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Venezuela & Chávez

The Coup That Failed

By Calvin Tucker
April 22, 2002

"We have agreed on an indefinite general strike," said Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's corrupt CTV trade union federation, on Wednesday 10th April. The strike, which had originally been called for just two days, was organised jointly with the country's business federation to demand the reinstatement of the pro-US management of Venezuela's state-owned oil company. The CTV maintains a black list of "disloyal" and "disruptive" members, which it supplies to employers.

Mr Ortega called on the military to compel President Chavez to cede to the "workers' demands."

That day all Venezuelan TV stations, except the state-owned channel, were broadcasting at ten minutes intervals a prepared attack on left wing President Chavez, and urging people to join an anti-government march the following day.

On Thursday 11th, around 100,000 mainly middle class people began demonstrating peacefully in Caracas. But without warning the march diverted from its publicly announced route and turned towards the Presidential Palace in Miraflores, which was being guarded by thousands of Chavez supporters from the shanty towns.

Stage management

What happened next appears to have been a carefully staged pretext to justify the coup. According to several eyewitnesses, including a team of documentary film makers from Ireland, snipers, positioned on rooftops, opened fire on Chavez supporters and also possibly on opposition protesters. As gunfights broke out between the rival groups of demonstrators and the police, General Efrain Vasquez appeared on TV and announced that the military had taken over to restore law and order. Junta leaders justified their actions by saying that Chavez supporters had "deliberately fired on an unarmed crowd." In a bid to provide the junta with legitimacy and demoralise its opponents, the coup leaders also falsely claimed that Chavez had "resigned" and was "begging for asylum in Cuba."

Whilst the world's media were dutifully presenting these lies as established fact, the military moved quickly to shore up the junta. At 4 o'clock on Friday morning, Pedro Carmona, head of the country's business federation, was installed as the new president. He immediately suspended scheduled elections, tossed out laws regulating big business and promised "a pluralistic vision, democratic, civil and ensuring the implementation of the law." Following that declaration of devotion to democracy and legality he dissolved both the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Chavez's daughter was appearing on Cuban television having spoken by telephone to her father. "It's lies, all lies" Chavez had told her. "Tell the people I haven't resigned, I'm an imprisoned president." The Cuban government was also furiously denouncing as a "complete fabrication" the claim that Chavez had asked them for asylum.

As Chavez was spirited off to the remote army base on Orchila Island, the poor of Venezuela were taking to the streets. In Caracas the coup leaders were fast losing control, as the people from the vast shanty towns on the mountains surrounding the capital descended in their hundreds of thousands, defying police bullets and tear gas. "We want to see Chavez," they demanded. "The Venezuelan people don't buy it that he has resigned." Chavez supporters also marched on the army fort where Chavez was earlier held, confronting soldiers and tanks, and were fired on with rubber bullets. While dozens of pro-Chavez demonstrators were being killed by the police and army, the TV blocked out news of the protests and instead the viewers were treated to repeats of Brazilian soap operas.

Back at the Palace, Carmona's position was worsening by the hour. The middle and lower ranks of the army were refusing to carry out orders and were denouncing the junta as unconstitutional. The troops and commanders at the military bases around Venezuela - particularly in Maracay, which houses the country's F-16s and is the largest military base were in open rebellion. Carmona's civilian allies, which included the corrupt leaders of the CTV unions (whom he had excluded from his administration), began to desert him in droves.

With the help of the Presidential Guard of Honour, Chavez supporters took over state TV and went on air to insist that Chavez was still president, applauding the "insurrection in the streets" that called for his return. In an act of solidarity, Cuban TV cancelled its scheduled programmes - including the soap operas - and transmitted the liberated station live through its airwaves. The counter-counter-revolution would at last be televised; in Havana as well as Caracas.

Coup de grace

By Saturday evening Carmona realised the game was up and announced his resignation. His illegitimate presidency had lasted barely 36 hours.

As the massive crowd surged towards the presidential palace at nightfall, there was no tear gas, and soldiers on a nearby roof urged the demonstrators on by pumping their fists and waving Venezuelan flags and their red berets, a symbol of Chavez's rule. Shortly afterwards, troops loyal to Chavez helped the people retake the Palace and Vice President Diosdado Cabello was temporarily sworn into office until the President's return.

Thousands of jubilant supporters sang the national anthem and set off fireworks as Hugo Chavez returned to the Palace in a military helicopter at 4.35 on Sunday morning.

"Today we are celebrating a new democracy," said one man who grabbed a microphone to greet Mr Chavez. An unemployed man, wearing a tattered shirt, told a BBC reporter: "The people want him back. He works for the poor."

Calvin Tucker writes on British and international issues for the British magazine "Straight Left" and is a frequent contributor to Internet discussion forums on Jamaica and Cuba.  In November and December 2001 Tucker correctly predicted a coup attempt after becoming  convinced that the United States of America was preparing for a coup against Venezuela's legitimate and democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez Frias

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