A dispatch written by two students - Maximilien Arveláiz and Temir Porras Ponceleón - who were present in the Miraflores Palace, Caracas, Venezuela during the recent US backed attempt to oust the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Their testimony was sent to SQUALL within a day of the extraordinary events...
11th April 2002
We thought our dream had crumbled. It seemed as if democracy had once again been trampled on in Latin America. On April 11 2002, the democratic government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela was overthrown by a civilian-military conservative alliance. In the early morning of Friday April 12, President Hugo Chávez was taken as a prisoner by the generals favourable to the putsch, and driven to the army's Caracas headquarters at Fort Tiuna. The unfolding of events, or rather the manner in which the national media reported them, shows clearly that the coup was orchestrated by an alliance of business sectors, members of the political old guard, the media, and the US government. The business sectors were represented by Fedecamaras (the Venezuelan big business lobby), the old guard by the CTV (the federation of trade unions that is linked to Acción Democrática, the old ruling party), the media by Venezuelan's four national television channels, the most widely-read newspapers, and all of the country's commercial radio (all of which are in the hands of the old business elite), and, finally, the US, by its major commercial interests in Venezuela, particularly those linked to oil production.
We left the Miraflores presidential palace at around one o'clock in the morning of April 12, and we thought we would never be coming back. After long years of leftist failure in Latin America - by guerilla movements and imported revolutions - and after illusions lost with the fall of Communism, we had thought that this unique democratic socialist experiment would deserve a better fate. Many of the particular characteristics of this Bolivarian Revolution had led us to believe that it would be able to survive. It had genuine Latin-American roots, it had inspired Venezuelans to re-appropriate their national history - and use it as a tool for social progress - it had a leader with the ability to mobilize the people of Venezuela who had remained in the political shadows under earlier regimes.
We had forgotten that dreaming is a punishable offence in Latin America. When morning came on that Friday in April, the new civilian-military junta was already performing illegal searches and political arrests around the country, and celebrating the return to the "natural" order of things. The "loco" revolutionary Hugo Chávez was out, replaced by Pedro Carmona, the president of Fedecámeras, the country's main business lobby. He had proclaimed himself to be the country's transitional president. His "temporary" government immediately received the support of Venezuela's CEOs and union leaders, as well as the oil sector's senior management, media moguls, some generals and the leaders of the Catholic church.
The first measure taken by the junta was to dissolve the freshly-minted institutions of the Bolivarian Republic, starting with the National Assembly. The President of the Assembly, William Lara, as well as the Republic's Vice-President, Diosdado Cabello, and the ministers of the Chavez government, all went into hiding - to escape the new regime's persecution. The minister of Justice and the Interior, Rodríguez Chacín, as well as many members of the Assembly, had already been arrested. We, who had been workiing in the presidential palace, were strongly advised to keep out of sight. State governors and mayors who belonged to, or had good relations with, Chávez's MVR party were being forcefully removed from their offices. All the country's top civil servants were informed that they had been fired.
The police, meanwhile, were carrying out numerous, unmonitored raids in ministries and governmental administrations. Illegal searches took place in several places where "chavista" activists were accustomed to meet. The hunting season on "chavistas" had begun. On Venezuela's private television channels, we saw scenes of vigilante mobs pursuing notorious "chavistas", as the reporters' voice-overs cheered them on. The public television channel had been taken off the air.
The private media organisations were thrilled about the coup, accomplished so rapidly. During the three preceding days, they had devoted much of their air time and newspaper columns to covering a general strike, called after Chávez had restructured the country's state oil company (PDVSA) in order to bring it into line with his economic policy. The great majority of the Venezuelan population did not participate in the strike, but the media depicted it as a huge success. Then, on the evening of Wednesday April 10, the private TV channels showed advertisements calling for a massive anti-Chávez demonstration on the following day. The world's first media-driven coup d'état was beginning to unfold.
