from PDVSA as to its finances. He referred to PDVSA as a “state within a state” and as being a “black box” that he was determined to open. He took his first real step in doing so when he named a new board of directors on February 21. By that time PDVSA already had three presidents in three years, all of whom seemed to be closer to the company’s upper management than to the president.
The last PDVSA president, General Guaicaipuro Lameda, was someone Chavez thought he could trust, but who did not seem particularly eager to help Chavez in figuring out PDVSA’s finances. Chavez thus named Gaston Parra, a fairly well-known leftist engineer who specialized in the oil industry, to the post of PDVSA president. At first the oil industry executives did not say much about the new board. Gradually, though, protests against the new board were voiced, especially from the management. At one point even, a group of PDVSA workers complained that managers were trying to push them into supporting protests against the new board of directors. Talk of a possible general strike began to develop, both amongst the PDVSA management and among the CTV leadership. In early March, the CTV began to speak publicly about the possibility of organizing a general strike for March 18th. A little later it was decided to set the general strike date for April 18th. Meanwhile, the government warned that should the management walk out on their job, in a general strike, everyone who did so would immediately be fired.
The oil management’s rallying cry became “Respect the meritocracy!” in reference to their claim that the new board of directors did not have the necessary experience or background in the oil industry. While it was true that most of them came from outside PDVSA, all of them did have extensive backgrounds as oil industry analysts. The hypocrisy of the management’s claim that inexperienced people were put into place becomes all the clearer when one looks at past boards of directors, named under Chavez’s predecessors, some of whom indeed had nothing at all to do with the oil industry and the management at the time did not utter any complaint.
The overall opposition discourse had begun to revolve primarily around PDVSA, with the opposition’s argument being that PDVSA “belongs to the people, not to the government.” The opposition tried to create the notion that as long as the “meritocracy” runs PDVSA, it would be non-ideological and would be run in the interests of all Venezuelans. However, if the new board of directors were allowed to stay, PDVSA would become an ideologically leftist organization, run in the interests of a political party. Exactly why the “meritocrats,” who were closely identified with former PDVSA president Luis Giusti, someone who followed the precepts of privatization and of neo-liberalism, would be less “ideological” than Chavez’s board nominees was never explained.
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