US Pushing for a Coup d'Etat
by Maximilien Arvelaiz & Temir Porras Ponceleon
CovertAction Quarterly, Spring 2002
President Bush's statement in the wake of 911 that "either
you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" is clear:
From now on, those who are not "100% with the USA" may
be branded as terrorists. Until recently, only the so-called rogue
states had been threatened by the Bush administration, but now,
a traditional ally, with a democratically elected government,
has also become a target.
On February 5, Secretary of State Colin Powell, questioned
by Senator Jesse Helms, expressed unhappiness with Hugo Chavez.
He was distressed by the fact that the Venezuelan president was
being less than fully supportive of the anti-terrorism campaign.
Powell also questioned, without elaborating, Chavez's "understanding
of what the democratic system is all about.''
The following day, George Tenet, director of the CIA, followed
up on Powell's statement, commenting on "the growing internal
opposition to President Chavez," and predicted that, due
to the fall of oil prices, oil being Venezuela's main source of
income, the "crisis atmosphere is likely to worsen."
Needless to say, this sort of comment could hardly ease the "crisis
atmosphere." At no other time since the beginning of the
Bolivarian Revolution in 1998, had US officials intervened so
abruptly in Venezuelan affairs. Yet they did so at a time when
the political situation in Venezuela was particularly tense. Washington's
warnings took on the appearance of self-fulfilling prophecies:
During the following week, the massive flight of capital (US $100
million per day) forced the Venezuelan government to take emergency
Following a period of steady deterioration, US-Venezuelan
bilateral relations seem to have reached a point of no return.
Back in the Clinton days, the US government had adopted a "wait
and see" policy toward President Chavez, and tolerated some
uncolonial behavior from the former paratrooper (e.g, visiting
Iraq, establishing close links with Cuba). They didn't really
have much choice. When Chavez took office, he found a country
exhausted by ten years of social unrest and permanent political
crisis. After several decades of ruthless corruption and the political
class's inability to respond to basic social needs, the Venezuelan
population unanimously rejected a regime that was once considered
a model of democracy. Given that Venezuela is one of the US's
main oil providers, and that it contains among the world's largest
proven oil reserves outside of the Middle East, the Chavez solution,
as long as it could bring stability to the country, was not considered
by Washington to be the worst possible scenario.
Additionally, from the beginning of the 1990s, Latin America
had ceased to be a priority for the USA. The historical hegemonic
influence of the US in Latin America took on a new form: the promotion
of Bill Clinton's "market democracy," i.e., elected
governments as long as they guarantee that markets remain open
to free trade, and that US interests remain untouched. Thanks
to the retreat of traditional opponents, this policy was not difficult
to implement. After the fall of the Berlin wall, most of the left-wing
parties in Latin America were easily co-opted to neoliberal ideas.
Meanwhile, the guerrilla movements, with the notable exception
of the FARC and the ELN in Colombia, seemed to have run into a
But three years after Chavez's electoral victory, the context
determining US-Venezuela relations has changed considerably. Within
Venezuela, the vast consensus that rejected the ancien regime
has fallen apart, and the political scene has become extremely
polarized. For several months, storm clouds have been gathering
over Venezuela. These days, a typical week in Caracas features
bomb scares, dramatic headlines, rumors of a coup, the distribution
of threatening manifestos signed by underground political factions
within the army, or the reports of an imminent US intervention
by some obscure retired general. Not to mention strikes and demonstrations
financed and promoted by Fedecamaras, the main business lobby.
On the external front, the Republicans' return to office and
the 911 events have resulted in a much more aggressive US foreign
policy which has resulted, among other things, in a significant
change in attitude toward Latin America. The recent appointment
of hawks such as John Negroponte, Otto Reich, John Maisto and
Roger Noriega, has brought forth a new "realistic" agenda
involving the protection and promotion of US interests no matter
what it takes. Negroponte, appointed ambassador to the United
Nations, attracted much criticism after having served as US ambassador
to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 where he implemented the Reagan
administration's anti-Communist policy in the most fanatical manner.
