Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was ousted on Friday by a group of conspirators lead by an oilman and a general. The international press hastened to bury Chavez with summaries of his ill-fated career. But after spending only two days in military limbo, Chavez returned triumphantly to his palace on Sunday, carried by huge popular support. The events were stunning.
Chavez was democratically elected in 1998 in a landslide that signaled the bankruptcy of the old political order. He is a hard and polarizing figure, but those who call him a demagogue are wrong. Chavez is a real populist. Under his eye, Venezuela ratified one of the most progressive constitutions ever written. Using the new political procedures, Chavez dismantled the power of the old elite. Then, not only did he push policies of land redistribution and free education and health services for the poor, but in order to pay for these policies he found the courage, or the temerity, to take on U.S. corporate oil interests. Nobody can accuse Chavez of not taking his pledges to the voters seriously.
But the tiny former ruling class has not accepted the loss of power. Using its ownership of the media and control of oil production, and with the help of the dubious trade union leaders, the old elite has been trying to bring Chavez down through chaos. Chavez’s own genius of alienating supporters and his divisive rhetoric helped his enemies recruit the small but significant middle class.
The recent fight was over the control of the national oil company. The oligarchs mobilized a huge strike and demonstration. Taking advantage of a fire exchange near the palace that left a number of people dead, the coup leaders accused Chavez of disregard for human rights and kidnapped him after he refused to resign. It is not clear who shot whom and on whose orders, but that did not stop the Associated Press from reporting without qualifications that Chavez ordered the army to shoot at demonstrators. In fact, the international press churned uncritically what was essentially the press releases of the coup.
It almost worked.
But "almost" is the distance between the palace and the jailhouse. Many people have a lot to learn from this stillborn coup d’etat.
Many forces combined to defend the constitutional order. The interim president installed instead of Chavez, Pedro Carmona, revealed the deep hatred that animates the oligarchy when, barely seated in his new office, he annulled practically everything Chavez did – the constitution, the National Assembly, the laws, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and Comptroller offices, etc. He then sent the police to arrest all the cabinet ministers and hunt Chavez supporters. This vengeful demolition job frightened and divided the top brass. And for good reasons.
A significant portion of the army, especially the field units, remained loyal to Chavez. These soldiers closed ranks with the civilian population, not with their generals. On the other end of society, parliamentarians and ministers refused to accept Chavez’s alleged resignation, demanding adherence to the constitution, which requires the National Assembly to ratify the resignation. No less important was the refusal of many Latin American governments to recognize the new government. The Organization of American States (OAS) was apparently considering sanctions. But the counter coup would not have materialized without the popular mobilization throughout Venezuela, and especially the people of Caracas, who took to the streets, surrounded the presidential palace, and, joined by the soldiers, demanded Chavez back.
The first message of the coup is a new strength of constitutionalism in Latin America. The rule of law is no longer the gift of soldiers. It is an idea that begins to command allegiance from politicians, soldiers, and common people alike. Generals cannot expect a "no questions asked" deference from other governments, and they cannot trust their armies to march against a popular elected president. Since unpopular ones can be defeated at the polling booth, one can hope military coups become rarer. That message should not be lost on Argentina, whose political elite is as discredited as was that of Venezuela in 1998.
The second message of the coup is directed to the U.S., which finds itself again with egg yolk dripping from its face. The White House, virtually alone in the world (but how trite and overused this phrase sounds), welcomed the new regime with barely disguised glee. Even the obedient Vicente Fox declined to follow Washington’s example, choosing instead to condemn the coup. Likewise, inside Venezuela, Chavez’s defiance towards Washington is popular with his supporters, some of whom hold the quite plausible belief that the U.S. was privy to the conspiracy.
It is a disgrace that this Administration sold America’s most hallowed principle, respect for the rule of law, for thirty barrels of oil. But then, how can we expect that this president, himself owing his office to finessing the law, would come out in defense of another country’s constitution, when he holds his own in such poor esteem?
The message for this Administration is that a foreign policy that stands for nothing leads nowhere because nobody follows it.
The third message is for Chavez himself. Having survived, Chavez is stronger today than before the coup. But the source of his strength is not where he believed it to be. The army, on which he has so far relied, could not decide where it stood. With its political unity shattered, the army is now a far less important political factor. Chavez was saved by the trust of the people, but also by the constitution he has himself shaped. He ought to remember that as he tries to rethink his role as president after the coup.
His "Bolivarian Revolution" has a better chance to become reality if he gives up the habit of barking orders to his country. His government should stop the inflammatory rhetoric, and provide instead a unifying legal framework in which policy follows the active participation of the people. And he should strive to neutralize the corrupt oligarchs who resent the political opening of Venezuela through the court system. Was that not the whole point behind drafting an ultra progressive constitution?
The last message is about the media. The Venezuelan media, mostly privately owned, participated in the coup. The media campaigned against Chavez, provided steady information about mobilization against him, and a free platform for the coup leaders. Once Chavez was arrested the media put a blackout on the mobilization against the coup. Chavez supporters had to physically conquer the broadcasting station so that the messages of the constitutional government could be made public.
The U.S. corporate media has followed the Washington line and served the anti-Chavez oligarchs. Almost all information the media provided related to Chavez’s unpopularity. A New York Times editorial applauded the coup, showing how little the editors cared about democracy. Even after Chavez was restored to power, the Times implausibly asserted that the demonstrators against him were the more numerous.
The systematic repression of information about popular mobilization is not unique to Venezuela. The U.S. networks barely showed the angry demonstrations that welcomed Bush on inauguration day, forcing him to give up walking the last mile according to custom. The press routinely minimizes the numbers of demonstrators by a factor of two at least, when it bothers to report about them at all. What happened in Venezuela should be one more alarm bell going off about the dangers of a press controlled by a handful of private interests.
The message is clear: an anti-democratic media is a danger to democracy in the U.S., in Venezuela, and everywhere.