On April 11, 2002, the elected President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown in a military coup. The coup started with a business-called general strike and a media campaign against Chavez. Demonstrators marched on the presidential palace and, according to several eyewitness accounts, exchanged gunfire with Chavez supporters and some—probably mostly Chavez supporters—were killed. Members of the military claimed that Chavez ordered the military to open fire on an unarmed demonstration and used this as a pretext to order his arrest. The coup leaders circulated the rumor that Chavez had resigned, when he in fact had not, and he was subsequently imprisoned.
The United States immediately denied that there had been a coup, while simultaneously denying that they had anything to do with it. The replacement president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court, promising new elections in a year.
The governments of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, and Cuba refused to recognize the Carmona government. Pro-Chavez demonstrations erupted. The demonstrators occupied a major television station, surrounded the presidential palace, and parts of the military who were still loyal to Chavez began to mobilize. Many demonstrators were killed in clashes with police. By Sunday, April 14, 2002, Chavez was back in power. He gave a speech Sunday afternoon in which he said there would be no “witch hunt” against the opposition and that those who plotted the coup would be punished, but in accordance with the law.
Condoleeza Rice of the Bush administration stated that she hoped Chavez had learned his lesson and that he would “respect constitutional processes” and take the opportunity to “right his ship.” Given that he was constitutionally elected and that the U.S. had supported (and likely helped to bring about) the 24-hour dictatorship, this was a remarkable display of hypocrisy, even by State Department standards.
Chavez’s program, the “Boli- varian Revolution,” calls for using the country’s resources for the benefit of the people of the country. Chavez helped revive OPEC, resulting in a rise in the price of oil. His foreign policy included close relations with Cuba and diplomatic relations with U.S. enemies such as Iraq and Libya. He initiated land reform programs, reformed the tax system, and increased spending to health and education. These are the kinds of policies the U.S. consistently opposes and punishes violently.
The day after the coup Z Magazine received an email from some workers in the Chavez government, asking if we could interview them. They had serious security concerns, but by the time we finally connected with them, their government was back in power and they could give us their names. Temir Porras Ponceleon and Maximilien Arvelaiz were hired just weeks before the coup to work as Chavez’s press relations advisors. Temir Porras provided an eyewitness account of the coup and the counter-coup, and some background on the “Boli- varian Revolution.”
JUSTIN PODUR: Who carried out the coup and how much support do anti-Chavez forces have in the population?
TEMIR PORRAS: The opposition to Chavez is an alliance of the most reactionary groups in society. They’re opposed to social, political, and economic changes. The opposition has a base in the upper and the upper-middle class.
There are a few things you have to understand, though, about the changes that we are talking about and the level of opposition that we are talking about. Let’s take just basic levels of taxes and government services. If you look at Europe, where neoliberal governments are in power, where they have slashed taxes and public spending, then most neoliberal countries in Europe are like the USSR compared to Venezuela in terms of taxation and social spending. The changes Chavez is proposing don’t put Venezuela at even half the taxation levels of the United States.
So these are very mild changes and they have met totally systematic refusal by the opposition. The refusal is, of course, because they stand to lose, but there’s also a cultural component. That is to say, Chavez is black, he is indigenous, he speaks to the people. That is also something elites can’t stand.
Why did the coup fail?
In part, because of the army. The army is mostly of the people. It’s poor people. It’s not an army made up of aristocrats. There are very few people in the army who come from a wealthy background—60 percent of the country is poor and that’s reflected in the army. As a result, the dictatorship couldn’t win. Besides that, the tactical mistakes they made, their program was so blatant that they couldn’t get international recognition.
What were these tactical mistakes?
The Carmona government was so stupid and brutal, that they alienated the army almost immediately. Carmona’s government dissolved the National Assembly. They dissolved the Supreme Court. They dissolved the Constitution and promised to reinstate it in a year with fresh elections. They detained many government ministers without charges, using municipal police. They suppressed the demonstrators brutally.
