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The Failed Chávez Coup, Five Years On

Caracas.

Q: How do we know that Hugo Chávez has popular support?

A: Simple. Because if it wasn’t for the popular masses springing autonomously into action on April 13th 2002, he would no longer be in power.

There is perhaps only one event more revealing than a coup, and that’s a failed coup. If a coup reveals ruptures and fractures within a society, the effort to reverse a coup reveals where exactly the real power in that society lies. The mobilization of the Venezuelan masses in opposition to the coup of April 11th 2002 represents the best evidence to date that the sovereign people of Venezuela have the will and capacity to defend their vision of a new society.

A planned mediatic coup

On April 11th 2002, the Venezuelan opposition activated snipers who fired on a largely pro-Chávez crowd that had gathered near Miraflores Palace to defend the president from the threat of an approaching and aggressive opposition march. Film footage from the ensuing gun battle was inserted into a pre-fabricated media strategy which sought to convince the Venezuelan population that government supporters were responsible for the deaths, and that they had acted directly on the orders of Chávez himself.

That the opposition planned to slaughter innocents is clear from the fact that the public statement by members of the high military command, which cited a specific number of casualties and urged Chávez to resign, had been filmed long before the deaths had even taken place. That the role of the media was paramount is clear from the revelation that this pre-filmed statement was recorded at the house of opposition journalist and host of 24 Hours Napoleón Bravo.

Indeed, it would be on that very same program that Venezuelans would first learn of what had transpired overnight. Bravo opened his April 12th program with the following statement: “Good morning, it is 6:14 a.m. Thanks to society and the armed forces, today we awake differently. Good morning, we have a new president.” Bravo continued, reading a falsified letter of resignation from Chávez and discussing the momentarily successful coup with some of its leaders, who expressed their indebtedness to “all the private media.”

The media is a force to be reckoned with, this much we know, and one of the coup leaders openly declared it “our most powerful weapon.” But equally clear in retrospect is that the golpistas overestimated the hegemonic control that these media outlets exercised over the population as a whole. Despite the carefully-calculated media strategy, despite the collusion of almost every single media outlet, despite the media blackout that ensued in the aftermath of Chávez’s ouster, the coup was short-lived. Why?

Because, as a recent commemoration of the event puts it, every 11th has its 13th. Popular rebellion against the coup was immediate, as millions of poor Venezuelans streamed spontaneously down from the cerros, the hills that surround Caracas and which house her massive shantytown population. For Samuel Moncada, former Minister of Higher Education and professor of history at the Central University, this event disproved centuries of elitist ideology, an ideology which still had a surprising degree of influence on the coup leaders: “Those intellectuals who said that this was a government of brutes and that they represent the enlightened part of the country, well as it turns out, the ‘darkest,’ the people from the barrios, recognized that they had woken up without rights on that Saturday [April 12th] The Venezuelan people understood that we were being enslaved.”

Indeed, despite media distortions, those present at the initial mobilizations on the 12th demonstrated a remarkable grasp of the situation: signs could be seen blaming the “fascist right” for the deaths of Chavista protestors on the 11th, and demanding that the human rights of Chávez’s ministers be respected. A banner read “No to the mediatic dictatorship,” while a printed flyer affirmed that, “We will not tolerate this dictatorship of economic power and the media.”

I recently spoke to a participant in the April 13th uprising. What he remembers most is the sheer quantity of people flooding down from the poor barrios, blocking every highway and street, and converging on the historic center of Caracas. That this onlooker would be shocked in a country which regularly sees more than a million in the streets speaks to the magnitude of the rebellion. Mobilizations concentrated specifically on the historic center of Caracas near the presidential palace and Fort Tiuna, a military base in the south of the city that was the site of frenetic negotiations among coup participants, civilian and military alike. Similarly crucial spontaneous mobilizations occurred outside the military base in Maracay, housing Chávez’s old parachute regiment.

