The Big Blowup Over Venezuela

By Marc Cooper
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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper's career in journalism began in 1966, when he founded and edited an underground newspaper in high school in Los Angeles. After being expelled from the California State University system for his…
Marc Cooper

The Making of a Radical

Born to a dirt-poor family of teachers in 1954, Chavez enlisted at 17 as a “lifer” in the Venezuelan army. Educating himself while in the military, he soon developed a nationalist and vaguely leftist doctrine of “Bolivarianism,” inspired by the 18th century liberator who cherished the ideals of the European Enlightenment and the French Revolution and who dreamed of, and fought for, a unified Latin America.

Chavez’s political views found some resonance in the ranks; not an oddity in numerous Latin American countries where, for better and usually for worse, the officer corps takes a strong interest in politics. In both Bolivia and Peru, for example, there had been earlier left-of-center movements resentful of American domination of the continent.

The historic opening for Chavez came in the late 1980s and early ’90s when the country, despite its vast oil reserves, was suffering from economic decline and disillusionment with rampant political corruption under the U.S.-backed regime of President Carlos Andres Perez was reaching a boiling point. Some two-thirds of Venezuelans were eking out an existence on less than $2 a day. In 1989, a violent social explosion known as the Caracazo shook the nation. A veritable poor people’s uprising, it was sparked by economic austerity measures imposed by President Perez. Though the rebellion was crushed, taking hundreds–some say thousands–of lives, many Venezuelan soldiers refused to open fire on their countrymen.

The Caracazo left an indelible mark on the nation, and on paratrooper and officer Hugo Chavez. None of the country’s yawning injustices were being resolved.

So it was on Feb. 4, 1992, that Col. Chavez led five military units into Caracas in an attempt to seize power. Though he had the support of about 50% of the military, the putsch failed and Chavez was imprisoned. (President Perez would soon also wind up in the clink, impeached over one of his many corruption scandals.)

After he was released from prison in 1994, Chavez–now a civilian–dedicated himself full-time to building up his MVR or Fifth Republic Movement. Chavez’s meteoric success perfectly mirrored the decay of Venezuela’s traditional political system. Millions felt disenfranchised by a system completely locked up by two corrupt parties–both of them dominated by the country’s wealthy and fair-skinned elites. The billions generated by the country’s oil sales had no impact on the teeming slums of Caracas, some of the worst in the hemisphere.

With his unique oratorical style brimming with colorful attacks on his opponents and laced with graphic ribaldry, his vocabulary and speech patterns betraying the lower classes from which he had risen, Chavez quickly galvanized a growing “outside” movement that wanted to turn Venezuelan politics inside out. Raging against corruption and cronyism, and advocating an unabashedly populist program, Chavez smashed Venezuela’s two-party monopoly by winning 56% of the vote in the 1999 presidential elections (though not without raising allegations that he benefited from millions of dollars poured illegally into his campaign by two large bankers ).

An Opera Buffa Coup: Washington’s Dirty Hands

During the first two years of his administration, and after his reelection in 2000, Chavez held several plebiscites to rewrite the constitution and replace the discredited Congress with a unicameral chamber. For a period, he governed primarily by decree, and he stacked the Supreme Court with appointed allies. He angered some to his left by imposing state-monitored elections within the trade unions, for which he drew a rebuke from the International Labor Organization.

But mostly he generated white-hot anger and resistance from the wealthier elites and from the remnants of Venezuela’s crumbling political establishment. Venezuelan politics became bitterly polarized, and at the center of the political storm stood Chavez.

By 2002, Chavez’s agenda was clear: He wanted a break with Washington’s neo-liberal economic policies; he wanted to challenge elite domination of the economy; he wanted land reform, national healthcare and literacy programs. To finance this magnanimous populism, he was willing to spend the billions in profits from Venezuela’s oil sales.

