On 11th April 2002, something extraordinary happened in the Miraflores Palace, seat of political power in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Following a sudden military mobilisation the democratically elected president of Venezuela was deposed and taken to an island base where he was placed under armed guard. Meanwhile, in the palace itself, a group of immaculately attired, middle aged businessmen drank champagne, clinked glasses, and back-slapped one another in what can only be described as hideous triumph.
But in retrospect, perhaps we shouldn’t blame them for celebrating. The 2002 coup d’état against Hugo Chavez was not the spontaneous product of mass disaffection - the result of a sharp and violent change in the overall political weather; rather it represented a master-work of meticulous planning and audacious execution. It was, as we now know, the culmination of months of sober calculation conducted at the very highest level of the Venezuelan elite.
To provide the spark which would ignite events, the opposition recorded Chavez supporters positioned from a bridge firing in response to gunshots from opposition militia. The images of Chavistas shooting were then juxtaposed with entirely different and unrelated footage, footage which showed civilians injured and bleeding, thereby bolstering the narrative the anti-Chavista campaign had for years attempted to cultivate – the image of the Venezuelan president as a blood thirsty ‘caudillo’ ready at any moment to turn his guns on the population.
The illegitimacy of the doctored footage did not worry the mainstream Venezuelan press in the least. The broadcasting company Venevision, headed by Gustavo Cisneros (a media mogul very much in the Rupert Murdoch vein), had no qualms about running the incendiary images on a loop in the hours and days which followed the coup. They also promulgated the rather vulgar falsehood that Chavez had resigned of his own free will. In the period leading up to the coup, the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce shut down businesses everywhere, provoking an economic chaos which would further set the stage for insurrection.
All of this is instructive in as much as it describes a precise triangulation of interests between politics, big business and the media; a mutual solidarity from which the coup leaders themselves would draw their mettle. Indeed, in an act of pure chutzpah, Pedro Carmona, the head of the coup, had the traditional decorative sash which he would wear at his presidential inauguration woven several months before at an exclusive tailors in Madrid - so confident was he in the illegal removal of the democratically elected head of state.
There was, however, one form of solidarity that the coup orchestrators had not counted on. While Carmona and his cohorts celebrated in the presidential suite of the Miraflores Palace, something else was happening outside. People were beginning to gather. Notable for their shabbier clothes, and darker skins, more and more arrived. They came from the poorest parts of Caracas, from the barrios and the hills, and they came without any obvious sense of hurry. Gradually, inevitably, their number began to swell; thousands became tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands.
From the Miraflores balcony the coup plotters must have beheld that vast human sea. What were they thinking in those moments? Did they hold any hopes that their coup, so meticulously planned, could be sustained? Or did they feel a sinking sense of dread before the mighty power they had awoken? Whatever the case, the military officers swiftly intuited the perilous nature of the situation. They radioed in the order to stand down, the plotters fled, and Hugo Chavez was returned to the palace amid jubilant celebrations.
The 2002 coup is important today not least because it provides one of those pivotal historical moments where a mask is seen to slip. A small elite which - up until then tried to present themselves as guardians of a precarious democracy threatened by the shadow of a Chavista driven totalitarianism - had demonstrated conclusively, and in the most sinister manner possible, exactly where the true threat lay.
The haughty patricians who occupied the Miraflores Palace that fateful April afternoon at once used their illicit, newly seized power to dissolve the institutions of democracy, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. The ground was quite clearly being prepared for the type of dictatorship which General Pinochet had so murderously actualised in Chile almost thirty years before.
The current leader of the opposition, Henrique Capriles Radonski, was complicit in the coup attempt of 2002. In her book - The Chavez Code, Eva Golinger describes an assault on the Cuban embassy in Baruta during the coup and how ‘Mayor Capriles Radonski, in charge of the municipal police, made no effort to stop the assault and in fact encouraged it by arriving at the scene and interacting with the aggressors’. Of course, this was little referenced as Radonski mounted his ultimately unsuccessful campaign for the Venezuelan presidency.
For, as a ‘democratic candidate’ Radonski presented an altogether different face; he advertised himself as someone who fights for the rights of the oppressed, and even went as far as to cite the leftist ex-President of Brazil Lula Da Silva as an inspiration. Nevertheless the token nod to radicalism was somewhat belied by Radonski’s past struggles against social healthcare programmes and a labour law which reduced working hours; he attacked the latter on the flimsy and dubious grounds that it - ‘does nothing to deal with unemployment or to benefit those with unprotected casual jobs’. A leaked document revealed how the plan to follow the Brazilian model was merely a chimera; in fact the presidential hopeful had every intention of reverting to the neo-liberal format Venezuela’s poor had so learned to despise.
Chavez, on the other hand, does have a genuinely solid record of fighting to improve the conditions of the poor majority. The UN Economic Commission on Latin America registers a 21% reduction in poverty rates between 1999-2010, while according to this study by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, in approximately the same period ‘the percentage of households in poverty has been reduced by 39 per cent, from 42.8 per cent to 26 per cent’. Perhaps the most important lesson of the 2002 coup is just how much the legacy of Chavez is bound up with the popular movement which rescued him and returned him to power.
None of this is to say that there aren’t serious problems with the current Venezuelan administration. There are plausible reports of large scale corruption within the ranks of the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) at the district level. It’s well known that street crime is terrifyingly high, especially in Caracas. In addition the personal support Chavez has rather promiscuously bestowed on genuine dictators like the late Colonel Gadhafi and Iran’s Ahmadinejad tends to leave a certain, bilious aftertaste.
But these factors should not be allowed to obscure the root difference between Chavez and his political opposition which represents, ultimately, the opposition between a popular mass movement and a cold-blooded elite. Radonski may now wear the mask of a centre liberal democrat, but we should never lose sight of the sinister physiognomy which lies beneath.
In the event Chavez polled 54% of the vote while Radonski managed close to 45% with 90% of the votes counted. The electoral win of Hugo Chavez is a victory for democracy more broadly.
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