(Thanks very much to Richard Gott for sharing this material.)


by RICHARD GOTT (Verso Press, 2005)



1. The revolutionary decrees of November 2001, the resignation
of Luís Miquilena, and the mobilisation of the opposition

The great city of Caracas spreads over innumerable mountainous hills, and in the rainy season the peaks poke up through the clouds that hover in the valleys below. Several million people live on these steep slopes in distinctive ranchos, a word usually translated into English as ‘shanty-towns’ that does little justice to the reality. For these are not just settlements of corrugated iron and wattle-and-daub, though this is not wholly absent, but well-established homes of cheap bricks and breeze blocks set in concrete frames. Their defining characteristic is close proximity, each tiny habitation piled high above another, fighting for space.

  A vast mass of humanity passes by in perpetual movement. Some are white or of mixed race, but the great majority are dark-skinned, either black or of indigenous origin. Venezuela is poised geographically between Brazil and the islands of the Caribbean, and the children of slaves and Indians far outnumber those of the European settlers. The people are both cheerful and motivated, but in one of the richest countries in Latin America they live in permanent and absolute poverty. Education and health care are in short supply. So is work. Many people scratch a living as hawkers in the valleys below.

  The air is clear, and the views are breath-taking. The atmosphere is that of a hill town in mediaeval Europe, although the facilities are more modern. Water and electricity is notionally available, but rubbish removal is poorly organised and often piles up on the steep stone staircases and along the narrow terraces that criss-cross these immense urban conglomerations. These are unplanned pedestrian precincts, for no bus or car could negotiate the hills on which they are constructed. Security is the principal concern, with iron grills and locked doors being the most important and expensive element in house construction.

  From their hillside eyries the poor look down on the self-satisfied settlements of the rich, the ‘other’ Venezuela that has run the country since the Conquest, with the comfortable homes of the elite, the business class, and the foreign diplomats and journalists.

  This tiny minority of Venezuelans, mostly white, live in sprawling condominiums with maids and swimming pools; they shop in supermarkets; and they go to work in air-conditioned cars along spreading motorways. The image of South Africa comes to mind, the black township of Soweto contrasted with the white suburbs of Johannesburg. There is no legal apartheid in Latin America, but the phenomenon of racial division and injustice exists all the same. White settlers have ruled the continent since the time of the conquistadors, and in countries like Venezuela a steady stream of European immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries has reinforced the white elite. Its ingrained and often unrecognised racism continues to dominate the country’s politics.

  The abiding fear of the white population of Caracas over the years has been that the dark and impoverished citizens in the hills above would one day descend on their happy playground and wreak vengeance. The Caracazo of 1989 had left a raw memory of what could happen when the inherited systems of social control collapsed. Something similar, though without violence, was to happen in April 2002, when the shanty-town dwellers silently and spontaneously filtered down from their hilltops to block the streets and motorways, and to restore their president to power – briefly overthrown in an operetta coup d’état.

  A new era began in Venezuela in 1999, after a decade of economic and social crisis and the collapse of the old and corrupted political parties. Hugo Chávez appealed to the poor in the shanty towns to help organise a revolution, and they had already begun to respond at the very moment of his (temporary) overthrow in April 2002. Yet his style of government during his first years in power had created many enemies, and had increasingly irritated the country’s white elite. They disliked his radical proposals for land reform, and they hated his plan to halt the programme of privatising the oil industry devised by previous governments. Most of all, they feared his mobilisation of the poor. Senior generals, conservative businessmen, oil executives and media moguls, began to conspire against him – to seek his overthrow. By the end of 2001 this burgeoning opposition had formulated plans to stage a coup d’état - on the Pinochet model.

  The country had experienced a growing sense of crisis throughout the year. An ever-increasing number of large protest marches were staged in Caracas by the opposition, with the support of an unusual alliance between Fedecámeras, the employers’ federation, and the Venezuelan Workers’ Federation (CTV), the old trade union movement associated with Acción Democrática.

  These opposition protests were given a fresh focus at the end of the year after a government decree of November 2001 that introduced a series of 49 radical laws. This comprehensive raft of legislation was designed to revolutionise the country’s economic infrastructure, and to build on the changes already outlined in the new constitution of 1999. Some three years after Chávez had come to power, the ‘Bolivarian’ revolutionary process was beginning to change gear.

  The Ley Habilitante, or Enabling Law, that permitted the enactment of the new measures, was published in November with little prior warning. The government had suddenly woken up to the fact that the original authorisation, granted by the National Assembly in November 2000, had only been made for one year. The time was about to run out. Chávez announced the details while speaking on television from the Miraflores palace, and to emphasise the significance of the new legislation he was flanked by his Council of Ministers.

  The 49 laws were designed to regulate (among many other things) the tenure of land, the production and taxation of oil, and the operations of the fishing industry. One of the laws reversed the plans of the Caldera government to privatise the country’s social security system. The details of the new legislation had been prepared over several months by a committee chaired by the Vice-President, Adina Bastinas, an economist previously at the Inter-American Development Bank.

  The land reform law, always a subject of contention in Latin America, prohibited individual landholdings of more than 5,000 hectares, and gave the government powers to take-over and redistribute landholdings that were idle or unproductive. Venezuela’s landowners had dwindled during the years of the oil boom, for they had mostly moved over into industry and commerce. Yet the government’s threat to their large, and often underutilised and unprofitable acreage in the llanos affected their sense of amour propre. The land reform became a symbol of the Bolivarian revolution, indicating its intention to to make a dramatic change. Land reform was also extended to the urban areas. In a decree of February 2002, local committees were encouraged to survey urban land and to provide title-deeds to long-term residents.

  Ultimately more significant was the Hydrocarbons Law, which envisaged the collection of higher oil royalties, and insisted on state control of joint ventures with foreign companies. Drafted by Alvaro Silva Calderón, appointed minister of energy and mines after Alí Rodríguez became the secretary-general of OPEC, it established a minimum royalty rate of 30 per cent, to be paid by the oil company to the government. The aim of the radicals was to force the company to spend less on overseas investment and to provide more money for social projects at home. The new law marked an end to the hopes of the old guard of oil executives to privatise the company - and to open it up for sale to investors at home and abroad.

  This fresh twist in the revolutionary screw – the first real indication after the drafting of the new constitution that Chávez had a genuinely radical agenda – was a serious threat to the interests of the white elite and to the rulers of the oil company, and it led immediately to opposition protests – and the organisation of fresh street demonstrations. Opposition spokesmen declared that they had not been consulted about the new measures, and they objected to what they saw as a threat to private property. Chávez insisted that hundreds of experts and interested parties had been consulted, but he admitted that there had not been time ‘to sit down with everyone.’

  The first senior figure to protest publicly was General Guaicaipuro Lameda, the boss of Petroleos de Venezuela. General Lameda had been appointed by Chávez, but he had joined the ranks of those within the company who thought that it should be privatised. He attacked the new Hydrocarbons Law for requiring an increase in oil royalties. Chávez sacked him at once, and replaced him with Gastón Parra, an old-fashioned radical from the university. General Lameda transferred seamlessly to the opposition camp, and joined the plot to secure the overthrow of the president.

  The organisation of immense demonstrations and political strikes now became the opposition’s hallmark. Coupled with adverse opinion polls, which appeared to suggest that support for Chávez was slipping, the demonstrations gave credence to the widespread notion that the government was unpopular and under threat.

  There was also a serious weakening within the ranks of government. General Lameda had been a personal appointment by Chávez, and soon Luís Miquelena, the most important civilian adviser of Chávez since his days in the Yare prison, had also decided to abandon ship. In the early years of the Chávez government, he had been responsible for vetting all chavista candidates for the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Chávez had relied on him to navigate through the waters of civilian politics with which he had been wholly unfamiliar, and in the autumn of 2001 he held the important post of Minister of the Interior. Miquilena now felt the time had come to call a halt to the revolution’s forward march. In early December he asked for a meeting with Chávez, and told him bleakly that it would be necessary to abandon the new legislation. ‘They have been the cause of these protests and we should withdraw them,’ he said.

  Chávez replied that this was not the moment to slow down. It was time to move ahead with their project to transform the country. Miquilena disagreed, and set out his arguments. Chávez refused to accept them, and Miquilena was forced to resign – and he followed General Lameda into the opposition camp.

  Miquilena’s departure was a considerable blow to Chávez, not just because he had been an important ally but because he had a considerable personal following, both within the judiciary and in the National Assembly. Since many members of both institutions had been chosen by Miquilena for the Chávez list, the withdrawal of his support had a seriously negative effect. At the end of 2001 the government was on the verge of losing its majority in the Assembly, and its position within the judiciary was weakened.

  Miquilena represented the quite considerable group of Chávez supporters of the first instance, who had themselves been disenchanted with the ancien regime and who had hoped that Chávez might have been harnessed to their own rather modestly reformist agenda. Such people had begun to understand by the end of 2001 that Chávez was his own man, and could not be used by others. Opposition groups, encouraged by these important defections, now came to believe, wrongly as it turned out, that they were now in the majority, and could force the president to resign. They went on the offensive, effectively using street demonstrations to mobilise their supporters, and to give colour and credibility to their anti-government protest. In December they organised a general strike, the first of many.

  Chávez now sought to put fresh popular energy into his own ranks, and launched a new initiative: the ‘Bolivarian Circles’. His supporters were called upon to organise themselves into small groups of a dozen or more, who would undertake to campaign in their localities and neighbourhoods, helping people to understand how they could take advantage of government programmes. People were encouraged to organise themselves locally, to secure micro-credits from the government bank, and to form their small businesses into cooperatives. The principal purpose of the ‘Circles’ was to create a political organisation from those who had long remained outside society – and outside the formal structure of the existing political parties.

  The battle between government and opposition was now joined, taking the public form of rival street demonstrations, each side seeking to prove that it had the majority. In private, the government sought to shore up its political position, while the opposition rehearsed its plans for a coup d’état, seeking support within the armed forces – and in Washington. By the beginning of 2002 the scene was set for a trial of strength.

2. The first opposition threat: the coup and counter-coup of April 2002

 The atmosphere in Caracas in the early months of 2002 was explosive and conflictive. A sense of impending disaster spread over the city. Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations took place each week, as the country mobilised behind rival banners. Groups of retired officers, politicians from the old political parties, union leaders, and spokesmen for the Catholic hierarchy, united to denounce the government and to claim that they had support within the armed forces for a possible coup; newspapers and the private television channels kept up an endless litany of stories hostile to Chávez; and officials in Washington began to make critical comments about what was widely seen as a deteriorating situation.

