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Why this coup breaks the mold.

Typically, when we think of a coup d’état we envision a military assault on the government; we think of tanks and soldiers storming the president’s house or palace; we think of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 or the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954; and we know it’s a pretty safe bet that if the coup is against an anti-US or socialist president, then the US government is probably involved—as it was in both Chile and Guatemala.

At first glance, the 2002 coup against Hugo Chávez seems to fit nicely into this mold. Indeed, when I returned to Venezuela in September 2002, five months after the coup, I was quite confident it did.  After all, Hugo Chávez had already forged very close ties with Cuba as well as Iraq, Iran, and Libya. He was also speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.  With Venezuela as the fifth largest supplier of oil to the U.S., it made sense that the United States would want to get rid of him.  The fact that the military installed a former oil company executive, Pedro Carmona, as interim-president helped solidify my opinion that the coup was about ensuring that one of America’s most stable suppliers of oil was not lost.

Then, of course, there was the movie, The Revolution Will Not be Televised, which appeared to confirm exactly what I suspected.  It played foreboding music when US government officials came on camera, it showed tanks rolling down the street during the coup, it said that military snipers had killed anti-Chávez marchers and government supporters to spark a coup, and it showed how the opposition media had tried to stifle news of Chávez’s illegal imprisonment. It all fit together so nicely with my own preconceived notions of what a coup was.

Yet, while it was clear that the military had broken the law and that the US had applauded an undemocratic regime change, there were still a lot of things that didn’t fit the mold.

Consider these problematic facts:

  1. The crisis was sparked by an afternoon of street violence wherein 19 people died and over 150 were wounded. The photographs and images from the violence showed pro-Chávez gunmen (many identified as government employees) firing toward the opposition march.  There were also pictures of National Guard troops (loyal to Chávez) also shooting at the march.  But where were the photographs and videos of the snipers that The Revolution Will Not be Televised claimed were responsible? 
  1. How was this a “classic coup” if the military never launched an attack?  Indeed, when the violence began the head of the army, General Vásquez Velasco, ordered a nationwide lockdown. 
  1. If the Chávez government was the victim of a coup, then why was it the one who cut the signals of all of the TV stations, thereby blocking out coverage of what was happening?
  1. Why did the Venezuela Supreme Court—which was entirely appointed by Chávez’s party—rule that there had been no coup at all, but rather a power vacuum precipitated by the executive branch?
  1. Perhaps most importantly, if the Venezuelan government was the victim, then why did it launch a major cover-up after the coup?  Why did it suspend the Truth Commission, destroy evidence, and fire police detectives and prosecutors who tried to investigate what had happened?

Clearly something very unusual had happened; perhaps something a lot more interesting than your “classic coup.”  So I set out to find out what it was.  What I learned was that no one was completely innocent, and that the government, the military, and the opposition leaders had all broken the law.    

What I had originally believed turned out to be very wrong, so in many ways my investigation into the coup marked a personal transition for me; it marked a transition from believing what I wanted to believe, to acknowledging the truth, regardless of how inconvenient it was or how uncomfortable it was or how it might contradict my ideological beliefs.

When I began my work I quickly realized that the first step in understanding the coup was understanding the violence.  Because whoever had initiated the violence around Chávez’s palace bore the brunt of the responsibility for the way the crisis unfolded.

Next: Understanding how the violence began.

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©2005-2010 by Brian Nelson