Agustin Prieto, an electrical engineer who helped to organize the mobilizations outside Fort Tiuna, recalls the shock that the coup represented, but also the determined struggle that it sparked: “This process, for many Venezuelans, has meant a heavy sacrifice and years of struggle. This is why we will never erase from our memories what happened on April 11th and 12th. Immediately following that impact, which was as much spiritual and emotional as it was a consciousness of what was happening, the majority of Venezuelans began to exchange opinions, to evaluate the situation and what we could figure out about the Armed Forces We began to mobilize the concentration of all residents of Caracas at Fort Tiuna, and that’s where it began, starting at noon on the 12th.”

Repression was swift and severe. At Fort Tiuna, the Metropolitan Police waited until nightfall to attack the assembled crowd with tear gas, armored personnel carriers, and live rounds. Video documentation shows the crowds scattering at 10:45 p.m., and victims in nearby hospitals declaring that, “We are living in a dictatorship.” As Moncada puts it: “On that day, more human rights were violated than had been violated in the past, not 3, but 30 years.” Illegal searches and detentions, a witch hunt and public flogging of Chavista leaders, the besiegement of the Cuban embassy, and people shot dead in the street: such was the rabid fury of Venezuelan fascism. But the hatred of the minority couldn’t compensate for their small numbers, and their fury couldn’t compare to that of a people robbed of their legitimate representative.

The media’s role in this fleeting dictatorship wasn’t limited to putting it in power: Chavista mobilization and police repression would not even make the headlines in the private media. Jesse Chacón, later Minister of the Interior, would observe: “There are protests in central Caracas, Guarenas, Petare, and you are seeing soap operas and movies. Ask yourselves: Why aren’t these protests being covered? Why didn’t they report the 20 deaths last night outside Fort Tiuna? Where is our media?”

The media, as it turns out, were fully aware of the popular efforts to reinstate Chávez, but journalists were under orders from above, to show “zero Chavismo on the screen” according to Andrés Izarra, then a contributing journalist to RCTV’s news program El Observador. This mediatic veil was briefly and crucially ruptured when Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez appeared live on the private media: having promised to step down in favor of the illegitimate government, Rodríguez instead announced to the nation that Venezuela had suffered a coup d’etat. But the people already knew that.

On April 13th, despite the best efforts of the private media’s continued blackout, a tipping-point was reached. With millions in the streets, loyal members of the military were emboldened to act, thereby reconstituting the “military-civilian alliance” that has been so essential to the Bolivarian Revolution from the beginning. The opposition claim that Chávez’s return was a largely military affair, relying on decisions which had little to do with popular mobilizations (some even claim that the Chavista mobilizations were limited to a few hundred), simply do not square with people’s memories of the event, be they civilian or military.

The military acted, but it did so at the signal of the people. Despite a total media blackout and the closure of state-run Channel 8, despite widespread police repression, this signal came across loud and clear to those on both sides of events. For the loyal sectors of the military, the presence of the masses in the streets was decisive: it cemented their conviction that it was necessary to fight, and that the fight could be won.

Soldiers, led by the people

In her Soldiers Alongside the People, Marta Harnecker interviews several of the key military actors in Chávez’s return to power. General Raúl Baduel, then commander of the 42nd Parachute Infantry Brigade in Maracay was the first to openly reject the coup and arguably the principal strategist of the efforts to reverse it. This is perhaps unsurprising, since Baduel was one of the founders of Chávez’s revolutionary movement in the military, and since it was from Maracay that Chávez and others, leading parachute regiments, sought to take power in February of 1992. Baduel’s declaration, however, only emerged on the afternoon of April 13th, long after the popular crowds had massed outside military installations in Maracay and Fort Tiuna, and outside the presidential palace.

The announcement of an effort to return Chávez to power, deemed the “Plan to Restore National Dignity,” represented for Baduel the “detonator” of the entire situation, a rallying point for loyal troops like those who proceeded to recapture the presidential palace. Baduel’s refusal to recognize Carmona gave the green light to Colonel Jesús del Valle Morao Cardona to put into motion a plan by loyal members of the Honor Guard to take back the palace late that afternoon. And this, too, took place at the behest of the people: Miraflores Palace had become one of the epicenters of popular mobilization, and Morao recalls that “there were no fewer than a million people” outside the palace, “demanding the President’s return.” Members of the Honor Guard could be seen celebrating with the overjoyed multitude.

