by Bridget Broderick
THE BUSH administration applauded the April 12 ouster of elected President Hugo Chávez Frías in Venezuela as a victory for democracy. Chávez "provoked the crisis," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, because he called in the military to suppress a peaceful demonstration of the people. Clearly not all Venezuelans (or other Latin Americans) agreed with this interpretation of eventsthey recognized it for what it was, a coup. But with mass support from the poor and from middle-ranking military officers, Chávez returned to the presidential palace in less than 48 hours. His government was again in control by early Sunday, April 14. Late Saturday night, the U.S. joined the Organization of American States (OAS) in a unanimous condemnation of the "alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela." But this was too late to remove the taint. Despite all of its pro-democracy rhetoric, Washington had offered clear support to a military coup against a democratically elected president in Latin America.
After Bush met the following week with Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, he was asked whether the delay in condemning the coup conflicted with his commitment to "always stand up for democratic values." In response Bush chided President Chávez for being overthrown, and found clarity in the administrations position where no one else could. "My administration spoke with a very clear voice about our strong support for democracy. It is very important for President Chávez to do what he said he was going to do, to address the reasons why there was so much turmoil in the streets
If there are lessons to be learned, its important that he learn them."
The past actions of members of Bushs administration betray the real meaning behind his words "lessons to be learned." Current Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich was key in organizing covert funding and training for the contras in Nicaragua under Reagan in the 1980s designed to overthrow Nicaraguas popular revolutionary government. He moved to Venezuela as the U.S. ambassador in 1986. Roger Pardo-Mauer, now the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, worked directly with Reichs State Department as a representative to the contras in the 1980s. In December of last year, Pardo-Mauer met with General Lucas Romero Rincón, who announced Chávezs fabled resignation. What else can Bushs statement be other than a warning to Chávez that he could face a second coup if he doesnt straighten up?
The White House denies that it had any direct involvement in Chávezs brief ouster. However, business and military leaders that took part in the coup, including Pedro Carmona, the self-proclaimed president for a day, visited U.S. officials several times in the past few months to discuss Chávezs ouster. Officials in Washington have admitted to the meetings, but claim that they only discussed constitutional ways of getting rid of Chávez. This claim rings hollow. Not only did the U.S. funnel almost a million dollars to the organizations that fomented the anti-Chávez coup, through the auspices of the National Endowment for Democracy, but also there have been credible reports of direct U.S. involvement in the coup. A STRATFOR intelligence brief claims, from unnamed sources, that the CIA and the State Department were both involved offering direct support to the coup-plotters. And according to former National Security Agency (NSA) officers Richard M. Bennett and Wayne Madsen (also a former Naval officer), U.S. Army units in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas "assisted in providing communications intelligence to U.S. military and national command authorities on the progress of the coup." Given Washingtons long history of support for friendly military coups and dictatorships in Latin America, these accusations are more than credible.
The bosses strike
Who was involved in the "popular rebellion" against Chávezaside from Washington? From Venezuela, the National Chamber of Commerce (Fedecámaras), management of the state oil company, and other upper class professionals, Catholic church officials, the corporate-run media, high-ranking military officers, and the corrupt trade union bureaucracy of the CTV, affiliated with the discredited AD (Acción Democrática) political party. Interesting freedom fighters.
The coup was a long-term project of Venezuelas traditional oligarchy, with tacit encouragement from U.S. officials and businesses. The precipitating event was the second bosses strike against Chávez in four months. Management of the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), organized a strike for six weeks to protest Chávezs appointment of five new members to the board of directors. Media reports conveniently blurred the lines between management, office, and production workers by saying the "oil workers" were on strike. However, employers and management were the main forces involved.
The traditional PDVSA management preferred "autonomy" to undermine OPEC quotaslowering the price of oil exported to the U.S., but increasing market shares for private investors. Chávez wanted to keep oil prices high, since state revenues depend largely on oil exports and taxes on oil revenues. This, of course, made him unpopular with Bushs friends in the oil business.
