Venezuela after the Coup Attempt

More and more details about the attempted coup against President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela are beginning to emerge, although much of it still remains shrouded in mystery. The perhaps biggest unsolved mystery is who were the snipers who started the shooting at the April 11 demonstrations, which resulted in 17 dead, and provided the justification for the coup? It appears that there were as many as five or six snipers, firing from various buildings, some of whom might have been arrested, but who were subsequently freed during the brief coup regime, before they could be identified. Earlier reports that two members of the radical and violent left-wing opposition party Bandera Roja were among the snipers have become less certain. Chavez supporters here, though, have little doubt that the only ones who could have stood to gain from shooting at demonstrators were those who planned the coup. Anti-Chavez forces, though, seem to argue that Chavez is so mentally unstable that he would place snipers, even to shoot his own supporters and even if it is against all logic and self-interest.

Of course, another big mystery that is on everyone’s mind here in Venezuela is the extent to which the U.S. government was involved. There is little doubt now that the U.S. government has been supporting the Venezuelan opposition financially and through advice, as recent New York Times and Washington Post articles have reported. The National Endowment for Democracy, a US government funded institution known for its support of anti-progressive forces throughout the world, has provided nearly $1 million to Chavez’ opposition in 2001, with another $1 million in the pipeline for 2002. Also, as Wayne Madsen, a former National Security Agency intelligence officer, reports, the U.S. Navy had stationed ships off of the coast of Venezuela to monitor troop movements and report these to the officers involved in the coup attempt. Assuming that the coup was carefully planned down into the last detail and not merely a coincidence of events, as the coup supporters here claim, one has to also assume that there was a central coordinating force behind this normally uncoordinated and fragmented opposition movement. Whether the U.S. government played that coordinating role or exactly how involved the U.S. really was we will probably not find out for certain until the relevant documents are declassified decades from now.

Chavez since the coup attempt

Perhaps more important than the details of how the coup was organized, is what the coup means for the future of Chavez’ policies and his hold on power. The coup has done at least five things to change the political situation in Venezuela. First, it has helped Chavez separate the secret opponents and opportunists from his true loyalists. The coup lasted just barely long enough for the opportunists in his government to reveal themselves when they celebrated the coup.

Second, because the coup failed, and because it provided some clarity as to who is with Chavez and who is not, it has emboldened many hardline Chavez supporters to push for fuller implementation of Chavez’ political program.

Third, the coup showed just how strong the opposition is and how far it is willing to go to oust Chavez. In other words, that the opposition can mobilize over a quarter million demonstrators and that it is quite willing to trample on Venezuela’s democratically approved constitution.

Fourth, and as a mirror-image of the third point, the coup has shown just how strong Chavez’ support is and how far his supporters are willing to go to defend the “Bolivarian revolution.” Chavez’ supporters managed to mobilize an equal number of demonstrators as the opposition, during a complete media black-out, solely by word-of-mouth, in less than a few hours time. Also, it is clear now that many Chavez’ supporters are willing to defend the “Bolivarian revolution” with their lives, if necessary.

Finally, the coup and subsequent counter-coup have created a degree of political uncertainty previously unseen. Everyone is wondering whether there will be another coup attempt, whether someone will now try to assassinate Chavez, whether Chavez is now just a puppet of the military, or whether the country is headed for an interminable dead-lock between government and opposition.

It would seem that Chavez has decided that the only way to move forward in this post-coup situation is through reconciliation and dialogue. In numerous statements to the public, Chavez has promised to “sheathe his sword” and to initiate a dialogue with the opposition. Although much of the opposition is extremely skeptical about this, some sectors, such as the Church, some business leaders, and some union leaders have decided to take Chavez up on this offer. As part of this more conciliatory approach, Chavez’ party has promised to implement a truth commission, which will make an independent investigation of the events of April 11 to 14, modeled upon the truth commissions of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Argentina.

The problem Chavez faces now, perhaps more than ever, is that his supporters are divided between what have come to be called the “Talibanes,” the radicals who are saying that Chavez should implement his program now more than ever, and the “Miquilenistas,” named after Luis Miquilena, the moderate former Interior and Justice Minister and elder statesman of Venezuelan politics. Miquilena left Chavez’ cabinet last fall, in the wake of the controversies surrounding the set of 49 “enabling laws” (leyes habilitante), which outraged the business sector and had led to the business strike of December 10.