The current National Security Council Special Adviser on Latin
America, John Maisto, is remembered for his role in the 1989 invasion
of Panama. Ironically, during the Venezuelan presidential campaign
of 1998, this former ambassador to Caracas refused to grant a
visa to candidate Hugo Chavez citing Chavez's involvement in the
1992 coup d'etat against President Carlos Andres Perez. A few
weeks before the election, he told the press that he didn't "know
anyone in Venezuela who thinks that Chavez is a democrat."
Is he to blame, given that the 56% of voters who endorsed the
Chavez option, mostly members of the lower classes, don't regularly
attend diplomatic receptions?
THE BOLIVARIAN MODEL
Once elected, Chavez didn't fall into the expected mold-that
of a neo-populist of the same cloth as Alberto Fujimori or Carlos
Saul Menem, popular enough to implement the neo-liberal reforms
advocated by the global financial institutions. On the contrary,
President Chavez has proved to be an heir to two important traditions
of rebellion in Latin America: a civilian revolutionary tradition
and a national military tradition. The first, that of the left-wing
guerrillas of the 1960s inspired by Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che"
Guevara, is represented by some of the most prominent government
members and advisers, often former guerrilla fighters or supporters.
This tradition has also materialized in the creation, parallel
to the Chavez administration, of a Commando Politico de la Revolucion,
a "revolutionary brain trust" in charge of setting the
political agenda in the mid and long term. In the present context,
"making the revolution" has been interpreted as the
search, through governmental action, for an alternative path toward
social equality and sustainable development. Meanwhile, the Chavistas
have also given new impetus to the national military tradition,
that of Generals Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Juan Velasco Alvarado
in Peru or Omar Torrijos in Panama, by accepting and encouraging
democratic rules. For instance, over a three-year time span, Venezuelan
voters went to the ballot box seven times. And the elections were
in each case fair and competitive.
The Chavez administration has been implementing a series of
pragmatic measures, which combine economic rationalism and nationalism.
With the aim of responding to the needs of the poor (80% of the
population), his government has boosted social spending, particularly
in the education sector, and launched an ambitious public works
program. In the meantime, it has slowed inflation and increased
growth rates. Nevertheless, amateurism has handicapped the government's
action, mainly because of the lack of experienced cadres among
Chavez's supporters. It has resulted in a considerable turnover
in key executive positions and in numerous hesitations over such
matters as paramount as monetary policy. Furthermore, constant
quarreling between "moderate" and "radical"
factions within Chavez's political party, the MVR (Fifth Republic
Movement), has led to several defections among members of the
parliament, and thus lessened the government's margin of maneuver.
On the international scene, President Chavez, in a move that
is likely to arouse concern in Washington, is urging Latin Americans
to reconsider their position on issues such as nationalism, regional
integration and democracy. His conception of nationalism finds
its inspiration in the early nineteenth century wars of liberation
and is symbolized by the figures of the Founding Fathers, San
Martin and Bolivar. In this tradition the armed forces are looked
upon as the defenders of state sovereignty as well as the interests
of the general population. As a direct corollary, the Bolivarian
paradigm influences Chavez's conception of regional integration:
a political integration, prior to economic integration, that takes
into account the particularities of each nation and its people.
Bolivar imagined a Latin American anfictionia (assembly) that
would form a vast political front, powerful enough to act as a
counterweight to the "Colossus of the North." Chavez
has reinterpreted this vision and adapted it to existing national
realities, imagining a "federation of sovereign nations."
Finally, the Venezuelan government has advocated a "participative
democracy" in which every sector of the population could
contribute to the decision-making process. Thus, Venezuelan officials
opposed the US final resolution proposal at the Summit of the
Americas (Quebec, March-April 2001), arguing that a vague commitment
to democracy was insufficient if its participative character was
not specified. Chavez's comments on the risk of confiscation of
representative democratic systems by national "oligarchies,"
and his condemnation of Cuba's exclusion from continental meetings,
were less than appreciated by most of his colleagues, particularly
George W. Bush who refused to meet him in private.
Washington and Caracas's plans for Latin America could hardly
be more divergent, as their respective views on Plan Colombia
and the Free Trade Area of the Americas clearly demonstrate. From
an economic point of view, Chavez's program is nationally oriented.
