frontline 8

Venezuela: From coup to insurrection: "Chavism" at a crossroads

This article first appeared in the Marxist magazine Herramienta. Written by Modesto Emilio Guerrero

Overnight, a military coup overthrew president Chávez, whom Business Week called "the hurricane of the Caribbean". And also overnight, a military counter coup with massive support of the population returned him to power. All this in a matter of hours. It seemed like a bad joke. Such political catastrophe is unheard of for a capitalist class as strong as that of Venezuela.

How did Chávez emerge?

The Venezuelan ruling class has been traditionally based on the rich oil fields and has been organically tied to the imperialist monopolies of energy, banks and services. It has given origin to the third most powerful economic group, the Cisneros, and the fourth GNP in South American. It has been educated in international universities and depends entirely on international organisations. It is, thus, culturally designed to be pro-American. During the whole of the twentieth century, it was never independent in relation to imperialism, unless one would want to call the timid policy it carried out from 1945 to 1948 to recover part of the income from the oil fields "independent".

Chávez broke away from this servile pattern of behaviour, for the first time in almost one hundred years. This is why he surprises and upsets not only the local but also the international capitalist class. That is also the reason why there is so much opposition to him both, inside and outside Venezuela. His consolidation as popular "caudillo" can be explained by the collapse of the parties and institutions of the Venezuelan ruling class. He emerged by default as a result of a process that brought about the chronic crisis and the emptying of the two main capitalist parties, Acción Democrática (Democratic Action - social democrats) and COPEI (social Christians).

The other factor in understanding his emergence and that of his movement is the role played by the Venezuelan left. After having created four parties with mass influence and eight with dozens of thousands of members amongst the advanced students and workers, the Venezuelan left ended in tatters. Part of it devoted itself to the advancement of Chávez's nationalist movement and ended up as members of his administration, inside the Venezuelan state. Others fought against him from the right. A very small group of several hundreds managed to resist the nationalist "hurricane".

A blind alley

What happened on 11th April 2002 was much more than a "tactical mistake", or "plans that got out of hand", as some naïve journalists have said. It was the necessary result, the inevitable consequence, of a press campaign which started inside and outside Venezuela in 1998. It is true that when Pedro Carmona (the provisional president that replaced Chávez) from the Acción Democrática, the leadership of the CTV (Trade Union Confederation of Venezuela) and the military decided "to march on" the presidential palace of Miraflores, they made a mistake on the basis of their over enthusiasm. The reasons for this over enthusiasm were twofold, the massive demonstration of 11th April against Chávez, and widespread opposition to the policy carried out by the Chávez government. There was a crowd of hundreds of thousands of angry anti-Chavists who came from the east of the capital and were demanding that Chávez had to go, but who, as later events demonstrated, did not want a military coup. The government decided to demobilise its supporters and leave the Palace of Government defenceless. It isolated itself from the people who wanted to defend it with arms in their hands. The demonstration divided the government in two. One sector, led by the Ministry of Education and the Mayor of Caracas, called for a popular insurrection to defend the government. Another, led by Chávez himself, called for a withdrawal, "to prevent a bloodbath", as Vicente Rangel, Minister of the Defence, said.

The conspiracy

The campaign to overthrow Chávez "democratically" had been patiently planned and carried out in co-ordination with the CIA. This was announced by the Washington Post on 14th April, twenty four hours after the coup was defeated. "The International Republican Institute of the United States, which deals with the foreign relations of the party, contacted the opposition to the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez months before the attempted coup of 12th April." When did these contacts take place? "Admiral Carlos Molina, who is at present under house arrest, was contacted last February by Michael Ferber and Elizabeth Winger Echeverri, members of the above mentioned institute."

This intervention of the Bush administration was confirmed by Ignacio Arcaya, a former Venezuelan ambassador to Washington and Buenos Aires. On 13th April, the very day of the defeat of the coup, he met Otto Reich and John Maisto, key members of the Department for Hemispheric Affairs, who told him, "Washington supports Carmona's provisional government on the basis that Chávez has resigned." Just like that. The fact that support was given to somebody who became president via a military coup and that the overthrown president had won six elections and a plebiscite in less than three years was of no importance.


The Venezuelan press and the international news chains managed to prevent people all over the world from getting information as to how the insurrection that defeated the coup d'etat in Venezuela grew and developed. However, sectors of the masses took to the streets to fight against the coup from the very moment that it started. And it was this movement that kept growing without any form of organisation or central control of weapons, which developed into a popular insurrection. Luckily, the events were told by those who participated in them, some of whom were the unknown leaders of the insurrection, who organised neighbours, made lists of the existing weapons, planned the march on Caracas and the attacks to take over the TV stations, etc. E-mail and mobile phones were the most effective ways of communication among the insurgents. The military intelligence was defeated with this technology, which was massively used by the activists to find out where and when the different tasks were to be carried out. At the same time, it was the most frequently used tool to transmit what was going on to other countries. Radio stations, especially some twenty independent ones which were in the hands of the left and trade unions, were also put to that use.

