Coups and Democracy in Venezuela


This past Sunday marked the fifteenth anniversary of Hugo Chávez’s failed coup against the government of Carlos Andrés Pérez. The date, “4F” for short, has become a sort of national holiday in Venezuela: Chávez’s first attack on the corrupt two-party system which ruled Venezuela for more than three decades has now been baptized the “day of dignity.”

The transformation of a violent coup into a national holiday may seem strange to some, but a closer analysis of the event, the recent anniversary celebrations, and the response to these celebrations by the anti-Chavista opposition sheds a great deal of light on the fundamental social transformation that has taken place since that fateful day in 1992.
4F and the Birth of the Fifth Republic

The failed coup, Chávez’s televised comments in which he took responsibility for the rebellion, his imprisonment and pardon by president Rafael Caldera in 1994, and his electoral campaign and surprise victory in 1998 have all been since indelibly etched into Venezuelan history. So too has the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution and the “Fifth Republic” that it ushered in come to mark in many ways a point of no return: there can be no going back to the corrupt and anti-popular “Fourth Republic,” even the opposition has been forced to concede as much. Or so they would have us think.

Since Chávez came to power, and especially since the new Constitution was approved, leaders of the opposition have become experts in political camouflage, waving the Constitution and paying lip-service to the Fifth Republic. In response to political necessity, the opposition (many of whom emerged directly from the previously dominant two-party system) seem to have become fervent defenders of the Fifth Republic that the Chávez regime inaugurated. Why they have been forced to do so is a question which is deeply intertwined with the 1992 coup itself.

The first attempted coup of 1992, led by Chávez (a similar but bloodier coup was attempted in November of the same year while Chávez was in prison), was a direct response by mid-level officers to the 1989 Caracazo riots, in which soldiers drawn largely from the poorer segments of Venezuelan society were ordered to fire on the equally poor residents of Venezuelan barrios, slaughtering up to 3,000. These riots, in turn, were the result of President Carlos Andrés Pérez’s “bait-and-switch” introduction, after being elected on an anti-neoliberal platform, of a devastating neoliberal reform package.

This popular rebellion in the streets would eventually lead to a popular rebellion at the polls, but not one which would favor the failed coup leaders just yet. Instead, one of the central political figures of the Fourth Republic, COPEI founder Rafael Caldera, astutely sensed which way the wind was blowing. In an emergency congressional session following the 1992 coup, Caldera astonished colleagues by expressing a clear sympathy with the Chávez rebellion, and delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in which he asserted, among other things, that “democracy cannot exist if the people don’t eat.”

It was as a direct result of this speech, as well as Caldera’s detachment from COPEI (thereby distancing himself from the vices of the old system) and formation of an independent party, that he was able to ride the wave of massive popular discontent to electoral victory in 1993. But Caldera’s election was also a “bait-and-switch” of sorts, and neoliberal reform continued unabated.

It was only after Caldera’s transitional presidency, during the course of which he bowed revealingly to public pressure to officially pardon Chávez and other veterans of the 1992 coups, that the Fourth Republic reached a point of terminal crisis. With the traditional parties in political free-fall, Chávez and his Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) stepped into the power vacuum to win the presidency in 1998 and oversee the drafting of a new constitution in 1999.
The Opposition Seeks to Shed its Golpismo

The opposition has always been slightly schizophrenic with regard to this new institutional framework. Better put, they have celebrated the new Magna Carta when it has suited them and openly flouted it when it stood in the way of their return to power.

The 2002 coup against Chávez was exceptionally revealing in this context: after “Transitional President” Pedro Carmona was sworn in, he issued the controversial decree known colloquially as the “Carmonazo,” which effectively dissolved all constitutional powers (the National Assembly, the Supreme Court), dismissed elected officials, and restructured the state in a manner which clearly overstepped the bounds of the 1999 Constitution. Moreover, Carmona went so far as to remove the adjective “Bolivarian” from “Republic of Venezuela,” thereby demonstrating a clear intent to return to the Fourth Republic.

