This is the second of a three part review of Bart Jones’ Hugo! The Hugo Chavez Story. Read the first part Chavez: The Hatred of the ‘Dark-Skinned Yokel’ here and the second part Chavaz: ‘A Subversive in Miraflores’?here.
Build-up to the putsch
It’s impossible to discuss the reaction provoked by the Chavez government, of course, without addressing the failed coup launched in 2002. That coup was enthusiastically supported by the private media, which played a key role in its execution. It was also endorsed by the business federation FEDECAMARAS, by the leadership of the CTV trade union federation, and by a galaxy of leading opposition figures. While the coup lasted, its supporters presented it as a triumph of democracy against a cruel tyrant (the Venevision channel carried the message “VENEZUELA RECOVERED ITS LIBERTY” across the bottom of the screen). So what had Chavez done in his first three years of office to merit this condemnation?
The first stage of the “Bolivarian revolution” involved the reconstruction of the political system. Elections were held to a constituent assembly which quickly drafted a new constitution for Venezuela:
“Its main import was that it marked a definitive and symbolic break with the old regime. The constitution improved human rights guarantees and for the first time recognised indigenous and environmental rights. The Indian tribes’ collective ownership of properties and collective economic systems were enshrined in the document. It also officially recognised housewives as workers eligible for government benefits like social security. It gave soldiers the right to vote … the constitution replaced the Senate and the House with a single body, the National Assembly, and created the post of vice president. It extended the presidential term from five years to six, and permitted immediate re-election. It also for the first time in Venezuelan history created a mechanism to recall elected officials midway through their terms.”
By no stretch of the imagination could the new political frame-work be seen as a blue-print for dictatorship: its reforms made Venezuela a more democratic country than it had been before. Indeed, the provision for recall of elected officials was to be used against Chavez by the opposition. The new constitution was endorsed by 71% of voters. Along with every other elected representative in the country, Chavez had to put himself forward for re-election after the constitutional referendum and won with a bigger majority than he had received in 1998.
No less a figure than John Maisto, the US ambassador to Caracas, insisted that there was no sign of creeping authoritarianism. “Whether or not President Chavez’s ‘revolution’ has been good for Venezuela, no-one can question its democratic legitimacy,” he wrote in 2000. It seems more likely that the intense hatred of Chavez felt by so many of his opponents was rooted in class prejudice. Jones gives a nice summary of the feelings induced by the president’s media appearances: “The elites were tired of hearing about Chavez’s grandmother Rosa Ines, or listening to him compare world events to baseball games.” The same informal style made Chavez a hit with the barrios.
The catalyst for the violent counter-revolution of 2002 was not cultural distaste, however, but the evidence that Hugo Chavez meant to deliver on his promises of social reform and redistribution of wealth. In the latter months of 2001, Chavez introduced a package of forty-nine decrees intended to give substance to his rhetoric of change and renewal. After re-organising the political system, this was the next logical step.
Two of the decrees were especially unwelcome for the elite. Firstly, Chavez proposed to bring the state oil company PVDSA under direct government control. For decades PVDSA had acted like a “state within a state”, with its management treating Venezuela’s greatest natural resource as if it was their own private property and taking great care to minimise the royalties paid to the Venezuelan government. PVDSA was already being groomed for privatisation when Chavez took power, so the re-assertion of government control over the firm was a nasty shock for those who expected to profit from the sale of Latin America’s biggest company.
The second decree to prompt outrage concerned land reform. When Chavez came to power, 2% of Venezuela’s population controlled 60% of its arable land, while there were two million landless peasants. The country imported 70% of its food from abroad, and 87% of the population lived in cities – many of them in over-crowded shanty towns where formal-sector employment was extremely rare (Caracas is the location of the world’s second-largest “mega-slum”). The land reform decree proposed to distribute unused land to peasant families and co-operatives: most of the land would be state-owned, but there would be some expropriation of large private estates. The Chavista land reform answered a crying need but enraged the big landowners[i].
