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Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All

By Gregory Wilpert
April 15, 2002

It looks like Venezuela is not just another banana-oil republic after all. Many here feared that with the April 11 coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was being degraded to being just another country that is forced to bend to the powerful will of the United States. The successful counter-coup of April 14, though, which reinstated Chavez, proved that Venezuela is a tougher cookie than the coup planners thought.

The coup leaders against President Chavez made two fundamental miscalculations. First, they started having delusions of grandeur, believing that the support for their coup was so complete that they could simply ignore the other members of their coup coalition and place only their own in the new government. The labor union federation CTV, which saw itself as one of the main actors of the opposition movement to President Chavez, and nearly all moderate opposition parties were excluded from the new "democratic unity" cabinet. The new transition cabinet ended up including only the most conservative elements of Venezuelan society. They then proceeded to dissolve the legislature, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office, the national electoral commission, and the state governorships, among others. Next, they decreed that the 1999 constitution, which had been written by a constitutional assembly and ratified by vote, following the procedures outlined in the pervious constitution, was to be suspended. Also an intensive witch-hunt began, looking to arrest any members of the Chavez government. The new transition president would thus rule by decree until next year, when new elections would be called. Generally, this type of regime fits the textbook definition of dictatorship.

This first miscalculation led to several generals' protest against the new regime, perhaps under pressure from the excluded sectors of the opposition, or perhaps out of a genuine sense of remorse, and resulted in their call for changes to the sweeping "democratic transition" decree, lest they withdraw their support from the new government. Transition President Pedro Carmona, the chair of Venezuela's largest chamber of commerce, immediately agreed to reinstate the Assembly and to the rest of the generals' demands.

The second miscalculation was the belief that Chavez was hopelessly unpopular in the population and among the military and that no one except Cuba and Colombia's guerilla, the FARC, would regret Chavez' departure. Following the initial shock and demoralization which the coup caused among Chavez-supporters, this second miscalculation led to major upheavals and riots in Caracas' sprawling slums, which make up nearly half of the city. In practically all of the "barrios" of Caracas spontaneous demonstrations and "cacerolazos" (pot-banging) broke out on April 13 and 14. The police immediately rushed-in to suppress these expressions of discontent and somewhere between 10 and 40 people were killed in these clashes with the police. Then, in the early afternoon, purely by word-of-mouth and the use of cell phones (Venezuela has one of the highest per capita rates of cell phone use in the world), a demonstration in support of Chavez was called at the Miraflores presidential palace. By 6 PM about 100,000 people had gathered in the streets surrounding the presidential palace. At approximately the same time, the paratrooper battalion, to which Chavez used to belong, decided to remain loyal to Chavez and took over the presidential palace. Next, as the awareness of the extent of Chavez' support spread, major battalions in the interior of Venezuela began siding with Chavez.

Eventually the support for the transition regime evaporated among the military, so that transition president Carmona resigned in the name of preventing bloodshed. As the boldness of Chavez-supporters grew, they began taking over several television stations, which had not reported a single word about the uprisings and the demonstrations. Finally, late at night, around midnight of April 14, it was announced that Chavez was set free and that he would take over as president again. The crowds outside of Miraflores were ecstatic. No one believed that the coup could or would be reversed so rapidly. When Chavez appeared on national TV around 4 AM, he too joked that he knew he would be back, but he never imagined it would happen so fast. He did not even have time to rest and write some poetry, as he had hoped to do.

So how could this be? How could such an impeccably planned and smoothly executed coup fall apart in almost exactly 48 hours? Aside from the two miscalculations mentioned above, it appears that the military's hearts were not fully into the coup project. Once it became obvious that the coup was being hijacked by the extreme right and that Chavez enjoyed much more support than was imagined, large parts of the military decided to reject the coup, which then had a snowball-effect of changing military allegiances. Also, by announcing that one of the main reasons for the coup was to avoid bloodshed and by stating that the Venezuelan military would never turn its weapons against its own people, Chavez supporters became more courageous to go out and to protest against the coup without fear of reprisals.

Very important, though, was that the coup planners seem to have believed their own propaganda: that Chavez was an extremely unpopular leader. What they seem to have forgotten is that Chavez was not a fluke, a phenomenon that appeared in Venezuela as a result of political chaos, as some analysts seem to believe. Rather, Chavez' movement has its roots in a long history of Venezuelan community and leftist organizing. Also, it seems quite likely that although many people were unhappy with Chavez' lack of rapid progress in implementing the reforms he promised, he was still the most popular politician in the country. The media and the opposition movement tried to create the impression that Chavez was completely isolated and that no one supported him any longer. They did this by organizing massive demonstrations, with the extensive help of the television stations, which regularly broadcast reports of the anti-Chavez protests, but consistently ignored the pro-Chavez protests, which, by all fair accounts, tended to be just as large. The television channels claimed that they did not cover pro-Chavez demonstrations because protestors threatened their lives. While this seems unlikely since the demonstrators usually unequivocally want their demonstrations covered by the media, they could have gotten protection, if they had cared to.

The Media

Nearly the entire media is owned and operated by Venezuela's oligarchy. There is only one neutral newspaper, which is not an explicitly anti-Chavez newspaper and one state-run television station. During the coup, the state-run station was taken off the air completely and all of the other media kept repeating the coup organizer's lies without question. These lies included the claim that Chavez had resigned and had dismissed his cabinet, that all of the demonstration's dead were "martyrs of civil society" (i.e., of the opposition, since the media does not consider Chavez supporters as part of civil society), and that Chavez had ordered his supporters to shoot into the unarmed crowd of anti-Chavez demonstrators.

