May 12, 2002

The triumph of Chavez

Print edition : February 06, 2015

IT was for the first time in contemporary Latin American history that a right-wing military coup with the tacit support of Washington was comprehensively defeated, and that too within 28 hours of the attempt. But then Hugo Chavez is no ordinary Latin American leader and Venezuela is not the Chile of the 1970s. Chavez, the President of Venezuela for the past three years, is truly a man of the people—as the dramatic events in April have shown to the world.

As soon as the Bush administration assumed office, it made the ouster of Chavez a priority. Three years ago, after taking over as President, the charismatic Chavez had set out to change the course of Venezuela’s history. The country was dominated and exploited by a corrupt elite, which had squandered the country’s phenomenal riches. In a series of elections and referendums, the two elite parties that had monopolised political power were made irrelevant and a more democratic and egalitarian Constitution was put in place.

Chavez did not confine himself to domestic politics. He felt that Venezuela, as the world’s fourth leading oil producer, had a special responsibility to the global community. He wanted the revenue generated by oil, which accounts for most of the country’s earnings, to percolate down to the majority of Venezuelans. After Venezuela took over as the chairman of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Chavez angered Washington by making an official trip to Iraq and meeting President Saddam Hussein. He was in Baghdad to talk about the OPEC strategy for the future but in the process became the first head of state to break the travel embargo on Iraq unilaterally imposed by Washington. Chavez was quoted as saying after taking a walk on the banks of the Tigris with Saddam Hussein: “Saddam is not the devil, nor is Iraq hell.” Many other world leaders, especially from the Arab world, soon followed suit soon.

Before Chavez assumed office, Venezuela had gained notoriety among OPEC members for habitually exceeding the OPEC production quotas and breaking ranks. This suited Washington as it kept oil prices down.

Chavez had other ambitious plans for his country, with land reforms on top of the list. The big landlords responded by organising vigilante gangs to victimise poor peasants. In November, Chavez issued a presidential decree to speed up land reforms in the face of increasing opposition from vested interests. Landlords and their agents had killed more than 50 peasants and supporters of land reforms in the last three years. Many of the landlords were illegal squatters who grabbed swamp land reclaimed by the government in the 1960s for redistribution among the poor peasantry. Forty-six per cent of the best farmland is owned by 1 per cent of the population. One of the dreams of Chavez is to induce urban slum dwellers to go back to the land and turn Venezuela into a prosperous agrarian country.

In a desperate attempt to derail reforms, the discredited elite started their manoeuvres in late 2001 to oust Chavez. The fall in oil prices and the ripple effect of the Argentinean crisis had begun to impact adversely on the Venezuelan economy. The opposition, which was in disarray, was more or less revived, mainly by cobbling together an opportunistic alliance. Leaders of discredited parties, media barons, a few right-wing military officers and trade union leaders who represent sections of blue-collar workers teamed up with the support of Washington.

By January almost every day there were pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrations on the streets of the capital Caracas, blocking traffic and often clashing with each other. Individual officers belonging to the armed forces demanded the dismissal of Chavez. The situation had become serious enough for Chavez to cancel a planned visit to India at the end of January. He was scheduled to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade.

The rich oligarchs opposed to Chavez controlled the leading newspapers and the popular television stations, which they used day in and day out to vilify Chavez and his government. Chavez, however, went full steam ahead with his reforms, including the implementation of the plans to reform the oil sector under the control of the company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Before Chavez assumed office, the PDVSA had a reputation of being a state within a state, answerable to none. It was run as a Western corporation with a highly paid managerial staff, who put profit before everything else.

The top management of the PDVSA was also not used to taking orders from the government. The managers were particularly unhappy when Chavez ordered strict adherence to the OPEC production quota. This move by Venezuela played an important role in stabilising world oil prices in the last couple of years. In November 2001, the Venezuelan government passed a law raising the royalty taxes on new petroleum ventures for foreign companies from 16 per cent to 30 per cent and restricted foreign participation in upstream oil ventures to 49 per cent. These moves angered the big foreign oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell and Mitsubishi.