It should be obvious that this writer considers the reform package to have been entirely benign (except in the sense that it didn’t go far enough!). But even if the Venezuelan opposition had believed that the forty-nine laws were completely wrong-headed and bound to end in failure, they had no justification for staging a coup of any sort. In due course there would be another presidential election which would give them the opportunity to eject Chavez from power and reverse his policies. If the scheduled election was too long to wait, they could collect signatures and stage a recall referendum once Chavez had reached the half-way point of his term. There were perfectly adequate democratic channels open to the opposition – their decision not to make use of those channels surely reflected the belief that their own agenda would never be endorsed by the majority of Venezuelans.
The attempted coup finally came after repeated calls from opposition spokesmen for the overthrow of the president, which had been well-ventilated in the uniformly anti-Chavez private media. The Bush administration had taken a decisive turn against Chavez after he criticised the bombing of Afghanistan: figures like John Negroponte and Otto Reich with a long and bloody track record of interference in Latin America were to be found in key government roles. The coup plotters met with US government officials in Washington and Caracas before taking action. Naturally those officials now claim that they condemned the idea of a coup against Chavez, which they admit was discussed – it would be easier to believe them if the Bush administration had rushed to oppose the coup when it actually happened.
It’s worth dwelling on the circumstances of the coup at some length, because there has been a determined effort by critics of Chavez to forget about what happened or to belittle its significance. In the week leading up to the coup, FEDECAMARAS and the CTV joined forces to disrupt the economy: a strike led by PVDSA management was backed by action in other sectors. The sight of business and trade union leaders lining up together for a general strike-cum-lock-out is hardly a familiar one, and it did not imply that Venezuela was lucky enough to possess a very enlightened tribe of capitalists. The notoriously corrupt CTV leaders were tightly connected to the old AD hierarchy and were just as keen as any businessman or landowner to stop Chavez[ii]. The union bosses acted as junior members of the Venezuelan elite, not as authentic workers’ representatives.
The actions of FEDECAMARAS chief Pedro Carmona and CTV boss Carlos Ortega betray evidence of careful planning for a coup. As their strike/lock-out was beginning to fade away, they called for a massive demonstration to the PDVSA headquarters on April 11th, a call that was taken up by the private media which broadcast incessant promotional ads for the march. Carmona and Ortega had already decided to change the route of the march to bring it towards the Miraflores Palace – the home of the president – where they would demand the resignation of Chavez. The change of route was “spontaneously” announced to the marchers on April 11th when they reached the PVDSA building.
At Miraflores, there was a tense face-off between the opposition crowd and a Chavista counter-demonstration. As police tried to keep the two marches apart, shots began ringing out. Snipers were firing on the crowds from high-rise buildings. Nineteen people were killed and many others wounded in a short space of time. The opposition moved quickly to blame Chavez for the massacre. A group of high-ranking army officers demanded his resignation.
Bart Jones points out the obvious problem with the officers’ statement:
“It was taped. Otto Neudstadl, a correspondent with CNN en Espanol, later said at a public conference that when Ramirez [the spokesman for the officers] and the others summoned him to an office in Caracas earlier in the day to tape the announcement, it was before any shots had been fired at the marchers. The military officers seemed to have advance knowledge that people were going to be killed.”
This is exactly the sort of information that you would expect journalists to be uncovering and publicising in the midst of civil unrest. But Venezuela’s broadcast media was marching to the beat of a very different drum: it was getting ready to play its own part in the coup against Chavez which had been prepared in advance.
This point is absolutely crucial in the light of subsequent debates about press freedom in Venezuela: the private media did not just support the coup, it took an active role in organising and executing it. Venevision, the station owned by billionaire Gustavo Cisneros, began showing footage of Chavistas firing pistols repeatedly. The voice-over helped viewers to reach the desired conclusions:
“Look at this man in the MVR [Movement for a Fifth Republic, the party led by Chavez] T-shirt and the gray jacket, how he fires the gun, how he empties it. This man has just fired against marchers who came here peacefully, who are absolutely unarmed … they shoot the hundreds of defenceless demonstrators again and again.”
But this was a deliberate manipulation of the footage by Venevision, as Jones explains:
“The Chavistas on the bridge probably did not kill anybody. When they were captured on film shooting, they were not firing at the marchers, but at the Metropolitan Police and snipers who were firing at them. They were defending themselves and the hundreds of unarmed Chavez supporters on the bridge, who were lying face-down on the street to avoid the bullets coming at them – not to launch an “ambush” [as Venevision claimed]. The Venevision video never showed what the Chavistas were shooting at on Avenida Baralt. It only showed them firing.”