General Jorge Luis García Carneiro, Commander of the Third Infantry Division at Fort Tiuna, when asked what lessons he took from the experience of the coup, responded that, “The people speak for themselves, they say what they want it is the people who give and the people who take away, it is the people who give the orders.” García Carneiro admits that, on the morning of April 12th, he was pessimistic, but “afterward, when I saw those people [outside Fort Tiuna], that multitude, fervently demanding the return of Chávez, of course this lifted my spirits.”

General Wilfredo Ramón Silva, also stationed at Fort Tiuna, recalls that after the Honor Guard had retaken the presidential palace, coup leaders began efforts to seize he and García Carneiro, at which point they fled to seek refuge in the crowds outside. From there, within the crowds of people, they created a command post to organize the re-taking of various military installations and eventually, in collaboration with Baduel and others, the return of Chávez himself. As one participant recently recalled, at one point General Carneiro appeared before the crowd that had occupied the bridge near Fort Tiuna with tears in his eyes, thanking the people for making military action possible.

On the role of the people in facilitating this turn of events, moreover, Ramón Silva estimates that some 70% of those who turned out to return Chávez to power did so spontaneously: “It didn’t surprise me that the people came down from the hills. It was nothing new, I experienced it in [the Caracazo riots of] 89 when those defiant hills came down the people came down from the hills, the people in the country’s interior came out and they returned their President, whom they had elected, to power.”

A revolution with two weapons

Q: How do we know that Chávez won’t ever turn his back on the people?

A: Strictly speaking, we don’t. But, given the forces stacked against him, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

The events of April 13th 2002, the spontaneous popular insurgency which returned Chávez to power against all odds, are the best proof of the popular character of the Bolivarian Revolution. But that’s not all they prove. They also prove that “the people” are far more than the inert mass that many consider them to be. The failure of the coup derived in part from the oligarchy’s belief in this caricature.

But the fact that it took the coordinated action of a conscious and prepared population to return Chávez to power proves much more than that: it proves that the revolutionary leadership in Venezuela relies fundamentally on popular support. Were it not for this support, Chávez would not be in power today, and were this support to be withdrawn tomorrow, his days would be numbered.

The most radical sectors of Chavismo are not bound to Chávez the man at all, but only to what he represents. As long as he represents what they represent, as long as there is proximity between the top and the bases, he will have their support. Paradoxically, the threat posed by the opposition, international and domestic, the material and ideological odds stacked against the Revolution, represent the best guarantee that the Bolivarian Revolution will continue to deepen according to the wishes of the awakened masses.

In Venezuela, one often hears mention of the September 11th 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. The error of Allende’s revolution, one is told, is that it was “unarmed.” While this refers in part to the fact that Allende’s support within the military was far from consolidated, it also alludes to a second necessary weapon of successful revolutions: the autonomous organization of the popular masses. Perhaps in a self-deceiving effort to prove its “democratic” nature, Allende’s government relied too heavily on the passive mobilization of the ballot, failing to cultivate the necessary degree of active popular organization to withstand an attack from the armed forces.

The Bolivarian Revolution is far from an electoral revolution: it is a revolution that, to borrow the words of Lenin and Fidel Castro, “knows how to defend itself.” As the popular saying goes: “If they bring it like the 11th, we’ll give it back like the 13th.”

* * *

On April 11th, a multi-faith religious ceremony was held on Puente Llaguno, site of the massacre, to commemorate those murdered by the opposition, and Chávez himself made a surprise appearance. The opposition continues to deny responsibility for the deaths and blame them on the government.

The Metropolitan Mayor of Caracas, Juan Barreto, has declared the week April 13th-19th as “The Week of Insurgent Caracas” to celebrate the role of the popular masses in returning Chávez to power.

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

 

 

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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.

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