COUP FAILS; CHAVEZ RETURNS
Posted: Sunday, April 14, 2002
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías returned to power April 14 after his civilian and military supporters squelched a two-day coup led by the country's rightwing business sector. (CNN en Español 4/14/02 from AP)
The week leading up to the April 11 coup was marked by heated conflicts between supporters and opponents of Chávez. On April 4, mid- and upper-level managers began a strike at the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), to protest Chávez's replacement of the company's board of directors. On April 6, Venezuelan Workers Confederation (CTV) President Carlos Ortega and Chamber of Commerce Federation (Fedecámaras) President Pedro Carmona Estanga jointly announced a 24-hour strike for April 9 to support the PDVSA strike and protest Chávez's government.
The unions that represent PDVSA workers were divided; some supported the strike call, while others opposed it. PDVSA is wholly state-owned, with a value estimated at $150 billion. PDVSA's sales of 2.43 million barrels of oil per day provide 80 percent of Venezuela's hard currency income and establish the country as the world's fourth-largest oil producer and the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
In his weekly radio program April 7, Chávez announced the firing of seven PDVSA managers and the forced retirement of 12 others, and urged an end to the strike at the oil company. At the same time he announced a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage for public sector workers, set to take effect May 1. Chávez called on Venezuela's private sector to match the public sector increase, which will raise the monthly minimum salary from 158,400 bolívars ($176) to 190,000 bolívars ($211). Chávez said he could not negotiate the wage adjustment with the CTV because the group's leadership is "illegitimate and does not represent the workers of the country."
Chávez called on public employees to go to work as usual on April 9; he said private sector workers whose bosses had offered them a paid day off to participate in the strike should take advantage of the situation and "stay at home and rest." (Miami Herald 4/8/02 from unspecified wire services; La República (Lima) 4/8/02 and 4/9/02, both from AFP)
The April 9 strike—which Chávez's opponents said was widely observed and which the government called a failure—was extended to April 10 and then, on April 10, extended indefinitely. On April 10, National Guard Maj. Gen. Rafael Damiani accused Chávez of responsibility for violence against a group of strikers outside a PDVSA facility in Caracas that day. Earlier on April 10, active-duty army Gen. Néstor González accused Chávez of lying about his government's support for Colombian leftist rebels. González claimed Chávez had him transferred from a command position near the Colombian border to an administrative position because his troops had been engaging in combat with Colombian rebels who had entered Venezuelan territory. (LR 4/11/02 from AFP, EFE)
On April 11, shooting broke out as a group of some 200,000 anti-Chávez demonstrators confronted about 5,000 Chávez supporters outside the presidential palace in central Caracas. According to Gregory Wilpert, a Caracas resident who witnessed the scene, the gunfire came from snipers in surrounding buildings, city police and Chávez supporters. At least 13 people were killed and some 150 wounded. Most of the dead were Chávez supporters. The city police are under the control of Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña, a rightwing Chávez opponent; the snipers, according to Wilpert, were members of an extreme opposition group called Bandera Roja. (Another eyewitness cited by the Sweden-based leftist e-mail newsletter Vientos del Sur (VISUR) confirmed that the snipers were from Bandera Roja, an ultraleftist group working with the far right.) The opposition-controlled media suggested that Chávez and his supporters were exclusively responsible for the violence. Chávez responded by ordering the temporary suspension of the transmissions of private television stations he said were carrying out a "defamation campaign" and inciting people to violence. (LR 4/12/02 from AFP, correspondent; VISUR 4/13/02; Wilpert e-mail message 4/11/02)
Army General Commander Brig. Gen. Efraín Vásquez Velasco and nine high-ranking military officers—including González and Damiani—responded by demanding that Chávez resign. Carmona, the Fedecámaras president, offered to head a transition government that would call new elections as soon as Chávez left. (LR 4/12/02 from AFP, correspondent)
Early on April 12 Carmona announced he was assuming the presidency because Chávez had resigned. Carmona quickly dissolved the National Assembly, dismissed the Supreme Court and overturned 48 laws passed by the Chávez government. Carmona insisted Chávez was "in custody, not arrested," and that soon the ousted president would travel "according to his wishes, outside the country." Anti-Chávez demonstrators attacked the Cuban embassy, believing that Chávez's vice president, Lt. Diosdado Cabello, was hiding there. (El Nuevo Herald (Miami) 4/13/02 from correspondent)
On April 12, Chávez's daughter, María Gabriela Chávez, confirmed that her father was being detained; she told Cuban television she had spoken with him that morning and he told her to "let the world know that at no moment did he resign, and at no moment has he signed a decree dismissing Vice President Cabello." (La Jornada (Mexico) 4/13/02)
On April 13, tens of thousands of people protested in the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities to demand Chávez's return to office. Some Chávez supporters seized control of the state television station to press for his return. More violence and repression ensued; at least 40 people were killed.
On the afternoon of April 13, troop commanders at an important military air base in Maracay, about 60 miles southwest of the capital, rebelled against the coup leaders and made clear their loyalty to Chávez. Gen. Vásquez announced that the armed forces would support Carmona's transition government only if 12 points were respected, including the reestablishment of the legally elected powers of state and of the Constitution.
The National Assembly then reconvened and swore in Cabello as president; Carmona resigned and was promptly arrested, along with other coup leaders. At 1:45 a.m. on April 14, Chávez headed to Caracas to reclaim the presidency; he left by helicopter from the Venezuelan island of Orchila in the Caribbean, where he had been detained during the coup. Before noon on April 14, Chávez returned to the presidential palace and appeared in public, cheered by thousands of supporters. (LJ 4/14/02; ENH 4/14/02; CNN en Español 4/14/02 from AP; Clarín (Buenos Aires) 4/14/02 from AP, EFE and correspondent)
Both Gen. Vásquez and Gen. Ramírez Poveda, another military commander who backed the coup, are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), renamed last year as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHISC) and placed under the authority of the Defense Department. Vásquez attended the school, in Fort Benning, Georgia, from January 23 to December 2, 1988, taking a course called "Command and General Staff Officer Training." Ramírez took a course called "Auto Maintenance Officer Training" from May 8 to August 11, 1972, when the school was located in Panama. (SOA Watch Email Message 4/13/02)
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