Taking full advantage of its status as the sole purveyor of information, the media lied, manipulated and gave credence to the most improbable rumours. On April 11, a huge crowd of government opponents formed up in the city's wealthy eastern suburbs and, after TV commentators spread the false rumour that Chávez had fled, they began to march on the Miraflores presidential palace. They had thus made inevitable a confrontation of frightening proportions, between the opponents and the supporters of Chávez, many of whom were already running to Miraflores to defend the president and their revolution.
As the first clashes occurred, Chávez made a long speech appealing to Venezuelans to stay calm, but his message was illegally boycotted by all the private television channels. This boycott, along with the insurrectionary turn that the eastern Caracas demonstration had taken, explains why the government decided to block the transmissions of the private stations. In practice, this measure proved insufficient since, thanks to their financial strength, they were able to use satellite links to continue their transmissions.
Deaths and injuries occurred on both sides, but the media tribunal had pronounced its judgement: the only guilty party was Chavez. The planners of the coup had achieved their objective: blood had been spilled on the streets of Caracas. The media proclaimed that the President had broken his promise never to open fire on the people of Venezuela.
A military rebellion against Chávez was now in train, while the media continued to produce its toxic disinformation. Once the government's television station had been taken over by a rebellious army faction, its voice could no longer be heard. Chávez was a victim of the hypocrisy and prejudice of the Venezuelan upper-classes - and the media that they own. The man that the media had made out to be a ruthless dictator was now a prisoner of his opponents. The opposition had been free to prepare their coup for more than three years.
Once in power, the fascistic and one-sided media was quick to demonstrate its efficiency. But if their coup was to survive, it still needed international recognition. At this crucial stage, the US government stepped in. On the afternoon of April 11, George W. Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, held a press conference on the Middle East crisis. He commented on the Venezuelan situation almost in passing. "We know that the action encouraged by the Chávez government provoked this crisis... now the situation will be one of tranquility and democracy." The illegal junta in Caracas had been implicitly recognized, and given the go-ahead. The members of the junta had done everything to attract the sympathy of the Bush government. Contrary to Chávez, they had shown themselves favourable to neo-liberal policies, and to the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In the middle of the crisis in the Middle East that was driving oil prices up, they would return to a pro US rather than a pro OPEC oil policy. Then, as a symbol of good will, the fired managers at PDVSA, who had illegally returned to their former positions, cut off all oil exports to Cuba. Dark times appeared to lie ahead for Venezuela. But one important factor had been overlooked: the Venezuelans of modest origins, those who lived in the shanty towns and who made up the bulk of the country's armed forces, were not prepared to accept the coup as a fait accompli. On the morning of Saturday April 13), informed that President Chávez had not actually resigned but was being held against his will, crowds of his supporters began to form around Fort Tiuna and around the Miraflores presidential palace to demand his return.
Events unfolded quickly. A brigade of paratroopers recovered the Presidential palace, and the members of the provisional government fled. Although Pedro Carmona insisted to a CNN reporter that he was still the country's legitimite leader, the junta's flimsy base of support was already eroding.
While all this was happening, the private Venezuelan media remained in its state of virtual reality: the national television channels continued to broadcast the "normal" fare of telenovelas and cookery programmes. The pro-Chávez demonstrations remained unreported. But it was too late. During the night, under the pressure of the countless Chávez supporters that had turned out en masse in the streets of Caracas, the junta resigned. President Chávez returned, by helicopter, to the Miraflores Palace.
By overturning a media and big-business sponsored coup, the Venezuelan people had saved democracy - for the moment. But the forces that carried out the coup are certainly preparing their next move, so international support and solidarity are more necessary than ever. Progressives and democrats around the world must remain on guard.
THE 48 HOUR COUP - Investigation into CIA involvement in recent failed coup in Venezuela - 10-May-2002
THE REVOLUTION WAS NOT TELEVISED - Report on the role of TV soap operas in Venezuelan coup attempt - 28-Sept-2002