Crisis in Venezuela: The Remarkable Fall and Rise of Hugo Chávez

August 25, 2002

This piece was published in the July/August 2002 issue of the NACLA Report. 

In the late afternoon of Thursday April 11, a huge anti-government march, perhaps half a million strong, wended its way through the streets of Caracas, first to the headquarters of the state-owned Venezuelan Oil Company (PDVSA) to lodge its protest against President Hugo Chávez’s firing of the oil company’s chief executives, then to the presidential palace, Miraflores, to lodge its protest against Chávez’s rule in general. The throng’s leadership, an unlikely tandem of the country’s largest trade union federation, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and the national Chamber of Commerce (Fedecámaras), knew that a smaller but equally militant crowd of Chávez supporters, mostly residents of Caracas’ poor barrios, had already gathered at Miraflores to "protect the gates" of the palace from the opposition. Despite the near-certainty of some sort of confrontation, the anti-Chávez march proceeded to the presidential palace and, in the historic center of Caracas, the two groups met. What happened next—at that moment and over the next three days—is still in dispute.

On Tuesday April 9, two days before the march to Miraflores, the CTV and Fedecámaras had called for a 24-hour general strike of workers and businesses alike, demanding that the fired management of PDVSA be reinstated [See "Venezuela’s Oil Reform," this issue]. Though the work stoppage was not as effective as a previous one in December, the CTV—which is controlled by Democratic Action (AD), until recently the nation’s largest party—decided to extend it to a second day, and then, at the end of the second day, to an indefinite period.

The government offered to negotiate with Fedecámaras but refused to have any dealings with the CTV leadership, which it claimed had gained control of the confederation through widespread fraud in internal elections held last October. On Thursday, the third day of the strike, the march to the oil company’s headquarters was widely publicized. As the march got underway, word spread, helped by the privately owned media [See "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," this issue], and the crowd quickly grew in size and in spirit. By the time it reached PDVSA, the anti-Chávez crowd was huge, and, by all reports, festive. Then it turned toward the presidential palace.

As the anti-Chávez march approached the President’s fervent defenders, it became evident that some people were armed. Some of those people fired into the crowd and about 20 people, some from each side, were killed. Nearly all the dead and wounded appeared to have been shot from above, by snipers firing from rooftops and pedestrian bridges. Still at issue is simply what happened: What was the sequence of events? Who was armed? Who fired? Who, if anyone, directed the violence?

We know that after the armed confrontation events moved very quickly: Word spread that the snipers who had fired into the crowd were Chávez supporters, that the hands of the government were "stained in blood"; an important section of the armed forces went over to the opposition; Chávez was removed from office; his removal was quickly celebrated by the anti-Chavistas in the streets and, significantly, by the Bush administration in Washington whose spokesperson, Ari Fleischer, announced the following morning that the government had brought on its own downfall by firing on unarmed demonstrators.

It was shortly after midnight that Army Commander Lucas Rincón announced that Chávez had resigned. At about four in the morning the President, now a prisoner, was taken to the Fuerte Tiuna military base; at 4:15 the head of Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona, was sworn in as president. Carmona proceeded to dissolve the National Assembly, repeal a series of popular reforms, reinstate the fired leadership of PDVSA and fire all the judges on the Supreme Court. He appointed a cabinet consisting of business leaders, military men and conservative politicians. The populist/labor wing of the opposition went unrepresented.

Large pro-Chávez crowds then quickly—and spontaneously—descended from Caracas’ popular barrios and materialized at Miraflores and at Fuerte Tiuna where Chávez had temporarily been held prisoner. One after another, perhaps in response to the impressive outpouring of the poor, perhaps in fear of a right-wing dictatorship, key military garrisons changed sides. On Saturday evening at about ten o’clock, 36 hours after his swearing-in, Carmona was forced to resign. In the early morning hours of Sunday April 14, Chávez was restored to the presidency. Carmona is now living in Colombia.