  For experienced observers of Latin America, Caracas in April 2002 was growing to resemble Santiago de Chile in September 1973. No one had any doubt that a coup d’etat was in the making. Among those who knew more than most was the US Central Intelligence Agency. An intelligence brief of April 6, entitled ‘Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt’, described what was happening in Caracas:

  ‘Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organise a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month...[deleted] The level of detail in the reported plans...[deleted] targets Chávez and 10 other senior officers for arrest.’

  The brief went on to explain how the planned coup would unfold: ‘To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month.’ All the evidence indicates that the plot was known to the US government, yet no effort was made to inform the Venezuelan government of what was going on. Quite the reverse. The Americans had no desire to spike the plans of the plotters, since opposition leaders had visited Washington on several occasons in the early months of 2002 – and secured the go-ahead for their schemes.

  Washington made no secret of its dislike of the radical direction taken by the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’. The conspiracy against Chávez had been carefully planned by the country’s principal industrialists and businessmen, the leaders of the principal trade union movement, the owners of the main newspapers and television channels, the bishops of the Catholic Church, and conservative officers in the armed forces.

  The conspirators focussed their attacks in the early months of 2002 on the structural reform of Petróleos de Venezuela proposed by the government in the November laws, and so vehemently opposed by General Lameda. In April, a two-day strike was called to protest against these planned reforms, but its real purpose was to secure the downfall of hávez. Pedro Carmona Estanga, the president of Fedecámeras, the businessmen’s federation, and Carlos Ortega, the leader of the Venezuelan Workers’ Confederation (the CTV), had made a deal to work together. Their joint call for a strike, On April 11 and 12, was made with the explicit assumption that it would only be lifted after the resignation of the President. The strike turned rapidly into an insurrection.


 Thursday April 11, 2002. 

Early on Thursday morning, a large crowd began marching from Parque del Este, in the east of Caracas, to the main offices of the oil company in the city centre. There they were addressed by Ortega who called on them to continue their march to the Miraflores palace – urging them ‘to expel the man who has betrayed the Venezuelan people.’ Nothing loth, some 150,000 demonstrators marched on towards Miraflores. On the way, they were met by a comparable, though smaller crowd of Chávez supporters, hastily assembled that morning from the shanty towns. The forces of law and order took up positions between the two groups: the National Guard loyal to the President, and the Metropolitan Police controlled by Alfredo Peña, the Mayor of Caracas, another former Chávez supporter who had joined the opposition.

  The march concluded with a violent clash in the environs of the Miraflores palace, and several people were killed. Firing had apparently come from both sides, and the question of who bore the responsibility for these deaths became a matter of immediate and lasting controversy, but the majority of those killed were Chávez supporters.

  Several senior military figures, including General Néstor González González, then appeared on television to demand the President’s resignation, a request designed to appear as the culmination of a spontaneous crisis, caused in the heat of the moment by a popular explosion in which the government had lost control of the street. In practice, the march and the shootings had been carefully orchestrated.

  Already aware at midday of the dangers inherent in the situation, Chávez – in Miraflores - decided to unroll the so-called ‘Plan Avila’, an existing military plan designed to mobilise an emergency force to protect the palace and to resist an impending coup. One of the most senior and loyal officers in the palace, General Jorge García Carneiro, was given orders to set the plan in motion, but on contacting army headquarters at the immense military base of Fuerte Tiuna, to give the necessary commands, he was told that a group of generals there had plans to arrest the president. García Carneiro was also told that all exits from the base had been blocked. Military units wishing to leave, to come to the aid of the National Guard units outside Miraflores, would not be able to do so.

  Worse was to come. The palace soon discovered that a number of National Guard officers had joined the conspiracy, as well as a group of air force generals gathered at the Francisco de Miranda airforce base in the heart of the city.

  Chávez now sought to regain the initiative, making a speech on television on the national chain, which all private television stations were obliged to broadcast. The impact of his speech was neutered by the four principal private stations, who split the screen to show violent scenes in the streets outside Miraflores while the President was seen to be talking as though nothing much was going on. Chávez ordered the private stations off the air, but the order was not obeyed. Canal Ocho, the only channel at the government’s command, was conveniently sabotaged, apparently by electronic means, and unable to broadcast.

  Chávez called the military high command to come to Miraflores from Fuerte Tiuna for discussions, but the request was refused. Two of the most high-ranking officers, General Efraín Vázquez Velasco, the army commander, and General Manuel Rosendo, the head of the joint chiefs of staff (CUFAN – the Comando Unificado de la Fuerza Armada Nacional), were busy plotting his downfall.

  José Vicente Rangel, minister of defence at the time, noted later that most of the officers with command of troops, many of them loyal to Chávez, were assembled at the defence ministry building inside Fuerte Tiuna. This was a grievous error. ‘Instead of being at the head of their troops, they were all stuck in an office.’

  Many of these officers in Fuerte Tiuna, according to Chávez’s own subsequent account (in an interview with a journalist, Eleazar Díaz Rangel), were confused by the images they were seeing on the television screen, their immediate and principal source of information. The television channels had repeatedly shown pictures of Chávez supporters apparently firing on the opposition crowd of demonstrators, and a succession of retired officers had appeared on the screen to call for the president’s resignation. The odds seemed stacked against him.

  One channel played a dramatic video, repeated throughout Thursday evening, showing a naval officer, Vice-Admiral Ramírez Pérez, denouncing the government: ‘The President of the Republic has betrayed the trust of the people, he is massacring innocent people with snipers. Just now six people were killed and dozens wounded in Caracas.’ Only later was it revealed that the video had been recorded earlier in the day, in the presence of several journalists.

  Chávez might have believed that some of the officers at the Fuerte Tiuna base were confused and ill-informed, but he had no contact with them. At Miraflores he had little alternative except to prepare for armed resistance to the coup plotters – defended only by the Honour Guard at the palace, a few tanks, and a handful of the National Guard. He dressed in his military combat jacket and his signature red beret, and he took up a pistol and rifle. He also made a number of telephone calls.

  One was to his most important neighbour, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the President of Brazil, to tell him what was up. Others were made to the various regional military commands, to see if they had remained loyal. He received encouraging news from General Raúl Baduel in Maracay, and from the tank commander in Maracaibo. All was by no means lost.

  Within the palace the assembled ministers and loyal officers began to discuss their options. Would it be possible to fight? Would it be possible to get to Maracay and establish the government there? Some urged resistance, others were more cautious. The possibility of a negotiated settlement eventually came up for discussion. At about midnight, Fidel Castro called from Havana to ask what was happening. Recalling the fate of Salvador Allende in 1973, he told Chávez that he was on no account to sacrifice himself in a useless battle of resistance –‘no te vayas a inmolar’.

  ‘Save your people and save yourself. Do what you have to do. Negotiate with dignity. Do not sacrifice yourself, Chávez, because this is not going to end here. You must not sacrifice yourself.’

  Chávez was too important a figure for the future of Latin America, Castro argued, for him to allow himself to be killed off in a coup. The advice was wise and timely.

  Chávez outlined a scenario for a possible negotiated settlement to his closest advisers. He would be prepared to resign, but only on four conditions:

            1.    his resignation would be presented to the National Assembly;

            2.    the Constitution would be respected;

            3.    the physical safety of those present in Miraflores would be secured;

            4.    passage out of the country would be guaranteed for all.

  General Rosendo and General Hurtado were told by Chávez to take this offer to the coup organisers in Fuerte Tiuna, and he telephoned the Cardinal, Bishop Báltazar Porras, and asked him to go there. Chávez also phoned a number of ambassadors – those from France, China, Mexico, and Cuba – to keep them abreast of developments.

  Meanwhile, in Fuerte Tiuna, the coup leaders had gathered together at around midnight on the fifth floor of the main defence ministry building: Pedro Carmona was there; so too were two officers from the US military mission in Caracas, Colonel James Rodgers and Colonel Ronald McCammon. They had a suite of offices in the building, and, although the US ambassador had been requested to close them some months earlier, this had not been done. Also present was General Enrique Medina Gómez, the military attaché at the Venezuelan embassy in Washington, who had flown into Caracas earlier in the day.

  General Rosendo called from Fuerte Tiuna to Miraflores to announce that the coupmakers had accept the conditions that Chávez had proposed. Then, almost immediately, he rang again to say that they had been rejected. Chávez would have to resign unconditionally. Such an ultimatum was clearly unacceptable to the president.


Friday April 12, 2002.

   At this stage, and in these circumstances, in the small hours of Friday morning, Chávez withdrew his conditional resignation. He would sign no document, and he would offer no resistance at the Miraflores palace. He feared that even if he were to hold out overnight, there would be fighting and loss of life in the morning. More people would inevitably be killed. So he declared that the coup leaders would have to detain him, and General Rosendo and General Hurtado were ordered to return to Fuerte Tiuna to make clear his decision. The officers assembled at the military base were still, according to all accounts, vacillating and uncertain how to proceed. The coup was not proceeding according to plan.

  Under threat that tanks and planes would attack the Miraflores palace at dawn, Chávez agreed to go to Fuerte Tiuna, knowing that he would be detained on arrival. He was taken there at 4 o’clock on Friday morning, to find a number of generals from the Army and the National Guard awaiting him. The majority treated him with respect, according to his own account. The bishop had also arrived. ‘I also found there the two monseñores, Porras and Azuaje, and I went to sit beside them, and saluted them, and for a while we sat in silence.’

  Chávez had a sixth sense that once back in the military environment of Fuerte Tiuna he might be able to reverse – or at least ameliorate - the difficult situation in which he was now in. He noticed the differences of opinion amongst many of the officers and generals present. He understood that Pedro Carmona, the civilian candidate to take over as president, was somewhere in the building, but he did not see him:

  ‘General Fuenmayor León was the first to speak; he made an analysis of the situation and said he was asking for my resignation, in the name of all those present, in view of what they regarded as a situation of ungovernability.

  ‘I told them, with a serene voice that was a little louder than usual so that all could hear, that they should think long and hard about what they were doing, and what they planned to do – the responsibility that they were assuming with regard to Venezuela and the outside world – and I told them that I was not going to resign. They already had a piece of paper for me to sign, and I said that I was not going to so much as look at it.’

