Revolutionary Venezuela is celebrating the 4th anniversary of the events surrounding the failed coup d’etat that was launched on April 11, 2002. This is an event that ought to be studied more in detail by all those who wish to understand, not only the situation in Venezuela, but the inner workings and dynamics of revolution and counter-revolution in general. For while on the one hand it shows how Imperialism and the national oligarchy are indifferent to democracy and will never tolerate the existence of a government that threatens its interests, on the other hand it gives us a graphic illustration of the firm revolutionary instinct that the oppressed masses possess and which led them to react spontaneously to bring down the coup.
The 2002 coup against Chavez did not happen by accident. On the contrary it was a very well planned conspiracy that had been organized for a long time. The tensions between Chavez and the national ruling class, backed by Imperialism, had come to a turning point. From the point of view of US Imperialism, the passing of the 49 enabling laws of December 2001, meant that the Bolivarian government was serious about its intended reforms, could not be used or bought off and therefore had developed from a relative obstacle to an absolute obstacle; it had to be removed by force.
Later research has proved that the CIA was deeply involved in the planning of the coup. Eva Golinger, the author of the well-known book The Chavez Code, has studied the subject in detail. In her writingsii she has proved that the American administration, through bodies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave millions of dollars to opposition groups that participated directly in the coup. But Washington did not only finance the coup; they actually had detailed knowledge of what was going on. In one of her recent articles, Eva Golinger quotes a released intelligence document:
“An April 6, 2002 top secret intelligence brief headlining “Venezuela: Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt”, states, “Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possible as early as this month, [CENSORED]. The level of detail in the reported plans – [CENSORED] targets Chávez and 10 other senior officers for arrest…” The document further states, “To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month…”
Though the US government was well informed of what was going on, they needed to fabricate an incident that could “justify” the removal of Chavez. When the private media manipulated video clips and alleged that government forces fired on the opposition march, this was the perfect excuse. Washington thundered against these so-called “violations” of human rights: U.S. Department of State spokesperson Philip T. Reeker, claimed on April 12:
“In recent days, we expressed our hopes that all parties in Venezuela, but especially the Chavez administration, would act with restraint and show full respect for the peaceful expression of political opinion. We are saddened at the loss of life. We wish to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and look forward to working with all democratic forces in Venezuela to ensure the full exercise of democratic rights. The Venezuelan military commendably refused to fire on peaceful demonstrators, and the media valiantly kept the Venezuelan public informed.
“Yesterday's events in Venezuela resulted in a transitional government until new elections can be held. Though details are still unclear, undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday's crisis in Venezuela. According to the best information available, at this time: Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans gathered peacefully to seek redress of their grievances. The Chavez Government attempted to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Chavez supporters, on orders, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in more than 100 wounded or killed. Venezuelan military and police refused orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations. The government prevented five independent television stations from reporting on events. The results of these provocations are: Chavez resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the Vice President and the Cabinet. A transition civilian government has promised early elections.“We have every expectation that this situation will be resolved peacefully and democratically by the Venezuelan people in accord with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The essential elements of democracy, which have been weakened in recent months, must be restored fully. We will be consulting with our hemispheric partners, within the framework of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to assist Venezuela.”iii
The hypocrisy of the Imperialists knows no limits. As the above-mentioned CIA-document shows, they knew all along that a coup was being prepared, and that plans involved the imprisoning of Hugo Chavez. In spite of this they went to the public with lies about the apparent “resignation” of Chavez and the new government that would lead a “democratic” transition. No mention of the word “coup”.
But this new government, what was it? The regime led by Pedro Carmona, then leader of the employers’ confederation FEDECAMARAS, was a thoroughly reactionary one. Although it only lasted for one day, it began its dirty work immediately. A decree dissolved all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court, the National Assembly (Congress), the Constitution, the 49 enabling laws, and it deposed the elected President, Vice President, Ombudsman, Attorney General, Public Defender, and all elected members congress of their positions. Significantly it went to the length of altering the name of the country, from “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” to “The Republic of Venezuela”.
In the classic documentary, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which depicts the mood among ordinary people during the coup, one can see several loudly protesting “I have an identity card of the BOLIVARIAN republic of Venezuela!!” What might seem as a detail is in fact quite an important point that shows the real meaning of the April 11 coup: the bourgeoisie was afraid of the revolutionary content Chavez had given to the ideas of Simon Bolivar and thus tried to minimize any mention of him in all public life. Before the swearing in ceremony for Pedro Carmona (“Pedro the brief” as he is jokingly referred to in Venezuela) they took down the portrait of Simon Bolivar which presides over that Hall of the Miraflores Palace.
What they feared however was not so much Bolivar himself, but the movement that goes under the name of the Bolivarian Movement. Initiated by Hugo Chavez it started to promote some progressive and nationalist reforms – it tried to implement social changes, a literacy campaign, land reform and so on. In other words, it tried to solve the key problems of the bourgeois revolution, or what Lenin called the national-democratic revolution. But even these limited reforms condemned the movement to face the wrath of Imperialism and the national Oligarchy. These simply could not accept such steps, as they feared any development that could provoke a revolutionary ferment and give the masses confidence in their own ability to push the movement forward. The parasitical and thoroughly reactionary character of the local ruling class is shown in the fact that even the most moderate reforms threaten their very existence if they are implemented in a consistent manner. That was why they had to kick Chavez out of office.
