Apr 29, 2002
On April 12, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown by a military coup organized by a group of high-ranking officers and the head of the chamber of commerce, Pedro Carmona, and put under arrest. Carmona stepped in as head of the new government.
But Sunday, April 14 Chavez was brought back as head of state. Throughout the day before, there had been a mobilization of the poorest layers in the capital, coming from the “ranchitos,” that is, the shanty towns of Caracas, some of which are close to the presidential palace. These demonstrators, who protested under the windows of the media hostile to Chavez, showed by their presence that the president still had support in the popular layers of the population. But it was especially that part of the army which remained faithful to him, notably the parachutist regiment which he belonged to in the past, which made the difference. They returned Chavez to power, this time sending Carmona to prison, along with his ministers and the military leaders who supported him.
Venezuela is said to be an “emerging” country. That means it’s not one of the poorest among the underdeveloped countries of Latin America and Africa. It’s the fourth largest oil producer in the world. Its per capita GNP is one of the highest among the underdeveloped countries. It’s a country with decent roads, airports, infrastructure of all kinds – all inherited from the era of high oil prices. It’s also a country that has diversified its industries and produces a large part of the consumer goods it uses.
But despite its oil income Venezuela has a large debt, the interest payments on which are equal to 23% of the country’s export income. It is also plagued by rampant corruption and massive social inequalities. The country is ruled by a small minority of profiteers in the cities and countryside, who enrich themselves inside and outside of the country from oil, aluminum, big farms, public projects, etc. Workers’ wages in the major industries such as oil, textile and aluminum are very low. The rates of unemployment and violent crime are very high.
The national currency, the Bolivar, has literally collapsed against the U.S. dollar. Today the dollar, without being the official currency, is the reference in all transactions, small and large.
During the 1980s, the poor neighborhoods became increasingly restive in the face of the widespread unemployment and misery and rising inflation. In February, 1989, a new “structural adjustment,” that is, austerity plan, demanded by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. A massive popular revolt broke out in the hills surrounding Caracas, where the majority of the poor live. Tens of thousands of demonstrators invaded the wealthy center of Caracas and looted the stores. When the police proved incapable of stopping the riots, the army intervened and brutally crushed the revolt by killing more than 4000 people!
In the next three years, the discontent over the political and social situation in the country spread into the army itself. After 1982, younger officers created the “Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement-200." This, no doubt, encouraged Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chavez to attempt a military coup against the government of President Carlos Andres-Perez on February 4, 1992. But the situation was not ripe enough for Chavez to take power; his coup attempt failed.
Nonetheless, Chavez gained enormous popularity in the poorest neighborhoods. In house after house, Chavez’s picture was on the wall. After two years in prison, Chavez was pardoned and released. Transforming himself into a civilian politician, Chavez ran for president in 1998 against the two major mainstream parties, Adei (Accion Democratica) and Copei (Christian Democrat), which had been completely discredited. Chavez won by a landslide with 56% of the vote. Then he organized a referendum for changing the constitution, which also passed, this time with a vote of 61%. Chavez supporters won 92% of the seats in the constituent assembly. The new, “Bolivarian” constitution was approved by 71% of the voters. Finally, last July, Chavez was reelected with 57% of the vote.
From his arrival in power, Chavez, like many other political leaders of Latin America before him, found himself in a position to arbitrate the political game, between the corruption of the political representatives and the avidity of the rich on the one hand, and the aspirations of the poor masses for a better life on the other hand. He led by basing himself on a part of the army which is faithful to him and by maintaining a populist stance toward the poor classes, not hesitating to show up after a natural disaster which engulfed the poor neighborhoods under torrents of mud and by responding directly to questions through a live broadcast. It’s on this basis that he launched himself into his institutional guerilla war against the political parties.
Nonetheless, Chavez hadn’t ever really sought to take on the wealthy classes. The only way he found to finance his policies was to attack the middle classes, who were heavily taxed. And this began to provoke a reaction among these somewhat privileged layers.
While Chavez’ regime is not the expression of a true movement of the workers and poor, it certainly is regarded very unfavorably by Washington.
Chavez made a reputation for not attaching himself to the U.S. and for displaying his admiration for Fidel Castro. Venezuela sells oil to Cuba at preferential rates, in defiance of a U.S.-led embargo against Cuba. Chavez also paid a visit to Saddam Hussein and criticized the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.
The speed with which the Bush administration congratulated the ouster of Chavez says a lot about what the U.S. wishes for Venezuela. In fact, U.S. officials have admitted to have met several times in recent months with top Venezuelan generals as well as Carmona. (U.S. officials even acknowledged “discussing” the possibility of a coup during these meetings, but claimed to have discouraged it.) It’s likely that the CIA had a hand in the coup attempt orchestrated by the big bosses, PDVSA managers and certain army brass such as Admiral Tamayo, who readily displayed himself next to Carmona during the botched coup.
Unless the ruling oligarchy’s hold on the economy is broken, the lot of the workers and poor cannot be improved. But Chavez deliberately avoids attacking them. That doesn’t mean he won’t face another coup attempt by certain officers of the army, with or without the help of the CIA. But Chavez will also face, at one point or another, the anger of the masses tired of waiting for a real change in their lives.
After Chavez returned to power, demonstrations and looting continued in many cities. How long will it be before the poor masses take to the streets again? How long will they patiently accept not seeing an improvement in their situation?
For the workers and poor, of course, the best way to change their situation is for them to take matters in their own hands. Then they’ll see who Chavez really is. In any event, the independent struggle of the workers and poor is the only path that can bring them a better future. And it is also the only real means to counter and discourage future coup attempts. In case a coup d’etat by the heads of the military and big bosses succeeds, the workers and poor will be the main victims of the repression which will follow.