Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All

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Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All
by Gregory Wilpert | April
17, 2002
This commentary was originally commissioned
and distributed by the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy in Focus (FPIF) project. It
is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign Policy in Focus–"A Think Tank
Without Walls"–can be accessed online at .
The Counter-Coup
It looks like Venezuela is not just another banana-oil republic after all.
Many here feared that with the April 11 coup attempt against President Hugo Chavez,
Venezuela was being degraded to just another country forced to bend to the powerful
will of the United States. The successful counter-coup of April 14, though, which
reinstated Chavez, proved that Venezuela is a tougher cookie than the coup planners
The coup leaders against President Chavez made two fundamental miscalculations.
First, they started having delusions of grandeur, believing that the support for
their coup was so complete that they could simply ignore the other members of
their coup coalition and place only their own in the new government. The labor
union federation CTV, which saw itself as one of the main actors of the opposition
movement to President Chavez, and nearly all moderate opposition parties were
excluded from the new "democratic unity" cabinet. The new transition
cabinet ended up including only the most conservative elements of Venezuelan society.
They then proceeded to dissolve the legislature, the Supreme Court, the attorney
general’s office, the national electoral commission, and the state governorships,
among others. Next, they decreed that the 1999 constitution–which had been written
by a constitutional assembly and ratified by vote, following the procedures outlined
in the previous constitution–was to be suspended. The new transition president
would thus rule by decree until next year, when new elections would be called.
Generally, this type of regime fits the textbook definition of dictatorship.
This first miscalculation led to several generals’ protest against the new
regime, perhaps under pressure from the excluded sectors of the opposition, or
perhaps out of a genuine sense of remorse, and resulted in their call for changes
to the sweeping "democratic transition" decree, lest they withdraw their
support from the new government. Transition President Pedro Carmona, the chair
of Venezuela’s largest chamber of commerce, immediately agreed to reinstate the
Assembly and to the rest of the generals’ demands.
The second miscalculation was the belief that Chavez was hopelessly unpopular
in the population and among the military and that no one except Cuba and Colombia’s
guerillas, the FARC, would regret Chavez’ departure. Following the initial shock
and demoralization that the coup caused among Chavez supporters, this second miscalculation
led to major upheavals and riots in Caracas’ sprawling slums, which make up nearly
half of the city. In practically all of the Caracas "barrios" spontaneous
demonstrations and "cacerolazos" (pot-banging) broke out on April 13
and 14. The police immediately rushed in to suppress these expressions of discontent,
and somewhere between 10 and 40 people were killed in these clashes with the police.
Then, in the early afternoon, purely by word-of-mouth and the use of cell phones
(Venezuela has one of the highest per capita rates of cell phone use in the world),
a demonstration in support of Chavez was called at the Miraflores presidential
palace. By 6pm about 100,000 people had gathered in the streets surrounding the
presidential palace. At approximately the same time, the paratrooper battalion,
to which Chavez used to belong, decided to remain loyal to Chavez and took over
the presidential palace. Next, as the awareness of the extent of Chavez’ support
spread, major battalions in the interior of Venezuela began siding with Chavez.
Eventually the support for the transition regime evaporated among the military,
so that transition president Carmona resigned in the name of preventing bloodshed.
As the boldness of Chavez supporters grew, they began taking over several television
stations, which had not reported a single word about the uprisings and the demonstrations.
Finally, late at night, around midnight of April 14, it was announced that Chavez
had been set free and that he would take over as president again. The crowds outside
of Miraflores were ecstatic. No one had believed that the coup could or would
be reversed so rapidly. When Chavez appeared on national TV around 4am, he too
joked that he knew he would be back, but he never imagined it would happen so
fast. He did not even have time to rest and write some poetry, as he had hoped
to do.
So how could this be? How could such an impeccably planned and smoothly executed
coup fall apart in almost exactly 48 hours? Aside from the two miscalculations
mentioned above, it appears that the military’s hearts were not fully into the
coup project. Once it became obvious that the coup was being hijacked by the extreme
right and that Chavez enjoyed much more support than had been imagined, large
parts of the military decided to reject the coup, which then had the snowball
effect of changing military allegiances. Also, by announcing that one of the main
reasons for the coup was to avoid bloodshed and by stating that the Venezuelan
military would never turn its weapons against its own people, Chavez supporters
became more courageous to go out and to protest against the coup without fear
of reprisals.
