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Luis Duno Gottberg
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

The government of Hugo Chávez seems to have been destined to be overthrown from the very moment that it was democratically elected by an overwhelming margin. Such a situation arises not from the deficiencies of the Bolivarian project itself, but rather it is to be explained both by international circumstances and the internal dynamics of political and economic power in Venezuela.

The national reforms that the new president proposed turned out to be tremendously threatening to those who had monopolized power and wealth for more than four decades. The violent reaction might come as a surprise, given that the Bolivarian project pushed rather moderate transformations such as the regulation of landlords’ practices, the defense of free education, the stimulus of fishing, and the protection of the environment. But moderate reforms are for some sectors radical.

In the case of international circumstances, there can be no question that petroleum has been a source of wealth that has turned out to bring problems. The firm position of Venezuela in terms of the defense of petroleum prices and the reunification of the OPEC countries have been interpreted as a threat by our principal trading partner, the US. Plan Colombia has also placed the country in a difficult position insofar as it demanded, indirectly, that Venezuela put its armed forces at the service of a war that is alien to it. National independence and autonomy are, in the current geopolitical context, subversive.

Although private enterprise, the banking sector and foreign investors have had their interests protected under the Chávez government, his proposed reforms were unacceptable. From the beginning, diverse means were employed to destabilize the country, such as the recruitment of conservative members of the army, massive capital flight, and media conspiracy. All of these elements were of course decisive in the April coup attempt.

The facts: after three days of what seemed to be a successful general strike that grew out of an unexpected alliance between the business association of Venezuela (Fedecamaras), a sector of the state petroleum company (PDVSA), and a dubious trade union federation (CTV), a series of violent acts took place that precipitated the fall of Chávez.

On the afternoon of April 11, a tumultuous protest march whose route had been clearly defined in a certain sector of the city was detoured toward the presidential palace, where a violent confrontation took place between groups loyal to Chávez and the opposition march. A series of sharpshooters whose identities are still not known were placed on nearby buildings in order to attack the crowd with high-precision volleys. Among the dead, most were government supporters and some were members of the opposition.

These terrible incidents were used as a justification by the military high command, which decided not to recognize Chávez’ mandate. The president was made prisoner and taken from the capital. The following morning, and with striking rapidity, the head of the business association, Pedro Carmona Estanga was named as president.

Brutal repression

That night, a cabinet composed of high bourgeois elements and members of Opus Dei [a conspiratorial right-wing Catholic organization—tr.] suspended the National Assembly and began the removal of various democratically elected state governors. Brutal repression was not long in coming. There were house-to-house searches, lynchings and executions of community leaders and Chávez partisans that took place with the utmost impunity. The television stations and the national press supported the new de facto government and silenced dissident voices.

The following day (April 13) a counter-coup, whose popular origins tend to be ignored, occurred. The inhabitants of the pro-Chávez neighborhoods in Caracas began to pour into the street on their own initiative to demand that Chávez be liberated. While the communications media insisted that everything was calm, the streets sounded with popular noises. The pressure of these sectors, together with those who had remained loyal to Chávez (particularly inside the armed forces) brought Chávez back to power.

Nevertheless, the conditions that permitted the violence to unfold remain. The “errors” of the Chavez government seem not to have been corrected with the desired speed and, at the same time, the rejected national elite do not seem content with any type of accord, since their goal is to retake power and eliminate all nationalist and social reforms.

Above and beyond the innumerable problems that plague the Chávez government—which seems incapable of overcoming the difficulties occasioned by its inexperience and improvisation—the real causes of his fall seem to arise from decisions taken by national and international economic sectors that refuse to give up their quota of privileges. Meanwhile, a radical right, ready to take power by violent means, has emerged for the first time in Venezuela. Likewise, it is clear that countries like the US and Colombia will not hesitate to support such actions in spite of the fact that the cost in lives and goods are incalculable for Venezuela.

About the Author
Luis Duno Gottberg teaches literature and cultural studies at the University of Simón Bolívar, Caracas.
Translated by Forrest Hylton