All the signs of an impending coup in Venezuela were there for the world to see. The US are the world leaders in the orchestration of coups in third world countries, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d become a little complacent, relying on the same formula applied in Chile and so many other places. ‘Strikes’ called by the owners of large corporations and supported by pro-US ‘trade unions’; demonstrations of the middle classes in protest at the lack of ‘democracy’; denunciations of the government by various retired military officers; denunciations of ‘dictatorship’ by various would-be dictators; tireless campaigning against the government by the free (read: private) press; thinly veiled threats by senior members of the US administration and the CIA; investigations into persecution of journalists; etc etc. You start to wonder if articles in bourgeois newspapers are actually written in response to specific events or if instead there are a few templates available into which journalists can simply insert the names of the appropriate people/parties/countries – the strikingly similar verbiage employed with respect to Venezuela and Zimbabwe over the last few months certainly gives you that impression.
The coup that had been brewing finally became reality on Thursday April 11th. A large demonstration against the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, had gathered in east Caracas – “the wealthy heartland of his [Chavez’s] opponents” 1 – to support a so-called national strike in which the owners of Venezuela’s main corporations locked out their workers (this demonstration had been advertised every 10 minutes on Venezuela’s privately-owned television stations). The leaders of this protest of 100,000 – 200,000 people ordered a very sudden change of route, towards the presidential palace where a counter-demonstration of Chavez supporters was starting to congregate. Clashes predictably broke out, shots were fired and several people killed. While the strikers and their media backers claimed that the shots were fired by supporters of Chavez and members of the Chavez-friendly National Guard and were directed against anti-Chavez protestors, eyewitness reports offer a very different version of events. According to Kim Bartley, an Irish woman who had spent the last three months in Venezuela filming a documentary on Chavez, “Whoever was firing aimed directly at the crowd, which was pro-Chavez. I filmed two dead bodies, both of them beside the podium set up to rally Chavistas to defend the presidential palace.
“A woman working in the vice-president’s office identified the bodies as a legal secretary and an archivist, both working inside the building. A 10-year old girl was then taken away, fatally injured.
“More shots. We ran for cover like everyone else. We made it to the palace through back streets as the firing continued and as soon as we got in the gate another sniper started aiming at the crowd. We were all thrown to the ground behind a wall and later ran for cover into the building. Three of the snipers were arrested… Chavez was about to explain what was happening in a live television broadcast but the state channel’s signal was cut just as he began to speak.”2
Greg Palast, writing in the Guardian of 17 April 2002 noted: “There remains the charge that, in the words of the New York Times, ‘Chavez ordered soldiers to fire on a crowd [of protestors].’ This bloody smear, sans evidence, stained every Western paper, including Britain’s newest lefty, the Mirror. Yet I could easily reach eyewitnesses without ties to any faction who said the shooting began from a roadway overpass controlled by the anti-Chavez Metropolitan Police, and the first to fall were pro-Chavez demonstrators.” Subsequent investigation revealed that the initial shots had been fired by an obscure right-wing extremist group called Bandera Roja.
The private press in Venezuela and its media accomplices across the world started to screech with forged fury about the ‘communist’ Chavez who was firing upon peaceful demonstrators and trade unionists. As noted in the report above, the state television channel was cut off just as Chavez came on air to explain to the Venezuelan people what was happening (this in itself implying a high level of organisation and preparedness on behalf of the coup-makers, undermining their later claims that they simply went ‘with the moment’). Shortly after, the military made a statement claiming that Chavez had resigned in response to the events and that he was being held at a military base on Orchila Island.
The perpetrators of the coup wasted no time crying over the dead and wounded. As the private TV and radio stations rejoiced that Venezuela was ‘finally free’, interim president Pedro Carmona (leader of Venezuela’s largest business association) was sworn into office. Obviously a real hero of democracy, Carmona’s first acts as president were to dissolve the national assembly and supreme court and to appoint a government of various notorious far-right figures. As Isabel Hilton wrote in The Guardian of 16 April 2002: “In their brief moment of triumph … the depth of the coup-mongers’ anti-democratic agenda became clear. They suspended congress, took control of the supreme court and were holding Chavez a prisoner.”