The media never addressed the repeated doubts that members of Chavez' cabinet raised about his resignation. Also, the media did not release the names of those who were shot, probably because this would have shown that most of the dead were pro-Chavez demonstrators. Finally, the media edited the video footage of the shootings in such a way as to avoid showing where the Chavez supporters were shooting-namely, as eyewitnesses reported, at police and individuals who were shooting back while hidden in doorways. Also, they did not show the pro-Chavez crowd repeatedly pointing at the snipers who were firing at them from the rooftop of a nearby building.

These media distortions in the aftermath of the coup drove home the point just how powerful the media is at creating an alternate reality. Those Chavez supporters who were at the demonstration and witnessed the events realized more than ever that power needs a medium and that those who control the media have much more power than they let on. This is why the television stations became a key target in the hours leading up to Chavez' reinstatement. The take-over of four of the eight stations was essential to Chavez' comeback because it showed the rest of the military and the rest of Venezuela that Chavez still had strong support among the population and that if the people really wanted to, they could fight for what was right and win.

Quo Vadis Chavez?

An aspect of the rise of Chavez to power that is often forgotten in Venezuela is that as far as Venezuelan presidents are concerned, Chavez has actually been among the least dictatorial. True, Chavez is a deeply flawed president with many shortcomings, among which one of the most important is his autocratic style. However, earlier presidencies, such as that of Carlos Andres Perez (1989-1993), the killing of demonstrators were nearly a monthly occurrence. Also, the outright censorship of newspapers was quite common during the Perez presidency. None of this has happened during the Chavez presidency.

President Hugo Chavez is an individual who raises the passions of people, pro or con, unlike anyone else. It almost seems that Venezuelans either love him or hate him. A more balanced picture of the president, however, would show, first, that he is someone who deeply believes in working for social justice, for improving democracy, and believes in international solidarity. Also, he is a gifted and charismatic speaker, which makes him a natural choice as a leader.

However, one has to recognize that he has some very serious shortcomings. Among the most important is that while he truly believes in participatory democracy, as is evidenced in his efforts to democratize the Venezuelan constitution, his instincts are that of an autocrat. This has led to a serious neglect of his natural base, which is the progressive and grassroots civil society. Instead, he has tried to control this civil society by organizing "Bolivarian Circles" which are neighborhood groups that are to help organize communities and at the same time to defend the revolution. The opposition easily stigmatized these circles, however, as being nothing other than a kind of SS for Chavez' political party. Another crucial flaw has been his relatively poor personnel choices. Many of the ministries and agencies suffer from mismanagement.

Finally and perhaps the most often mentioned flaw, is his tendency for inflammatory rhetoric. Accusations that Chavez divided Venezuelan society with his constant talk about the rich and the poor are ridiculous, since Venezuelan society was divided along these lines long before Chavez came to power. However, by trying to belittle his opponents by calling them names, such as "escualidos" (squalids), he made it virtually impossible for real dialogue to take place between himself and his opponents.

The crucial question that Chavez-supporters and opponents alike are now asking is whether Chavez has grown through the experience of this coup. In his initial statement after being freed from his military captors, was, "I too have to reflect on many things. And I have done that in these hours. … I am here and I am prepared to rectify, wherever I have to rectify." Right now, however, it is too early to see if he really is going to change his ways, so that he becomes more productive in achieving the goals he has set for Venezuela.

While Chavez' many progressive achievements should not be forgotten, neither should his failures be overlooked, most of which have important lessons for progressives everywhere. The first lesson is to keep the eyes on the prize. Chavez has become so bogged-down with small day-to-day conflicts that many people are no longer sure if he remembers his original platform, which was to abolish corruption and to make Venezuelan society more egalitarian. While greater social equality is extremely difficult to achieve in a capitalist society, it is fair to say that Chavez' plans have not had enough time to bear fruit. He has a six-year social and economic development plan for 2001-2007, of which only a small fraction has so far been implemented. However, on the corruption front, he has fallen seriously behind.

The second lesson is that the neglect of one's social base, which provides the cultural underpinnings for desired changes, will provide an opening for opponents to redefine the situation and to make policy implementation nearly impossible. By not involving his natural base, the progressive and grassroots civil society, Chavez allowed the conservative civil society, the conservative unions, the business sector, the church, and the media to determine the discourse as to what the "Bolivarian revolution" was really all about.

The third lesson is that a good program alone is not good enough if one does not have the skillful means for implementing it. Chavez has some terrific plans, but through his incendiary rhetoric he manages to draw all attention away from his actual proposals and focuses attention on how he presents them or how he cuts his critics down to size.

Finally, while it is tempting to streamline policy-implementation by working only with individuals who will not criticize the program, creates a dangerous ideological monoculture, which will not be able to resist the diverse challenges even the best plans eventually have to face. Chavez has consistently dismissed from his inner circle those who criticized him, making his leadership base, which used to be quite broad, smaller and smaller. Such a narrow leadership base made it much easier for the opposition to challenge Chavez and to mount the coup.

Whether Chavez and his opposition have learned these lessons remains to be seen. Venezuelan society is still deeply divided. One has to recognize that, at heart, this conflict is also a class conflict. While there certainly are many Chavez opponents who come from the lower classes and numerous supporters from the upper classes, the division between Chavez supporters who come from the lower dark-skinned classes and the opponents who come from the higher light-skinned classes cannot be denied. What Venezuela needs, if social peace is to be preserved, is a class compromise, where social peace is maintained at the expense of a more just distribution of Venezuela's immense wealth. However, today's globalized world makes such a compromise increasingly difficult to achieve because free market competition militates against local solutions to this increasingly global problem. But perhaps Venezuela is a special case because of its oil wealth, which might allow it to be an exception. Such an exception, though, will only be possible if power plays, such as the recent coup attempt, come to an end.

Gregory Wilpert lives in Caracas, is a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, and is currently doing independent research on the sociology of development.

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