Book review of Coup Against Chavez: an account of the 2002 coup in Venezuela.

The best international reports of what really happened in 2002

edited by Gregory Wilpert
Fundación Venezolana para la Justicia Global, 2003, 216 pages,
ISBN: 980-12-0071-5.
reviewed by Robert Caring


There’s an old joke in Latin America that has become popular again: Why has there never been a military coup in the United States? Answer: because there’s no U.S. embassy there!

Until internal government documents are declassified, it is hard to prove U.S. CIA involvement in the coup that took place in Venezuela on April 12, 2002. But the Washington Post has documented that the coup leaders visited Washington a few weeks before the coup, and that they repeatedly visited U.S. embassy officials in Caracas.

More interesting is that the U.S. government and media never called it a coup. The morning of the coup, Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich told a gathering of Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors that they had to support the new government. The New York Times editorial declared that President Hugo Chavez’s ‘resignation’ (he never resigned) meant, “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” A Chicago Tribune editorial stated, “It’s not every day that a democracy benefits from the military’s intervention to force out an elected president.”

The way Chavez has polarized Venezuelan society is striking. People are passionately for him or against him. To understand why, some of the essays in this book analyze his successes and failures. During his four years in office, he has worked tirelessly to achieve some dramatic reforms: he has doubled investment in education and increased primary school enrollment by one million kids who were previously excluded; a new democratic and progressive constitution was ratified; infant mortality lowered from 21 to 17 per 1,000 live births; land reform is being implemented and cooperatives are encouraged; there have been consistent increases in the minimum wage and government salaries; large-scale micro-credit for the poor and women was introduced; literacy courses have tripled; etc.

His failures affect more the wealthier people. Widespread corruption continues unabated. By blocking capital flight, dollars are unavailable and import businesses suffer losses. His autocratic and inflammatory style, calling the opposition ‘squalids’, infuriates his opponents and impedes dialog.

The shootings on April 11 that led to the coup remain shrouded in mystery. The privately-owned TV stations repeatedly showed footage of five or six Chavez supporters shooting pistols; this was spliced together with dead and wounded victims in another demonstration. Several suspects were arrested as alleged snipers—each tested positive for gunpowder—but they were released by the coup leaders the next day and never seen again in the country. CNN correspondent Otto Neustaldt recently said that on the morning of April 11 military officers involved in the coup told him that shootings would take place in the demonstrations that afternoon and asked him to film their statement accusing Chavez of responsibility for the killings before they happened.

After military officers captured Chavez, Pedro Carmona, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, announced that he had assumed the presidency of a civilian-military government and that new elections would be held within one year. He then dissolved the legislature, the Supreme Court, the national electoral council and the state governorships. All the TV stations and newspapers, owned by the old elite, celebrated the coup.

But the next morning, something incredible started. In the slums and poor barrios throughout the country, the people, angry, took to the streets in protest. The police killed more than 40 demonstrators, but could not stop them. While every TV channel showed only soap operas and game shows, with only cell phones to communicate, first thousands and then tens of thousands of people started converging on the palace to demand that their elected government be restored. General Raul Baduel, a Taoist, announced that he and his paratroop brigade supported Chavez and the constitution; other units soon followed. In the early hours of April 14, just 48 hours after he was taken away as a prisoner, Hugo Chavez returned to the palace to a hero’s welcome.

One of the best essays in this book is by the editor, sociologist Gregory Wilpert, in which he analyzes the reasons why some Venezuelans oppose Chavez. First he mentions some spurious reasons, such as the oft-heard complaint about human rights violations; this is absurd because there are no political prisoners, no censorship and the opposition enjoys nearly total freedom of assembly.

Another spurious argument is that Chavez controls the legislature, the Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office. This is not uncommon in democracies after landslide election victories—in the USA, for example, the Republican Party presently controls or has appointed the president, Congress, the Supreme Court and the attorney general.

One unarticulated reason is racism, because the white elite of Venezuelan society no longer have political influence. Chavez’ support base is the multiracial lower classes. The opposition complains that the president is dividing and polarizing the country. While his autocratic and flamboyant style creates the illusion that he is the cause of this, in fact he may be the result of it. Poverty is at the root of this class war, and in the past 20 years poverty has increased more in Venezuela than in any other Latin American country. Chavez’ reforms are targeted at fighting poverty, and hence his enthusiastic support comes from the poor while the opposition is composed of mostly the middle and upper class.

This is worsened by the constant media attacks on Chavez. All the newspapers and all the television stations but the government-owned VTV condemn him daily and denounce his mistakes, both real and imagined.

What is the future of this experiment at reducing poverty? The opposition argues that the dire economic situation demands IMF intervention. But the IMF will loan money only if its conditions are met, and these include privatizing the oil industry, ending land reform, reducing government spending on education, health care and services for the poor. Chavez refuses to end his fight against poverty and the dictates of global capitalism, hoping that the price for Venezuela’s oil remains high enough to continue financing his project.

The real hope for Venezuela is to adopt a plan that makes the country economically self-sufficient so that it no longer has to import the people’s basic necessities and can withstand threats of another opposition strike or a U.S.-led embargo. The plan must also achieve full employment and include the middle class, improving the all-round quality of everyone’s life.

This book is an excellent insight into the internal and external forces that are gripping Venezuela today. Copies are available by writing to email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article was printed in New Renaissance, Vol. 12, No. 2  Posted on the web on November 10, 2006