Chavez returns


Hugo Chavez is President of Venezuela again, having been deposed on 11 April 2002.  He was first elected President in late 1998, since when he has re-written Venezuela’s constitution, got it approved by popular referendum and got himself re-elected under the new constitution for a further six years with an impressive 60% of the popular vote.


When Chavez came to power, crude oil prices were languishing at under $10 a barrel.  Production quotas set by OPEC were not being stuck to, not least by Venezuela itself.  Two years later crude oil prices were over $30 a barrel.  Chavez was almost single-handedly responsible by revitalising OPEC.  He undertook that Venezuela would stick to OPEC production quotas and under his leadership OPEC set out to stabilise oil prices within the range $22 to $28 a barrel.  That objective has been achieved.


It was no surprise therefore that when Chavez was deposed by military coup on 11 April, the price of crude oil dropped instantly by about $4 a barrel to around $24 a barrel.


The generals who deposed him took advantage of an anti-Chavez demonstration on 11 April, which marched on the presidential palace.  Pro-Chavez elements allegedly fired on demonstrators and killed and wounded a number of them.  This story has been widely disseminated across the world and was the excuse for mounting the coup.


An alternative story is told by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Brien, who had spent the previous three months in Venezuela making a documentary about Chavez for an independent Irish company.  They were close to the centre of events in Caracas from 11 April when Chavez was deposed until 13 April when he was reinstated.  An interview with them was published in the Irish Times on 16 April.


Ms Bartley says the shooting began when they arrived in the centre of town on the evening of Thursday, 11 April.  She goes on:


“I filmed a while then took cover in a doorway.  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.”


According to her, 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.  Then, army generals arrived and went off for a meeting with Chavez, who some time later emerged in the custody of junta soldiers and was taken away.  At that point radio and television announced the resignation of Chavez and began broadcasting upbeat messages: “Venezuela is finally free was the banner across all private TV channels.


That account doesn’t rule out the possibility of anti-Chavez demonstrators having been shot, but it certainly adds an additional dimension to the story.  It also confirms that the privately owned radio and TV are bitterly anti-Chavez and played an active part in the coup.


In a telephone interview carried out not long before his arrest and reprinted in the Mexican daily, La Journada, on 12 April, Chavez said that the media had been reporting events selectively and “giving a public voice to those who were calling for the violent overthrow of the government regardless of how many deaths this would cause”, which was why he had just suspended three TV stations from broadcasting.


Ms Bartley’s account of the restoration on Saturday, 13 April also confirms that the radio and TV were part of the plot:


“The media kept repeating footage of the swearing-in ceremony of the interim president [Pedro Carmona] which was followed by images of empty streets, everything in perfect tranquillity.  We were about to book a ticket to Panama when a well-dressed passer-by told us to get off the streets.  ‘The Chavistas are coming’, he said.  It was Saturday afternoon.


“We took a taxi to the centre, where huge crowds had surrounded the palace, demanding the return of Chavez.  We managed to get inside and found several Chavez deputies calling round the country to find out what was going on.  A dozen people who were working for the interim government had been taken to a room in the basement for their own safety.


“Reports came in from around the country, barracks by barracks, like a Eurovision song contest jury, that the military was rebelling against the coup. 


“The television continued to broadcast a steady diet of soap operas, saying nothing about the huge mobilisation, which was now making a deafening racket outside.  Then came the news that Chavez had been freed and was taking a helicopter to [the presidential palace at] Miraflores.  The crowds went wild.  The presidential guard made a tunnel from the palace gates to a helicopter pad across the street.  The sound of choppers buzzing overhead.


“Then he was there, striding toward the palace, mobbed by supporters.  It was like a dream, it's still hard to believe it really happened.”


The US Government wanted to see the back of Chavez and there is no doubt that they knew that a coup against Chavez was in the offing.  The leading players in the conspiracy (including Pedro Carmona) had been to Washington in the previous few months and had met members of the Bush administration.  After the event, the President’s spokesman, Ari Fleischer, made no secret of the fact the US officials knew a coup was being planned but claimed that they warned against (see his press briefing of 16 April).


At his press briefing on the Friday morning after the coup (12 April), far from condemning it as an unconstitutional seizure of power, Fleischer had portrayed the replacement of Chavez by Carmona as legitimate.  He faithfully repeated the fable that the perpetrators of the coup had told, the crucial element of which is that Chavez had resigned.  Not only that, prior to resigning he dismissed his vice-president, his constitutional successor.  So, what else could be done but establish an interim president prior to holding an election?


Fleischer began by saying that “yesterday's events in Venezuela resulted in a change in the government and the assumption of a transitional authority until new elections can be held”.  He went on to indict the Chavez government for provoking the crisis by suppressing peaceful demonstrations.  Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded, he said.  The Venezuelan military and the police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations. The government also tried to prevent independent news media from reporting on these events.


He concluded:


“The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed. This government has promised early elections.”


This fable of a constitutional handover of power to a civilian government committed to the democratic process might have held, had the interim president and his associates not dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court a few hours later.  That action made the fable unsustainable, and though the US Government would have dearly liked to go along with the overthrow of Chavez, it was no longer possible to maintain a democratic gloss on what had happened in Caracas the night before.


That Friday afternoon, heads of state of several Latin American countries – Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Costa Rica – spoke out against he illegal seizure of power, and so did the General Secretary of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Cesar Gaviria (who is a Columbian).  The US President did not and, to the credit of the White House press corps, over the next few days Fleischer was tortured with questions about why, when all these heads of state had condemned the coup, President Bush had not.


However, the next day – Saturday, 13 April – the Permanent Council of the OAS met to consider the situation in Venezuela and was of a mind to condemn the coup.  A resolution (811) was drawn up, the first clause of which was “To condemn the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela”, and the US Government had no option to support it.


Chavez was restored to power later the same day.  A number of factors contributed to his restoration.  One was that by Friday afternoon it was clear that the OAS was not going to accept the new government as legitimate, despite the US being happy to treat it as such.  The others were the support for Chavez in the Venezuelan population and in the lower ranks of the military that manifested itself in Caracas that Saturday.


The US administration has yet to condemn the military coup in Venezuela on 11 April or welcome the restoration of Chavez on 13 April by way of public statement.  They have directed, and continue to direct, much harsher words at Chavez than at the people who overthrew him.  It’s a racing certainty that, had their friend President Pastrana next door in Columbia been overthrown by FARC, we would have been blown away by rhetoric about democracy coming out of Washington – and the US military machine would have been deployed to put him back in power.


It is true that the US supported the OAS resolution of 13 April, which explicitly condemned the coup, but they had no option but to do that.  Likewise, they had no option but to support a resolution passed by the 29th Special Session of the General Assembly of OAS on 18 April, the first clause of which was: “To express satisfaction at the restoration of the constitutional order and the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chávez Frías in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”.  It must have stuck in their craw.



Labour & Trade Union Review

May 2002