  Chávez then reiterated that he would only sign a letter of resignation if they agreed to the four conditions that he had already put forward. The generals made no reply.

  ‘I told them that I was not sure that they would be able to control the military, and that I had talked to various commanders who had assured me that they would not accept a coup d’état... I could see that I was catching their attention, since, clearly, some of them had been manipulated. Others began to take notice.’

  Chávez was interrupted by General Nestor González González, who perceived the dangers inherent in this line of discussion. ‘We have not come here to discuss anything’, he told the assembled gathering. ‘We know what we have to do; and I ask you to move into the room next door.’ The officers got up to leave, and stayed in the next door room for an hour, while Chávez remained behind with the bishops.

  When the officers came back, it was the turn of Vice-Admiral Ramírez Pérez to speak. One of the principal coup leaders, he said that the officers were not prepared to accept Chávez’s four conditions, and that they certainly would not allow him to leave the country: he would have ‘to answer to the people for the crimes he had committed.’

  Chávez replied that he would sign no statement of resignation, and that they would have to arrest him. ‘They should not forget that they were taking prisoner the President of the Republic, and they should do whatever they felt necessary.’

  At this stage, General Lucas Rincón, the most senior officer present, joined with the commanders of all the services to announce – in a declaration on television – that they had requested the resignation of Chávez, that he had agreed to resign, and that they would themselves now resign.

  Chávez was taken to a small room and allowed to change into shirt and jeans, and brought some breakfast. By then, it was 8 o’clock on Friday morning, and he had had no sleep for two nights. Fortunately for him, he was able to make two requests from the friendly soldiers who were guarding him: for a television set and a telephone. His requests were granted. On watching the television news programme, he saw immediately that the news of the coup was being falsely interpreted. The newsreaders repeated continuously that Chávez had resigned, and that the coup was supported unanimously by the armed forces. At the bottom of the screen appeared a permanent motif: ‘Chávez resigned; democracy restored’.

  With the gift of a telephone, Chávez managed with some difficulty to contact his wife, Marisabel, and his elder daughter, Maria Gabriela. As president, he was not accustomed to making his own telephone calls, and he had to phone first to Miraflores to get the numbers. He told his wife and daughter to try to get the correct news out to the outside world: he had not resigned; he was being held prisoner by the army; and he was in serious danger of being murdered.

  Marisabel managed to contact CNN, the American television channel, while Maria Gabriela was able to talk to Castro in Havana. Both CNN and Radio Havana were soon broadcasting the news abroad that Friday morning that Chávez had not resigned, but it took another day before the news was broadcast in Caracas.

  After making these very necessary telephone calls, Chávez was finally able to sleep for a few hours. When he awoke he was interviewed by two women from the military legal department. He reiterated to them that he had not resigned, and that he was therefore still the President of the Republic. Again he had a stroke of good fortune. The two legal officers prepared a statement about his health, and then, when the security guards had left the room, one of them added a few words at the bottom: ‘He said that he had not resigned’.

  The document was subsequently photocopied, and the message passed by fax to Isaias Rodríguez, the government’s chief legal officer. He, in turn, was able to appear briefly on television to declare that the president had not resigned. The word was beginning to get out.

  At midday on Friday, from his guarded room, Chávez was able to watch on television the swearing-in ceremony in Miraflores of Pedro Carmona as the new President. This was an extraordinary scene, in which the new regime proclaimed its attachment to democracy while ordering the close-down of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, the dismissal of the elected mayors and state governors, and the abolition of the Constitution. The word ‘Bolivarian’ was to be struck from the title of the Republic of Venezuela. The ceremony was controlled and managed by Daniel Romero, a former political secretary of Carlos Andrés Pérez. Armed squads were sent out to harass the homes and families of prominent Chávez supporters, and to surround the Cuban embassy.

  Carmona announced the formation of a new government, which included General Lameda as the head of Petróleos de Venezuela. Luis Miquelena also appeared at a press conference to give his support to the new government. Carlos Ortega, the union leader and one of the principal figures of the conspiracy, was left off the cabinet list - a serious political mistake. Another mistake was to order a complete restructuring of the high command of the armed forces, effectively dismissing many senior generals, including General Vázquez Velasco, the existing army commander and one of the leading supporters within the armed forces of the overthrow of Chávez. The representatives of organised labour and several senior senior generals were left looking rather foolish.

  The radical right wing programme of the new regim was not popular with many officers who had been prepared to countenance the coup, and they called on General Vázquez Velasco to preside over a meeting to discuss events, scheduled for 1 pm on Saturday - the following day. In the course of Friday afternoon, the tide was already beginning to turn against the coup plotters.

  Chávez claims that he later heard noises outside Fuerte Tiuna that seemed to indicate that people were mobilising there in his support, but he could find no one to confirm this news. People had in fact already begun to congregate outside the military base, shouting ‘Yo quiero ver a Chávez, we want to see Chávez.’ But soon Chávez was no longer there.

  After dark, he was told that he was to be moved from Caracas. He was taken out to a helicopter and flown westward along the coast to the naval base at Turiamo, outside Puerto Cabello. He did not know if he was to be deported - or to be killed. According to his own account, given to an audience in Porto Alegre, Brazil, nearly a year later, he thought his time had come:

  ‘Do you know who I remembered at that moment? I remembered Che. I remembered him because I had read somewhere that, a few years later, one of the eyewitnesses of his killing wrote that Ernesto Guevara was sitting in pain, wounded in the legs, when his killer came in holding a pistol. Then Che said, “Hold on a second, don’t shoot yet.” Laboriously he got to his feet, while leaning against the wall, and said “You can shoot now and you will see how a man dies”.’

  Yet Chávez, unlike Che Guevara, was to be spared.

The plotters had been in close contact with foreign governments, notably that of the United States and of Spain. The right wing Spanish government of José María Aznar had long been at the forefront of European efforts to oppose the Castro government in Cuba, and it had extended its support to the opposition to Chávez. On Friday morning, when the first news of the Caracas coup was flashed to the outside world, Spain and the United States were ready with a joint statement. The two governments requested that ‘the exceptional situation’ in Venezuela should lead in the shortest possible time to ‘democratic normalisation’ to achieve ‘a national consensus and the guarantee of fundamental liberties.’ The Spanish minister for Ibero-American cooperation, Miguel Angel Cortés, later explained that the text of the statement had been prepared after ‘five or six telephone calls’ with Otto Reich, at the US State Department. Reich, a former US ambassador to Caracas, had been in close touch with the coup plotters. He called the Latin American ambassdors in Washington into his office that morning to secure their support for the US-Spanish statement, but the great majority of the governments in the Organisation of American States came out in support of Chávez – to Washington’s surprise and irritation.

  The British government were not directly involved in the plot, but a junior British minister, Denis McShane, writing an article for the Times newspaper, to be published on Saturday April 13, shed no tears at the departure of Chávez, and described him as ‘a ranting, populist demagogue’. McShane told how he had met Chávez a few days earlier when he had been ’dressed in a red paratrooper's beret and rugby shirt and waved his arms up and down like Mussolini - an odd, disturbing spectacle.’ By the time McShane’s offensive diatribe was published, Chávez was already on his way back to power.


Saturday April 13, 2002

   Chávez woke up at the base at Turiamo on the morning of Saturday April 13. A young soldier brought breakfast, and asked him why he had resigned. ‘No, I didn’t resign,’ said Chávez. A young lieutenant came in and asked him the same question, and received the same answer. ‘Then,’ said the officer, ‘you are still the President, and these people have violated the Constitution. They are deceiving us.’

  The lieutenant brought news that Baduel, commander of the parachute regiment at Maracay, inland from Puerto Cabello, had refused to take orders from the new government of Pedro Carmona. ‘General Baduel has said that he will not recognise any government that is not yours. He has taken Maracay.’

  Chávez asked the lieutenant how he knew of this development. ‘My wife is there, and I’ve just talked to her on the telephone, and the people of Maracay are out in the streets.’

  What about other military units, asked Chávez. ‘I don’t know,’ replied the lieutenant, ‘but those of us here are with you’, and he led Chávez to understand that there was a plan to take him to Maracay, some two hours away by road.

  The coup plotters, anxious to avoid such a possibility, decided to move Chávez away from Turiamo, and he was taken off that day by helicopter to the small offshore island of La Orchila.

  In Caracas, meanwhile, isolated in the Miraflores palace, President Carmona had summoned the media owners and editors to a meeting on Saturday at midday. He needed to reinforce his support. Gustavo Cisneros of Venevisión arrived at his office, followed by Alberto Ravell of Globovisión, Marcel Granier of Radio Caracas TV, and Omar Camero of Televen. Also present were Miguel Henrique Otero of El Universal, and Andrés Mata of El Nacional. Cisneros suggested smoothly that the communications strategy of the new government should be left in their hands, a suggestion to which Carmona agreed.

  This should have been a moment of triumph for the media moguls, since this was the outcome that they had so strenuously worked for. Yet as they arrived at Miraflores for the meeting, the palace was already surrounded by a huge crowd of Chávez supporters, and soon they heard news of General Baduel’s insurrection in Maracay. The safety of the moguls, and the continuing future of the government, was by no means clear.

  Soon Colonel Jesús Morao Cardona, the commander of the president’s Honour Guard, located in a large building across the road from the palace, had decided that the moment had come for him to act. He had watched the events of the previous 24 hours in silence, but now the palace and the surrounding streets, and even the motorway down to the port at La Guaira, were occupied by the population of the hill-top shanty towns. They had surged down into the city to create an immense sea of people demanding the return of their president.

  Carmona and his advisers had imagined that his coup had bought the loyalty of the staff of the palace - and of the soldiers who guarded it. This was not so. The staff did their duty, and served coffee when requested, but their hearts were with Chávez. When Colonel Morao’s troops emerged from the basement tunnel that joined his headquarters with the palace, they seized as many of Carmona’s suppporters as they could. Others leapt into their cars and disappeared into the crowds. The humiliating scenes were captured on camera. Carmona himself fled to join the military plotters at Fuerte Tiuna.

  There, the meeting of senior officers with General Vázquez Velasco, scheduled for 1 pm that Saturday, was already under way. Here, too, the building was surrounded by thousands of people supporting Chávez and demanding his return. The meeting was hectic and confused, but several loyal officers complained that they had been lied to by the coup plotters. Where was the evidence that Chávez had resigned? ‘I never saw the resignation statement,’ said one commander. ‘I was deceived. No one told me that they were going to eliminate the existing order.’