The Carmonazo, however, also revealed the divisions within the opposition vis-à-vis the Fifth Republic, catalyzing as it did the military’s abandonment of Carmona and the downfall of the transitional government. Ever since the 2002 coup and the oil bosses’ strike later in the same year, much of the opposition has been attempting to shed the eminently accurate stigma of being a “golpista” (coup-plotter).

It was perhaps a bit counterintuitive, then, for the opposition to support the Governor of Zulia Manuel Rosales as a “unity candidate” in the 2006 presidential elections. After all, Rosales himself had attended the session in which Carmona’s decree was issued, and can be clearly seen congratulating the would-be transitional president and signing the decree itself. During the campaign, Rosales recognized his role in the coup as a mistake but claimed that it had been made “in good faith” (and meanwhile, the Chávez campaign team plastered the country with posters showing Rosales shaking hands with Carmona, over the heading, “The Devil Unites Them”).

Having refused to recognize Chávez’s victory in the 2004 recall referendum and having abstained from the 2005 elections to the National Assembly (an error for which they are now paying dearly), the anti-Chavista opposition rightly recognized the importance of the 2006 presidential elections for asserting their dubious “democratic credentials.” Said credentials seemed more certain when, against the predictions of many, Rosales openly recognized his defeat on December 3rd (much to the chagrin if the radical sectors of the opposition). The message from prominent members of the opposition was clear: “never again will they be able to call us golpistas.”

Perhaps this was merely a wish, perhaps it was a message to the opposition itself. What is clear, though, is that this effort by the majority of the opposition to distance themselves from the idea of returning to the Fourth Republic by force would not last long.
Globovisión’s Historical Revisionism

In an attempt to take advantage of the commemoration of the 1992 coup attempt in order to discredit the Chávez regime as violent and militarist, however, the opposition (and specifically their press outlets) has revealed their own position more clearly, and with it their ambiguity toward the Fifth Republic.

Immediately following the official broadcast of the “Day of Dignity” commemoration, Globovisión aired an extended documentary based on press coverage of the failed coup as it occurred. Over a powerful and threatening musical score (the sheer volume of which often overpowered the commentary), Globovisión performed a stunning feat of historical revisionism.

The documentary presented a series of reactions in the aftermath of the coup, including Carlos Andrés Pérez’s broadcasts to the nation (in which he claimed, among other things, that Chávez had “tricked” soldiers into participating in the coup attempt). The documentary also includes the full footage of Caldera’s epic and opportunistic speech, but consistent with the documentary’s objectives, this was followed immediately by various speeches in the congress which denounced Caldera’s claims that the coup reflected popular resentment toward neoliberal policies.

Even more revealing (and more clever) is the inclusion of an interview with Leopoldo Castillo after the 1992 coup attempt in which Castillo, currently the host of Globovisión’s evening program Alo Ciudadano, insisted that the Chávez coup had no justification, and more incredibly, no popular support! That this claim was clearly erroneous at the time (in the aftermath of the Caracazo) and disproven by subsequent events (public outcry for Chávez’s release, Caldera’s pardon, and later success at the polls) seems to matter little: by drawing a continuous line from Leopoldo Castillo’s 1992 declarations and his positions fifteen years later, by building a bridge from past to present, Globovisión is effectively disavowing the Fifth Republic and the 1999 Constitution entirely.
RCTV: Mouthpiece for CAP

RCTV, too, perhaps as a result of the impending non-renewal of the channel’s broadcast concession, has taken a sharp turn toward the explicit coup mongering that characterized the channel in 2002, attempting to appear democratic in the process. Hence during the evening news on February 6th, RCTV broadcast on the screen and read aloud an entire letter penned by former President Carlos Andrés Pérez on the anniversary of the attempted coup that sought to oust him.

Written from exile in Miami, where one can hardly walk down the street without bumping into a former Latin American dictator, Pérez’s letter bore the headline: “Celebrating death is the mark of Chavismo” (this from a leader who suspended constitutional guarantees in order to slaughter his own people in 1989). According to Pérez, it is not dignity, but rather “treason, ambushes, and cowardice” that 4-F-1992 represents.