Post-mortem examinations demonstrated that the 19 victims had been killed by precise shots from a long distance away. The gun-men must have been highly-trained snipers. The ancient principle of cui bono strongly suggests that the coup plotters were responsible for commissioning those snipers, especially when the extensive planning behind the events of April 11th is considered. Hugo Chavez certainly had nothing to gain and everything to lose by ordering a massacre of civilians. But the plotters’ script was acted out faithfully by the Venezuelan and international media, as they blamed Chavez for the killings and proclaimed the end of his regime. One newspaper summed up the consensus view in its front-page address to Chavez: “A grave has been reserved for you next to the Venezuelan presidents who are remembered for their atrocities. Now you have your own massacre.”
Andres Izarra, a news director at the RCTV network, has described the editorial line that was handed down to staff by the media moguls:
“There was a very clear directive, drawn on Friday the 12th, and the directive was, on the screen, zero pro-Chavez, nothing related to Chavez or his supporters, his congressmen or his ministers. The idea was to promote a climate of transition and to start to promote the dawn of a new country.”
The networks continued to repeat the fraudulent account of the massacre, and the false claim that Chavez had resigned from his post. The same talking-points were circulated by the international media in accounts of what had happened in Venezuela.
The brief reign of the junta headed by Pedro Carmona of FEDECAMARAS gave a chilling preview of what Venezuela would be like under the permanent rule of such forces. In response to the coup, the New York Times had praised Carmona as “a level-headed manager who is also known as a conciliator”. His conciliatory nature was not much in evidence as Carmona abolished every democratic institution in the country: the National Assembly and the Supreme Court were shut down, the constitution was binned, and every public official from the attorney general to the local mayor was fired. Carmona promised to hold new elections, but only in twelve months’ time.
Displaying unconscious satiric brilliance, the business chief concluded his announcement with the following words: “We must go about returning to the rule of law. Strong-man rule will be left behind.” As he spoke, police and army units who took their orders from the junta were hunting for pro-Chavez ministers and shutting down community radio stations that contradicted the line of the big private broadcasters.
As is well known, the arrogance of the coup plotters proved to be short-lived. There was a gigantic backlash from supporters of Chavez who marched to Miraflores and demanded his return. Loyal army units established contact with each other and took action against the junta, forcing it to beat an undignified retreat. Within two days, Hugo Chavez was restored to the presidency – much to the displeasure of the US government, which had rushed to acclaim the Carmona dictatorship.
Routing the opposition
Jones argues that Chavez reacted to the coup by taking a more conciliatory approach to his opponents:
“He toned down his rhetoric, announced he was creating a ‘national round-table’ to sit down with opposition leaders, and shifted some of his more controversial cabinet ministers to other posts. He replaced Gaston Parra as head of PDVSA with Ali Rodriguez, Venezuela’s OPEC representative, and reinstated several of the PDVSA dissidents he had fired from the board of directors. While some military officers were detained, most were released eventually. Few spent significant time in jail.”
Pedro Carmona took shelter in the Colombian embassy and was allowed to leave the country when Colombia granted him asylum.
This softer line did not induce the opposition to tone down its own hostility to Chavez. In fact, they took it as a sign of weakness and steeled themselves for a second push. In the summer of 2002, one opposition newspaper carried a front-page article with the head-line “It’s Ok to Kill a Leader Who’s Not Following the Laws”. In October, army officers who had taken part in the April coup began to occupy a plaza in Caracas which they declared to be “liberated territory”. They called for a rebellion against Chavez. You could hardly imagine a more surreal situation: officers who had already taken part in one putsch against an elected government, being allowed to occupy public space while calling for another one, all the while insisting that Venezuela was ruled by a dictatorship! Fidel Castro, for one, was bewildered:
“In what country could there be a coup and then have all the perpetrators meet in a plaza to spend fifty days agitating through the television networks, proposing another coup? Not in any country in the world.”