  Generals who had initially supported the coup began to draft a second declaration. They would recognise Carmona as head of state but provide guarantees to the population that the social conquests of the Chávez government would be maintained. When handed the draft, General García Carneiro crossed out the name of Carmona and gave it to General Vázquez Velasco to read out on television. The private television channels that day, on instructions from their owners, had refused to show coverage of the shanty town dwellers seizing the city, and had entirely abandoned their morning news coverage. Only cartoons and old movies were on show. The general was forced to read his declaration over the phone to the channel of CNN.

  One of the loyal officers, General Garcia Carneiro, then went to speak to the crowds assembled outside the base. Climbing on a tank, and grabbing a microphone, he announced that the armed forces had refused to recognise the government of coup plotters, that they would not accept Carmona as commander in chief, and that they would do everything possible to ensure that Chávez returned to power.

  Carmona, meanwhile, had arrived at Fuerte Tiuna and was conferring with the coup plotters. Around 7 pm, he was arrested, together with the officers who had supported him. When he asked what crime he had committed, he was told that he had ‘violated the Constitution of the Republic’.

  Outside, the loyal officers acted as DJs before the enormous crowd, interspersing recordings of the protest songs of Alí Primera, the folk singer from the llanos, with short announcements that yet another provincial garrison had come out in support of the legitimate government.


Sunday April 14, 2002. 

  Finally, at 2 am on Sunday morning, news came through that Chávez was leaving La Orchila by helicopter and would be brought to Miraflores. Three helicopters had been sent from Maracay to pick him up. He arrived back at Miraflores at 3.45 that morning. Greeted by loyal troops and ministers who hd evacuated the palace just 48 hours earlier, he made an emotional speech to celebrate his return.

  Outside Miraflores, the crowds sang their new chant, developed from the sporting field and destined to become the iconic signature of the Bolivarian Revolution: ‘Ou, ah, Chávez no se va!’ an untranslatable appeal meaning ‘Chávez Please Don’t Go’.

  The coup had collapsed within less than two days, destroyed by just the alliance between soldiers and the people that Chávez had been so painstakingly constructing over the previous three years. The ill-fated Carmona became known as ‘Pedro El Breve’.

  Later that Sunday morning Chávez flew to Maracay to speak to Baduel’s paratroop battalion, rallying the troops with a stirring attack on the ‘oligarchs’ who had tried to bring down his revolutionary government.


Monday April 15, 2002.

   On Monday, Chávez had second thoughts. Seeking reconcilation in the country, and uncertain of his own strength and of the possibility of moving forward on a radical track, he called for a ‘national dialogue’ with the opposition. He acknowledged that there were ‘a large number of Venezuelans in disagreement with the government,’ and he agreed that the current polarisation was not ‘positive’ for the country. There needed to be communication among the different sectors of society.

  He now replaced his economic team with a group of less radical ministers, and he had also found a more emollient alternative for Gaston Parra and the other more nationalistic (or ‘patriotic’) directors of Petroleos de Venezuela. Yet far from welcoming these conciliatory gestures, the opposition perceived them as signs of weakness, and were soon again on the attack. The Supreme Court, where they had a majority, issued a ruling declaring that the April coup had been ‘a power vacuum’ rather than ‘a coup d’état’, and the detained coup plotters – both military and civilian, were set free. They continued to plan the overthrow of Chávez as though nothing had happened.


3. The atmosphere after the April coup

 To take the popular pulse in Venezuela after the April coup, I spent a fews days in the hills of Caracas, first visiting one of the more organised ranchos to the south of the city. A single road winds steeply upward through a bleak landscape of shacks and burnt-out cars, eventually arriving at a high plateau with panoramic views over the valley below. Half a million people live hereabouts, some in breeze-block huts, some in concrete residential blocks, some in tin shanties. Stopping at one of the schools, where 15 teachers cope with 1500 students, I asked a local organiser what had happened during the days of the April coup.

  ‘We have a cooperative radio here,’ he said, ‘and on the first day [Thursday] we called people to go down to the Miraflores palace. Some went in buses and lorries, others just walked.’ On the second day [Friday], ‘the fascist police came here to intimidate us - the repressive forces of the state [the local police controlled by Alfredo Peña, the anti-Chávez mayor of greater Caracas] - but they soon left.’ In the evening, the local population had been called out again to descend to the city, to the military base at Fuerte Tiuna. ‘The fascist police were still around, but many people went down. Some of the mothers stayed behind to look after other people’s children, while others organised food.’

  ‘We are not chavistas here,’ my informant was keen to tell me. ‘We are revolutionaries.’

  ‘We have to defend this government, but we are more libertarian than they are. We defend Chávez because he’s better than any president there has ever been. We think he’s the product of our struggle. People recognise him as an equal. Obviously he is Indian and Black, and maybe a little White!’

  ‘People went to rescue the president who had never done anything like that before. Now they have become very politicised, and are trying to organise themselves - more than ever before.’

  Not everyone in these hills supports the Bolivarian Revolution. In one small hut in a rancho in Catia, on the other side of the city, I found a self-employed plumber who expressed his disillusion with the government. ‘I voted for Chávez,’ he told me, ‘but now I regret having done so. I was completely deceived. I’ve seen no improvement. I don’t want conflict between rich and poor, because if that happens where will I get work?’ The plumber depended for his livelihood on his clients in the upper class section of the city.

  Echoing the views of the opposition, he argued that no coup had taken place in April. ‘There was a power vacuum, a coup by the government against civil society. The military were protecting the civilians. I might be mistaken, but Chávez should resign. This government has not given the results that were expected.’

  The shanty towns of Caracas had mobilised themselves to defend the president, but much of the population was still confused and divided. The April coup had been a defining moment for the revolution, but there was clearly much work still to be done.

  When I came down from the hills, I went to see the ‘comandante’, as they often call him, in his second-floor private apartment in the Miraflores palace. Chávez was sitting alone with some papers at the table of a sparsely-furnished dining-room looking out onto a roof garden. Dressed in slacks and an open-necked brown shirt, he looked relaxed and considerably fitter than when I had seen him six months earlier in Paris. I am a privileged visitor: we have met several times, and he greets me as an old acquaintance, with a friendly hug.

  A president used to glad-handing his way through pressing crowds of supplicants, an activity that he both enjoys and finds politically rewarding, he had been cooped up in the palace since the April coup, while his bodyguards – fiercesome figures in black suits carrying sinister briefcases that turn into bullet-proof shields – practice new drills. He was now perceived to be seriously under threat of a ‘magnicidio’, the word Spaniards use to describe the assassination of an important person. (An ‘asesinato’, the more usual word, is so common in the ranchos and barrios of Latin America – at least two dozen every weekend in cities like Caracas or Sao Paulo – that it has come to be synonymous with mere homicide.)

  Chávez himself was reasonably upbeat. ‘Almost anything is possible here, Richard,’ he told me, when I asked him to outline what he was now doing to combat the various strategies the opposition still had up their sleeve. ‘I’m sure they’re still thinking about a magnicidio, and for some of the most desperate ones, this must seem to be the only way out.’ Chávez had been warned of the seriousness of the threat by Castro a couple of years earlier, but he had only recently begun to take adequate preventative action.

  He was keen to emphasize that the people had given solid support to those elements within the military who had stood firmly in favour of the Constitution:

  ‘There was a rapid response to the coup, from both the military and the civilians. Hundreds of thousands of people all over the country came out against the coup. And where was it that they went to? They assembled at the army barracks, and they did so because of the existing understanding that had been built up between officers and civilians through the Plan Bolívar. It was because of the contacts that had been made between the military and the poorest sectors of society that the people supported the army.’

  The revolutionary project on which Chávez had originally embarked had involved a close alliance between the armed forces and the civilian population, and I asked him if this basic strategy had been affected by the coup, since senior members of the armed forces had clearly been found wanting.

 ‘We cannot ignore the possibility of another coup,’ he told me, but all was not lost. Although the Supreme Court had refused to take action against the coup plotters, Chávez himself had been able to move fast within his own very special area of responsibility. No civil justice had been available, but he had been able to promote his own form of military justice. Some 60 admirals and generals had been forced into retirement. 

  Chávez claimed that there would be no change in the overall strategy, but he admitted that there would have to be a revision in the speed and rhythm of military involvement in the country’s development programme. The strategy had derived from the experience of the early 19th century, when Simón Bolívar had created an alliance between the army and the people, and had made independence possible. Today the strategy was still viable, even if a handful of counter-revolutionaries had remained within the officer corps.

  I told Chávez that I had been struck by the fact that the television channels, in the weeks after the coup, had devoted air-time to the dramatic proceedings in the National Assembly, where a procession of generals and admirals implicated in the coup had appeared before a parliamentary sub-committee. It would be difficult to recall a time in Latin America when senior officers had been obliged to go through such a humiliating procedure, yet everyone was exquisitely polite during the interrogations. The generals were arrogantly self-righteous in their justification of their actions, since, although they had been placed on the retired list, they still imagined that they might make a come-back.

  One distinguished-looking officer in his fifties, with close-cropped hair and dressed in grey uniform covered with decorations, argued that he had acted during the coup out of duty to the nation and the armed forces. He echoed the traditional arguments of the opposition, complaining that the military had been dragged into politics, and that this had been an humiliation for the officers and their families. He recalled how people had clinked their glasses when an officer came into a restaurant, not as applause but as a gesture of contempt. This offensive behavious towards senior officers had happened, he said, to himself and his wife.

  Talking to Chávez, I recalled the case of General Prats, Allende’s commander-in-chief in Chile in August 1973. His family home in a comfortable Santiago suburb had been surrounded by middle class women, banging saucepans and calling for him to resign. Prats had felt obliged to go, paving the way to the promotion of General Pinochet. General Prats and his wife were subsequently assassinated by a car bomb the following year, when in exile in Buenos Aires. Was there not a danger in Venezuela of this pattern being repeated?

  Chávez was well aware of the problem:

  ‘An important number of senior officers have acquired a standard of living that is comparable to that of the upper middle class. They have been subjected to these pressures and attacks, in the places that they go to and within their family circle, and this certainly helped to undermine the unity and strength of this sector of the military leadership.’

  The pressure on the military had been substantial, said Chávez, yet many officers had been strong enough to hold out.