Pérez’s dismissal of 1992, moreover, is linked to his apologetic stance toward the opposition coup a decade later: according to Pérez, it was Chávez who was responsible for the deaths of April 11th 2002, whereas a brief glance at the available evidence (in, e.g. the excellent film Crónica de un golpe) would show both the bogus nature of such claims and, to the contrary, Pérez’s direct collusion with the coup plotters.

If we were left with any doubts with regard to Pérez’s position on the 1999 Constitution and the Fifth Republic, his efforts to attack Chávez’s recent Enabling Law while justifying his own use of such legislation in 1974 clears things up: the 1999 Constitutional Assembly, and by extension the Bolivarian Constitution that it promulgated, are illegitimate. So much for the opposition’s fidelity to the new institutional order (and this despite the fact that Pérez deems the Armed Forces “guardians of institutionality”).

Pérez is in fact crystal clear in his dismissal of the past nine years of Venezuelan history: “February 4th [1992] was no more and no less than an anticipation of what the country and its institutions are suffering today, kidnapped by a fascistic leader who behaves like the leader of a neighborhood gang That day of death is an inerasable sign of what Chávez and his actions represent.” Support of the masses evidently has little to do with democracy, but this shouldn’t be surprising coming from a leader whose tenure was marked by a profound mutual hostility toward the popular sectors of Venezuelan society.

Are these merely the bitter words of an equally bitter exile? The fact that RCTV chose to devote a full five minutes of their evening news broadcast to a word-for-word reading of the letter suggests otherwise. Paradoxically, in attempting to show the violent nature of the Chávez regime, the opposition has unwittingly revealed its own historical continuity: from the neoliberal violence of the Fourth Republic to the 2002 coup, a continuity which extends into whatever anti-democratic and anti-popular measures the opposition has planned for the next months and years.
Coups, Institutions, and Democracy

In the end, then, both Chávez and the opposition have been involved in coups, in 1992 and 2002 respectively, and so by any “objective” measure based on strict adhesion to the existing institutional framework, neither could be considered more or less democratic than the other. Such a strict institutionalism, however, is woefully insufficient as an understanding of historical political dynamics.

Founding moments are often violent: coups, revolutions, and fighting in the streets often mark the painful birth of new institutions. Not only is this element often neglected, but this originary violence is in most cases quickly covered up in an effort to legitimize the new status quo. Hannah Arendt, hardly a revolutionary, discusses this exact point with regard to the American Revolution, and French philosopher Jacques Derrida has probed its theoretical implications extensively.

The Chávez regime, then, in its open celebration of the 1992 coup that sparked the subsequent chain of events and the founding of the Fifth Republic, has demonstrated a remarkable honesty, essentially admitting that there can be good coups and bad coups, and that what matters is whether the institutional transformation introduced opens the political system to the masses or closes off that same system through the perpetuation of privilege.

In response to an opposition effort to introduce legal charges against Chávez for “encouraging criminal activity” by publicly celebrating the 1992 coup, Minister of Communication Willian Lara replied that to the contrary, to celebrate the event is to pay homage to the “popular insurgency” to which it responded. The government’s position is that it is occasionally necessary to respond violently when the existing institutional structure has become violently repressive, as was the case with the 1989 Caracazo rebellion to which Lara refers and the neoliberal reforms that provoked it.

As Argentine-Mexican philosopher of liberation Enrique Dussel argues, political institutions inevitably have a half-life: they are born, they fulfill their purpose for a given period, and when they no longer do so, these institutions enter into terminal crisis and must be replaced. In its open celebration of 4-F-1992 as a “Day of Dignity,” the Chávez regime shows both its fundamental agreement with such an understanding, as well as its profound honesty when it comes to the origins of the Fifth Republic itself.

The opposition, however, perhaps as a result of the mass support enjoyed by the still vibrant and functional institutions of the Fifth Republic, has not or cannot show the same degree of honesty without renouncing its claim to political leadership entirely.

GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Caracas, and can be reached at gjcm(at)


George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.