On 12th April, the transcript of a speaker from a radio in Caracas was received in Argentina. It said: "Dear friends: Thanks for your solidarity. Unfortunately what we so much feared has happened and Venezuela is once again in the hands of the right. At dawn it was known that the transitional president is nobody less than the president of the Chamber of Businessmen … We are defenceless, at the mercy of only one voice and only one image through which they have already started to legitimise what they have just done… At this time, 9.41 in the morning, the first demonstrations in favour of Chávez are beginning to take place, but the TV does not show them." The first thing that can be deduced from the different reports is that the insurrection was not called by Chávez's government. The support of the Mayor of Caracas was brought about by the pressure of the Chavist masses.

the role of women

The resistance sprung from the poorest sectors of the hills of Caracas and the poorest neighbourhoods of Maracay and Valencia. The leading role of women as part of this resistance process is to be noted. The old, peasant women of the hills were the ones who started the actions against the coup on the very morning of 11th April, "coming down" and surrounding Fort Tiuna, where the military had imprisoned Chávez before sending him to the island of La Orchila. The resistance was promoted and partially organised in the neighbourhoods by the small Marxist left of the student and trade union movement, together with the Chavist rank and file. There were elements of the independent arming of the people in the neighbourhoods. It was the pressure of the masses that made the armed forces and the "civilian" leadership of the coup waver. And it was their retreat that forced Washington and many other ambassadors in the Organisation of the American States to condemn Carmona and defend Chávez. The insurrection managed to mobilise five times more people than the three hundred thousand who had demonstrated against Chávez in Caracas on 11th April. The release of this massive revolutionary force together with the realisation of the implications of the sudden suspension of all democratic rights imposed by Pedro Carmona divided the anti-Chávez middle class and sealed the defeat of the coup.

The end of a dream

This is a summary of the article El fin del sueño chavista written by the Marxist Venezuela group La Chispa.

Three months after the defeated coup against Chávez, the collapse of the public finances and the economy are driving Venezuela into chaos. If to the economic crisis we add the political instability which has divided the country during the past months, we can conclude that these explosive circumstances might lead the country to a situation worse than that which the Argentinean masses have been suffering since last year.

Poverty increases day by day

The perspectives are bleak. Almost 8 million people, one third of the population of Venezuela, live in conditions of extreme poverty. According to the conclusions of the seminar on Economic, political and social perspectives of Venezuela 2002-2007, which ended on July 9th 2002, almost 70% of the households in the country will be poorer by the end of this year. Unemployment is above 17%, but there are regions where it is above 50%. Inflation is 30%. The Bolivar, the Venezuelan currency, has lost 60% of its value in relation to the dollar. And things are getting worse.

In spite of the decree that temporarily forbids enterprises to lay off workers, redundancies have continued. There are hundreds of factories which work only 3 or 4 days a week. Many state institutions, provincial and municipal, faced with the delays of the central government to send them the necessary funds, are closing down their public works and social programmes. For the time being, these factories and institutions have kept the workers on their payrolls, but if the economic crisis continues, they will make all of them redundant as soon as the prohibition expires.

The depreciation of the Bolivar is driving large sectors of the Venezuelan capitalist class into a crisis but it is also wreaking havoc in the public finances.

According to the National Budgetary Law, the state enterprise that administers Venezuelan oil (PDVSA-Oil Company of Venezuela) has to contribute part of its income to the government. The company sells its oil in dollars, but the money paid to the government is in Bolivars. This should produce a substantial difference in favour of the PDVSA. However, the company is forced to buy most of its materials abroad and to pay for most of its expenses in dollars. The consequence is that most of its profits vanish. The rise of the dollar only benefits banks and exchange houses, insurance companies and the few exporters, who in the main belong to transnational corporations and send their profits to their parent companies.

foreign debt

One of the largest fixed charges of the government is the payment of the instalments of the foreign debt. This year it will have to pay $4,409 million, of which $1,807 million is interest. The currency depreciation has made this already crippling debt unbearable. If we add the flight of capital, political instability and the utter mistrust of Chavez, we can see why the whole of the social and financial scaffolding is collapsing.

While this nightmare terrifies the middle classes, most of the workers and the impoverished sectors have not yet broken away from him. This is not to say that they are satisfied with the results of the government's social and economic policy. Their main reason to support Chavez is their refusal to be governed again by the traditional capitalist parties, and their opposition to the pro-imperialist, neo-liberal character of the protests of the middle classes.

demonstration of July 11th

On 11th July 2002, more than six hundred thousand people demonstrated against Chávez, and to demand his resignation. For the first time, there were workers among the ranks of the opposition.

The careful planning of the route of the demonstration shows that neither the government nor the opposition wanted a confrontation. The organisers agreed that the presidential palace would be left out of their route, and Chavez decided to leave Caracas and go to the city of Maracay. However, the most radical sectors left the agreed route and marched towards "La Carlota", the airfield where Chavez was supposed to arrive from Maracay, and stayed there until late at night waiting for him, perhaps thinking they might be able to force him to resign there and then. After the demonstration, the Coordinadora Democrática (Democratic Co-ordinating Committee), which groups the opposition, decided "to invite the President to discuss the terms of his resignation".

But it would be a mistake to think that they want him to resign. What they really want is to discuss the terms of an agreement that will bring a solution to the present crisis. To achieve that, they are willing to support a general strike and even to encourage a new coup.

However, reaching an agreement will not be easy, for the ruling class, the IMF, the World Bank. the presidents in the Organisation of the American States and the USA will demand an agreement that will crush the hopes of carrying out the "Bolivarian revolution" that Chávez promised. And while he has already proved his incapacity to take any profound measures against the capitalist class, imperialism and the multinationals, it is still to be seen whether the Venezuelan masses, who have so far followed him blindly, will accept the end of their dream.