  ‘A considerable number of senior officers did not give in to these class pressures. They refused to allow themselves to be neutralised. At some personal risk to their lives, and their military careers, they stood up at the most critical moment and expressed their view in support of the constitution.’

  Chávez admitted that the possibility of another coup still remained. The failure of the April coup was a serious setback to the country’s traditional political class. It still had no popular mandate, but it would clearly continue searching for ways to overthrow him. One possibility was a ‘legal coup’, a demand that could theoretically have been made by the National Assembly to secure his resignation. Such a device had been much canvassed in the press. It had been used in Ecuador in the 1990s, and also in Venezuela in 1993, when Carlos Andrés Pérez was removed from office by the Assembly on charges of corruption.

  ‘Well, you’ve seen the pressure from the newspapers and within the National Assembly,’ said Chávez, ‘but I think it’s going to be very difficult for the opposition. I talked to our group of revolutionary parliamentarians the other day, and, after what happened during the coup, when many of them were pursued and threatened in their homes, they have drawn closer together. There used to be eighty-six, now there are ninety.’ The April coup had concentrated the minds of wavering deputies, and Chávez now had a clear majority in the Assembly.

  ‘They talk of ‘Chávez Lite’,’ he said with a smile, ‘or of “Chavismo without Chávez”, although I think that’s a myth. But they continue to insist on my resignation.’

  What about the possibilities of an economic coup, I suggested, recalling Henry Kissinger’s threat ‘to make the economy scream’ when he was planning the overthrow of Allende in the 1970s. ‘It’s quite possible they will try to generate economic trouble,’ said Chávez. ‘They may try to make the country “ungovernable”, according to their definition, as was done in Chile. I am sure that is one of the ways out that they are looking for.’

  Chávez made it clear that he was preparing for this possibility. On his side was the fact that he still retained a rock-solid majority – as he had throughout his early years in power - based on class and race. For the first time in Venezuelan history, the country’s hidden majority – black, indigenous, and mestizo – had a president with whom they could identify. Things might not have gone too well for them in the early years, maybe even sections of the poor had got poorer, but faced with the overt racism of the country’s traditional elite, Chávez was a president in whom they still had faith, and who they were still prepared to defend.

  Opposition leaders could point to their unusual capacity to mobilise large sections of the middle and upper classes in anti-government demonstrations on the streets of Caracas, but nobody knew what their real electoral strength might actually be. They were divided into a dozen individual parties, and could in no way be viewed as a solid electoral force. No obvious opposition leader had emerged, and no agreed programme was promoted.

  The April coup had thrown up a particularly hopeless businessman, Pedro Carmona, without a political bone in his body. His only programme was to abolish the national assembly and the new constitution, which had been long debated by a popularly-elected assembly and ratified by referendum. The general outlines of what an opposition government might have done were well-known. They would have re-introduced a neo-liberal programme, with attendant privatisations of state enterprises, of the kind applied almost universally in Latin America. They would have privatised the oil industry, withdrawn from OPEC, ceased cheap oil sales to Cuba, and increased production.

  The opposition’s mistake was to believe its own propaganda, a belief reinforced by battalions of newspaper columnists. Because the protest marches against the government had been unusually large, and because the opinion polls at the beginning of the year had appeared to indicate a decline in support for Chávez, a euphoric feeling arose in the upper middle class, and among its spokesmen and columnists, that one more push would bring about the president’s downfall.

  Yet in practice opinion polls in Third World countries provide no guarantee of accuracy, since the pollsters rarely reach the areas where the great majority of the people live. Protest marches, too, are an unreliable guide. They can be very large, yet this does not necessarily mean that this symptom of discontent can be translated into votes. Journalists and commentators in Caracas were unaccustomed to getting out and about, to make their own, old-fashioned, informed guesses about the state of public opinion. Their failure, and that of the media generally, became an important item on the national agenda in the months ahead.


4. ‘The four horsemen of the Apocalypse’: Venezuela’s media war

Few institutions in Venezuela were so closely scrutinised in the aftermath of the April coup as the media. The owners and editors of the newspapers and the private television channels had clearly played a significant role both in fomenting the coup and in influencing events while it was going on, as much by their absence as by their presence. The ‘mediatic’ coup was denounced by the government, and it soon became a case of how the media should not behave, celebrated and discussed internationally.

  The established Caracas dailies, notably El Universal and El Nacional, are traditional conservative newspapers of the kind that exist in most Latin American countries. They reflect the generally backward-looking ideas of the commercial and financial elite, and express warm sympathy and support for the political and cultural world of the United States. Although their owners had recognised in the 1990s that the ancien regime was coming to an end, and that possibly Colonel Chávez might have been a convenient vehicle that would help to introduce a new era not too different from the old, they had rapidly distanced themselves from his government during the early months of his rule, as the unfolding debate about the constitution revealed the emergence of a new and more radical Venezuela. They understood correctly that Chávez intended to break the mould.

  Since no powerful political party had survived to oppose Chávez, the Caracas dailies had, during the year leading up to the April coup, effectively moved into the vacuum, taking up a significant political role themselves. In earlier years, their owners and editors had been closely involved, through family and financial links, with Acción Democrática. With the collapse of their favoured political vehicle, and going beyond all internationally-accepted norms of fairness and objectivity, they campaigned relentlessly against the elected president.

  Unfamiliar with the techniques of reportage, these newspapers rarely, if ever, sent reporters out into the shanty-towns or the countryside to cover what was actually going on. Their tone was set by a stable of regular columnists whose social and political attitudes smacked of the library and harked back to the 19th century. Undoubtedly their commentaries reflected the ill-informed views of much of the country’s middle and upper class, yet they were also the leaders of elite opinion, helping to create a climate in which a Pinochet-style coup was both recommended and then welcomed.

  Among the more pernicious outcomes of this steady drip of venom from the local newspapers was its impact on the international press. Since foreign journalists in Caracas invariably lived in the bourgeois quarters of the city, and absorbed the views and attitudes of their neighbours and the papers that they read, much of the reactionary agenda of the white elite crept into foreign reports about Venezuela, and particularly about Chávez, referred to in agency reports as ‘a firebrand colonel’. Thus the image of the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ that reached the outside world was seriously distorted by the writings of a handful of foreign journalists, notably those writing for Le Monde and Liberation in France, the Economist and the Financial Times in Britain, El Pais and El Mundo in Spain, as well, course, as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Rarely have political developments in an important country – one of the great oil producers of the western world – been so inadequately reported and analysed by the foreign media.

  Particularly important in the distortion of reality was the use of dubious opinion polls by both the local and foreign press, creating a climate in which it was regularly assumed that Chávez’s support had dwindled to well below 40 per cent, and that therefore the large street demonstrations of the opposition represented a hostile majority that could not be ignored. The fact that the opinion polls could not and did not reflect the views of the population in the shanty-towns, nor in the rural areas, was never explained to readers. Nor was it clear whether the 60 per cent allegedly hostile to Chávez were actually supporters of the opposition.

  If the newspapers were hostile, the private television channels were openly subversive. Their owners were involved with the plotters of the April coup, and much of the action over the two days of the coup was reflected (or not) in the distorting mirror of the television output. On the first day, the channels gave priority to the opposition march, to the apparent news that it had been fired on by Chávez supporters, and to the continuous publication of the untruth that Chávez had resigned. On the second day, the media owners visited the Miraflores palace to express their solidarity with President Carmona, and then, as the coup crumbled, their television channels abandoned all attempts at objectivity. They refused to film the crowds coming down from the hills to call for the return of their president, and contented themselves with showing cartoons and old movies.

  Chávez, once returned to power, described the four privately-owned television channels as ‘the four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ – with some justification. Their owners were among the wealthiest individuals in the country, and they wielded their power with an awesome lack of social responsibility. Venevisión, the station with the highest ratings, was owned by Gustavo Cisneros, sometimes described as ‘king of the joint ventures’. An immensely rich man, intimately linked to political and commercial groups in the United States, Cisneros had built his empire through alliances with US-based multinationals, starting with Coca Cola and Pizza Hut and ending up with AOL Warner.

  Radio Caracas Television (RCTV), a station famous for its soap operas, was run by Marcel Granier, a multimillionaire with a penchant for collecting Ferrari cars. A third channel, Globovisión, was run by Alberto Federico Ravell and Ricardo Zuluaga, both once prominent supporters of Acción Democrática. Globovision’s 24-hour news channel was unrelentingly hostile to the government, while its ordinary channel carried a series of discussion programmes similar to the commentary-propaganda of the newspapers. A fourth private channel, Televen, was owned by Omar Camero.

  The two principal Caracas newspapers were also run by people formerly associated with Acción Democrática. Andrés Mata was the editor of El Universal, and Miguel Henrique Otero was the editor El Nacional. The Caracas dailies are a special case. Elsewhere in the country, the newspapers often adopt a more neutral tone. Unknown to most foreign observers, Panorama, a paper published in the oil-town of Maracaibo, in the west of the country, takes a remarkably independent line. Panorama is a wealthy, well-established, family-owned daily, with the second largest circulation in the country. In the weeks after the coup I flew to Maracaibo to talk to Estéban Piñeda Belloso, the only newspaper owner in Venezuela who had refused to join in the general media demand for Chávez to resign.

  It is easy to see why Panorama has been such successful paper. On the day of the counter-coup, when the Caracas papers closed down for a day in a state of shock at the defeat of the coup that they had promoted, Panorama kept going, producing no less than four separate editions, to report each successive stage of Chávez’s return to power.

  Piñeda is one of the most prominent, and successful, entrepreneurs in Maracaibo, and he told me how other newspaper magnates had tried to drag him into their conspiracy to overthrow the president. He had refused to join in, and after the April coup, he had withdrawn from the Bloque de Prensa, the national newspaper publishers’ association, in protest against its overt enthusiasm for the coup.

  Although his paper, which is widely read in the armed forces, does not campaign for Chávez, Piñeda was of the firm opinion that the president was anxious to do something for the 80 per cent of the population that is poor. He was one of the few people that I met that year who was optimistic about the future. He thought that an ‘economic coup’ was bound to hurt the businessmen involved more than Chávez, and he felt that the opposition’s efforts to get rid of the president by constitutional means were bound to fail. He was right.


5. The second opposition threat: the ‘economic coup’ of December 2002 

In the months after the April coup attempt of 2002, large sectors of the upper and middle classes continued their noisy protests against the government in their wealthy neighbourhoods. In response, the poor came down from their shantytowns at regular intervals to demonstrate their loyalty to ‘their’ president. The uncertain mood in the country, demonstrated in 2001, continued throughout 2002. The opposition, unchastened by its failure in April, again adopted the strategy of a general strike – called for December 2, 2002.