Very important, though, was that the coup planners seem to have believed their
own propaganda: that Chavez was an extremely unpopular leader. What they seem
to have forgotten is that Chavez was not a fluke, a phenomenon that appeared in
Venezuela as a result of political chaos, as some analysts seem to believe. Rather,
Chavez’ movement has its roots in a long history of Venezuelan community and leftist
organizing. Also, it seems quite likely that although many people were unhappy
with Chavez’ lack of rapid progress in implementing the reforms he had promised,
he was still the most popular politician in the country.
The media and the opposition movement tried to create the impression that Chavez
was completely isolated and that no one supported him any longer. They did this
by organizing massive demonstrations, with extensive help from the television
stations, which regularly broadcast reports of the anti-Chavez protests, but consistently
ignored the pro-Chavez protests, which, by all fair accounts, tended to be just
as large. The television channels claimed that they did not cover pro-Chavez demonstrations
because protestors threatened their lives. While this seems unlikely, since demonstrators
usually unequivocally want their demonstrations covered by the media, they could
have gotten protection, if they had cared to.
The Media
Nearly the entire media is owned and operated by Venezuela’s oligarchy. There
is only one neutral newspaper, which is not an explicitly anti-Chavez newspaper
and one state-run television station. During the coup, the state-run station was
taken off the air completely and all of the other media kept repeating the coup
organizers’ lies without question. These lies included the claim that Chavez had
resigned and had dismissed his cabinet, that all of the demonstrations’ dead were
"martyrs of civil society" (i.e., of the opposition, since the media
does not consider Chavez supporters as part of civil society), and that Chavez
had ordered his supporters to shoot into the unarmed crowd of anti-Chavez demonstrators.
The media never addressed the repeated doubts that members of Chavez’ cabinet
raised about his resignation. Also, the media did not release the names of those
who had been shot, probably because this would have shown that most of the dead
were pro-Chavez demonstrators. Finally, the media edited the video footage of
the shootings in such a way as to avoid showing where the Chavez supporters were
shooting–namely, as eyewitnesses reported, at police and individuals who were
shooting back while hidden in doorways. Also, they did not show the pro-Chavez
crowd repeatedly pointing at the snipers who were firing at them from the rooftop
of a nearby building.
These media distortions in the aftermath of the coup drove home the point of
just how powerful the media is at creating an alternate reality. Those Chavez
supporters who were at the demonstration and witnessed the events realized more
than ever that power needs a medium and that those who control the media have
much more power than they let on. This is why the television stations became a
key target in the hours leading up to Chavez’ reinstatement. The takeover of four
of the eight stations was essential to Chavez’ comeback because it showed the
rest of the military and the rest of Venezuela that Chavez still had strong support
among the population and that if the people really wanted to, they could fight
for what was right and win.
Quo Vadis
An aspect of Chavez’ rise to power that is often forgotten in Venezuela is
that as far as Venezuelan presidents are concerned, Chavez has actually been among
the least dictatorial. True, Chavez is a deeply flawed president with many shortcomings,
among which one of the most important is his autocratic style. However, during
earlier presidencies, such as that of Carlos Andres Perez (1989-1993), the killings
of demonstrators were nearly a monthly occurrence. Also, the outright censorship
of newspapers was quite common during the Perez presidency. None of this has happened
during the Chavez presidency.
President Hugo Chavez is an individual who raises the passions of people, pro
or con, unlike anyone else. It almost seems that Venezuelans either love him or
hate him. A more balanced picture of the president, however, would show, first,
that he is someone who deeply believes in working for social justice, for improving
democracy, and believes in international solidarity. Also, he is a gifted and
charismatic speaker, which makes him a natural choice as a leader.