In December, FEDECAMARAS and the CTV called for another strike against Chavez. Their main target was the oil industry, which accounted for a third of Venezuela’s GDP and half of government revenue. The opposition found willing allies among PDVSA management, who resented the government moves to bring their company back under control and halt the drive towards privatisation:
“The ‘strike’ at PDVSA was really more of a management lock-out, since many mid- and low-level employees ignored the walk-out and reported to work. The strikers and their supporters tried to stop them, surrounding installations and intimidating them as they arrived. The protesters also sabotaged the industry, destroying electrical lines, paralyzing refineries, dumping water into the ships’ fuel tanks, and hacking into PDVSA’s computer system to create havoc.”
The oil strike nearly brought the Venezuelan economy to a creaking halt. Production was cut to a fraction of its normal level. Following the established pattern, the private media acted as a mouth-piece of the opposition, broadcasting round-the-clock appeals for viewers to support the strike and demanding the resignation of Chavez. The economy contracted by 27% in the first four months of 2003 and the oil industry lost $13.3 billion, but the government managed to hang on, re-organising PDVSA without the striking managers and starting to restore production to its former levels. The bosses’ strike gradually began to peter out as small businesses re-opened their doors. By February it was all over and Chavez was still in Miraflores.
This time round, the government was not so eager to conciliate its opponents. Eighteen thousand PDVSA employees who had taken part in the strike were sacked by the end of March. Critics of Chavez allege that this clear-out was a shocking case of political discrimination, but it is hard to take such claims seriously. The PDVSA staff were not striking for better pay, they were attempting to overthrow Venezuela’s elected government by sabotaging the national economy – less than a year after a military coup against the same government had been defeated. If the opposition had succeeded, there would certainly have been a symmetrical purge of pro-Chavez workers at the company.
Chavez came out stronger and more confident after facing down the oil strike, while his opponents were disoriented by their failure to unseat the president. After their authoritarian methods had failed, the opposition leaders then did what they should have done all along and began to use the democratic channels of the Venezuelan constitution. The outcome of their efforts in this field helps explain why the opposition preferred the coup option until it became unviable. In both the recall referendum of 2004 and the presidential election of 2006, Chavez inflicted a crushing defeat on his challengers.
If you took your view of the Bolivarian revolution from the western media, you would find those electoral results baffling. Hasn’t Chavez led Venezuela to economic ruin while eroding its proud democratic traditions? Shouldn’t the Venezuelan people be eager to turf him out of office at the first opportunity?
It all becomes a little clearer when you discard the propaganda filter and look at the real situation. Venezuela has become a better place under the Chavez government. Social programmes have extended health-care, education and housing to millions of poor citizens[iii]. Land reform has been carried out. By any reasonable standard, the political system is more democratic than it was before Chavez came to power. Turn-out at elections is much higher, and public confidence in the political process has increased dramatically. The president has seen off the threat of an authoritarian coup without suspending democratic rights or sending in troops and riot police to crush demonstrations against his rule.
Some critics will acknowledge that the Chavez government has spent a lot of money on social programmes that benefit the poor majority, but dismiss that expenditure as “Kuwaiti economics”, made possible by the sixth-largest oil reserves in the world. It’s quite true that Venezuela has been blessed with natural resources, but the unhappy fate of the Congo shows that resources are never enough in themselves. Saudi Arabia has even greater reserves of oil, but spends much of its revenue on a bloated royal family and wasteful arms purchases from the West. Margaret Thatcher received a massive wind-fall from North Sea oil in the 1980s but used it to fund tax cuts while she dismantled Britain’s welfare state. Venezuela needed to have a government with the will to spend money for the benefit of the country’s poor in order to exploit its nature-given advantage.
[i] Jones reports that by 2005, at least 130 land reform activists had been killed by gun-men acting on behalf of the landowners. By that point the Chavez government had distributed 2.2 million hectares to 130,000 families.[ii] The Chavez government had already encouraged the formation of new unions, a process that picked up speed dramatically after the attempted coup. Before long the new UNT federation had more members than the CTV.[iii] The report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research on Venezuela under Chavez gives an excellent account of these social programmes. Stuart Munckton gives a good summary of the report’s findings.
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