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Chapter 11

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"The 'For Now' Speech"

Just before dawn on February 4th, 1992, Hugo Chávez attempted to overthrow Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez, then a 38-year-old Lt. Colonel, led one of five rogue army units that made simultaneous attacks throughout the country.  Within Caracas, one unit planned to seize La Carlota, the military airport in the heart of the city, while another would take and hold a local TV station.  Chávez and his men made for the Presidential Palace of Miraflores where Chávez would coordinate the coup.  He knew that his adversary, President Pérez, was returning from a state visit and the conspirators hoped to capture him at the Maiquetía airport, an hour north of the capital.  When that portion of the plan failed—because Pérez had been tipped off to the conspiracy and had reinforced the airport—it fell on Chávez himself to capture Pérez at the palace.  But there too Chávez met fierce resistance.  Heavy machine-gun fire stopped the assault in its tracks, and as Chávez’s tanks and soldiers engaged in a bloody fire fight with troops loyal to Pérez, the president slipped unnoticed out the back of the palace.  It wasn’t long before Chávez and his men were pinned down.  Realizing that it was useless to keep fighting, Chávez surrendered.

But while the coup had failed in Caracas, the rebellion was still underway in the cities of Maracay and Valencia.  In an attempt to avoid further loss of life, Chávez was permitted to make a nationally televised plea to his co-conspirators. He appeared before the nation in his green fatigues and his red paratrooper beret, exhausted but poised.

"Venezuela is a rich country with poor people."

óCommon Venezuelan refrain.

“Comrades, regrettably, for now, the objectives that we had set were unobtainable in the capital.  That is to say, we here in Caracas could not take power.  You have done well where you are, but now it is time to avoid more bloodshed…. So listen to my words.  Listen to Commander Chávez who is sending this message so that you may reflect and put down your arms because, now, in all honesty, the plans we had at the national level will be impossible to reach….I thank you for your loyalty, I thank you for your valor, your self-sacrifice, and I, before the country and you, assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement.  Thank you.”

It became known as the “for now” speech.  Chávez spoke for less than two minutes and was visibly frightened, the words were rushed, and he was not yet the confident orator he would become, but in those few seconds the little-known Lieutenant Colonel was catapulted into the political spotlight.  Instead of being widely ostracized and loathed as one might expect, many Venezuelans immediately fell in love with Hugo Chávez.  He had struck a nerve with the people of Venezuela, people who had grown frustrated and disillusioned with political leaders like Pérez.

Although most people have forgotten, Venezuela occupies a special place in the history of Latin America because, unlike all of its neighbors, it once knew great wealth and prosperity.  What the rest of the world considers its oil “crisis” of the 1970s was a decade of unparalleled affluence and modernization in Venezuela—the world’s fifth largest oil producer. This was the time of the Little Saudi Venezuela.  In fact, the government coffers were so bulging with oil revenue and the exchange rate was so favorable that workers down to taxi drivers could take the morning flight to Miami, spend the day shopping or playing on the beach, then grab the evening flight back to Caracas.  In the shops of Florida they were known as the "dáme-dos," or "give-me-twos."  They would look at the price of an item and invariably cry, “Wow, it’s cheap!  Give me two.”  As their less hydrocarbon-endowed neighbors in Colombia often commented, “The Venezuelans fell out of the trees and into Cadillacs.”

But ever since the early 1980s, the people of Venezuela had watched their country—which seemed so close to first-world prosperity—sink deeper and deeper into unremitting recession.  Poverty, inflation, and unemployment skyrocketed, while per capita income plummeted.  Perhaps most revealing was the soaring violent crime.  It seemed that everyone had at least one family member who had been mugged, carjacked or killed.

Across the country there was a collective sense of outrage at the government. The people knew that this was a nation of extreme wealth and promise—it still sat atop the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East—but those resources were being squandered by corrupt and incompetent politicians who neglected the 70 percent of Venezuelans who were poor.

Hence, when Hugo Chávez exploded onto the scene in 1992 and tried to take power, many people applauded.  In Chávez they saw someone taking a stand against the corrupt system; someone brave enough to risk his life to change Venezuela.  Viewed as an outsider, Chávez, with his coffee and cream skin and humble background, seemed more in tune with the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than the light-skinned leaders who dominated politics. And even though Chávez was put in jail, his popularity grew, until, in March of 1994, he was given a presidential pardon by newly-elected President Rafael Caldera.  Upon his release Chávez immediately began building his political machine: the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR).

By the 1998 election, Venezuela’s economic collapse had become so devastating that voters didn’t simply want change, they wanted radical change.  During the outgoing administration of President Caldera, two thirds of the country’s banks collapsed and inflation eroded the currency by 345 percent in just five years.  So disenchanted was the electorate that neither of the two traditional parties could launch a successful campaign.  The election came down to two outsiders: Salas Römer and Hugo Chávez.

In protest against all politicians, barely half of the eligible voters bothered to vote—the lowest turnout in history and down from 81 percent a decade earlier. Hugo Chávez won with 56 percent of those votes.  And while the details of the promised “Bolivarian Revolution” remained nebulous, people were ready to take a chance on a charismatic unknown in order to turn the country around. They gave Chávez’s party a majority in the legislature, approved his Constitutional Assembly, and then the new Constitution itself—which gave the executive sweeping new powers in what was already considered an imperial presidency.  In another round of elections required by the new constitution in 2000, Chávez was re-elected to a six-year term.  Although there were accusations of fraud, Chávez won again, this time with 59 percent of the vote.
But soon Chávez ran into trouble.  Acrimonious clashes with the church, the media, business and labor groups drove down his approval ratings.  He alienated the United States and many Venezuelans by being the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War and later he condemned the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.  The economy, meanwhile, was still in shambles.  In 1999, his first year in office, the economy contracted by 10 percent while unemployment rose to 20 percent—its highest level in 15 years. Investors were pulling their money out of Venezuela at an alarming rate. Capital flight, $4 billion in 1999, would reach $9 billion by 2002.  All this, it should be noted, occurred during a tripling of oil prices; the first time in Venezuelan history that the economy had contracted during an oil boom.