What makes this division particularly dangerous for Chavez’ political program is that members of his coalition in the legislature have gradually been leaving the coalition. Chavez’ formerly solid majority in the legislature has now shrunk from 99-66 to 85-80. Five of the most recent defectors are members of his of own party, belonging to the Miquilenista faction. It is estimated that there are about 15 more in this faction and if only three of them leave, Chavez will have lost his majority in the National Assembly, which would make it extremely difficult for Chavez to implement the rest of his program. In other words, it is not just because of the economically and mediatically powerful opposition that Chavez has to tread lightly, but his own base in the assembly threatens to break away if he does not moderate his approach.

The Opposition to Chavez

As mentioned earlier, one thing that the coup attempt and the events leading up to it did was to remind Chavez and his supporters just how powerful his opposition is. Chavez, his Movimiento Quinta Republica (MVR) party, and the other parties in his coalition (Movement Towards Socialism ““ MAS, Fatherland for All ““ PPT, and the indigenous parties) have a hold on all branches of the political system, as a result of their tremendous electoral victories during the election years of 1998-2000. However, the opposition to Chavez holds tremendous economic and media power.

This opposition, just as Chavez’ camp, is also divided between confrontationalists and reconciliationists. The good news for Chavez is that he can practically dismiss the confrontationalists because they are for the most part in the legislature, where they are fragmented into about ten political parties. The real opposition to Chavez is the main union federation, the business sector, most of the mass media, and the church. This extra-parliamentary opposition has, since the coup attempt, shown signs of its willingness to engage Chavez in dialogue and reconciliation.

Chavez’ parliamentary opposition is showing no signs of having learnt anything from the failed coup and is going full steam ahead with calls for his resignation, impeachment proceedings (on grounds of mental instability, not for having broken any laws), and with efforts to convoke a referendum to cut short Chavez’ term in office. On the last point, according to the constitution, Chavez’ term in office is six years and would last until 2006. However, a recall election may be called four years into the president’s term. Also, the constitution allows for popular referenda, which is what the opposition is planning on organizing, but such a referendum could only be consultative on Chavez’ term of office, unless it changes the constitution.

In an attempt to appease the extra-parliamentary opposition, particularly the business sector, Chavez recently named a more market-oriented economic team to his cabinet, one of whom even earned his doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. But what seriously bothers the business sector are the recently passed laws which deal with land reform, banking, oil revenue, and microfinance, among many other things. Perhaps the most important of these, for Chavez’ political project and for his supporters, is the land reform law, which is supposed to redistribute idle plots of land to the landless. Legislators in Chavez’ coalition have said that they are willing to revise these laws, so as to allow input from the opposition.

It seems doubtful, though, that it really was these rather technical issues, including the recent dispute over the management of the state-owned oil company, which mobilized over 250,000 citizens of Caracas to march in opposition to Chavez on April 11th. Rather, the growing unpopularity of Chavez among the middle classes probably has much more to do with the worsening economic situation, one-sided media coverage of the government, and class resentment towards a president who takes pride in his indigenous background, who speaks like a member of the lower classes, and who shows contempt for the upper classes.

Four weeks after the failed coup, the divisions within Venezuelan society are as great as ever. The coup has radicalized many of Chavez’ supporters in the barrios””the poor neighborhoods of Venezuela. Many in the lower classes had their doubts about Chavez before the coup, mostly because they believed the mass media campaign against Chavez. Now, after the coup, Chavez skeptics have become followers and Chavez supporters have become diehards.

On the other side, the diehard opposition to Chavez, which is no doubt still trying to come up with ways of organizing another coup, does not seem to realize that any non-constitutional defeat of Chavez will mean civil war. The lootings which took place April 12 and 13, immediately after the coup, were an indicator of the pent-up anger the lower classes in Venezuela feel towards those who oppose “their” president.