The world’s imperialist governments were quick to send their blessings to Carmona’s government and their congratulations for this triumph of democracy. Denis Macshane, Minister for Latin America at the Foreign Office of our good old trustworthy Labour imperialist government, offered one of the more touching (sickening that is) salutes to the criminal leaders of this anti-popular coup: “Venezuela now needs to find its way to a democratic and inclusive governance in which social justice combines with economic modernisation. Britain will be there to help.” Ah, British imperialism, always there to help when the going gets tough! Comfortable in the knowledge that he would not have to deal with Hugo Chavez on a diplomatic level again (presumably our friends in the military would have the sense to bump him off) Mr Macshane felt cocky enough to refer to Chavez as a “ranting, populist demagogue”3, giving as an example of Chavez’s erratic behaviour the clearly insane action of raising the national minimum wage by 20%! This type of thing is just not cricket! The White House accused Chavez of provoking the crisis and stated that it looked forward to working to “restore the essential elements of democracy.” 4 The New York Times jubilantly pronounced that “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator [no, at that moment it was being threatened by an actual dictator!] … the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.”
Imagine the looks on the faces of these dutiful slaves of finance capital when their clinking of champagne glasses was interrupted by the announcement that, little over 48 hours since he had been overthrown, Chavez had been returned to power as the result of enormous popular demonstrations and his support in the lower levels of the Venezuelan army. It had not taken the Venezuelan people long to work out what was going on. The word spread very quickly that there had in fact been no resignation by Chavez, that he was being held by the military against his will, that the shooting that had taken place was carried out by right-wing anti-government forces and that the new government was nothing but ‘pure business’. As the people, angry and ready for a fight, came out onto the streets in their thousands to demand the immediate resignation of the interim government and the reinstatement of Hugo Chavez, Carmona was forced to resign, and the presidency was passed to Chavez’s vice-president, Diosdado, whose sole act as president was to order that Chavez be returned to Miraflores and reinstated, which he was the next day. Chavez’s return was greeted with immense joy from the Venezuelan people and the progressive forces of the world. Leaders such as Fidel Castro, Jiang Zemin and Tariq Aziz (Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister) sent their personal congratulations to Chavez upon his return. Aziz told reporters: “We congratulate the friendly Venezuelan people for their victory over a US imperialistic conspiracy” – adding force to the veritable slap-in-the-face that was being delivered to the US.
In the words of Duncan Campbell writing in The Guardian of 22 April, “The coup was a flop”.
The whole affair stank of US involvement from the outset. After all, how many reactionary coups and counter-revolutions over the last 50 years haven’t been backed by the US? Yugoslavia, Chile, Nicaragua, Haiti, Grenada, Congo, Indonesia, Guatemala, Brazil, the list of US-supported anti-popular coups goes on. No doubt the full story will come out in the end – the US will flatly deny any involvement in the overthrow of Hugo Chavez (just as the Belgians denied any role in the murder of Patrice Lumumba) for thirty-odd years until they think everyone has forgotten about it and then release the files.
However, inasmuch as evidence that attests to US involvement is immediately available, this should be publicised and used to show that section of workers in the imperialist world who are still fooled by the CNN smiles and the references to US and British ‘peacekeepers’ that ‘their’ imperialists aren’t so nice after all. So far we know that:
– in January 2002, the US National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the US state department held a two-day meeting on US policy toward Venezuela.5
– each of the main participants in the coup, including Pedro Carmona, had visited the US state department in the preceding few months.6
– The New York Times cited a US defence department official as saying “We were not discouraging people … We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don’t like this guy. We didn’t say, ‘No, don’t you dare’ and we weren’t advocates saying, ‘Here’s some arms; we’ll help you overthrow this guy'”.
– Chavez claims to have seen an American plane on the island prison where he was detained by the military.
