Carlos Andrés Pérez returned home triumphant from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on February 3, lauded by the international financial community for Venezuela’s neoliberal reforms and democratic stability. Within hours of his arrival, a pitched battle for power erupted between the government and rebel military officers.
The rebels took control of the petroleum state of Zulia, and immobilized the industrial capital of Valencia, in the state of Carabobo. In Aragua, rebels paralyzed the strategic military city of Maracay. Deep disaffection led 10% of the nation’s armed forces to break ranks. The mutineers controlled the country’s principal air base, a key missile division, a key tank division and an elite parachute battalion. In Caracas, rebel paratroopers seized the airport, attacked the presidential residence, and rolled tanks up the moonlit steps of Miraflores Palace, ramming open its doors.
Perez narrowly escaped, smuggled via tunnel from the palace to a nearby private television station where, badly shaken, he addressed the nation on several occasions that night. Machine-gun fire echoed in the city’s deserted streets until midday. The rebels held most of the firepower, but failed to seize control of the media.
The revolt––which resulted in 70 deaths––was defeated in less than 24 hours. One hundred and eighty-one military officers ranging in rank from major to 1t. colonel, 58 junior officers, 90 professional troops and some 2,000 soldiers were arrested.
Venezuela hardly seemed a likely candidate for a coup. The country is South America’s oldest democracy––with 34 years of uninterrupted constitutional rule. Among Third World nations, Venezuela is the International Monetary Fund’s rising star. Pérez, once the architect of populist economic policies, promptly implemented the painful liberalization measures demanded by the international banks during the 1989 economic crisis. He cut government subsidies and privatized state companies to lure new foreign investment.
Economic performance in 1991 was stellar: the country boasted a 9.2% real growth rate, $13.2 billion in accumulated foreign reserves, moderate inflation, and $2 billion in earnings from selling off the state’s telecommunications system and national airline.
The February 4 coup attempt rudely awakened Venezuela’s political elite to the dire economic and political crises underlying these sanguine statistics. Pérez’s market reforms, coupled with his preference for industrial “megaprojects” over social welfare programs and public services, widened the already gaping chasm between rich and poor. Growth came at the expense of equity. Between 1981 and 1991, real earnings plummeted 50%, and the number of people living in poverty more than doubled from 24% to 60% of the population.
The state’s failure to alleviate this economic distress, even after the February 1989 riots––when security forces killed 300 people during the looting and protests––stoked mounting social discontent. General strikes, chronic student unrest, daily revelations of open corruption, and unheeded rumors of planned coups contributed to a creeping decay in governability which opened the door to Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez Frías, self-styled leader of the Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario (MBR).
The rebel officers’ 12-page manifesto, which surfaced in the aftermath of the foiled coup, opened with Thomas Jefferson’s dictum: “The tree of liberty must be watered now and again with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants.” Proclaiming the military’s duty to preserve social justice, the manifesto invoked three nineteenth-century Venezuelans: Simon Bolívar, liberator of Venezuela from Spanish rule; Simón Rodríguez, a philosopher and Bolívar’s mentor; and Ezequiel Zamora, caudillo champion of slave rebellions and campesino uprisings during the 1840s and 1850s. Chief among the coup plotters’ concerns, it seems, was defense of the Patria––in the sense of the physical land. The military, an enthusiastic supporter of oil nationalization in the mid 1970s, was enraged by Pérez’s privatization of state companies and his proposed territorial concessions to Colombia in the Gulf of Venezuela.
The MBR has been characterized as a populist left-leaning formation within the military, fomenting a guerrilla-style insurgence to end corruption and dismantle the current political oligarchy. The manifesto revealed that the mutineers intended to create an emergency Government of National Salvation (GNS) headed by a nine-person civilian general council. The GNS would dissolve Congress, reduce the number of government ministries, restructure regional administration, and call elections for a constituent assembly.
Rebels as Folk Heroes
Despite the speed with which his revolt was squashed, Chávez became an instant hero among Venezuela’s poor for lashing out at the moral bankruptcy of the ruling elite. According to March opinion polls, he enjoyed a 92% approval rating. To restore order in the wake of the coup attempt, Pérez ordered a press ban and temporarily suspended constitutional guarantees. But leaflets and photos of Chávez circulated with impunity among the poor in Caracas’ “belt of misery.”
Venezuela’s democratic experience is complicated by the unresolved issue of the military’s role in the state and civil society. Power struggles between the military and the political parties generated chronic swings between dictatorship and democracy. In 1959, after the fall of the 10-year dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez, popularly elected President Rómulo Betancourt implemented structural reforms to subordinate the army to civilian rule.
To clear out the old guard, Betancourt made retirement mandatory after 30 years of military service. Organizational instability ensued due to the excessive turnover of the highest positions, only reached after 27 to 29 years of service. The retirement policy effectively reduced the average tenure of a defense minister to a maximum of one or two years, making it next to impossible for the minister to orient policy and consolidate administrative control.
Betancourt also made promotions above the level of colonel contingent on congressional approval. This invited mediocrity in military echelons, as political loyalties overshadowed merit in professional advancement. The politicization of the high command exacerbated its detachment from the rank and file.
Finally, the president replaced the Armed Forces General Staff with a Joint Staff, which was strictly advisory. The Joint Staff no longer coordinated defense policy and budgets between the four branches of the armed forces; each branch now had military and administrative autonomy. The army’s traditional hegemony over the forces was eliminated. This fragmentation reduced the military’s negotiating power vis-á-vis the state, and created divisive rivalries between the forces, manifested the morning of the coup in some unusual crossfire between the army and the internal security police.
U.S. pressures to “denationalize” the Venezuelan military in the wake of U.S. intervention in Panama in 1989 constituted another source of discontent in military ranks. Officers questioned U.S. proposals to down-size existing military forces while expanding the National Guard to contain domestic unrest and fight drug trafficking.