As this is written, some two months after the events, there is still disagreement among Venezuelans about what happened from the afternoon of April 11 through the morning of April 14 when an insurgent coalition of conservative businessmen, anti-Chávez populists, union leaders affiliated with the old regime, disgruntled military officers and fearful-of-expropriation middle and upper-class citizens forced President Hugo Chávez from office, only to see him return two days later, after the coalition had disintegrated.

Two weeks after the four dramatic days of coup and countercoup, Venezuela’s legislature, the National Assembly, established a Special Political Commission to look into what actually happened. The Commission, presided over by an AD Assembly member named Edgar Zambrano, has unlimited power to call witnesses, and, as we write, remains in permanent session. Its mandate is the nearly impossible task of preparing a single report to be presented to the plenary of the National Assembly.

The Special Commission must determine just what happened to Chávez on April 11-14 and how he returned so quickly; how the attempt to remove him from power succeeded and then failed so spectacularly; how a business executive named Carmona took power for 36 hours only to see his anti-Chávez coalition crumble and disappear; and how president-for-a-day-and-a-half Carmona got into that position in the first place. After Zambrano’s Special Commission does its work, the Assembly will convoke a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation to probe the shooting incidents and human rights abuses of those days.

Meanwhile, says Zambrano, there are two contradictory narratives being told within the Assembly, each with its own powerful defenders: "The official [pro-Chávez] bloc...seeks to demonstrate that there was a coup d’etat and a break with constitutional continuity, the opposition promotes the thesis that the President resigned, and a vacuum of power gave rise to the participation of the military."[1]

The government, that is, says there was a pre-existing conspiracy to overthrow Chávez; the opposition claims it was simply reacting to the unexpected events of the day.[2] There is, however, a third version of events that combines elements of the first two. According to this interpretation, the anti-Chavistas were intent on overthrowing the government from the outset, but while one part of the coalition was caught off guard by events, the other part had a hidden agenda and moved decisively to achieve it. At this point it seems to be in nobody’s interest to defend the third version because it is in nobody’s interest—neither the government’s nor the opposition’s—to point out that the anti-Chávez movement is plagued by a deep political and ideological divide.

It is, in fact, well known that a less disruptive alternative plan to force Chávez out of power by "institutional" means had been amply discussed in ad-hoc committees that had organized anti-Chávez protests over the previous six months. The strategy, which was referred to as "Chavismo without Chávez," counted on the congressional votes of the followers of the ex-Chavista former Minister of the Interior Luís Miquilena in order to impeach Chávez.[3] Indeed, just hours before the coup, Miquilena formally broke with Chávez, as did several governors and other followers, thus opening the doors for the implementation of the plan. Shortly thereafter, a former socialist presidential candidate turned vehemently anti-leftist, Américo Martín, proposed that Miquilena preside over a "governing junta" in which broad sectors of the population would be represented.

As varied as the anti-Chávez sentiment may have been, the decisiveness with which Carmona and his closest allies acted on the first day of the coup seems to make evident the existence of a well-conceived plan. Indeed, what took place was nothing less than a coup within the coup. Not only did Carmona annul popular and nationalistic legislation such as the agrarian reform and a law guaranteeing state control of the oil industry, but, in a high-stakes gamble, he seemed to deliberately split his own coalition by closing the National Assembly and other democratic bodies.

The clash among the anti-Chavistas pitted right-wingers against "moderates," and played itself out much more vigorously in the armed forces than on the political front. During Carmona’s short rule, the moderates were strongest in the Army, while the rightists controlled the Ministry of Defense. The hard-line rightists rejected Chávez’s apparent request to be allowed to travel to a foreign country, possibly Cuba. Their refusal conformed to a well orchestrated campaign throughout Venezuela that accused Chávez of the deaths on April 11, calling him an "assassin," and demanding he be tried. In the end, however, the moderates prevailed. They rebuked Carmona for issuing the decree on April 12 and the next day presented him with an ultimatum to revoke it. The attitude of the moderate anti-Chavistas toward Carmona—along with the determination of middle-level pro-Chavista officers and the spontaneous mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans in front of the presidential palace and military bases throughout the country—is what made possible Chávez’s return to power.