Managements strike slowed production and refining by 20 percent in March. With oil prices rising and Iraqs threat of a boycott, perhaps the oil bosses thought it was a good time to go on the offensive. The CTV called on union members to join PDVSA employees in a general strike on April 9. Fedecámaras joined in. This was a major media eventadvertised every ten minutes on private television stations (completely controlled by opposition supporters). Reports vary on the strikes successbut many businesses closed their doors to employees, and Fedecámaras offered to pay the days salaries. In the poorer sections of Caracas, workers went to work. Public sector workers, who are members of the CTV, did not participate.
Although numbers apparently dwindled on April 10, Fedecámaras and the CTV prolonged the strike "indefinitely." On April 11, they had organized protesters at the PDVSA headquarters to confront Chávez at the Miraflores presidential palace. An estimated 150,000 anti-Chávez protesters marched to the palace and faced off with the National Guard and Chávez supporters. Initial media reports claimed that pro-Chávez snipers, on orders from the president, killed 14 protesters. Subsequent investigations revealed that the municipal police and anti-Chávez opposition fired into crowds as well. Over 200 people were wounded in the confrontation.
Army commander Gen. Efraín Vásquez Velasco (a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas) declared in a news conference April 11 "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end, but todays deaths cannot be tolerated." More than 40 top officials joined the "rebellion" against the Venezuelan president, a former lieutenant colonel. National Guard forces arrested Chávez and whisked him to a military base. National Guard Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz announced late April 11 that Chávezs government was out of power and that the armed forces were now in control of the country. The Bush administration used the incident to denounce Chávezs undemocratic regime, and praised the militarys bravery in turning against the presidents authoritarianism. Chávez, who never signed his resignation, was arrested and sent to a military base to be investigated.
The media spread rumors that Chávez had resigned his presidency. The head of the Fedecámaras, Pedro Carmona, was immediately installed as president. Giddy with success, but apparently without the consent of all the plotters, Carmona immediately abolished the 1999 constitution and 49 reform laws affecting taxes on foreign oil companies, land use, and fishing rights. He dismissed the elected National Assembly and the Supreme Court, and ended oil sales to Cuba. He called for elections within one year, and promised to revisit Venezuelas role in OPEC. The IMF offered immediate assistance to the interim government, and cited its concern for human rights.
While the poor and working class (at least 80 percent of Venezuelas population) did not come out immediately in massive numbers to support Chávez during the coup of April 11, many were outraged by the upper classs forces imposing their leaders and dictatorial policies. By Saturday, April 13, tens of thousands of Venezuelans from the poor neighborhoods and the countryside expressed their support in the street for the democratically elected Chávez and National Assembly, and against the bosses organizations and their military supporters who had seized power. They faced tear gas and bullets from the metropolitan police (trained by former New York City Police Chief William Bratton, no less) and the National Guard in various cities. Over 60 people were killed during the repression. Private media, owned by the opposition, refused to report the protests or the repression. Carmona shut down the state-run media. Venezuelans could find information only through foreign media. On Saturday, Chávez supporters took over the state television station and began running footage of the street protests.
The private media refused to report these spontaneous demonstrations, claiming the masses "endangered" their journalists. On Saturday, April 13, Caracas residents literally had to go to the streets to find out what was happening. As the plazas filled with protesters and rumors that Chávez had never resigned spread throughout the country, many in the lower ranks of the military sided with the elected president (a former paratrooper). Protesters surrounded and invaded the presidential palace, and Carmona, fearing the growing unrest and seeing his support collapsing, relinquished the power he never quite held. Chávez returned early Sunday morning to cheering crowds and military salutesreported on the state-run television station that had been taken over by Chávez supporters.
Carmonas "coup within a coup" was a political miscalculation, to say the least. Once the business leader took power, he not only dismissed all democratic institutions; he abandoned key sectors of his opposition coalitionmilitary leaders, top union bureaucrats, and influential anti-Chávez intellectuals who participated in overthrowing the elected president. Army commander Gen. Efraín Vásquez Velascoa key supporter of the coupdemanded Carmona reinstate the National Assembly, and CTV president Carlos Ortega warned Carmona that he would have to address urgent labor issues such as billions of dollars in wages and pensions owed public workers.