During the 1960s, traditional national defense was coupled with counterinsurgency to glue military loyalty to the rule of the political parties. In the 1970s, when Jimmy Carter made U.S. arms sales conditional upon the purchaser’s human rights record, the nationalist military responded by diversifying arms sourcing. During his first term as president in the mid-1970s, Pérez purchased military allegiance with the proceeds from the oil bonanza. Two new war colleges and a scholarship program––Plan Ayacucho––up-graded university training for officers.
The 1980s economic crisis drastically reduced Venezuelan autonomy from the U.S. hemispheric drug and national security agenda. Debt-linked austerity increased regional social unrest, dividing the armed forces with regard to the desirability of economic restructuring. Venezuelan budget constraints reduced the defense share of government spending from 7% in 1988 to 5% in 1990. Living conditions for military personnel deteriorated substantially, and their demands for $216 million in health, housing and benefits went unheeded.
Social and economic decline intensified long-standing divisions of rank, generation and social class in the milifary. According to military analyst Gen. Alberto Müller Rojas, the military was tired of quelling labor and student protest instead of defending national territory. They could “no longer justify being at the service of unrepresentative political cogollos who are dragging the country to the brink of moral and civil war,” Müller said, using the Venezuelan expression for its ruling oligarchic elite. The 1989 riots left deep seats soldiers were ordered to fire upon the same poor communities from which they were recruited. It was no accident that public opinion immediately linked the coup attempt to the 1989 riots.
Rampant corruption in the highest echelons of the military also sparked indignation among the rank and file. Among the widely publicized and unprosecuted cases were the following: overpriced foreign contracts to overhaul the nation’s frigates; overpriced and unfulfilled munitions contracts for tear gas and bulletproof vests in the wake of the February 1989 riots; and exorbitant equipment purchases such as Israeli tanks bought without regard for military need. Generals never lacked the latest in luxury vehicles, while rebel officers complained that elite parachute troops went without proper combat boots.
The Erosion of Democracy
“Good coup” versus “bad coup” debates are politically treacherous. Popular support for a military coup raises some alarming issues for a country considered a cornerstone of democracy. Central University professor D.A. Rangel argued that civilian demonstrations in the barrios of Catia and 23 de Enero in Caracas and at the University of Carabobo in Valencia formed part of the insurrection. Former president Rafael Caldera argued that the absence of civilian support for the government on the day of the coup signaled the collapse of Pérez’s legitimacy and the deterioration of Venezuelan democracy. Illustrating the extent of that erosion, an April Mercanalysis survey indicated that 44% viewed the military as an institution evoking confidence; all other political institutions ranked in the single digits, with Pérez pulling up the rear at 5%.
Pérez campaigned in 1988 with the slogan: “Vote Pérez again, You will live better,” promising a return to the hey day of the oil bonanza of his first term in office. When the boom did not materialize, the country was vulnerable to military messiahs promising an end to corruption and a return to economic well-being.
Yet belief in a savior who will magically resolve intractable social ills is a dangerous abdication of political responsibility that usurps popular initiative. Over 75% of Venezuelans have never lived under the perils of dictatorship, nor do they recall how military vanguards cling to power once installed. Moreover, historically, military solutions to popular woes have resulted in little social restructuring and have failed to empower the very social classes on whose behalf they are purportedly enacted. “There are no military shortcuts,” insists Jesuit activist Arturo Sosa. “Venezuelan democracy must be reconstructed out of mobilization from below.”
Moreover, it is naïve to think that Chávez and his cohorts could weather the austerity of national reconstruction without a comprehensive program and organized popular support. A trade and financial embargo by multilateral interests that have propped up Pérez would prove devastating.
But even failed coups produce some positive results. For now, “collective bargaining” has tranquilized military ranks: Pérez increased military salaries by 40%, enhanced social security benefits, and promised a $50-million bousing program with subsidized loans.
Yet rumors of coups persist as minor skirmishes are reported in interior garrisons. Fernando Ochoa, defense minister at the time of the coup attempt, warned politicians that “more violence will result” if profound changes are not introduced to “reorder the excessive concentration of power in the privileged sectors” and to “create a genuine democratization of political power.”
Still Pérez spends more time reassuring foreign investors that their money is safe, and that business opportunities abound than devising effective social programs to attend to the country’s deep inequities. Initiatives for a constituent assembly and military suffrage are still ignored by the ruling parties out of fear that the democratic process would got out of hand. With Machiavellian precision, Pérez has begun to militarize his cabinet, placating the political appetites of a divided high command.
Enhanced representation without redistributive reforms to address the country’s growing inequities will inevitably fail. Gone are the abundant oil revenues that once financed patronage and preserved peace among conflicting social classes and sectors, including the military. Venezuela could possibly find itself plagued with ongoing social strife and guerrilla violence, like neighboring Colombia. Not all of the arms brandished on February 4 made their way back to the barracks. And by June, all but 47 of the men arrested had been released, which served to defuse the increasingly heated demonstrations in support of the rebels outside the San Carlos military prison.
The illusion of harmony has been shattered. Chávez intimated in his televised surrender that there would be future unrest. “Compañeros for the time being, here in Caracas, we were unable to take power,” he said. “It is time to avoid spilling more blood. There will be new situations.” In his unflinching delivery, Chávez transformed his botched military rebellion into a successful political coup, serving notice to the rulling parties of the uncertainty that lies ahead if nothing is done to correct the country’s deep social ills. In the event of another coup attempt, Venezuela’s deeply divided military may not be on hand to save the president.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Joseph Ricciardi has been working in Caracas for two years as a Fulbright Economics Faculty Fellow.