Indeed, the widespread apprehension of a rightist dictatorship alienated some members of the original coalition. The repression unleashed during Carmona’s day-and-a-half in power included house break-ins throughout the country, allegedly in search of weapons. "Wanted: Dead or Alive" leaflets with the names of political leaders obliged many Chavistas to go underground. The persecutions on April 12-13 resulted in an estimated 20 to 30 deaths.[4] Some nominees for the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation have insisted that these deaths, which the private media has blacked out while focusing on those of April 11, be included in the probe.

The makeup of the brief Carmona government was unabashedly elitist. The Navy was privileged with two key positions in the government, including the Defense Ministry, at the expense of the much larger but less prestigious Army, where Chávez’s military support is concentrated. Carmona appointed two prominent leaders of the social Christian party Copei, including a member of the right-wing Opus Dei as Foreign Minister, even though Copei has all but disappeared as a political party. At the same time, he passed over the equally anti-Chávez AD, which enjoys much greater influence and controls the CTV. The Venezuelan right obviously wanted to keep parties with any kind of popular following at arm’s length. The right had learned the "lessons" of the presidency of Carlos Andrés Pérez (1989-1993) whose drastic neoliberal anti-popular measures, known as the "great turnaround," were opposed by much of his own "populist" AD party.[5] An extended Carmona regime would have not only been elitist but would likely have ruled with a very hard hand.

Indeed, Carmona’s inner circle included shady figures who, at press conferences and meetings with top officers at military bases on April 11 and 12, were accompanied by paramilitary types carrying sophisticated weapons. According to one pro-Chávez army officer, the conspiratorial officers had distributed combat arms to civilian allies throughout the year prior to the coup.[6] Some of these arms may have been supplied by the most notorious member of the Carmona inner circle, arms dealer Isaac Pérez Recao, known by his friends and enemies alike as the "Venezuelan Rambo." One of Pérez Recao’s close confidants served as Carmona’s bodyguard during the coup attempt. In the aftermath of the coup, the Ministry of the Interior ordered an inspection of Pérez Recao’s house in the outskirts of Caracas, which turned out to be a veritable arsenal. The weapons served to intimidate key people during the crucial days of April, including Army Commander Lucas Rincón, who, for a time, went into hiding. The arms may have also been used by sharpshooters who were responsible for some of the deaths when the two marches approached one another on April 11.

Many AD party loyalists, defending their initial association with Fedecámaras, now say the coup was "hijacked," not by Carmona, but by Pérez Recao. The father and daughter publishing team of Rafael and Patricia Poleo, for example, who own and run several important periodicals closely tied to AD, are spirited defenders of this thesis. In their publications, the Poleos have run numerous articles that portray Pérez Recao as a spoiled rich boy who manipulated an obedient Carmona. Carmona’s subservience is attributed to his status as an executive in a petrochemical company that the Pérez Recao family has stock in.

In an interview published by the Poleos, the provisional president of Fedecámaras, Carlos Fernández, claims that Pérez Recao and his associates "isolated" Carmona "so that there was no way to talk to him, not even by phone."[7] The Poleos are especially keen on exonerating CTV’s president Carlos Ortega. According to Rafael Poleo, Carmona, under Pérez Recao’s influence, "utilized Ortega to attain power and then discarded him."[8]