  This time, aware that they had little support in the large, unorganised, and largely self-employed sectors of the community, the opposition’s efforts were devoted to creating havoc in the strategic oil industry. They planned to bring Petróleos de Venezuela to a complete halt. The strike, more correctly a ‘lockout’ since it was called by Fedecámeras, and affected management more than the workers, was designed to cause the economy to collapse - and Chávez to resign. ‘Christmas without Chávez’ was the opposition slogan. This was the ‘economic coup’ that had been gestating since April.

  Hoping to achieve in December what they had failed to secure in April, the opposition soon discovered that the situation was no longer so favourable to their ambitions. The armed forces were now more solidly behind the president than before, since the most conservative generals no longer held important commands. None of the officers had been brought to trial, but the generals implicated in the coup had been sent into retirement. Now they could only grumble from the sidelines.

  The international situation was also different. The United States had welcomed the April coup, but by December it was faced with more important problems elsewhere; the planned invasion of Iraq was only months away. Washington was obliged to be more circumspect, and publicly threw its weight behind the formal negotiations between government and opposition that were sponsored by the Organisation of American States. These began in November 2002, and were conducted by Cesar Gavíria, the former president of Colombia and the leader of the OAU, and blessed by the former US president, Jimmy Carter. A negotiated solution to Venezuela’s political and social crisis was devoutly wished for by the outside world – though less welcome within.

  More significant than the changing attitude of the military and of the US was the increased mobilisation of the poor. The poor had voted repeatedly for Chávez since 1998, yet his revolutionary programme had been largely directed from above, without much popular participation. After the April coup, many of the less privileged realised that they had a government that they needed to defend. The repeated protest marches of the opposition had an unexpected effect. They conjured up a phenomenon that most of the middle and upper classes would have preferred to leave sleeping - the awakening political consciousness of the poor, and the spectre of a class and race war.

  Opposition spokesmen complained that Chávez was an incompetent leftist leading the country to economic chaos. Yet underlying the fierce hatred aroused within the traditional ruling class was the terror of this white elite when faced with the mobilised mass of Venezuela’s real population - black, Indian and mestizo. Although class played a role, it was racism that explained the degree of hatred turned against the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in the course of 2002. Venezuela’s racism was both old and new. At one level it dated back over five centuries, directed by the European settlers towards their African slaves and the country's indigenous inhabitants. At another it came from the new generations of white settlers from Europe that arrived in the 20th century, attracted by the economic promise of the oil industry. Such people were but loosely attached to their country of choice, and often ignorant of its human reality. Chávez - who made no secret of his aim to be the President of the poor – became the focus of their racist rage. Yet the rich were few and the poor were many. If the poor could be fully mobilised, the rich were outnumbered.

  Unequal in numbers, the opposition believed that they possessed a trump card in Petróleos de Venezuela. Nationalised more than 25 years earlier, the state-owned company had been run over the years for the exclusive benefit of its employees and managers - its profits being invested anywhere except Venezuela. Prior to the arrival of Chávez, the company had been made ready for privatisation, to the satisfaction of most of its engineers and directors – the potential beneficiaries of such a development. Chávez had put a stop to this possibility, for the clauses of the new Constitution of 1999 put a permanent block on privatisation. The company's now desperate elite were happy to enlist as the shock troops of the opposition. When the general strike was called in December, the oil company’s directors did their level best to bring their entire industry to a halt. Like the rest of the opposition, they wanted to provoke a regime-change.

  They were in for a shock. Chávez had prepared the ground well. On December 6, at the end of the first week of the insurrectionary strike, he celebrated the fourth anniversary of his electoral victory of December 1998. He had already displayed a Houdini-like capacity to escape from a tight situation in April. This time, he told his listeners, he was not going to allow himself to be surprised. The government knew what was going to happen, and it had made its plans.

  These worked well and, as December passed, the opposition grew increasingly frustrated by the failure of their strike action to have a political impact. The mass of the population bore the food shortages with equanimity. They tolerated the electricity blackouts, the oil scarcity, and the transport failures. By the end of December, Chávez was fighting back with vigour, leaving a divided and leaderless opposition - who never expected their strike to last beyond Christmas - with an uncertain future.

  In two areas of the oil company’s activity the government had failed to anticipate the extent of the strike action: the strike affected the company’s tanker fleet and its computer technology. Many tanker captains joined the strike, and it took time to seize their ships and put in skeleton crews. Securing the computers, and preventing sabotage, was an even greater problem. Chávez explained the extent of the sabotage in a speech at the beginning of January 2003:

  ‘You know that all these systems – all the industry – are computerised and systematised... The sabotage consisted in changing the adjustment points in the control systems. A variable had been introduced into the computers of the control systems so that the temperature in the boilers does not rise above 600 degrees, which is the temperature ceiling. Above 600 degrees, the plant reaches a dangerous level.

  ‘Well, these gentlemen not only abandoned their posts but changed the adjustment points before leaving. That is, they raised the ceiling from 600 degreees to 800 degrees centigrade. What would have happened if our patriotic and well-trained technicians had not checked these control systems and adjustment points well? What would have happened if they had started the systems and valves and all the operating system? When the temperature had gone above 600 degrees and reached 800, there would have been a disaster – an explosion.’

  Sabotage, like the strike itself, had the reverse impact from what was expected. Chávez was well aware that the opposition's attempt to cripple the oil industry - the icon of the country's nationalists – was not popular with the armed forces. At the start of January 2003 he was given carte blanche by senior officers to crush the strike. The army was brought in to guard the installations, the ports and the pipelines.

  With the strike defeated, the essential task was to bring the oil company back under government control. The corporation’s existing directors were sacked, and its entire structure was reorganised. It was split into two regional entities, and its centralised operations in Caracas were closed down entirely. An upbeat oil minister claimed that oil production would be nearly back to normal within a month. Chávez outlined the changes ahead for the oil company and its management in a speech in Caracas on January 5, 2003,

  ‘We have reached the far-reaching decision to begin a thorough restructuring of our company, Petróleos de Venezuela, to make it stronger and more efficient, and more responsive to the interests of the nation – and not to those of a small group of privileged people who would like to keep their sinecures indefinitely.’

  These executives, said Chávez, had been fired. They would now be legally accountable ‘for their wrongdoings and excesses’. The conservative management was replaced by the radical executives forced out in earlier internal struggles. Senior management were not the only ones to lose their jobs. One thousand strikers in the oil industry were sacked initially, then two thousand, and finally 18,000 lost their jobs – nearly half the workforce of 40,000.

  Ali Rodríguez outlined the scale of the problem in an interview in July 2004 with the American writer Greg Wilpert:

  ‘Almost 19,000 people left Petróleos de Venezuela, and among these were a majority of those who managed all of the operations of the corporation: exploration, production, transport, refining, commerce, supply, and finances. This obviously implied a problem in the reconstruction of all these systems.’

  Petróleos de Venezuela had been seriously overmanned, but slimming down the business would have been politically impossible had the managers not gone on strike. Since they had ‘abandoned their employment obligations for 62 consecutive days’, they were legally sacked, according to the terms of article 102 of the organic labour law. Ali Rodríguez explained how they had been replaced:

  ‘Despite the loss of all these employees, among whom were highly specialised people with long experience in the corporation, workers of the company were able to substitute for them... We also counted on the reincorporation of retired employees. A characteristic of the oil industry has been that in many cases people retire in their prime and go to work for other companies, within and outside the country, often as consultants...’

  A newly-confident Chávez continued a vigorous campaign against strikers elsewhere in a series of speeches in January 2003. He announced that troops would be sent in to stop the hoarding of food, and to keep schools and banks open. He also threatened to revoke the licenses of the four private television channels that had been actively campaigning for his overthrow. The period of dialogue and conciliation, embarked on after an unsuccessful coup attempt last April, was over. The damage to the economy had been devastating, and the government was now obliged to impose capital and price controls, in an attempt to stop capital flight.

  This change of mood in Venezuela was a reflection of a radical change sweeping over other countries in Latin America, coupled with an atmosphere of uncertainty in Washington. The election of left-wing presidents in Brazil and Ecuador provided a beacon of hope for Chávez, if not necessarily a life-line. Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was inaugurated in Brasilia on New Year's Day 2003, and Lucio Gutiérrez (another progressive former colonel) took office in Quito a few days later. Indeed the gathering of Latin American presidents in Ecuador for the ceremony saw the formation of a group of ‘friends of Venezuela’, designed, through the good offices of the Organisation of American States, to find a peaceful solution to the Venezuelan crisis.

  Meanwhile the trumpet in Washington continued to sound with an uncertain tone. Otto Reich had failed to secure the support of Congress for his appointment as the government's chief Latin American operative, and his departure was a blow to the neo-conservatives in the US government. So too was the resignation of Mexico's pro-American foreign minister, Jorge Castañeda. Democrats in the US Congress were now beginning to make themselves heard, with a group of them coming out with a message of support for Chávez.

  To the dismay of the opposition, Chávez now embarked upon a radicalisation of what he had always perceived as ‘a revolution’. The country's poor were now mobilised behind him in a way that would have been unimaginable a year earlier. When several schools joined the strike, parents and pupils organised themselves in the poorer shanty-towns to keep them open. Banks, newspapers and television channels began for the first time to be seriously preoccupied by the perceived threat of expropriation.

  The opposition, caught on the back foot, remained a formidable force - a bizarre assortment of discredited politicians and trade unionists from the ancien regime, of oil executives from the nationalised oil company, of important business interests, of media magnates, and of large swathes of a middle class with their feet in Venezuela and their hearts in the suburban culture of the United States.

  Yet the failure of the December stoppage had left them disheartened. Chávez had been able to defeat them once again by conjuring up the country's forgotten underclass, unleashing forces that would be difficult for him, or for any alternative government, to put back into the bottle. Venezuela was visibly changing.


 6. Providing food and education to the people: the development of the ‘missions’, 2003-2004

 The defeat of the oil strike, and the establishment of government control over Petróleos de Venezuela, introduced an entirely new and yet more radical phase in the development of the Bolivarian Revolution. For the first time, the government was able, as it were, to seize the nation’s oil pipelines and to point them directly into the shanty towns and the rural areas. In the course of 2003, huge sums of oil money were redirected into imaginative new social programmes, known as ‘Missions’, that were gradually established throughout the country.