Moreover, the coup was not supported by all high- and mid-level military officials. Some organized against the coup in a major air force base in Maracay, and in other cities in the interior. Chávez was part of the air force, and still had the loyalty of many mid-ranking officers and soldiers. Sections of the military refused to recognize the transitional government, and reportedly worked with Chávez supporters in forming neighborhood defense committees.
The popular uprising and the support of sections of the military reversed the right-wing coup of Fedecámaras and military officers. Vice President Diosdado Cabello claimed his right to be president until Chávez safely returned, and Carmona could not inaugurate his cabinet as planned. Chávez was greeted by thousands of supporters at the presidential palace. The "transition" cabinet members were held briefly, then released.
Chávez immediately called for the opposition to reflect on its actions and rectify its ways. He promised he would not retaliate against employees in the oil industry. The president then announced a Federal Government Commission for a national dialoguea conciliatory proposal he had already made to the opposition hours before being arrested.
The defeat of the opposition gives Chávez a new lease on life as his weakened and divided enemies figure out their next step. His popularity with the poorand most importantly to Chávez, with the militaryis reaffirmed. His opposition is discredited because it overplayed its authoritarian hand, believing its own rhetoric about its own strength and Chavézs lack of support.
Chávez could easily take this opportunity to push his agenda for social reforms further to left, given the weakness of his conservative opposition. He could build strong political organizations to increase participation by the poor and by workers in his Bolivarian society. But part of the reason for the coups initial success was because Chávez has not organized a mass political movement of his supporters. The Bolivarian circles, Chávezs community centers, are tightly controlled groups given government funding and centered in poor communities. Chávez has relied more on the militarya force he sees as central to the Bolivarian revolutionthan on real popular mobilization.
But Chávez is not a revolutionary. He is a populist, seeking to reconcile various social forces to advance his own nationalist agenda. From recent actions, Chávez seems to be continuing where he left off before military leaders arrested him: reconcile with the upper class, union bureaucracy, and church officials through attempts at dialogue such as the Federal Government Commission initiative. Directly after retaking power, the president withdrew his appointees to the PDVSA board that had allegedly sparked the oil strike, and assigned Ali Araque Rodriguez, the current head of OPEC, to head the company. For the chair of the truth commission to investigate the coup conspiracy, Chávez appointed Edgar Zambrano of the AD party, one of the traditional political parties involved in opposing the president. And in a bizarre nod to the opposition, Chávez recently appointed Gen. Lucas Romero Rincónwho helped lead the coup and had announced Chávezs resignationto the top post in the armed forces.
To be sure, Chávez has been trying to push back the U.S., criticizing Washington for its role in the coup. His appointment of the former OPEC chief indicates he is trying to do a balancing act. But his internal attempts at reconciliation by granting concessions to the opposition will strengthen their hand. Rich Venezuelans and their well-connected opposition forces are not going away quietly. The CTV is calling for a referendum to approve Chávez and his cabinet. In either scenario, the majority of Venezuelans do not benefit from Chávezs appointments or concessions. Chávezs position will weaken, as the right sees him conceding ground and his poor and working class supporters become disillusioned.
Conditions for increasing explosions are just under the surface. The armed forces are clearly divided. With the Colombian civil war intensifying as Bush pushes for greater U.S. military involvement, a military conflict in Venezuela could engulf the region in violent war. The real victims would of course be workers and the poor.
Many of the sectors that supported Chávez in the street still criticize his tight control, the militarization of the regime, and the inefficiency of his social programs, according to Provea (Venezuelas human rights agency). "Some of these sectors defend the possibility of change more than a reality [of change], and when they back the government, they are basically opposing a return to the past." Chávez was elected, and was reinstated, because he represented a break with the past of oligarchy, corruption, and two-party control. He implemented relatively mild social reforms of investment in education, health care, and small businesses. But the resources needed to address the mass poverty in the country mean a mass redistribution of wealth that Chávez has not advocated, nor is willing to advocatedespite right-wing hysteria about his left leanings.
The presidents main reforms have focused on fighting corruption and writing the progressive constitution of 1999. He has also sought independent relations with Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East in order to make Venezuela competitive on the world market, and he has refused to support Washingtons military initiatives in Colombia. Although he has used nationalist rhetoric to defend Venezuelas right to control its resources, he does not oppose international markets, and has conscientiously made payments on Venezuelas foreign debt to the IMF each month. He has opened the country to oil exploration and foreign investment, and deregulated the bolívar in February. Venezuelans today face increasing unemployment, inflation, crime, and poverty. Chávez does not have answers to these problems.