It is important to stress that their plan did not consist only of a military rising to put down the government. In fact one could argue that the coup was just the final part of an extensive campaign to destabilize Venezuelan society and weaken and isolate the Bolivarian regime. The constant slanders against Hugo Chavez in the privately owned media and the international press, the sudden outbursts of violence and manoeuvres of paramilitaries on Venezuelan soil, the diplomatic intrigues by US officials against Venezuela, the economic sabotage promoted by the corrupt leaders of the old CTV trade union confederation; all these things were preparatory measures that aimed at creating a favourable political climate for the overthrow of the Bolivarian government. The script used was the same that was used to prepare the overthrow of Allende in Chile in 1973, the script writers also being the same.
But this was not just the case before the coup, it was the same idea that was behind the bosses’ lockout in December 2002 and it continues to be the real intention to this day with all the actions of US provocations against Venezuela.
The miscalculations of Imperialism and the oligarchy
What is really striking about the documents of the American intelligence service is their complete lack of understanding of the real situation in Venezuela. In the secret documents that have come to public knowledge, the CIA is concerned with the inner contradictions of the opposition, its organic lack of unity, the hostile view of other Latin American governments towards the coup, etc. But in no way did the CIA imagine that the coup would fail because of the tremendous mass support for the Chavez government.
Nonetheless, Imperialism had miscalculated the situation completely. The fury of the masses exploded like an uncontrollable fire. Without any leadership, without any plan or any call, the masses began to mobilise, marching towards the Miraflores palace in Caracas. In numerous provinces workers, youth and urban poor filled the main squares and gathered around the main military garrisons.
Numerous eyewitness accountsiv that describe these events have been written. It is difficult to depict the intense feeling of hatred and betrayal that many ordinary Venezuelans must have felt in those moments. The first government that the oppressed masses felt as their own, the first one that at least had begun to tackle some of their problems, had been swiftly swept aside by imperialism and the oligarchy. Had everything been in vain?
The crowd assembled in front of the palace grew larger and larger. In the working class and poor neighbourhoods of the capital the Metropolitan Police was faced by the masses setting up barricades and blockading the entrances to the neighbourhoods. The situation was out of control and the coup organisers began to get nervous. One of the best portraits of this particular situation is probably the extraordinary documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised that was made by an Irish film crew that happened to be in the very eye of the storm when the events occurred. In the end the loyal sections in the military managed to regain control over the armed forces. The coup collapsed like a house of cards. In less than 48 hours Chavez was reinstated and the masses were able to celebrate an overwhelming victory.
The need to learn from history
It is difficult to find a fitting analogy in world history - a coup that successfully led to the taking of power for a day or so, but was kicked out by the overwhelming movement from below. One of the only events in the history of revolutions that bears any resemblance to April 13 is perhaps the Spanish July 19, 1936. This too was a massive spontaneous rising, in which the mass of workers in Spain, and most significantly in Catalonia, rose up to fight the Fascist coup. In most cases without guns, the workers marched to take over the strategic buildings, the barracks and so on and keep the main points of power out of the hands of the Fascists. Armed with kitchen knives they fought their way through and formed militias and workers’ patrols, disarming the corrupt officers and in effect making themselves the rulers of Spain. The tragic defeat of the Spanish Revolution was only a product of the treacherous policies of the leaders of the main labour organizations who in effect handed power back to the bourgeoisie and assisted it in destroying the gains of July 19.
Though obviously there are important differences between the Spanish and Venezuelan revolutions, one cannot avoid seeing the similarities as well, which a brief look at the astonishing defeat in Spain demonstrates. Though the massive rising on July 19 was a harsh blow against the counter-revolution, it was not – as some mistakenly thought – the final defeat of reaction. Although April 13 in Venezuela, as the Spanish July 19, signified that the forces of capitalism suffered a major setback, it did not destroy the basis of its regime. In Spain the ruling class used the period between September 1936 and May 1937 to regain its positions and little by little break the elements of workers' power, starting the process inside the armed forces.
In fact, the Spanish Revolution provides us with a stark warning. It shows that the bourgeoisie will always try to get back in the saddle. It shows that if you do not seize the opportunity when the revolution is on the offensive and the situation is favourable, you will automatically give a breathing space and a new chance for the enemy to strike back and strangle the revolution.
This is the main lesson that needs to be drawn from April 13. Social revolution does not follow a predetermined pattern. The dynamic of events sometimes has a logic of its own. The inspiring movement of the Venezuelan masses fills one with a sense of pride and confidence in the ability of ordinary working people to change society. April 13 is the best answer to all those cynics who say that the masses are incapable of transforming society.
Four years after the inspiring events of April 2002, the situation remains extremely favourable for the revolution. The opposition and the capitalist elements have been weakened, demoralized and find themselves increasingly isolated politically. But there is no time to waste. As the tragic example of Spain shows us, you cannot expect a revolutionary situation to continue indefinitely. At a certain stage, the question of power must be decisively determined. Either there will be a complete victory for the exploited masses by wresting economic power out of the hands of the exploiters or there will be the victory of the capitalist counter-revolution. This is the burning question that will be decided in Venezuela in the near future.
Caracas, April 15, 2006
i In “Yo soy senciallamente un revolucionario”, the book Chavez Nuestro by Rosa Miriam Elizale and Luis Báez, p. 364
ii See for example her website, www.venezuelafoia.info/english.html
iii Quoted in Eva Golinger: THE PROOF IS IN THE DOCUMENTS: THE CIA WAS INVOLVED IN THE COUP AGAINST VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT CHAVEZ
iv See for example the special section at www.aporrea.org