But most detrimental to Chávez’s popularity was his relationship with Fidel Castro. As the extent of his close friendship with the Cuban dictator came to light, many Venezuelans were mortified; they felt they had been tricked and were afraid that Chávez, too, had dictatorial aims.  “Cuba navigates in a sea of happiness,” Chávez said famously, encapsulating his desire to reform Venezuela in Cuba’s image. Overnight, Venezuela became Cuba’s biggest trading partner, selling oil to the island at rock bottom prices in exchange for legions of Cuban physicians, health-care workers, agricultural advisors and, critics claimed, paramilitaries and intelligence officers.  It was an agreement that appeared advantageous to both leaders: Castro desperately needed Venezuelan oil and the hard currency it could buy to make up for the subsidies lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Chávez, on the other hand, needed guidance in running a social revolution and managing his political opposition.  Following Castro’s example, Chávez consolidated the bicameral legislature into one National Assembly and started local community groups of loyal party members, which some claimed were being trained as paramilitaries.

It was in response to this Cubanization that the opposition movementagainst Chávez was born: a group of mothers realized that their children’s new textbooks were really Cuban schoolbooks, heavily infused with revolutionary propaganda, with new covers.  They organized in protest.

The year 2001 saw a free fall in Chávez’s popular support.  The private TV stations and newspapers, many of which had initially supported Chávez, turned fiercely against him, helping accelerate the pendulum swing in his popularity.  Soon a movement that began as a few concerned mothers had ballooned into a massive amalgamation of labor unions, business interests, church groups, and a hodgepodge of both right- and left-wing political parties.

But at the same time Chávez’s own supporters had coalesced into a well-organized and loyal group of followers.  Their passion for their president bordered on idolatry, especially among the poor because, despite the fact that the economy was still deteriorating, Chávez was giving them something that no president had given them before: hope.  He started several progressive social programs that provided health care and education to millions who had long been neglected under the old two-party system.  Chávez also astutely deflected criticism by blaming the country’s woes on the “oligarchs”—the wealthy elite who had ruled Venezuela for the past 40 years—and U.S. influence.

Two important events set the stage for the coup.  The first was in November of 2001 when Chávez exercised the Enabling Law (ley habilitante) and passed 49 laws overnight without approval from the National Assembly.  To the opposition, this was proof that Chávez was a dictator-in-training. In response, they organized the first nationwide strike.  With the success of the strike the opposition movement gathered new strength and in January held another strike. By now, huge anti-Chávez marches, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, became regular events.

The opposing factions were now on a collision course, and the nation had become so polarized that it was as if the two sides no longer spoke the same language; it seemed impossible for any type of compromise to be reached.  Chávez’s once stellar approval rating of 80 percent had now fallen to 30 percent.  Strategically speaking, the opposition—with its growing popularity—had control of the business and labor sectors.  President Chávez, of course, had control of the government and, albeit tenuous, the military.  In the middle lay PDVSA, Petroleos de Venezuela—the state-owned oil company.  Although officially owned by the government, it operated much like a private company.  PDVSA was, without a doubt, the lifeblood of the economy, accounting for 70 percent of the nation’s export revenue.  The success of the first strike had proved that the opposition could bring the economy—and PDVSA with it—to a standstill.  In many ways the April 11th coup was waged over PDVSA.

At the end of March, 2002, came the second event the precipitated the coup: Chávez moved to take tighter control of the oil company by replacing the board of directors with his political allies. The opposition took it as a declaration of war.  In retaliation, they called for a general strike which was extended one day and then another. The country ground to a halt and Chávez’s fall appeared imminent. Never before had the people put such incredible pressure on a Venezuelan head of state.  More: Chávez’s allies in the government, industry, and military were abandoning him at an alarming rate. On the third day of the strike, April 11th, 2002, a huge anti-Chávez rally, numbering close to a million people, marched on the presidential palace to demand his resignation.  Yet, despite the incredible pressure, Chávez was not to go out quietly.

This is the story of what came next, during the three days when South America’s oldest democracy would be put to its greatest test.  On the first day of the crisis alone, 19 people would be killed and over 150 wounded outside of Chávez’s palace in an afternoon of confusion and bloodshed.  The violence would spark a military revolt and the ousting of President Chávez, which, in turn, would precipitate looting, political witch hunts, and more violence.  In a crisis that lasted only 72 hours, Venezuela would go through three presidents.  In the wake of the crisis fingers would be pointed everywhere—at President Chávez, the military, opposition leaders, the news media, and the United States.  There would be so much political posturing that few knew the truth about what had happened.  What’s more, the changing of regimes would destroy any chance of an impartial investigation. In the wake of the coup both sides would fund TV specials, books, and documentary films to spin the event for their political ends and to depict themselves as the true victims to Venezuela and the international community.  As a result, the coup would become one of the most important, yet most misunderstood events in recent history.  Even in the eyes of many people who were there, the facts became confused and distorted. 

This is the story of what really happened.


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©2005 by Brian Nelson