Coup in Venezuela: An Eyewitness Account
Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002
by Gregory Wilpert
April 12, 2002
The orchestration of the coup was impeccable and, in all likelihood, planned a long time ago. Hugo Chavez, the fascist communist dictator of Venezuela could not stand the truth and thus censored the media relentlessly. For his own personal gain and that of his henchmen (and henchwomen, since his cabinet had more women than any previous Venezuelan government's), he drove the country to the brink of economic ruin. In the end he proceeded to murder those who opposed him. So as to reestablish democracy, liberty, justice, and prosperity in Venezuela and so as to avoid more bloodshed, the chamber of commerce, the union federation, the church, the media, and the management of Venezuela's oil company, in short: civil society and the military decided that enough is enough-that Chavez had his chance and that his experiment of a "peaceful democratic Bolivarian revolution" had to come to an immediate end.
This is, of course, the version of events that the officials now in charge and thus also of the media, would like everyone to believe. So what really happened? Of course I don't know, but I'll try to represent the facts as I witnessed them.
First of all, the military is saying that the main reason for the coup is what happened today, April 11. "Civil society," as the opposition here refers to itself, organized a massive demonstration of perhaps 100,000 to 200,000 people to march to the headquarters of Venezuela's oil company, PDVSA, in defense of its fired management. The day leading up to the march all private television stations broadcast advertisements for the demonstration, approximately once every ten minutes. It was a successful march, peaceful, and without government interference of any kind, even though the march illegally blocked the entire freeway, which is Caracas' main artery of transportation, for several hours.
Supposedly at the spur of the moment, the organizers decided to re-route the march to Miraflores, the president's office building, so as to confront the pro-government demonstration, which was called in the last minute. About 5,000 Chavez-supporters had gathered there by the time the anti-government demonstrators got there. In-between the two demonstrations were the city police, under the control of the oppositional mayor of Caracas, and the National Guard, under control of the president. All sides claim that they were there peacefully and did not want to provoke anyone. I got there just when the opposition demonstration and the National Guard began fighting each other. Who started the fight, which involved mostly stones and tear gas, is, as is so often the case in such situations, nearly impossible to tell. A little later, shots were fired into the crowds and I clearly saw that there were three parties involved in the shooting, the city police, Chavez supporters, and snipers from buildings above. Again, who shot first has become a moot and probably impossible to resolve question. At least ten people were killed and nearly 100 wounded in this gun battle-almost all of them demonstrators.
One of the Television stations managed to film one of the three sides in this battle and broadcast the footage over and over again, making it look like the only ones shooting were Chavez supporters from within the demonstration at people beyond the view of the camera. The media over and over again showed the footage of the Chavez supporters and implied that they were shooting at an unarmed crowd. As it turns out, and as will probably never be reported by the media, most of the dead are Chavez supporters. Also, as will probably never be told, the snipers were members of an extreme opposition party, known as Bandera Roja.
These last two facts, crucial as they are, will not be known because they do not fit with the new mythology, which is that Chavez armed and then ordered his supporters to shoot at the opposition demonstration. Perhaps my information is incorrect, but what is certain is that the local media here will never bother to investigate this information. And the international media will probably simply ape what the local media reports (which they are already doing).
Chavez' biggest and perhaps only mistake of the day, which provided the last remaining proof his opposition needed for his anti-democratic credentials, was to order the black-out of the private television stations. They had been broadcasting the confrontations all afternoon and Chavez argued that these broadcasts were exacerbating the situation and should, in the name of public safety, be temporarily shut-down.
Now, all of "civil society," the media, and the military are saying that Chavez has to go because he turned against his own people. Aside from the lie this is, what is conveniently forgotten are all of the achievements of the Chavez administration: a new democratic constitution which broke the power monopoly of the two hopelessly corrupt and discredited main parties and put Venezuela at the forefront in terms of progressive constitutions; introduced fundamental land reform; financed numerous progressive ecological community development projects; cracked-down on corruption; promoted educational reform which schooled over 1 million children for the first time and doubled investment in education; regulated the informal economy so as to reduce the insecurity of the poor; achieved a fairer price for oil through OPEC and which significantly increased government income; internationally campaigned tirelessly against neo-liberalism; reduced official unemployment from 18% to 13%; introduced a large-scale micro-credit program for the poor and for women; reformed the tax system which dramatically reduced tax evasion and increased government revenue; lowered infant mortality from 21% to 17%; tripled literacy courses; modernized the legal system, etc., etc.
Chavez' opposition, which primarily consisted of Venezuela's old guard in the media, the union federation, the business sector, the church, and the traditionally conservative military, never cared about any of these achievements. Instead, they took advantage of their media monopoly to turn public opinion against him and managed to turn his biggest liability, his autocratic and inflammatory style, against him. Progressive civil society had either been silenced or demonized as violent Chavez fanatics.
At this point, it is impossible to know what will happen to Chavez' "Bolivarian Revolution"-whether it will be completely abandoned and whether things will return to Venezuela's 40-year tradition of patronage, corruption, and rentierism for the rich. What one can say without a doubt, is that by abandoning constitutional democracy, no matter how unpopular and supposedly inept the elected president, Venezuela's ruling class and its military show just how politically immature they are and deal a tremendous blow to political culture throughout Latin America, just as the coup against Salvador Allende did in 1973. This coup shows once again that democracy in Latin America is a matter of ruling class preference, not a matter of law.
If the United States and the democratic international community have the courage to practice what they preach, then they should not recognize this new government. Democrats around the world should pressure their governments to deny recognition to Venezuela's new military junta or any president they happen to choose. According to the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), this would mean expelling Venezuela from the OAS, as a U.S. state department official recently threatened to do. Please call the U.S. state department or your foreign ministry and tell them to withdraw their ambassadors from Venezuela.
Gregory Wilpert lives in Caracas, is a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, and is currently doing independent research on the sociology of development.