– a few days before the coup, dozens of Venezuelan military personnel suddenly and without explanation returned to Caracas from their posts at embassies in Washington, Bogota and Brasilia.7
According to Larry Birns, director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs and former member of the UN economic commission for Latin America, “There isn’t a single political person in Latin America who does not believe that the CIA was involved in some form, and in the same way, as it was in Chile. Those responsible for Latin America in the state department are the most extremist, off-the-wall team – seven out of the top 12 officials in the Latin-American department are Cuban-Americans.” 8
Upon Chavez’s return to power, the Bush administration issued what even the Financial Times could not deny was a “thinly veiled warning” that Chavez must “respect constitutional processes” 9. National security adviser (and full-time ‘hawk’) Condoleezza Rice said that Chavez had been “moving, frankly, in the wrong direction for quite a long time”. She added: “I hope that Hugo Chavez takes the message that his people sent him, that his own policies are not working for the Venezuelan people, that he’s dealt with them in a high-handed fashion.” A spokesman for president Bush, asked whether Chavez would now be recognised by the Bush government as a legitimate president, instructed that “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters” 10. Isabel Hilton, writing in The Guardian, 16 April 2002, noted:
“In Washington, where the administration blamed Chavez for the coup that briefly removed him from office, the reaction to his restoration was even stranger. Far from welcoming the triumph of democracy, the US administration reprimanded Chavez – expressing the menacing hope that he would be more careful in future, presumably in case he overthrew himself again
“Given that the protection of democracy has so often been invoked in the past as an excuse for US military intervention in the third world, surely Washington should have been rebuking Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessmen in charge of the coup – or even preparing a military expedition to restore president Chavez to power.”
The irony of the US and Britain’s self-righteous harping on about ‘democracy’ in Venezuela was not lost on everyone. For a start it should not be forgotten that Chavez has twice been elected with the largest margins in the history of his country (in stark contrast to, for instance, George W. Bush, who was elected with the smallest margin – indeed a minority of votes! – in the history of his country). The imperialists, their administrators and their press, have in ‘democracy’ nothing more than a favourite tool for fooling the people. From Zimbabwe to Yugoslavia to Venezuela to Palestine the opponents of imperialism are derided by the imperialist press (which is more often than not tailed in this activity by every ‘revolutionary’ Trotskyist organisation) for an apparent lack of democracy, but what is the record of countries like the US and Britain when it comes to democracy, practice of it at home and support of it abroad? The real reasons for US opposition to Chavez are not to be found in the form, democratic or otherwise, of his government but in the content, the chief characteristics of which we will now examine:
1. Friendly relations with such countries as Cuba, Libya and Iraq:
Chavez has visited Fidel Castro, Muammar Ghaddafi and Saddam Hussein, and has cultivated friendly economic and political relationships with Cuba, Libya and Iraq, hence going against the US policy of sanctions against these countries. Anti-imperialist third world countries (especially oil-producing or socialist ones) cementing links between themselves is a very threatening concept to multinational corporations, the enforcement of whose will over the world can only be maintained through the strictest divide-and-rule policies.
The importance of this point is emphasised by the fact that the day after the coup, in his first public statement as newly-appointed manager of the Venezuelan state-owned oil company PVDSA (Petroleos de Venezuela), Edgar Paredes declared: “We’re not going to send a single barrel more of oil to Cuba”. He knew only too well that this is what the US wanted to hear, being as it is extremely irritated that Venezuela is Cuba’s biggest trading partner in the Americas and that it ships up to 53,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba.
2. Support for FARC:
What’s more, Chavez seems to have been providing aid and refuge for fighters from the heroic FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), which controls a large part of Colombia and is seen as a serious threat to ‘stability’, i.e. US profits. The Washington Times of 13 April 2002 reported that “Mr Chavez had been repeatedly accused of cultivating ties to Marxist insurgency groups in countries such as Colombia and Peru … Venezuela had established its own ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest leftist rebel group fighting the Colombian government. FARC operatives were also reportedly finding sanctuary across the border in Venezuela.” (‘The fall of Chavez means Castro gets no oil’)
3. Seriously affecting the ability of imperialists worldwide to get its hands on cheap oil:
Chavez’s successful attempts to bring OPEC (Organisation of Oil Producing Countries, whose members account for 40% of the world’s production of crude oil) back to life, along with the various agreements he has been brokering to increase the price paid for oil to the oil-exporting countries by the main oil consumers (i.e. the imperialist countries), has been causing no end of unease to the multinational corporations. All of a sudden countries like Libya, Iran, Iraq and Algeria are co-operating to reduce oil output and increase price. This is not the kind of co-operation that imperialism likes! Inasmuch as co-operation is possible, it should be co-operation between oil purchasers to force the price down and broker the best possible deal for the multinationals and the worst possible deal for the populations of the oil-producing countries. The reverse is frankly unthinkable to the imperialists. Noam Chomksy said regarding the US’ relationship with oil-producing areas: “It’s been a leading, driving doctrine of U.S. foreign policy since the 1940s that the vast and unparalleled energy resources of the Gulf region will be effectively dominated by the United States and its clients, and, crucially, that no independent, indigenous force will be permitted to have a substantial influence on the administration of oil production and price.” What is true of the Gulf region is also true of Venezuela, which is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of oil.