The fact remains, however, that throughout the coup attempt, the anti-Chávez politicians who had qualms about Carmona’s dictatorial and anti-popular measures hardly raised their voices above a whisper. In particular, the CTV’s anti-Chávez sentiments were so strong that even when they themselves were excluded by the neoliberal right, they found it difficult to complain. CTV leader Alfredo Ramos unobtrusively walked out of Carmona’s presidential inauguration. When his name was called to sign the decree eliminating the Assembly, it was announced that he had left to make a phone call. CTV president Ortega, obviously upset that both AD and the CTV had been shunted aside, traveled to the distant state of Falcón in order to avoid being associated with the de facto government. With just a few exceptions, the anti-Chavista "democratic" leaders spoke out against Carmona’s dictatorial actions only after Chávez’s return to power. Although the Chavistas have curiously not harped on this point, Ortega had publicly called for the immediate dissolution of the Assembly on April 12 prior to the announcement of Carmona’s decree.[9]

In any case, whether or not Pedro Carmona was acting under the influence of a testosterone-charged "Venezuelan Rambo," the neoliberal strategy he embraced clearly represented the long-standing position of Fedecámaras. Carmona’s appointed cabinet consisted of individuals belonging to the nation’s dominant institutions and in some cases had held positions in the pro-neoliberal government of Rafael Caldera (1994-1999). Given the actions and the alliances of the Carmona group on April 12 and 13—and particularly given the exclusion of the populist anti-Chávez actors—it is evident that they were not simply interested in a military dictatorship in which they themselves would have wealth and power, but in a clean and violent break with the populist past. There is nothing to indicate that Carmona was either stepping in to "fill a vacuum," or that he was an innocent tool of certain personalist, militarist designs. On the contrary, as a member of the export-oriented business class, he and his followers very likely wanted once and for all to remove all the obstacles to full-fledged, neoliberal formulas. They were rebelling, that is, not on behalf of "democracy," a claim that could credibly be made by some of the populist anti-Chavistas, but on behalf of their class interests.

The failure of AD and the CTV to speak out more firmly against the pro-business bent of the short-lived, rightist regime was in keeping not only with their hatred of Chávez, but with their ambivalence toward neoliberalism over the past ten years. Indeed, the CTV actually helped draft the neoliberal-inspired social reforms enacted by the Caldera government. Subsequently, AD concentrated all its efforts on defeating Chávez in the presidential elections of 1998, thus further distancing the party from anti-neoliberalism.

But for all its free market rhetoric, neoliberalism is based on discipline and exclusion, and the hard politicians of the right understand this. It has sped the growth of a casual, "flexible" labor force, willing to work hard for low wages in terribly insecure conditions. It is precisely this insecurity—this harsh labor discipline—that has weakened the region’s trade-union movements, and created the conditions for the profitable streamlining of production and trade. For all their hesitation, it is no wonder that AD and the CTV finally disassociated themselves from the Carmona coup-within-the-coup. They were caught in their own contradictions.

The United States, which surely played a role in the April events, has been steadily backtracking from its initial approval of the coup. Washington quickly claimed it warned opposition leaders to proceed by constitutional means, admitting at most that some U.S. officials were overly enthusiastic about the removal of Chávez from office by any means necessary. Indeed, throughout the months leading up to the coup, the U.S. Embassy in Caracas was at pains to distance itself from coup rumors. It was widely reported in the U.S. media, for example, that then-U.S. Ambassador Donna Hrinak, concerned about the seeming impropriety of U.S. support for a coup against a democratically elected regime, "took the unusual step of asking the American military attaché to cease contacts with the dissidents."[10]

But, in fact, Washington’s signals to Chávez’s opponents had been quite open, and had come from the highest levels. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern "with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chávez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about." And, he continued, "we have not been happy with some of the comments he has made with respect to the campaign against terrorism." Powell’s comments made front-page news in Venezuela on February 6, sharing the headlines and the talk-show news with similar remarks made that same day by CIA director George Tenet.[11]

The critical comments of Tenet and Powell, along with Ambassador Hrinak’s frequent remarks lamenting Chávez’s ambiguous role in the U.S.-led war against terrorism, were not perceived in Venezuela as personal opinions; they were perceived as coordinated signals. The opposition clearly felt it had the green light from Washington to remove Chávez from power.[12]