Here in the United States, socialists must defend Chávezs right to the presidency against the right-wing coup attempted by the elite of Venezuela and the U.S. But the left also must push for more than the possibility of changeVenezuelans need the reality of change. So while socialists defend the right of the Venezuelan people to defend the president they democratically elected, this is not equivalent to endorsing his political project. Venezuelan workers and the poor who came out in the streets to fight against Chávezs opposition must use that energy to organize independently of Chávez for real change in their communities and workplaces. The reversal of Chávezs fate is an indication of where real power liesnot with Chávez but with the majority of poor and working class Venezuelans.
There are definitely challenges the left faces today. Chávezs opposition, though weakened now, will try to rise again. The CTV will try to legitimize its role as "democratic" opposition, and will use the economic crisis to organize for another coup. At the same time, the Bolivarian circles may hold a certain prestige as defenders of the "revolution," but they are government organizations that willaccording to their own documentssuppress all left forces that fall outside of their control. They represent a huge hindrance to any independent left organizing. Much of the left, moreover, still follows Chávez uncritically. Yet the events of April show the pressing need for and the enormous potential for an independent, revolutionary working-class movement in Venezuela.
The coup and Chavez's future
interview with James Petras
EVIDENCE IS piling up of the Bush administrations role in Aprils coup attempt against Venezuelas president, Hugo Chávez. In the latest twist, two former National Security Agency officers told British newspapers that the Pentagon had forces on standby to provide "logistical support" to the coup makers. Also, press reports have exposed how the National Endowment for Democracya notorious front for CIA covert operationsfunneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to the big business honchos, military officers, and corrupt union leaders who led the coup attempt.
It almost worked. Following an oil industry strike organized by the bosses and a big antigovernment demonstration in Caracas that ended in violence, Chávez was arrested, and Pedro Carmona, the head of Venezuelas main business organization, was installed in power. But Carmona showed his true colors immediately by dissolving the National Assemblyjust as Venezuelas poor were beginning to mobilize against the coup. Within two days, the overthrow of Chávez was reversed.
JAMES PETRAS is an expert on Latin America and the author of numerous books. The most recent, coauthored with Henry Veltmeyer, is Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century (Zed Books). He talked to ALAN MAASS, editor of Socialist Worker newspaper, about the U.S. role in the operation to topple Chávezand why it failed.
WHAT WAS the political backdrop to the attempt to overthrow Chávez?
TO UNDERSTAND the developments in Venezuela, we have to look outsideto what U.S. policy has been. U.S. policy has been to impose, through its phony antiterrorist campaign, control over the worldand, in particular, line up subordinates to back U.S. war plans in the Middle East, in Colombia, and elsewhere.
Thats the context, and theyve been able to line up governments like Uruguay, Costa Rica, and Argentina, which are sucking up to the U.S. in the hopes of getting greater access to markets and maybe getting some loans.
This position of the U.S. and its effectiveness in lining up client regimes, however, came a cropper with President Chávez. Chávez developed and has expanded an independent foreign policy on all the major issues of concern to the U.S. He strengthened OPEC. Hes broken the U.S. blockade of Iraq and Iran. Hes developed commercial ties and other links with Libya. Hes rejected Plan Colombiathe U.S. attempt to militarize the civil war in Colombia. Hes rejected U.S. flights over Venezuelan airspace. Hes critical of ALCAthe Latin American Free Trade Areafor being too much, too soon.
This isnt a complete break, because Chávez is a social liberal in domestic policy, and Ill come back to that. But hes more interested in Latin American regional treaties than a trade agreement that the U.S. will dominate.
Furthermore, he kicked U.S. military advisers out of the defense ministry and sidelined some of the intelligence people who were very close toor members ofthe Cuban exile community. This is in addition to Chávezs close political ties with Castro and supplying Cuba with oil in exchange for medical services. I say "close ties" not because Chávez has carried out any radical social transformation, but in terms of personalities and symbolic meetings.