As well as promoting co-operation between the oil producers internationally, Chavez has been frustrating the efforts of the US multinationals to keep control of Venezuela’s 77 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, by putting in place legislation that prevents foreign companies from having a majority share in Venezuelan companies, and by attempting to break a 60-year-old agreement whereby foreign companies are charged as little as 1% in fees. 11 The price of Venezuelan oil had increased from $8 per barrel to $33 per barrel during Chavez’s time in office. This, not ‘democracy’ is what is behind the US’ hatred of Chavez.
4. Domestic transformations:
Chavez has initiated a number of progressive changes in Venezuela, none of which has impressed the US government a great deal:
– Massive land reforms in favour of the poor (labelled by the US and Britain as ‘badly managed’ – have you ever heard the US or Britain commend any redistribution of land from rich to poor? Zimbabwe, South Africa, Venezuela – the imperialists always seem to be complaining about ‘badly managed’ land reform. It’s almost as if they wish land reform didn’t take place at all…)
– Education reforms resulting in over a million children being schooled for the first time (spending on education has doubled during Chavez’s tenure)
– Reduction of unemployment from 18% to 13%
– Raising of the public sector minimum wage by 20%
– Increasing health spending fourfold
– Crop diversification
– Economic diversification
– Numerous “progressive ecological community development projects” 12
– Reform of the tax system, leading to much reduced tax evasion
– Tripling of literacy courses
5. Mobilising and arming the people for the defence of these reforms:
Perhaps one of the biggest ‘crimes’ of the Chavez administration has been to encourage the setting up of ‘Bolivarian Circles’ – community action groups modelled on Cuba’s CDRs (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution). These groups have the dual function of attending to basic local needs and defending, by any means necessary, the gains that are being made for the Venezuelan people. The success in building these groups can be measured by the success of Venezuela’s poor in toppling the reactionary coup against Chavez.
All of these changes are designed to transform Venezuela into a strong independent country that is no longer reliant upon foreign capital.
Chavez saw the coup coming – you could hardly miss it. But the fundamental difference between Allende’s Chile and Chavez’s Venezuela is that of guns: Chavez, his government and the people they represent, had realised that power could not be maintained without force – that the US along with conservative elements within Venezuela would undoubtedly make attempts to capture power. This profound recognition was what saved them from defeat at the hands of the April 11 coup.
Chavez and the popular forces of Venezuela now have two possible paths in front of them: the path of conciliation with imperialism, reduction in tensions, a ‘slowdown’ to reforms, ‘compromises’ on key issues, lower oil prices, no support for Cuba and FARC, decent salaries and an easy life for state officials, etc; or the path of further antagonism with imperialism, a full ploughing ahead with reforms, an overhaul of the system, strengthening of the patriotic armed forces and further mobilisation of the people. These are the only two paths. If the Venezuelan people try to continue as they have economically and politically without preparing themselves for further military attacks – more coups, perhaps even invasion – then they will soon find themselves living under a US-puppet military dictatorship. Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian revolution’ can only continue to develop in reality if it is accompanied by a parallel development of the mobilisation and arming of the people. This is the stark lesson that history teaches – that imperialism is a brutal system which cannot be defeated by words alone.
LALKAR wishes the proud Venezuelan people and the South American masses the greatest success in their courageous struggle to kick out the forces of neo-colonialism!
(1) Duncan Campbell writing in The Guardian, 22 April 2002
(2) The Irish Times, 16 April 2002
(3) ‘I saw the calm, rational Chavez turn into a ranting, populist demagogue’, The Times, 13 April 2002;
(4) cited in The Times, 13 April 2002;
(5) Conn Hallinan, ‘Venezuela – The Scent of another coup?’, People’s Democracy (reprinted in The New Worker, 8 February 2002)
(6) see note 1
(7) Julian Borger and Alex Bellos, ‘US gave the nod to Venezuelan coup’, The Guardian, 17 April 2002
(8) see note 1
(9) Deborah McGregor, ‘Washington issues warning to president’, Financial Times, 15 April 2002
(10) cited by Terry Jones in The Observer, 21 April 2002
(11) see note 5
(12) Greg Wilpert, ‘Coup in Venezuela: An Eyewitness Account’