The abortive attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez has all the earmarks of a military coup made in the USA.
Chavez was reinstalled in the presidential palace April 14, two days after being abducted by elements of the military and replaced by a “consultative junta” nominally headed by the chief of the country’s big business association, Pedro Carmona Estanga. How long Chavez will remain in power before his political enemies, backed by Washington, make their next attempt remains to be seen.
Twice elected by the largest margins in the South American country’s history, Chavez, himself a former paratrooper who led a failed coup attempt in 1992, was removed from office in the midst of a general strike jointly organized by the country’s business establishment and the corrupt, corporatist bureaucracy of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV).
The Bush administration lost little time in hailing the coup. White House spokesman Ari Fleisher predicted “the situation will be one of tranquility and democracy” following the seizure of power by military commanders. Washington’s reaction stood in sharp contrast to that of Mexico and several other Latin American governments, which denounced the coup as an illegal overthrow of an elected government.
The White House, together with the US media and the Venezuelan establishment, justified the coup as a response to violent clashes that occurred during the general strike and mass demonstration jointly organized by Venezuelan big business and the union bureaucrats. Approximately 16 people were killed April 11 as pro- and anti-government demonstrators clashed in the streets near the Miraflores presidential palace.
Who started the shooting, and why, remains unclear. The march, which began in the wealthier neighborhoods of Caracas’s east side, picked up strength as it approached the palace, with an estimated 50,000 joining the protesters. Tens of thousands of Chavez’s supporters, meanwhile, sought to block the demonstrators from reaching their goal.
Several of the people killed were among those defending the palace, including the driver of Chavez’s vice president, Diosdado Cabello.
Witnesses attributed the deaths to an exchange of fire between the Presidential Guard and elements of the Metropolitan Police, loyal to Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, a Chavez opponent whom Washington has openly groomed to take on the president, inviting him to meetings with the State Department and the International Monetary Fund.
The Venezuelan establishment, senior military officials, the media and the US State Department all seized on the deaths to proclaim that Chavez had ordered a “massacre,” violating the constitution and justifying his ouster.
Calling the shooting of demonstrators an “assault” on society, General Efrian Vazquez declared that the overthrow of Chavez was “not a coup.” He called it a “position of solidarity with the entire Venezuelan people.”
Admiral Hector Ramirez, the chief of the Venezuelan navy, read a statement on the CNN news network declaring: “We cannot accept a tyrant in the presidency. His remaining threatens the country with disintegration. We direct military personnel of all ranks to join forces with us and make a new Venezuela a reality.”
Among those yelling the loudest about the shootings was Carlos Andres Perez, the former president of the Democratic Action Party, together with his supporters, both civilian and military. There is no small irony in this, given that the Perez government was responsible for the bloody suppression of the so-called Caracazo, when troops massacred at least 1,000 workers, youth and poor who came down from the “cerros,” or hilltop shantytowns, and took to the streets of the Venezuelan capital in 1989 to protest against a drastic economic austerity plan demanded by the IMF.
Perez, who drowned the protest of Venezuela’s oppressed in blood, denounced Chavez for using violence and accused him of “dividing the country between the rich and the poor.”
How this division was to be corrected became clear during the 48 hours when Chavez was held incommunicado on an island off the Venezuelan coast. The newly installed military-backed regime of the businessmen’s leader Carmona moved swiftly to wipe out any trace of the limited social reforms implemented by the Chavez government since it was first elected in 1998—land reforms and the affirming of universal rights to health care and education, for example. Assuming dictatorial powers, Carmona dismissed Venezuela’s national legislature, sacked the country’s Supreme Court, abolished its constitution and announced that he would fire governors and municipal leaders as he saw fit.
Meanwhile, the same military that had expressed horror over the shootings at the anti-Chavez demonstrations unleashed troops against people who took to the streets in protests and looting, largely in the poorer, western part of the city. The death toll among those demonstrating against the coup is still not known, but observers in Caracas report dozens of bodies brought to local hospitals, and hundreds of wounded.
At the same time, the junta launched a manhunt for Chavez supporters, both government officials and left-nationalist activists who had formed “Bolivarian Defense Committees” in recent months, as it became increasingly clear that a coup was likely. Some took refuge in the Cuban embassy, which was quickly surrounded by a mob of several hundred anti-Chavez activists. Electricity and water to the building were cut off as the crowd, backed by security forces, threatened to storm it.
Carmona ordered officials dismissed by Chavez from the state oil company, PDVSA, restored to their posts and sacked those whom the president appointed. The change in management in this key sector of the economy was the issue that provoked the strike organized jointly by the CTV bureaucracy and the business establishment.
Among those restored to their posts was General Guaicaipuro Lameda, one of the first military officers to publicly denounce Chavez. Edgar Paredes, restored as PDVSA’s manager of Supply, Refining and Commercialization, told the media, “Not one barrel of petroleum will go to Cuba.” He was referring to the Chavez government’s agreement to supply Havana with 53,000 barrels of crude oil daily under a favorable payment plan.
Venezuela’s oil lies at the heart of these tumultuous events. Not only was Washington anxious to cut off the supply of petroleum to the Castro regime, thereby tightening its 40-year old economic blockade, it also wanted to sever the relations that Chavez had established with OPEC, especially with those OPEC members whom the US has sought to turn into international pariahs—Iraq, Iran and Libya.