Because of all this put togetherhis regional and international policies and his identification with the poorChávez has polarized Venezuela like no political figure has. Hes become a pole of attraction for all the disaffected poor.
In that sense, almost independently of his domestic policies, the country has divided between the pro-U.S. bourgeoisie and upper middle classes and the corrupt trade union bosses on one side, and the unemployed and underemployed, who number about 6070 percent of the labor force, on the other.
Its this context, I think, that set the stage for the detonator, which took place in October 2001. I met with Chávez just after the event which precipitated the all-out offensive of the U.S. Speaking about the U.S. massacre in Afghanistan, Chávez said that you cant fight terror with terrora direct reference to Bushs war.
The U.S. immediately withdrew its ambassadorrecalled him for so-called consultations. It then sent a high-level delegation to Venezuela to meet with Chávez and tell him that he would pay a high price for the critical position that he tookand that future generations of Venezuelans would pay a high price. I was told this by one of the top Chávez advisers who was at the meeting. Chávez listened, said he wants friendly relations with the U.S., disagrees on this or that policy, wants U.S. investment, etc. They totally ignored him.
Right after that, you began to see the coming together of the U.S. clientsthe business association, which has locked up most of their capital in U.S. Treasury bonds and real estate, and the trade union bureaucracy, which in 50 years has never organized any effective resistance to wage cuts and unemployment. These union leaders are comparable to the AFL-CIO in that they draw hundreds of thousands dollars in salaries and perks. They came together, along with the Catholic hierarchy and, of course, the mass media, which launched a murderous pro-coup campaign, inventing the most brazen lies.
The media accused Chávez of being a dictator. Heres a person who has won six elections in less than four yearspresidential elections, constituent assembly, legislative, municipal, etc. And hes called an authoritarian or dictatorial personality! He doesnt steal elections like the Bush administration did in Florida. He wins by big, clean margins.
Meanwhile, the press had license to publish and broadcast open calls for the violent overthrow of the government. Secretary of State Colin Powell, when he was passing through Peru earlier this year, said that the U.S. would support a "transitional" government. So did James Wolfensohn of the World Bank. A "transitional" government with an elected president? That can only mean a coup.
AND THE U.S. did all this, even though Chávez has been far from radical.
THE KEY point to remember is Chávezs record on domestic policy. Hes increased spending for housing, schools, and health. Hes increased income by a small margin3 or 4 percent. Hes increased taxes to some limited degree, so that the upper classes pay something, rather than nothing.
But for all of this, he has also deregulated the financial system. Spanish banks have become very involved in the deregulated system. He privatized Caracass electrical system. U.S. oil companies havent been hinderedthey pay slightly more on the petroleum tax.
In other words, theres been no radical or even moderate redistribution of income. There has been no expropriation of any propertyexcept unutilized farmland thats paid for in cash. Thats about the most conservative land reform youll see anywhere in Latin Americamarket prices for the land, paid in cash.
So why the big uproar by these domestic classes? They have access to the media, they can contest in electionswhats the big beef? The big beef has nothing to do with domestic issues. The real issue is that the U.S. wants to overthrow him to put Venezuela in line with their other clients in Latin America and knock down the only government that offers an alternative foreign policy for the whole region. They dont want that alternative present.
Thats why this coup was planned, directed, and financed by the Bush administration. It wasnt just the CIA. The assistant secretary of state for Western hemisphere affairs was involvedIm talking about the Cuban terrorist exile Otto Reich. Im talking about people like Elliot Abrams, who was in the Reagan administration and involved in justifying the killings in Central America, which amounted to 300,000 deaths. Im talking about John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, who was involved with the death squads in Honduras.
I could give you a longer list. But you get an ideayou have thugs running U.S. policy in Latin America, who are capable not only of overthrowing a government, but engaging in the kind of violent repression that was launched in those 24 hours of the coup.
WHY DID the coup fail?
THE COUP failed for very elemental reasons. U.S. intelligence on the situation depended heavily on clients in the military, among the trade union bosses, the mass media moguls, and the heads of the business association. These people, who were on the U.S. payroll, told the U.S. what it wanted to hearthat public opinion polls showed Chávezs support dwindling. The generals that supported the coup said that the army was with the coup makers.