  The Missions fought against illiteracy, provided further education for school dropouts, promoted employment, supplied cheap food, and extended a free medical service to the poor areas of the cities and the countryside, with the help of thousands of doctors from Cuba. The oil company buildings in central Caracas, emptied of their bureaucrats, were commandeered to serve as the headquarters of a new ‘Bolivarian’ university for the poor, and oil money was diverted to set up Vive, an innovative cultural television channel that began to break the traditional US mould of the Latin American media.

  The ‘Missions’ were established to bypass the lethargic bureaucracy of the state, which had remained largely in the hands of the opposition. Thus the various educational missions were not run initially by the ministry of education, nor was the health mission in the hands of the ministry of health. These were the singular products of the Bolivarian Revolution, developed outside the institutions of the ancien regime. The sense of purpose and enthusiasm they engendered recalled the atmosphere of the early years of the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s.

  The most immediately important mission was ‘Misión Barrio Adentro, an extraordinary medical programme, staffed by Cuban doctors in the poorer neighbourhoods of Caracas and other cities, and stretching out into forgotten areas of the countryside. Cuba had been exporting health practitioners throughout the Third World over many years, and more than 40,000 were working in the 1990s in many countries in Africa and Latin America. Venezuela had benefitted from this programme since 1999, when a couple of hundred Cubans had arrived to set up a few health centres.

  A new and enlarged programme was started early in 2003, under the auspices of Freddy Bernal, the dynamic mayor of Libertador, the largest municipal administration in greater Caracas. More than 8,000 doctors came from Cuba, and, working in pairs, they set up shop in the shanty towns, squatting initially in people’s houses, and working in community centres. A year later many were operating from freshly constructed accommodation. During this second year, the number of doctors increased to more than 13,000 Cuban doctors, working along 5,000 Venezuelan health assistants. At the same time, many Venezuelan patients were sent by the planeload to Cuba for advanced medical treatment, while hundreds of young Venezuelans were sent to Cuba to study.

  The political impact of these programmes was immediate, and wholly beneficial to the Chávez government. Previous governments, notably in the 1970s, had tried to do something similar, but the ambulatorios of that era were only a memory by the end of the century. The scale of Barrio Adentro (Into the heart of the shanty town) was something entirely new. I visited several of them in 2003 and 2004, in both town and country, and the enthusiasm and commitment of the Cubans, and their warm reception by local people, was a clear indication of the forward march of the revolution. Many of the Cubans had already had experience of working in Third World countries – in Haiti and Honduras, in the Gambia and Angola – and this was their first chance to see a Latin American society so dramatically divided between rich and poor. They provided a local health service 24 hours a day, week in week out, and had soon become a familiar institution in the locality.

  Their makeshift dwellings in the first year were replaced in 2004 by custom-built, two-storey brick buildings with an hexagonal design, housing a clinic on the ground floor and with living quarters above. The doctors were paid US$250 a month for their local expenses, while the medicines were provided free by Cuba. The doctors put particular emphasis on preventative medicine, and in the second year they were able to offer dental treatment and eye care.

  A second programme, Misión Robinson, was a literacy campaign. Although run by Venezuelans, it took its cue from one of the early triumphs of the Cuban Revolution in 1961. This was an alphabetisation programme, designed in the first instance to teach 1 million people to read and write, and to use basic arithmetic. Misión Robinson took advantage of more recent Cuban experience in this field in other countries of the Third World. Where once Cuban students had gone out with pencils and notebooks, the Venezuelans were provided (by Cuba) with television sets, video recorders, and reading glasses, and the printed manuals (some translated into indigenous languages) necessary for a mass literacy campaign in the 21st century. The project was named after Samuel Robinson, the nom-de-plume that Simón Rodríguez gave himself to honour Robinson Crusoe, the hero invented by Daniel Defoe.

  An additional literacy programme, Misión Ribas, was designed to provide a service to young adults who had fallen out of school - a serious problem in most Third World countries - and wished to continue their secondary education. In 2004, some 600,000 students were enrolled in this night school programme, being taught grammar, mathematics, geography, and a second language. The course was scheduled to last for two years.

  Misión Ribas was named after another distinguished figure of the early 19th century. José Felix Ribas, a participant in the wars of independence, was born in 1775, and married to Josefa Palacios, the aunt of Bolívar. He fought in the battle of La Victoria in 1814, declaring famously that ‘we cannot choose between victory or death, we have to be victorious’. The following year he was betrayed by a slave, and captured by Spanish forces. His severed head, boiled in oil, was displayed in Caracas in a cage.

  Another project, Misión Sucre, called after the conqueror of Bolivia, was directed towards those with a high school diploma (or a diploma from Misión Ribas) who needed additional preparation before entering a university. Some 70,000 students were enrolled in this programme during its first year of operation.

  Yet another programme, Misión Vuelvan Caras, was designed to help the unemployed. Students who had passed through Misión Ribas and Misión Sucre were provided with assistance to find work, the aim being, in the first year, to reduce unemployment by 5 per cent.

  A number of other missions with a specific remit were developed in the course of 2004. Misión Identidad was a voter registration drive, designed to ensure that the entire population was registered on the electoral roll. As well as locating those without papers, it arranged for hundreds of thousands of foreigners, having lived in Venezuela for many years, to be formally nationalised and given voting rights. The majority of those without papers came from Colombia and Ecuador, but many were Europeans who had never troubled to register before.

  Three other missions dealt with groups in the rural areas: Misión Zamora was a programme to look after peasants; Misión Piar was devoted to the problems of mining communities; and Misión Guaicaipuro dealt with indigenous groups. And finally Misión Mercal was established to build and operate supermarkets, to provide cheap food for the urban population.

  The opposition opposed the new projects bitterly during the first year, and dismissed them as ‘populist’, a term customarily used with pejorative intent by social scientists in Latin America. Yet faced with the tragedy of extreme poverty and neglect in a country with oil revenues to rival those of Saudi Arabia, it was difficult to see why a democratically elected government should not have been allowed to embark on crash programmes to help the most disadvantaged. So successful were they that even opposition supporters - during the election campaigns of 2004 - were obliged to admit that they would maintain spending on these projects were they to be elected.


7. The third opposition threat: the recall referendum of August 2004

 Ever since the radical programme of the Bolivarian Revolution had been spelt out in the ’49 laws’ of November 2002, the opposition to Chávez had sought his overthrow. They had organised a coup in April 2002, and a strike at the oil company in December. Both had been unsuccessful, and they were now left without a strategy. What else could they do?

 One fresh possibility that emerged in 2003 was a campaign for a referendum, permitted under the constitution, to revoke the president’s mandate. If the opposition could secure the signatures of 20 per cent of the registered electorate, this could trigger a referendum that would ask whether Chávez should continue or cut short his presidency. The opposition, now united in an umbrella organisation called the Coordinadora Democrática, were confident that they would win such a contest.

They turned for help to the former US President Jimmy Carter. His ‘Carter Centre’ in Atlanta had made a speciality of checking election campaigns in distant countries, and in verifying their results. Carter himself had taken an active interest in the continuing political crisis in Venezuela during the course of the oil stoppage, and - in tandem with the Organisation of American States – he had put forward a number of initiatives. He visited Caracas in January 2003 and again in May, and eventually supported the idea that the opposition, should organise the gathering of signatures - for what became known as the ‘recall referendum’.

In December 2003, after several months campaigning, the collection of signatures took place up and down the country over a period of four days. Booths and tables were placed in streets and markets, and the event took place in an atmosphere of civic pride. At its conclusion, the opposition claimed to have collected 3,477,000 signatures, sufficient to provoke a referendum.

The government, for its part, insisted that there had been widespread fraud. The National Electoral Council (CNE) took note of their claim, and began an intense scrutiny of the signature lists. After much argument, the CNE pronounced that only 1,911,000 signatures were legitimate. Of the rest, 375,000 were judged to be invalid, and 1,200,000 were considered to be of doubtful legitimacy. To achieve the 20 per cent figure required for the recall referendum, some 525,000 of the ‘doubtful’ figure would need to be legitimised through a fresh scrutiny of the votes cast.

After several months of wrangling between government and opposition in the early part of 2004, both parties agreed that the CNE could permit signatories to confirm their signatures, and this formal procedure took place over a period of three days at the end of May 2004. On June 3, the CNE announced the result: there were sufficient signatures to permit the holding of a recall referendum.

To general surprise, Chávez accepted the challenge with relish. He said that he welcomed it, pointing out that he himself had been instrumental in including the referendum clause in the constitution. In practice, he knew that he was in a strong position, and his campaign struck the country like a whirlwind. It played to all his strengths as a military strategist and a political organiser. Soon he had put together a voter registration drive, reminiscent of the attempt to put black people on the election roll in the United States in the 1960s, and this was to produce hundreds of thousands of new voters. He also embarked on a campaign to give citizenship to long-term immigrants. Thousands of these migrants had never become naturalised. Now they were not just permitted, but actually encouraged, to take up their right to citizenship, and most of them, of course, favoured Chávez. The CNE calculated that between 2 and 3 million new voters were registered in the months leading up to the referendum. As the campaign got underway, Chávez supporters were organised to patrol the shanty towns and the most remote areas of the country to get the vote out with maximum efficiency.

An unexpected bonus for Chávez in the course of the year was the dramatic and perhaps semi-permanent increase in the world oil price, to nearly 50 US dollars a barrel. This was a five-fold increase in as many years, the result of the American war in Iraq, the general decrease in world oil supplies, and the increased demand from China and India. The firm stand of Opec, orchestrated by Venezuela, had also played is part. Much of this extra oil revenue went into the various health and education ‘Missions’ in the shanty towns, which undoubtedly became a powerful inducement for the population to vote in favour of Chávez.

The image of Chávez at home was also helped by the changing political attitude towards him abroad, particularly in Latin America. After nearly six years in power, armed with little more than revolutionary rhetoric and what was, after all, little more than a moderate social-democratic programme, Chávez had become the leader of the emerging opposition in Latin America to the neo-liberal hegemony of the United States. Other presidents were climbing over themselves to be photographed with him, to share in his reflected glory. He patched up relations with Colombia and Chile, hitherto cool, and in July he reinforced his friendly relations with Brazil and Argentina, signing an association agreement with their Mercosur trading union.