Venezuela is the third-largest supplier of petroleum to the United States, accounting for 15 percent of the US supply. It had played a substantial role in reinvigorating OPEC in recent years, resulting in a rise in oil prices. Traditionally, the US relied on Venezuela to act as an OPEC quota-buster, helping to keep oil prices low.
Major US oil companies had also targeted Chavez as an enemy because of his resistance to the privatization of the state-owned oil sector.
Finally, the Venezuelan president earned Washington’s wrath by refusing to allow the over-flight of US warplanes used in the growing military intervention in neighboring Colombia, and by denouncing the US bombing of Afghanistan.
The coup against Chavez had been long in preparation. Last November, the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Agency held a joint conference to discuss “the problem of Venezuela,” and shortly thereafter Washington announced that it would “put Venezuela in diplomatic isolation.”
Pressure from the Bush administration was supplemented by an open destabilization campaign by the IMF and the major banks and finance houses, which sounded dire warnings that Venezuela’s economy was headed for disaster. For its part, the IMF announced that it would be happy to provide new loans to a “transitional government,” virtually calling for the overthrow of Chavez.
At the end of February, Washington sent a new ambassador to Colombia. Charles S. Shapiro had served as the political officer at the US Embassy in El Salvador at the height of the US-backed dirty war in that Central American country. The post is frequently used as a diplomatic cover for the chief local operative of the CIA. At that time the CIA was coordinating the activities of right-wing death squads that killed thousands of Salvadorans during the country’s civil war.
Most recently, Shapiro was the director of the Office of Cuban Affairs, coordinating US economic sanctions as well as political and military provocations against the Castro regime.
The apparently successful coup against Chavez quickly unraveled in the face of mass protests and the fact that the military’s unanimity was more apparent than real. Key units balked at the overthrow and more joined them as Carmona announced his sweeping measures.
Given that the senior commanders had justified overthrowing the president by proclaiming they could not stomach firing on the people, unleashing a bloodbath against popular demonstrations against the coup became somewhat problematic.
For his part, Chavez sounded a conciliatory note as he walked back into the presidential palace. “I do not come with hate or rancor in my heart,” he said, while appealing for calm.
In the end, the military is Chavez’s primary constituency. Twice the Venezuelan people elected him—a manifestation of universal disgust with the corrupt parties of the ruling elite, Democratic Action and the Christian Democratic COPEI, which had alternated in power for four decades while 80 percent of the people remained in poverty. But Chavez has rested heavily on sections of the armed forces to run his government, and it will be the vote of the general staff that ultimately decides the fate of his regime.
While left-nationalists in Venezuela and in Latin America generally have sought to lionize Chavez, presenting his “Bolivarian revolution” as a new road to liberation, the limited social measures undertaken by the ex-paratrooper’s regime have done little to ameliorate the desperate conditions facing the masses, or to pry loose the grip of Venezuela’s oligarchies over the country’s wealth.
In the end, his populist demagogy, like his friendship with Fidel Castro, differs little from that of a long line of “left” military rulers—General J.J. Torres in Bolivia, General Velasco Alvarado in Peru, General Rodriguez Lara in Ecuador, or General Omar Torrijos in Panama—all of whose regimes served only to disorient the masses of workers and peasants and pave the way for right-wing and repressive regimes.
The history of US-backed military coups in Latin America is replete with false starts, like this past weekend’s events in Caracas. An armed uprising that failed preceded the September 1973 military coup that brought down the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende and inaugurated General Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror against the Chilean working class. That abortive action, just like the recent move against Chavez, showed how vulnerable the government was to a coup. It also provided a dress rehearsal for a real confrontation with the masses and allowed the principal figures in the military to determine which units could be relied upon and which could not.
The crisis in Venezuela is not over, and the abortive coup is by no means an isolated event. Despite having been discredited by the mass murder and torture carried out by military dictatorships that ruled much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, the military has maintained immense power throughout the continent by virtue of its control over the lion’s share of public sector budgets and because of the discrediting of the bourgeois political parties. Any genuine settling of accounts with the crimes committed by the Pinochets, Videlas and Banzers during the “dirty wars” against the working class was prevented through a series of “punto final” laws that granted blanket amnesties to the uniformed torturers and assassins.
Under conditions of immense social polarization, faced with the demands of the IMF and the foreign banks for ever more drastic austerity measures, the unstable civilian political superstructures in country after country are proving incapable of containing the class struggle. In the last two years alone, nearly half of South America’s heads of state have fallen by extra-constitutional means, including Fernando de la Rua in Argentina, Jamil Mahuad in Ecuador and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori—all forced out in the midst of intense economic and political crisis.
These social and class contradictions are joined by Washington’s increasing resort to militarism to further the profit interests of the US-based multinationals that operate in Latin America. One prominent example is the Bush administration’s proposal to turn what ostensibly began as a “war on drugs” in Colombia into an open counterinsurgency campaign, linked to asserting tighter US control over US oil companies’ pipelines and oilfields.
The events in Venezuela indicate that the past period of civilian rule in Latin America will prove a historical interlude, giving way to a new eruption of revolution and counterrevolution.