However, one has to recognize that he has some very serious shortcomings. Among
the most important is that while he truly believes in participatory democracy,
as is evidenced in his efforts to democratize the Venezuelan constitution, his
instincts are those of an autocrat. This has led to a serious neglect of his natural
base, which is the progressive and grassroots civil society. Instead, he has tried
to control this civil society by organizing "Bolivarian Circles," which
are neighborhood groups that are to help organize communities and at the same
time to defend the revolution. The opposition easily stigmatized these circles,
however, as being nothing other than a kind of SS for Chavez’ political party.
Another crucial flaw has been his relatively poor personnel choices. Many of the
ministries and agencies suffer from mismanagement.
Finally and perhaps the most often mentioned flaw, is his tendency for inflammatory
rhetoric. Accusations that Chavez divided Venezuelan society with his constant
talk about the rich and the poor are ridiculous, since Venezuelan society was
divided along these lines long before Chavez came to power. However, by trying
to belittle his opponents by calling them names, such as "escualidos"
(squalids), he made it virtually impossible for real dialogue to take place between
himself and his opponents.
The crucial question that Chavez supporters and opponents alike are now asking
is whether Chavez has grown through the experience of this coup. In his initial
statement after being freed from his military captors, he said, "I too have
to reflect on many things. And I have done that in these hours. … I am here
and I am prepared to rectify, wherever I have to rectify." Right now, however,
it is too early to see if he really is going to change his ways, so that he becomes
more productive in achieving the goals he has set for Venezuela.
While Chavez’ many progressive achievements should not be forgotten, neither
should his failures be overlooked, most of which have important lessons for progressives
everywhere. The first lesson is to keep the eyes on the prize. Chavez has become
so bogged down with small, day-to-day conflicts that many people are no longer
sure if he remembers his original platform, which was to abolish corruption and
to make Venezuelan society more egalitarian. While greater social equality is
extremely difficult to achieve in a capitalist society, it is fair to say that
Chavez’ plans have not had enough time to bear fruit. He has a six-year social
and economic development plan for 2001-2007, of which only a small fraction has
so far been implemented. However, on the corruption front, he has fallen seriously
The second lesson is that the neglect of one’s social base, which provides
the cultural underpinnings for any desired changes, will provide an opening for
opponents to redefine the situation and to make policy implementation nearly impossible.
By not involving his natural base, the progressive and grassroots civil society,
Chavez allowed the conservative civil society, the conservative unions, the business
sector, the church, and the media to determine the discourse as to what the "Bolivarian
revolution" was really all about.
The third lesson is that a good program alone is not enough if one does not
have the skillful means for implementing it. Chavez has some terrific plans, but
through his incendiary rhetoric he manages to draw all attention away from his
actual proposals and focuses attention on how he presents them or how he cuts
his critics down to size.
Finally, while it is tempting to streamline policy implementation by working
only with individuals who will not criticize the program, this creates a dangerous
ideological monoculture, which will not be able to resist the diverse challenges
even the best plans eventually have to face. Chavez has consistently dismissed
from his inner circle those who have criticized him, making his leadership base,
which used to be quite broad, smaller and smaller. Such a narrow leadership base
made it much easier for the opposition to challenge Chavez and to mount the coup.
Whether Chavez and his opposition have learned these lessons remains to be
seen. Venezuelan society is still deeply divided. One has to recognize that, at
heart, this conflict is also a class conflict. While there certainly are many
Chavez opponents who come from the lower classes and numerous supporters from
the upper classes, the division between Chavez supporters who come from the lower
darker-skinned classes and the opponents who come from the higher light-skinned
classes cannot be denied. What Venezuela needs, if social peace is to be preserved,
is a class compromise, where social peace is maintained at the expense of a more
just distribution of Venezuela’s immense wealth. However, today’s globalized
world makes such a compromise increasingly difficult to achieve because free market
competition militates against local solutions to this increasingly global problem.
But perhaps Venezuela is a special case because of its oil wealth, which might
allow it to be an exception. Such an exception, though, will only be possible
if power plays, such as the recent coup attempt, come to an end.
(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.)

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Distributed by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). Originally published by
the joint IRC-IPS Foreign Policy In Focus project. ©2002. All rights reserved.
Recommended citation:
Gregory Wilpert, "Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic After All," Global
Affairs Commentary, FPIF (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, April
17, 2002).
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