The Economy

It would seem, though, that the opposition is being much too impatient. Where the coup failed, domestic and international economic pressure might still succeed, in a much subtler and more profound way. That is, massive capital flight, which has been going on more or less continuously since Chavez came to power, but has intensified in the past few months and especially in the wake of the coup, is causing serious economic havoc. Among other things, capital flight has led to a constant devaluation of local currency and since Venezuela imports about 80% of its goods, this means that the imported goods become more and more expensive. In other words, inflation has become a serious problem. Up until January 2002 the government has tried to ward off this type of inflation by using its dollar reserves to buy the Bolivar, the national currency. However, as capital flight intensified after the first business-led general strike, last December 10th, the government had to abandon this strategy because the reserves were being depleted too quickly. Inflation immediately shot up the following month, to over 9% for the period between January and April 2002. For all of 2001 it had been 12%.

Capital flight, inflation, and general economic uncertainty have of course also contributed to a lack of investment and a slight increase in unemployment (from 14.2% in February 2001 to 15% in February 2002). Another consequence of capital flight and inflation is the relatively sudden appearance of a large fiscal deficit for the government, amounting to as much as $8 billion for 2002. The drop in the price of oil in late 2001 also significantly contributed to the government shortfall. Given that the government already owes massive public sector debts from the pre-Chavez years, the government appears to be nearly broke at the moment.

The opposition is arguing that the dire economic situation means that the government must apply to the International Monetary Fund to finance the deficit. However, as most IMF-observers and the Chavez government know, going to the IMF will mean complying with neo-liberal IMF loan conditions, such as liberalizing trade (more specifically: bust OPEC quotas); cutting back on social spending for education, health care, and services for the poor (no more microcredits); privatization (of the oil sector); guarantees for the sanctity of private property (no land redistribution and no titles for the homes in the barrios).

Chavez will be loathe to go to the IMF for help. He has continuously railed against “savage neo-liberalism” and it is doubtful that he will give in on this. So far he can avoid going to the IMF because Venezuela has about $15 billion worth of reserves, which it could use to finance the deficit instead of looking for outside funding. The problem with using up the reserves is that doing so leaves Venezuela even more at the mercy of international currency speculators and capital flight, since it would no longer have the currency reserves to combat these. Chavez’ main hope at this point is that the price of oil maintains its current relatively high value, so that the deficit and the decline in currency reserves can be reversed relatively quickly.

Implications for Venezuela’s Future

Based on what is happening in Venezuela now and on what has happened in Nicaragua, Chile, and Cuba, it would seem that any political movement that seeks to use the state as a means for redistributing a country’s wealth will be challenged on at least three fronts: the international political (mainly the U.S.), the domestic economic, and international economic front (the domestic political front having been conquered by electoral means, in the case of Venezuela and Chile, by insurrectional means in the case of Cuba and Nicaragua).

While it is possible for progressive forces to win significant national political power (the next sign of hope being Brazil), progressives have yet to figure out how to deal with the other three fronts. Chavez has primarily dealt with them through confrontation. This approach, in light of the business strikes, the subsequent coup attempt, and the declining economic condition, is no longer viable. Sheer national political force, which Chavez has in spades, is not enough to combat the international political (U.S.) and the domestic and international economic opposition.

Clearly, Chavez needs to maintain his focus and should not give up on his principles and his program, the way his predecessor Rafael Caldera did. A better strategy might be learnt from the local governments of Porto Alegre in Brazil and of FMLN controlled municipalities in El Salvador, to name just two positive examples among many others that are cropping up all over the world. In these places, a true culture of grassroots participation and democracy is being cultivated.

Chavez has often stated his support for participatory democracy and has even opened the avenues for such participation through the new Venezuelan constitution. However, his government has not cultivated a participatory culture which would flourish in the new institutional structures he has created. Part of the problem is that most of Venezuela’s grassroots leaders are now in political power, leaving a vacuum of progressive leadership at the grassroots. Chavez tried to breathe life into this grassroots through the “Bolivarian Circles”, but that approach failed due to their stigmatization as violent and their lack of leadership.

What the examples of places where a true culture of grassroots democracy exists have shown, is that they manage to create development and decent lives for the poor, precisely because they have become more self-reliant and thus are less dependent on outside investment and finance. This is not to say that if Chavez imitates this grassroots approach all his problems will be solved. Rather, what it means is that such an approach might be more compatible with the forces arrayed against his movement than outright confrontation is, while putting his movement into a better position for actually achieving its stated goals of empowering the poor.

Gregory Wilpert lives in Caracas, is a former U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, and is currently doing independent research on the sociology of development. He can be reached at:


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