The second part of the story is that Washington is drunk with power after Afghanistan and bullying the rest of the worldas after the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965, they were drunk with power and thought Vietnam would be a patsy. They were wrong then, and they were wrong in thinking that their drive in Venezuela would knock down all obstacles.
They totally underestimated the commitment of the urban poor, which came down from the hills and represent something like 50 percent of the population in Caracas. The CIA took the anti-Chávez demonstrations coming out of the upper middle class neighborhoods as representing the whole country.
They also underestimated the race factor. They didnt realize that part of the opposition to Chávez is because hes Blackthe first Black president in modern history in Venezuela. All of the leading lights of the bourgeoisie dislike him for his social origins and his race.
Theres a fourth factor, which is the idea that Chávez was a clownthat he was incapable of defying U.S. authority. They thought that if they grabbed him and put him on an island and used some psychological pressure or other forms of interrogation, he would resign, and they could grab power.
And, finally, they overplayed their hand in the first moment. They abolished the legislature, the courts, and every representative institution. The first thing they did was break off the trade agreement and diplomatic relations with Cuba. The second thing they did was to say that they were going to break their agreements with OPEC. Those are hardly the banners under which any domestic opposition would mobilize. Those are exactly the top priorities for the U.S.
So, as a result of that, some of the military officials did a flip. They first were against Chávez, but then were appalled by the total servility of this junta to the U.S., so they did a flip back to Chávez.
CHÁVEZS TONE since returning to power has been moderate and conciliatory. Will this leave social conditions the same, giving the coup makers the chance to regroup and try again?
THERES SOME truth in that. Chávez is a nationalist in foreign policy and a social liberal in domestic policy. From year one, he has been in favor of class collaboration. The opposition isnt interested in any kind of class collaborationthey want it all.
Chávez has a history of tryingin practical terms, not rhetorical termsto balance between the classes. He has a policy of balancing the budget. He has not engaged in any deficit financinghes very orthodox on that. He has paid his debt faithfully, better than most countries in Latin America. So hes been trying to balance between a nationalist foreign policy and a liberal economic policy.
The problem is that this isnt acceptable to Washington, and, as a result, the same military officials who did the back flipwho originally supported the coup and then Chávezare now back in their commanding positions. Theres going to be an investigation of 30 or so military people who openly identified with the coup, and theyll probably be put on pension and taken from command of the troops.
The bourgeois coup makerswho in any normal country would be in jail, facing treason chargesare back in their own offices, with the exception of Carmona and a few of his flunkies that were actually in the government. The head of the business association that prepared the ground for the coup is back. Ortega, the big trade union boss is back, calling now for a referendum and a rejection of Chávez. The day after the coup was defeated, he was talking again about organizing strikesthe peculiar kind of strikes where the bosses pay the workers their pay and bonuses to go on strike.
So his attempts to conciliate, which have a history in his social and economic program, have left in place the people that organized the coup and will be thinking about a future coup. And thats a real danger. Condoleezza Rice has already said it. In a most cynical and despicable speech, she said, "I hope Chávez has learned the right lessons," which in effect means we organize one coup, you better do what we want, or well come back with a second coup.
MEANWHILE, THIS is a country where half the population lives in poverty. Wont Chávezs base of support among the poor eventually become disillusioned by the lack of progress in economic and social terms and abandon him?
THATS POSSIBLE. On the other hand, while the right wing keeps banging at them, I think that theyll unite with Chávez against the right.
I think the main point in reaching out to the masses with a left-wing program is to first affirm Chávezs progressive foreign policy, and then develop an alternative social-economic policy. I think those people who have simply outright rejected Chávez have been totally isolatedbecause from the point of view of the masses, theyre seen as covert allies of the right.
The total polarization in Venezuela means that any meaningful left-wing politics has to take place in the context of this nationalist framework. That is, any socialist or Marxist program has to find a way of relating to the Chávez phenomenon. Im not talking about prostrating themselves or uncritically accepting himespecially his domestic program, which I think is open to a great many criticisms from the left, from the agrarian reform program to his views on financial markets to his views on foreign investment, privatization, etc. Theres a whole agenda here thats open to an alternative approach.