To achieve this goal, Chavez moved to replace the board of the state oil company, which has traditionally been independent of government control. An initial protest strike among oil workers led to a general work stoppage. The business community then joined in the protest. On April 11, 2002, despite Chavez’s vow to crush all opposition, a half-million protesters marched on the presidential palace, where a smaller pro-Chavez rally was being held.

Chavez seized the airwaves several times during the day. His opponents on private TV stations defied him and made their own incendiary demands. Gunfire broke out between the two sides in the streets, with the Metropolitan police, sympathetic to the opposition, on one side and the Venezuelan National Guard, loyal to Chavez, on the other. At least 17 people died and more than 200 were wounded.

In the heat of the confusion, military commanders arrested Chavez and effectively seized power, naming industrialist Pedro Carmona as the interim president. What then ensued was a two-day tragic-comic opera buffa that was an on-again, off-again coup–a historic episode in which the U.S. played a less than honorable role and set the two countries on their collision course.

Throughout the long day and night that Chavez was sequestered and as the military’s handpicked president, Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions–the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and the national electoral commission–the Bush administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say, in effect, that the whole affair was Chavez’s own fault.

But whoever masterminded the ousting of Chavez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal to him and, backed by yet one more popular uprising in the streets, they brought Chavez back to power less than 48 hours after he was arrested. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup–the upper and middle classes, supported by the trade union movement–was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent business-class leader, to run the provisional government, labor withdrew its support literally overnight. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.

But it was only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office that U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice took to the boards to scold Chavez, saying that he, not the coup-makers, should “respect constitutional processes.”

Although the coup was denounced by 19 Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless U.S. lecturing on democracy. As Sen. Christopher Dodd has noted, “To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy.”

The leading U.S. papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that The New York Times had to apologize. By midweek after the coup, with Chavez back in power, the Times recanted: “Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer.”

That the Bush administration eagerly wanted to rid itself of Chavez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup, U.S. officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chavez, and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela’s military high command. Later, during Carmona’s brief reign, according to a U.S. State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona–ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly.

Whether the U.S. directly intervened to overthrow Chavez or merely supported an opposition it hoped would accomplish the task remains a matter of dispute.

Some Chavez defenders see a direct U.S. hand in the coup, with the National Endowment for Democracy underwriting the main players. Other, less partisan analysts, like The Nation’s David Corn, concluded that while NED and the U.S. government may have not played a direct role in the coup, they certainly gave the coup plotters the impression that Washington would have no real objections to toppling Chavez.

Two years after the failed coup, however, documents surfaced (so-called CIA briefs) which clearly indicated that the CIA and the Bush White House knew of the coup attempt in advance and did nothing to stop it or to warn the Chavez government. “This is substantive evidence that the CIA knew in advance about the coup, and it is clear that this intelligence was distributed to dozens of members of the Bush administration, giving them knowledge of coup plotting,” said Peter Kornbluh, a senior analyst at the nonprofit National Security Archive in Washington.

The behavior of the Bush administration in regard to the 2002 coup was a flagrant violation of all the pro-democracy principles that the White House had been annunciating since 9/11 and that it has used to justify the war in Iraq. The posture that Washington took and continues to take toward Chavez is more consistent with earlier bouts of blatant American interventionism in Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Latin American nations.

This renewed Cold War position of Washington, while deserving a sound condemnation, does not, however, tell us much about what Chavez’s policies look like inside Venezuela.

Chavez has been blessed with an inept and often outrageous political opposition. Though supported by some labor unions and some smaller leftist parties, the opposition has been led primarily by enraged sectors of the more comfortable classes whose tone has often been more than shrill.

Discontent with Chavez was deep enough so that his opposition could–on two occasions–gather millions of signatures calling for a plebiscite on his continued tenure. But when that referendum was eventually held on Aug. 15, 2004, Chavez’s rule was upheld by nearly 60% of the voters. His supporters say that this popularity reflects his many accomplishments. His detractors say it more accurately represents his centralization of power and the inability of his formal opposition to provide an attractive alternative other than a return to the past.

Continued: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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