Venezuela Withstands US Supported Coup D'Etat
For those who watch CNN or Fox News, the most important stories on Saturday April 13, other than sports of course, were the 90 anniversary of the Titanic, along with an auction of Jerry Garcia's guitar and Colin Powell's trip to Israel, perhaps you caught Al Gore's speech on C-Span2. Worthy stories all, but nothing was broadcast live from one of the most dramatic stories of the year - the coup and counter-coup in Venezuela.
For those unfamiliar with the place, a quick recap. Venezuela is a country approximately the size of Texas, whose economy relies on being an oil exporter. A member of OPEC and trade partner of the US, it has been burdened for decades by the problems that many resource economies have. Oil is the only real source of foreign currency, and it is a vast river of corruption which is controlled by a few families. The lower classes are trapped in crushing rent-poverty, the cities plagued by very high crime, and it has a political class which has traditionally allied with whoever offered the most effective way to pillage the people and extract bribes.
In 1998, former paratrooper - and attempted coup leader - Hugo Chavez was swept to power with a constitutional mandate in the Assembly to change society. His methods were a brusque implementation of a socialist agenda, including gaining a grant of sweeping powers from the National Assembly, flirting with Cuba and Iraq as potential allies, and arranging a reduction in oil production that OPEC has followed over the last two years - producing just enough oil, but not too much. His plan was to tax oil revenues and spend the money on reviving the rest of the economy, developing the rest of the society, and breaking up the huge estates, left over from Spanish colonialism two centuries ago.
Chavez implemented a new constitution, renamed the country the "Bolivaran Republic of Venezuela" after liberator Simon Bolivar, and used near-decree rule to put forward his economic plan. His failures proliferated - he was unable to root out corruption in his own party, he was unable to stop the crime, he was unable to push through key reforms. Even though he was given a mandate under the new constitution, his popularity plummeted. Part of his problem was entrenched resistance to change, which centered in the families holding the power in the media, and the oil unions whose members knew that they would no longer be the only well-paid workers in a cheap economy.
In the last few months, as oil prices drifted, and his attempt to tax the oil revenues stalled, the reactionary forces against him began executing a bold plan - constant media harassment, including outright lies and constant repetition of one-sided stories, combined with a strike by the oil unions which hobbled the economy.
On April 10th, the reactionaries organized a "general" strike - which was honored only by those loyal to the oil companies, and a massive demonstration in Caracas. Chavez' number seemed to be up; while his opponents offered nothing, he still had little to rebut their charges with.
Then, the demonstration took a violent turn, the demonstrators marched on the presidential palace and began throwing rocks - they were met with tear gas and armed National Guard units loyal to Chavez, and Metropolitan police loyal to his political allies. During the escalating violence, gunmen from the revolutionary Bandera Roja fired from sniper positions at both Guardsmen and demonstrators - 13 were killed, including both demonstrators and Chavatistas. The media corporations - aligned with the coup - ran a tight loop only of the protesters being shot, and claimed that the National Guard had fired first.
A carefully orchestrated coup began, with a council of the country's top businessmen, backed by reactionary elements, most importantly Gen. Efrain Vasquez, who said that he was taking over as head of the armed forces. Right-wing economist Pedro Carmona, head of Fedecamera, the league of the countries largest corporations, declared himself the new president. Also involved in the coup were Army General Roman Fuemayor, who orchestrated the capture of President Chavez; Finance Minister (and General) Francisco Uson; and National Guard chief Luis Camacho Kairuz, who commanded the troops that fired at the demonstrators. Allegations have surfaced that it was Kairuz who was behind the Guard troops' murderous reaction - and no one other than the US Government has alleged that Chavez himself gave the order.
The new president was immediately recognized by the IMF and the United States, which issued a statement blaming Chavez almost before the dust settled. The junta attempted to roll back the democratic revolution - it renamed the country, dissolved the legislature, fired the Supreme Court, sent out orders to purge the military - and opened the PDVS, the petroleum monopoly, to selling drilling rights to foreign companies. The price of oil on world markets dropped.
Almost in unison, major media outlets in the English-speaking world condemned Chavez and praised the coup. George Bush's stated that now there would be "tranquility and democracy".
It seemed a fait accompli, but it is at this moment that Chavez' policies began paying dividends. First, his supporters in the slums of Caracas and elsewhere were told of a different version of events, and, with a literacy rate that has tripled in the last 6 years, they could read that story. Within two days, a march on the presidential palace was organized, and as also on the coup-supporting television stations. A civilian Metropolitan Police drove away the private security forces that the media companies had hired - El Universal admitted as much on the night of the 13th. The improved phone and communications infrastructure enabled word to spread throughout the country, and several military commanders refused to recognize the junta, saying that it violated the constitution.
The junta's plans began unraveling further when the Interior Minister - who they accused of being the man who gave the orders to shoot - escaped a lynch mob that they had organized. The National Assembly reconvened in the liberated presidential palace, swore in Chavez' vice-president as an interim president "until the president is returned", and sent the National Guard to detain Cremona and other junta members.
Cremona resigned when faced with the Constitutionalist forces - as El Universal named them in a derogatory gesture - and the rest of the coup plotters surrendered or melted away. Chavez was released early on the 14th. He immediately issued a strong statement, but with conciliatory overtones. He stated that he would make changes in his methods, and he also told his followers to take no reprisals - the coup plotters would be tried according to the law.
Chavez still has monumental challenges before him, and he will have to learn from past failures if he is to remain with a mandate - his popularity hovered around 35% for weeks before the attempted coup, and he does not have much time to show concrete progress. The events of the last few days illustrate the hard-core, anti-constitutional opposition that faces him. An opposition backed by the US, and perhaps more than just backed by the US. An opposition that has control of the media, and has not hesitated to use murder and kidnapping to attain its ends.
So there the situation stands - a successful countercoup in the face of an oil-media conspiracy to seize power, overturn the constitution and roll back social reforms, backed by the Bush family. A democratically elected government has been restored, albeit one chastened by its close brush with death.
However, for those who have read events closely, the current US Government's eagerness to back a coup, and its labeling of a corporate-military coup as "tranquility and democracy" (in George Bush's own words) should raise alarms. It is doubtful that Venezuela under Chavez will see the United States as the beacon of Democracy and the Rule of Law that some like to portray. It is also doubtful that he will be inclined to ease on his policy of forcing oil prices higher - especially given the huge debt he inherited from the previous corrupt Venezuelan governments. It is also unlikely that OPEC, having been stung by US non-intervention in Israel, threats made against some of its member governments, and having had one of its own the target of a pro-US corporate coup, will think kindly of US interests when they next meet.
(Sources for this report include the Financial Times of London, El Universal of Caracas, members of the Government of Venezuela who remained loyal to Chavez, and other sources in Caracas and the economic community)