Further, on several occasions, under the apparent coordination of Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich—an anti-Castro Cuban American and right-wing ideologue who had served as Ambassador to Venezuela during the Reagan administration—U.S. officials as well as embassy staff in Caracas actively met with the opposition figures who were to become coup leaders.[13]

Whether Washington actually provided covert assistance to the coup plotters is a question that remains to be more thoroughly investigated. There are, so far, some credible allegations. A former U.S. Navy intelligence officer named Wayne Madsen told London’s Guardian, for example, that Navy vessels carrying out exercises off Venezuela’s Caribbean coast engaged in strategic "communications jamming" during the days of the coup.[14]

What neither Washington nor the opposition counted on, and what proved to be one of the more remarkable aspects of this remarkable chain of events, was the universal rejection of the coup and of U.S. leadership by the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. All the Latin American heads of state, with the exception of the right-wing government of El Salvador, were vehement and explicit in their refusal to recognize the brief regime of the coup plotters. Washington, virtually alone in its support for the coup plotters, was left embarrassed by its seeming violation of its own "democracy promotion" initiative in the hemisphere.

The April fiasco was also an embarrassing affair for the Venezuelan Catholic Church, the privately owned media, political parties of the opposition and social organizations, whose representatives welcomed Chávez’s overthrow and signed Carmona’s infamous decree. Since Chávez’s return to power, these leaders have virtually without exception attempted to wash their hands of responsibility. Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, for example, claimed that he signed the decree without having had the opportunity to read it, an excuse used by others as well. Jesuit priest José Virtuoso, a prominent Church critic, commented "if anyone has to ask for forgiveness for what happened it is the Catholic Church."[15]

Since his return, Chávez has encouraged the emergence of a "loyal opposition" as well as a bloc of critical supporters, spaces unoccupied by political parties up until then. He has done this by assuring the opposition that its propositions will be taken seriously. This flexibility, which contrasts with the hard line that characterized his government throughout 2001, goes beyond mere words.[16] In May, for instance, Chávez acceded to a major demand formulated by the opposition prior to the coup by replacing the ministers of Finance, Planning and Production; business representatives expressed general approval of these new appointments. Other concessions that were designed to satisfy the opposition included the reorganization of PDVSA’s top leadership, Chávez’s willingness to stop monopolizing the airwaves with simultaneous TV and radio broadcasts, and his avoidance of public appearances in military uniform.

This new conciliatory policy has met but limited success. Curiously, one of the few opposition politicians who has accepted the president’s overtures is Francisco Arias Cárdenas, one of his co-conspirators in the 1992 coup attempt, who subsequently ran against him in the presidential elections of 2000. To the dismay of the leaders of his Unión party, Arias met with Chávez after the coup and called the government’s efforts at promoting dialogue "positive."[17] Arias’s position may be a reflection of the anti-Chávez "moderate" position within the Armed Forces.

Another encouraging breakthrough is with organized labor. The non-Chavista leadership of the all-important unions representing steel, oil, Metro and public employees has criticized the CTV’s alliance with Fedecámaras and refused to participate in the confederation’s actions. Steel workers president Ramón Machuca has agreed to take part in government-sponsored dialogues from which the CTV has been excluded.

This middle ground between the pro and anti-Chavistas may be where at least half the population is situated. Many of those in this bloc are as critical of Chávez as are the anti-Chavistas, but when asked who they would vote for if elections were held tomorrow, they say "Chávez."

The major parties of the opposition, however, without exception, continue to subordinate proposals on specific issues to the clamor for Chávez’s removal—as if the April coup attempt had never occurred. This insistence on Chávez’s immediate ouster may reflect the opposition’s perception that, as a result of the failed coup, time is now on his side. The Chávez movement has begun to develop an organizational base, albeit rudimentary, in the form of the "Bolivarian Circles," which are mostly pro-Chávez neighborhood committees engaged in community projects.