Its main objective is the reduction of the country's excessive
dependence on oil exports, as well as on foreign-mainly US-agricultural
products and manufactured goods. Thus, Chavez is skeptical about
the implementation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas as soon
as 2005. Arguing that the Venezuelan economy wouldn't yet be ready
to compete with "northern" economies on equal terms,
he also asserts that a matter of such grave importance should
first be submitted to a national referendum. As for "Plan
Colombia," Chavez didn't allow US surveillance airplanes
to enter Venezuelan airspace during their "War on drugs"
missions in the neighboring country. Another clear sign of Caracas's
animosity towards US military policy in Colombia was the removal
of the US Military Group delegation from its rent-free presence
in the Venezuelan army's main headquarters at Fuerte Tuna. This
decision put an end to a "cooperation" that began in
the mid-1950s, during Colonel Marcos Perez Jimenez's dictatorship,
and that was continued after 1958 under democratic rule.
SAME OLD FEARS
More generally, Washington fears, in a new version of the
"domino theory," that the growing influence of leftist
nationalistic political forces in countries like Venezuela, Colombia
and Ecuador, could lead to the emergence of a "Bolivarian
triangle." For instance, President Chavez seems to have been
an inspiration for some leaders of the January 2001 coup d'etat
in Ecuador. This short-lived revolution, which Venezuela was the
only country to not firmly condemn, was the product of an alliance
between sectors of the army and indigenous movements. Its aim
was to put an end to the neo-liberal policies of President Yamil
Mahuad, who intended to "dollarize" the Ecuadorian economy.
Without the pressure of the OAS and US authorities, Colonel Lucio
Gutierrez and his allies might well have succeeded. In Colombia,
Chavez's electoral victory led the Colombian Revolutionary Armed
Forces (FARC) to modify their Marxist rhetoric and to adopt some
aspects of his "Bolivarian" language and style. On several
occasions, the FARC, an organization labeled "terrorist"
by the US, and therefore by the Colombian Government as well,
has shown sympathy for Venezuela's political evolution since 1998.
US-VENEZUELA RELATIONS POST-911
Pro-Chavez sentiment on the part of rebel movements that are
on the wrong side of the fence, can prove to be particularly cumbersome
in the post-911 world. For this and other reasons, Fall 2001 was
a significant turning point for Venezuela-US relations.
In conformity with its general approach to the Third World,
the Venezuelan government has upheld an unorthodox view of the
September 11 attacks and the American intervention in Afghanistan.
For Chavez, a formal condemnation of the attacks on New York and
Washington didn't preclude the examination of their root causes.
As unjustifiable as they might be, these events were the product
of American unilateralism in the world as well as the acute social
imbalances that neo-liberal capitalism has engendered. In view
of this attitude, Venezuela's poor show of support for the US
military intervention in Afghanistan isn't too surprising. While
the majority of Latin America's leaders were pushing and shoving
to be the first to visit the White House and pledge their support
to Bush, Chavez received attention for publicly declaring that
it was impossible to "fight barbarity with barbarity."
The evil deeds of a fanatical minority, he added, could in no
way justify "the bombing of the Afghan people," since
it would inevitably result in the "slaughter of innocents."
During the weeks that followed, the US ambassador in Caracas,
Donna Hrinak, was recalled to Washington for consultation, thus
underlining the US administration's irritation.
Also, while the Western forces were beginning their war against
the Taliban regime, Chavez visited Libya, Venezuela's strategic
partner within OPEC, but also one of Washington's biggest headaches.
Thus, no one was too surprised when, in December 2001, the US
government decided to give a sterner tone to bilateral relations
with the nomination of Charles S. Shapiro as new ambassador to
Caracas. It was thought that Mr. Shapiro had picked up skills
as ambassador to El Salvador (1985 to 1988) and as director of
the Bureau of Cuban Affairs (since 1999) that could be particularly
useful in Chavez's Venezuela.
Fall 2001 was also a turning point for Venezuela domestically.
Up to this date, the Chavistas had mainly carried out political
reforms. The most significant of these was the complete remodeling
of the country's institutions, and the drafting of a new Constitution.