They immediately started persecuting anyone with “Bolivarian” leanings. They started a campaign to criminalize Bolivarians and also they would do things like take literature from the Chavez government and show it as evidence of criminal intent. All this in the first 24 hours. One mayor, Leopoldo Lopez, called Chavez a criminal on television.
They did it all in front of cameras, so that everyone could watch on television. It became so obvious that they were going to be a disaster, so quickly, that they couldn’t rule.
Do you think that your movement is in a better or worse position to carry out your reforms?
I think we’re in a better position. We are on the high ground, morally, now. The opposition has revealed itself and is thoroughly discredited and isolated now. The U.S. cannot say that Chavez is a dictator. As badly as they want him to be, he is not a dictator.
I’m pretty sure this is historically unprecedented. Can you remember one case of a dictatorship overthrowing a democratically elected leader and then having to return him to power, triumphant, within 24 hours?
Did your movement make any errors, errors that made you more vulnerable to the coup, that made your reforms more vulnerable?
We were vulnerable to the coup for many reasons. One is that we were overconfident about the incompetence and isolation of the opposition. Another is that we were overconfident about the unity of the army behind us. We just didn’t think Chavez could be in such trouble so quickly.
I hope that in the future Chavez will avoid useless conflicts, like that with the petrol company, PDV. We alienated ourselves from people who might have supported us, with that kind of politics. The thing to do now is to continue with the reforms and affirm their democratic character, keep them solidly on course, and avoid useless conflicts.
There are other weaknesses, and strengths, in the movement. One obvious weakness is how much of it is centered around the charismatic figure of Chavez. I hope that we can admit that. Another thing I hope we can admit is that this whole Bolivarian movement is fairly new and has a unique history. It doesn’t have a long history of opposition the way the Worker’s Party (PT) in Brazil has, for example. In a sense, the Bolivarians won before going through that whole processs of struggle and popular organization. We are now organizing from a position of power. I hope we don’t neglect organization as a result.
Still another difference between the Bolivarian movement and Brazil’s PT is—and I’m not a “vanguardist”—but our movement is new and as a result we have a deficit of skills and expertise. We lack people who share our ideals and also have the kinds of administrative skills we need. To remedy this is a whole process of education, formation, and building a movement. It’s the kind of thing the PT did in their long years in opposition.
Were there any weaknesses internationally that can be remedied to help prevent this from occurring?
Yes. On the one hand, there were these internal weaknesses in our movement. On the other hand, we had a lack of international protection. There are reasons for this, but the result is—well, let me give you an example. Let’s take the Worker’s Party in Brazil again The PT is in power in Porto Alegre. The mayor of Porto Alegre makes changes in the city’s budget—good changes—and the social movements of the world applaud. I don’t think we see that level of applause for the changes made in this entire country—the fourth-largest oil producer in the world.
It’s an unusual situation. Chavez is one of the most emblematic leaders of the Third World today. He is the model of resistance to neoliberalism. He is, in many ways, one of the most important figures of the anti-globalization movement. But I think that two months ago, he didn’t know it. His politics, without him having having advisers from ATTAC [a strong part of the anti-globalization movement in Europe], consists of ATTAC’s suggested policies and alternatives to neoliberalism. Yet he didn’t know ATTAC until recently and ATTAC didn’t pay much attention to him either.
In part, this is because of the nature of the Bolivarian movement. It is a real people’s movement. That means it’s not so Internet savvy. Most of its members don’t get online. Many of its members don’t know people like Galeano. It’s not a perfect, ideologically sophisticated movement in that sense.
It is an authentic movement of people who are learning as they go, as they make changes. It’s as emotional as it is intellectual and this is a strength and a weakness. It’s not people doing things because a book tells them to do it.
In a way Chavez is like that too. Eclectic, curious, always changing and learning as he goes. He’s almost an instinctive revolutionary. Z
Justin Podur is a graduate student in environmental science at the University of Toronto and a commentator for Z Magazine and ZNet. See Venezuela Watch at www.zmag.org/venezuela_ watch.htm.