The opposition has accused the Circles of storing arms and claim that they are modeled after Cuba’s Committees for the Defense of the Revolution and receive state funding. According to Chávez this campaign against the Circles has boomeranged by providing free publicity. Interior Minister Diosdado Cabello told the special congressional committee that within a month of the April coup the number of Circles increased from 80,000 to 130,000.18 An added worry for the opposition is that a purge of military officers involved in the April coup, and promotions of the middle-level pro-Chavista ones, will strengthen the President’s position in the Armed Forces.

The April events demonstrated the extent to which the parties of the opposition have failed to push for their own particular programs and demands. In the months leading up to the coup, the differences between the rightist and non-rightist anti-Chavistas virtually melted away. The entire bloc of anti-Chavistas stood behind the campaign to deny legitimacy to Chávez’s government. Perhaps a good starting point for the non-rightist anti-Chavistas would be to put a hold on the effort to topple Chávez, and perhaps to refrain from talking about Chávez altogether, in order prioritize concrete demands and issues.

Steve Ellner is co-editor of Venezuelan Politics in the Chávez Era: Class, Polarization and Conflict, forthcoming from Lynn Rienner Publishers.

Fred Rosen is the Director of NACLA.

1. "Si el Presidente no viene podemos ir a Miraflores," TalCual (Caracas, online), May 21, 2002.
2. This became the conventional story in the days following the coup. The Los Angeles Times, for example, in its otherwise careful coverage of the events, echoes the opposition position: "For months they [the opposition] had worked to drive him [Chávez] from office, but a surprising series of events—including the shooting of anti-Chávez protesters—had brought the president down so quickly that few of the movement’s leaders had a firm idea of what should happen next." "Rapid Fire Coup Caught Chávez Foes Off Guard," Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2002, p. 1.
3. A private U.S. intelligence group claimed that at the time of the coup, Miquilena controlled 23 congressional votes among Chávez’s supposed followers. Report of Stratfor: The Global Intelligence Company, cited in Quinto Dia, No. 286, April 19-26, pp. 14-15.
4. During the nationally televised hearings of the Special Political Commission headed by Edgar Zambrano, videos were shown in which police are seen firing on crowds of Chavistas. These police obviously belonged to the Metropolitan Police of Caracas’ anti-Chavista Mayor Alfredo Peña.
5. Moisés Naím, Paper Tigers & Minotaurs: The Politics of Venezuela’s Economic Reforms (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1993), pp. 77, 132.
6. El Universal (Caracas), May 5, 2002, p. 1-4.
7. Zeta, No. 1363, April 25-May 6, 2002, p. 14.
8. Rafael Poleo, interviewed by Pedro Penzini Fluery, Unión Radio, April 17, 2002.
9. Hearings of the Special Political Commission of the National Assembly. Broadcast on Globovisión Channel, May 10, 2002.
10. "Rapid Fire Coup Caught Chávez Foes Off Guard" Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2002, p. 1.
11. See for example "EEUU expresó desacuerdo con políticas de Chávez,"El Universal, February 6, 2002, front page, online; and "Color de hormiga," a front page February 7 editorial in TalCual which states: "The point is clear. The hawks in the North American government are washing their hands regarding what might happen in our country. That is the signal they have sent."
12. "Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader," The New York Times, April 16, 2002.
13. See, for example, "U.S. Cautioned Leader of Plot Against Chávez," The New York Times, April 17, 2002.
14. "American Navy ‘helped Venezuelan coup,’" The Guardian (London), April 30, 2002.
15. Ultimas Noticias, May 5, 2002, pp. 10, 13.
16. See Steve Ellner and Fred Rosen, "Chavismo at the Crossroads," NACLA Report, XXXV No. 6, May/June, 2002. Available at
17. El Nacional, May 3, 2002.
18. Hearings of the Special Political Commission of the National Assembly. Globalvisión Channel, May 15, 2002.

Tags: Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, coup, politics, media, neoliberalism, US foreign policy

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