On the economic front, most of the government's energy had been
focused on reviewing oil policy and reactivating OPEC. Under the
leadership of the Venezuelan Ali Rodriguez Araque, an ex guerrilla
leader of Syrian descent, OPEC had carried out a concerted policy
of decreased production that, during the year 2000, pushed barrel
prices up from nine to thirty dollars. The ensuing flow of petrodollars
was a godsend for a government that was preparing to launch a
far reaching policy aimed at revitalizing and restructuring the
economy. Its margin of maneuver was further extended by the Venezuelan
Parliament's decision to authorize the executive to legislate
by decree. This authorization was due to expire at the end of
October 2001 and so, when Chavez returned from his international
tour of that same month, he presented Venezuela with a set of
49 new decrees. In no time, the opposition to Chavez and much
of the Venezuelan business community were in an uproar.
THE ANTI-CHAVEZ OFFENSIVE
One of the most controversial measures was the "land
law" that was to serve as the framework for the agrarian
reform that the government had long promised to carry out. This
law allows the National Land Institute to expropriate all non-productive
land of properties surpassing 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) includes
provisions that limit individual property ownership to 12,350
acres and that allow the National Land Institute to expropriate
nonproductive land . This land is then to be redistributed to
peasant cooperatives. Furthermore, the law requires that landowners
produce title-deeds for all the land they claim to own. Many are
in fact incapable of doing so as, very often, they appropriated
land illegally, sometimes displacing small farmers in the process.
The opposition to the Chavez government now felt that the
context was ripe enough to begin awakening the fears, both old
and new, of the US administration. From the domestic point of
view, and despite the fact that they were entirely legal, the
economic measures were deemed "tyrannical" and "communist."
And from the international point of view, President Chavez was
accused of alienatingt he "Western democracies" and
favoring ties with governments and subversive groups that used
"terrorism" as a political weapon. Then, on December
10, the day the "land law" was to come into effect,
the opposition launched a full offensive by calling for a "general
strike" against the government. This strike, that paralyzed
the country for one day, was the baby of a couple of strange bedfellows:
the Fedecamaras business lobby and the CTV, a central trade union
confederation (a National Endowment for Democracy grantee) in
which the old former ruling party, Accion Democratica, plays a
dominant role. It was a peculiar strike indeed: The bosses themselves
shut down their companies for a day, and thus provided their employees
with an unexpected holiday.
Following this "awakening" of the country's conservative
opposition, the declarations made by members of the American administration
added fuel to the fire. Since Powell and Tenet's comments, the
number of anti-government demonstrations has multiplied and senior
army officers have defected. The fact that these defections have
been given lavish media coverage is unsurprising in view of the
fact that most of Venezuela's media are controlled by the interests
that have the most to lose from Chavez's new measures. Nevertheless,
the hero's welcome that the opposition has given the rebel officers
serves to highlight the contradictory nature of their attitude.
For though they are prompt to denounce the "country's militarization"
operated by Chavez, they are just as quick to praise the democratic
values of any general who chooses to distance himself from the
president. On a daily basis, they use their mouthpieces in the
press to denounce the government's alleged disrespect for freedom
of speech. The Venezuela correspondent for the Paris daily Le
Monde has noted otherwise: "...even the most hostile newspaper
editors admit that under the Chavez regime the media encounters
much fewer pressures than before." All the while, rebel officers
in uniform march in protest against the "dictatorship"
without any sort of interference on the part of the government.
Each time they occur, these acts constitute the very proof of
the absurdity of the accusations that are thrown at the Chavez
government. Furthermore, the fact that the demonstrations' participants
are socially homogeneous, belonging to the same elite group, is
strangely reminiscent of the mobilization of the upper classes
prior to the coup d'etat against Allende in 1973. It is in Altamira,
one of the ritziest neighborhoods of the capital, that the demonstrations
and the "cacerolazos" are organized. It is SUVs with
tinted windows that make up the "caravans" that parade
around Caracas using their horns to call for Chavez's departure.
But these demonstrators are not alone. At the end of February
2002, a spokesman for the State Department predicted that "if
Chavez doesn't fix things soon, he's not going to finish his term.''
To some ears, this little piece of advice sounds a bit like a
Temir Porras Ponceleon is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Sociology
at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris). He
has translated to Spanish Richard Gott's In the Shadow of the
Liberator; Hugo Chavez and the transformation of Venezuela (London:
Maximilien Arvelaiz holds an M.S. in Latin American Politics
from the University of London. He organized the forum "Transforming
Venezuela: A Possible Utopia?" in Paris in October 2001.
He is currently in Caracas, researching Venezuelan media coverage
of the Chavez administration.