  Once perceived by his neighbours as a bit of an oddball, Chávez now appeared as a Latin American statesman. Up and down the continent he had become the man to watch. Closely allied to Castro, he had begun to rival the Cuban leader in his fierce denunciations of George W Bush, voicing an anti-imperialist strategy that went down well with most Latin Americans. His message was heard not just in Venezuela but in the rest of the continent, where the elites were virtually alone in their endorsement of the economic and political recipes devised in Washington. Chávez had retained his popularity as a result, while support for overtly pro-US leaders in Latin America - Vicente Fox in Mexico and Alejandro Toledo in Peru - had dwindled to nothing. Even the politically cautious President Lula in Brazil was seen to be struggling in the polls, with the loss of control over Sao Paulo and Porto Alegre in state elections at the end of 2004.

  The Venezuelan opposition, united in the Coordinadora Democrática but divided politically and with no charismatic rival to Chávez to front their campaign, continued to behave as though their victory was certain. They imagined fondly that they would achieve a victory comparable to that of the opposition to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990. They discussed plans for a post-Chávez government, and watched closely the ever-dubious and endlessly conflicting opinion polls, placing their evaporating hopes on the ‘don't knows’. Yet their referendum campaign was dull and lacklustre. They simply did not have sufficient supporters on the ground to match the panache and fervour of those in the Chávez camp. Their third attempt to derail the government was clearly doomed long before the polls opened.

  On August 15, 2004, to the dismay of the opposition, and to the surprise of international observers gathered in Caracas, Chávez secured a stunning victory. The referendum designed to lead to his overthrow provided him with an overwhelming majority. Some 5,800,600 people (59.25 per cent) voted for Chávez to remain as president, while 3,989,000 (40.74 per cent) wished him to go. The Chávez victory was the opposition's third defeat in as many years. They cried ‘fraud’ immediately, but no one paid much attention, especially after the result was endorsed by Jimmy Carter and the observers from the OAS.

  Chávez now had to be recognised as the undisputed president, and, as if to show that the referendum result was no mere fluke, it was followed by further victories at the election for mayors and state governors two months later. When the results came in on 31 October, 20 out of 22 states were shown to have voted for the Chávez candidate. Juan Barreto, the government candidate, won Greater Caracas, formerly controlled by Alfredo Peña, while Diosdado Cabello won the nearby state of Miranda, formerly held by Eugenio Mendoza. Of the important states, only Zulia remained in the hands of the opposition.

  After nearly six years in power, Chávez was now in an unprecedented and unassailable position. He was a president backed by the popular vote, he had a majority in the National Assembly, and he had the support of almost all the regional governors. This was the moment he had been waiting for after the long years of fighting off the coup attempts of the opposition. Now at last he had an opportunity to put his programme into practice, and to plan for a more ordered and less hectic, less improvisational form of government. He moved swiftly to re-establish his authority, and his revolutionary credentials.

  First he put the final touches to the government’s control over Petróleos de Venezuela, a process that had begun the previous year after the failure of the oil stoppage. He appointed Rafael Ramírez, the minister of energy and mines, to take over the corporation, replacing Ali Rodríguez. The significant of the appointment lay in the fact that Ramírez retained his position as minister of energy. For the first time, the representative of the elected government had direct control over Petróleos de Venezuela. Ali Rodríguez, meanwhile, the architect of so many reforms of the oil corporation and the protagonist of so many battles, was appointed minister of foreign affairs. He was charged with spearheading a new oil-based foreign policy, involving fresh initiatives in many lands, and beginning the task of bureaucratic reform in a ministry still harbouring innumerable place men and women from the previous era.

  Next Chávez turned his attention to the newly-elected regional governors. They were expected to prepare development plans for their states that would be considered by a new policy-making body, the ‘Ente Coordinador de la Presidencia’, that would produce a programme for the next stage of the Bolivarian Revolution. In the meantime, they were urged to move ahead with the agrarian reform that had lain dormant since 2002.

  The third important change was the further reform of the judiciary. The Supreme Court and its composition had been a bone of contention between government and opposition ever since the Court had failed to bring the coup plotters of April 2002 to justice. The Court, controversially, had ruled that there had been ‘a power vacuum’ rather than a coup d’état, and generals and civilians implicated in the coup and arrested had been swiftly set free. The Congress now agreed to enlarge the Court, appointing 17 new judges and bringing the total from 20 to 32. With the increase in numbers, the government hoped to speed up and clean up an inefficient and corrupt system of justice. Opposition spokesmen claimed, inevitably, that this would lead to government control of the Court, and those involved in the April coup began consulting their lawyers.

  A fourth change on the domestic front was the start of a more robust attitude by the government towards the delinquency of the privately-owned media. A new media law was passed by Congress to regulate the behaviour of radio and television, and the newspapers. The opposition and its international allies expressed concerns about the freedom of the press, although the new laws merely brought Venezuela into line with similar legislation in the countries of western Europe. Samuel Moncada, the Oxford-educated minister of higher education, noted that the laws were designed to create ‘democratic control over the media’.

  While the opposition and the media were debating these changes, Chávez cleverly withdrew from the domestic scene in November and December 2004, to repair his alliances with distant friends in the oil business. He travelled first to Libya and Iran, and also to Russia, to Spain, and to Qatar. He needed to shore up Opec’s commitment to a stable oil price, and to ensure that Vladimir Putin’s recovery of the old Soviet state-owned oil industry – privatised in the Yeltsin era and handed over to gangsters – would mean tacit support for Opec’s objectives. He was not disappointed. Russia would put money into the modernisation of the oil industry of Venezuela and would also sell helicopters and assault rifles to the armed forces. Iran promised further cooperation, while Spain, under its new socialist government, was also keen to cooperate. The Spanish were anxious to erase the memory of the Aznar government’s support for the April coup. In Qatar, Chávez visited the studios of Al-Jazeera, the radical Arab television station, with a view to securing advice for the Latin American channel that he hoped to inaugurate.

  Chávez, with his professed interest in a multipolar world, wanted Venezuela to diversify its diplomatic and commercial contacts so that it might eventually escape from its eternal position of dependence on the United States. China was high on his list of potential friends, and he secured a warm welcome in Beijing in December, repeating his enthusiasm for Mao Tse-tung that he had voiced on his previous visit in October 1999. ‘I think if Mao Tse-tung and Bolívar had known each other they would have been good friends because their thinking was similar,’ Chávez told his Chinese hosts. ‘Their inspiration came from the same place. It came from humanitarianism... I think if Bolívar had come to China he would have become a socialist.’

  The Chinese listened politely, and signed up for a series of economic exchanges, including the purchase of Venezuelan oil and the sale of a satellite, for possible use by Chávez’s Latin American station.

  Chávez had one further important call to make at the end of 2004 – to Havana. Fidel Castro had invited the unknown Venezuelan colonel to Cuba ten years earlier, in December 1994, to give a lecture on Simón Bolívar at the University of Havana. His bet on Chávez had proved to be one of Castro’s better investments in foreign politicians. Chávez had just come out of prison at the time of his first visit, and his future was far from clear, but Castro was guilty of insider trading. He knew perfectly well that Chávez was a left wing officer, in contact with pro-Cuban leftist groups in Venezuela, and possessed of considerable popular appeal. In the perennial Cuban search for allies on the Latin American mainland, Chávez was clearly worth a small punt.

  Yet even the well-informed and farsighted Castro must have been surprised by the return on his investment. The two leaders now gathered again in Havana in December 2004 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first meeting. They addressed a meeting in the Karl Marx theatre in which Castro reminded the audience of Chávez’s optimistic and outspoken speech at the University of Havana ten years earlier, and praised him for his ‘qualities as a great revolutionary’:

  “You promised to come back oe day, with your hopes and dreams come true. You have returned, and you have returned a giant, now not only as the leader of your people’s victorious revolutionary process but also as an important international figure, loved, admired and respected by many millions of people all over the world – and especially by our people.’

  Chávez and Castro then criticised the US scheme for a free trade of the Americas, and proposed their own plan instead: the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. This would eliminate trade barriers and tax obstacles, as well as providing incentives for investment and increasing cooperation between banks.

  The two leaders also signed an agreement that would codify their close relationship. Venezuela would never be able to replace the old Soviet Union as the milch cow of the Cuban revolution, but Chávez’s promise to fund a number of industrial and infrastructure projects in Cuba were very welcome to a country whose economy was still seriously distorted by the US embargo, first imposed in November 1960 and ratched up in the years since. Yet more significant was the provision to Cuba of Venezuelan oil, at a minimum price of 27 US dollars a barrel (almost half the world price at that moment), flowing across the Caribbean at the rate of 53,000 barrels a day.

  Cuba, for its part, as Chávez pointed out, had been providing Venezuela with 13,000 doctors, spread out in newly-built health clinics across the country. This extraordinary Cuban initiative had played an important role in securing the Chávez victory in the referendum.

  It was just five years since Chávez and Castro had joined together in the friendly game of baseball that was described at the start of this book. Many dramas had occurred in both countries during the following years, and the close personal friendship between the two leaders – one a revolutionary autocrat with vast intelligence and experience, the other a revolutionary soldier on a fast learning curve, with a pacifistic outlook and a profoundly democratic sentiment – had played an important role in their development.

  Opposition leaders in Caracas have often attacked Chávez for seeking to ‘Cubanise’ Venezuela, and it is certainly true that Chávez has drawn much comfort and inspiration from the example of the Cuban Revolution. Yet the trajectory of the Bolivarian Revolution has proved to be very different from the experience of Cuba, occurring at a different time and in a different place. Venezuela, unlike Cuba, had a strong democratic tradition in the 20th century which has been upheld and respected by Chávez. Venezuela, also, unlike Cuba, does not have a lasting quarrel with the United States that dates back for nearly two centuries.

  Yet revolutions in Latin America in the former colonies of Spain are bound to have certain familiarities and complementarities. There is a shared historical experience of conquest and settlement, of slavery and extermination, and of struggle against racism and colonialism. The twin legacy of Simón Bolívar and José Martí are recognised and acknowledged in both countries. With wisdom and good fortune, Cuba may one day be ‘Venezuelanised’, opening up to the kind of democratic practice that has proved so successful in Venezuela. If the ‘Cubanisation’ of Venezuela were to lead to the permanent establishment of the social programmes that have made Cuba a legendary example throughout the world, then all Venezuelans, and not just the great poor majority, might well come to appreciate its advantages.




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