On 11th April, as Colombia Solidarity was going to press, news came in of a military coup against the popular and progressive President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. Fortunately within 48 hours the coup was defeated and Chávez was back in power.
A popular and progressive President
An ex-paratrooper who had formed a popular movement for change and who was elected with a large majority in December 1998, Chávez was inaugurated in February 1999 and proceeded to hold a series of elections and referenda to change the Venezuelan Constitution and implement a radical overhaul of the country’s entire political, economic and social system. A passionate orator, he used his weekly phone-in TV programme "Aló Presidente" to maintain dialogue with the people and to combat the overwhelmingly hostile Venezuelan media.
In three turbulent years Chávez succeeded in implementing nationalist measures to increase Venezuelan control over the oil industry, in reviving OPEC and increasing oil revenue, in tripling the education and health budgets and in organising popular neighbourhood committees known as "Bolivarian Circles" in poor areas. These and other progressive measures were feared and resented by the wealthy classes in Venezuela, who denounced Chávez as dictatorial despite the fact that he allowed total freedom of the press and that there was not a single political prisoner.
Washington’s hostility to Chávez
Not surprisingly, the US also expressed its "concern" about Chávez from the beginning. His revival of OPEC, his public friendship with Cuba, his opposition to Plan Colombia and refusal to allow overflights by US aircraft – all these things incurred Washington’s displeasure. The US had to tread carefully because they were dealing with a freely elected government and one which went out of its way to maintain constitutional legitimacy, but there can be no doubt that Washington was working behind the scenes to undermine Chávez.
Opposition pressure on Chávez began to intensify in November 2001 when his government decreed an agrarian reform to give land to poor peasants and a package of economic measures to reinforce State control of resource industries. Now that Chávez’s "Bolivarian Revolution" was beginning to affect fundamental class interests, the opposition began to take to the streets. Mass anti-government demonstrations and strikes were organised on 10th December and again in January of this year, and in February several military officers made public declarations against Chávez.
Chávez refused to back down and announced a series of measures to reform the State Oil Company, PDVSA, replacing its management and ending the privileges of the corrupt union bosses who ran the oil workers’ union. The opposition, led by the employers’ organisation FEDECAMARAS, called for a general strike which began last week and culminated in a mass anti-government demonstration on Thursday 11th April.
Last Thursday’s demonstration was the pretext for the coup. Some 200,000 people marched from the wealthy eastern suburbs of Caracas on the headquarters of PDVSA, but at the last moment they changed direction and headed for the presidential palace at Miraflores. A hastily-arranged pro-Chávez demonstration challenged them and the Police and National Guard intervened. Suddenly shots rang out, and a gunfight started which left some 20 dead and over 100 wounded. The official version of the upstart Junta was that chavistas did the shooting on orders from the President, and this was the pretext for the Generals to arrest Chávez and take him to military HQ at Fuerte Tiuna, where they held him incommunicado and where they said he signed a document resigning the Presidency.
An illegitimate Junta
The Junta was headed by Pedro Carmona Estorga, president of the employers’ organisation FEDECAMARAS, and included a Roman Catholic bishop as well as at least three military officers. It decreed the dissolution of Congress, of the judicial authorities, of all state and municipal authorities and of the Supreme Electoral Council. It was in other words totally arbitrary and illegitimate, a complete throwback to the days of Pinochet and the military regimes of the 70s and 80s.
For two days there was reason to fear the worst: Chávez was said to have resigned and the Junta was talking in ominous terms about "searching for criminals" involved in the previous administration. The personal safety of Chávez, his ministers and supporters was seriously threatened.
The coup defeated
International reaction to the coup was immediate. The Presidents of the "R’o Group" of Latin American countries, meeting in Costa Rica, expressed their concern at the interruption of constitutional order in Venezuela and said they would raise the issue in the OAS. Cuba, through its foreign minister Felipe Pérez Roque, condemned the coup as a reactionary plot and declared that it still regarded Hugo Chávez as the legitimate President of Venezuela. European and Asian countries expressed concern, although significantly the US blamed Chávez for the critical situation.
Meanwhile in Venezuela, people took to the streets across the country to protest against the Junta and demand the release of the President. Despite total censorship by the Junta, reports emerged that Chávez had not resigned. At least two State governors declared their loyalty to the deposed President, and several military garrisons threatened to revolt against the golpistas. In Caracas chavista ministers backed by the people reoccupied the Presidential Palace, and progressive military commanders issued an ultimatum demanding that the Junta release Chávez by midnight on Saturday 13 April or face open revolt. By 3 am on Sunday Chávez was back in Miraflores and soon afterwards he was sworn in as President again.
A great popular victory
Much still remains to be explained about the events of the last few days, but one thing is clear: reaction has been defeated and the Bolivarian Revolution will now move forward, confirming Venezuela’s position as a beacon of hope in Latin America and a challenge to the neoliberal ‘New World Order’. Those in Venezuela who organised the coup have a lot to answer for, and the US appears once again to have been caught red-handed sabotaging popular democratic processes in Latin America.
Independent reports suggest that those who started the shooting in Thursday’s demonstration were sharpshooters posted in surrounding buildings who sound suspiciously like provocateurs. It seems clear that the plan was to get rid of Chávez or force him into exile and discredit him and his movement, and reverse everything he had achieved. Circumstantial evidence points to direct CIA involvement in the coup, and sources in the Chávez administration indicate that they already have concrete evidence of this. It is very encouraging that not only Cuba but most Latin American governments repudiated the coup, and Chávez has already been congratulated by most of them and by China, Iran, Iraq and other OPEC members.
Implications for Colombia
The impact of these events in Colombia has been immediate and instructive. The Colombian establishment made no secret of its disdain for Chávez, and accused him of supporting the Colombian guerrillas when in fact he made great efforts to facilitate the peace process. The Colombian media were jubilant when the coup occurred, and are now having to eat humble pie as the real situation becomes clear.
The progressive victory in Venezuela will seriously complicate matters for the Colombian establishment, which will now have to face the fact that its repressive and genocidal policies will find no support from its eastern neighbour. Moreover, as the blatantly anti-democratic character of US intervention in Venezuela becomes clear, it will become more difficult to defend subservience to ‘Plan Colombia’ and the Andean Initiative.
Support the Venezuelan revolution!
Until now many progressive people were confused about the Venezuelan process and distrustful of Chávez. It is now crystal clear what is at stake in Venezuela, and surely the time has come to organise solidarity with the Bolivarian revolution.