The machinations to overthrow Chavez gained momentum after the President tried to revamp the PDVSA management. A section of the managerial staff went on strike in early April. They were eagerly joined by the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV) and Fedecamaras, the main association of the country’s businessmen. Although Chavez had succeeded in getting rid of many of the corrupt leaders in the trade union movement who were aligned with the old parties, he failed to put people who shared his ideology in leadership positions. A general strike was called on April 9, which was opposed by supporters of the government. In recent months, Caracas has seen a kind of polarisation, with the rich and a significant section of the middle class aligning themselves with the anti-Chavez forces and the poor remaining overwhelmingly with Chavez. Sections of the Army leadership encouraged a rebellion against the President. The top Army commander, who went on to lead the failed coup attempt, met the strike leaders. Owing to the strike by PDVSA workers, oil production came to a halt, adding to the economic crisis.

Encouraged and financed by the elite, and with the support of the U.S. State Department, the organisers of the opposition issued a call for an indefinite strike. Chavez had angered the Bush administration when he criticised President George Bush’s “you are with us or against us” statement after September 11. Chavez had also said that he was against the killing of innocent civilians in Afghanistan in the United States’ so-called war on terror.

The fact that Chavez is an unabashed admirer of Cuban President Fidel Castro and that Venezuela under him supplies oil at a concessional rate to Cuba has not gone unnoticed in Washington. Recently, Venezuela agreed to supply half of Cuba’s annual oil import needs. The PDVSA announced during the short time Chavez was out of power that Venezuela would immediately stop selling oil to Cuba.

The Western media predicted in early April that the days of Chavez were numbered. The right wing in the Army had indicated to the strikers that all what was needed was a “provocation” to launch a coup. The violence on the streets of Caracas in the second week of April, in which around a dozen people were killed, was the pretext. The section of the Army leadership aligned with the oligarchs surrounded the Presidential Palace with tanks in the dead of night. The cabal of Generals then proceeded to arrest Chavez and install Pedro Carmona, the leader of the business confederation, as President.

The putschists then put out lies about Chavez, saying that he had resigned voluntarily in the face of massive street protests and all that he had requested was safe passage to Cuba. These fabrications were faithfully put out by the Western media, which even refused to describe the sordid episode as a military coup. Washington wanted the world to believe that Chavez was removed as a result of massive street protests. The Bush administration declared that Chavez was responsible for his own ouster, which was a result of his attempts to repress the street protests. The spokesman for the U.S. President had in fact gone out of his way to praise the Venezuelan military immediately after the coup. Bush administration officials patted themselves on the back, reminding the media about the long history of close cooperation between the U.S. and the Venezuelan military.

Most Latin American countries viewed the developments in Venezuela with alarm. They made it clear that they would not recognise the overthrow of a legally elected civilian government.

What precipitated the sudden collapse of the coup was the resistance put up by the supporters of Chavez all over the country. Influential sections of the military also revolted against the coup plotters in areas outside Caracas. Within 24 hours, many of the supporters of the coup themselves turned against the Army, when the newly appointed President announced the dissolution of the legislature and the reconstitution of the judiciary. The million-member-strong Workers Confederation was the first to withdraw support.

The Army leadership, which had imprisoned Chavez in an island off the mainland, had no option but to free him and let him re-assume the presidency, within less than 28 hours of the coup. In a speech to soldiers immediately after his return to the Presidential Palace, Chavez said that a “handful of oligarchs” who tried to overthrow him had learnt a lesson. Cuba hailed the return of Chavez as a “revolutionary victory” over a “fascist and reactionary counterrevolutionary coup”.

It will be a long time before Latin Americans forget the 28 hours that shook Venezuelan politics. Many of the roadblocks that have impeded Chavez’s path to reform have now vanished. The PDVSA has resumed the pumping of oil and its top management is back at work. It will now be even more difficult for Washington to destabilise the presidency of Chavez, though it will no doubt keep on trying.

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