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 economic measures.

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 dead end.

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?


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.


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.


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.


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 threat.


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: Verso, 2000).

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.

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