By DAVID NAVA & GERRY FOLEY
The April 11 military coup against the populist regime of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela followed a pattern that has become well known in Latin America. U.S. authorities conspired with the local oligarchy to overthrow a government that had responded, even in a limited way, to demands of the impoverished population against being plundered by the imperialists and the gangster capitalists and landlords associated with them.
Similar coups have been seen in Bolivia against Villarroel in 1946, in Guatemala against Arbenz in 1954, in Argentina against Peron in 1955, against Goulart in Brazil in 1964, and against Allende in Chile in 1973. In all these countries, the coups were followed by waves of repression. The Venezuelan coup-makers were planning something similar.
An April 14 dispatch from the Fourth International on-line Latin American bulletin noted: “They are raiding political headquarters and arresting mayors and governors associated with Chavez (like him legally elected). Various ministers and deputies to the Constitutent Assembly have been arrested. They have started issuing indictments, without going through the constitutional procedures, against people who were not even in Caracas yesterday.”
The arrests quickly spread to the Bolivar Circles, neighborhood organizations set up by Chavez’s movement. A reactionary mob, including Cuban counterrevolutionary emigres, attacked the Cuban embassy, cutting off its electricity and water.
The new president installed by the coup was Pedro Carmona Estanga, the president of the Venezuelan employers organization and a former official in the corrupt regime of Andres Perez. Carmona owned an oil company, Venoco, and was a member of the boards of directors of a number of other major Venezuelan corporations, such as Siderugia Venezolana [Venezuelan Steel].
The business world rejoiced. The Venezuelan stock market soared. The major imperialist stock markets also showed rises. The New York Times cooed: “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator … the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader”(April 13).
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip T. Reeker praised the coup-makers for their “restraint,” claiming that under the Chavez government, “essential elements of democracy … had weakened” (April 12).
The coup-makers had supposedly responded to the demands of the population, including working people. The oil workers had allegedly gone on strike to protest the changes made in the state oil board.
The changes in question included limiting the remuneration of the executives, who had been collecting millions of dollars a year, as well as provisions for increasing royalties paid by foreign investors and guaranteeing that Venezuela would hold a majority in new investments. Presumably the workers were scandalized by these measures, which did represent a change!
In the 1990s, Venezuela’s state-owned oil industry was virtually given a free hand to negotiate service contracts and joint ventures with foreign firms. The joint ventures would lower royalties and taxes to levels well below those established after the industry was nationalized in 1976.
The oil industry also set up overseas refineries and production facilities abroad, of little real value to Venezuela’s people, but useful for diverting funds away from government control. In fact, Chavez’s measures slowed what had been a creeping privatization.
Or could the workers have been “upset” by the fact that a representative of the Chavez government in the oil producers association, OPEC, had managed to get the organization to limit its production and thereby increase the oil price?
Venezuela supplies about a sixth of U.S. oil imports, and in view of the crisis in the Middle East, U.S. officials have been looking for an increase in this share. Were the Venezuelan oil workers such admirers of the United States that they felt its discomforture more than their own interests?
What is much more likely is that the so-called strike was a lockout organized by industry bosses in collusion with the corrupt union bureaucracy, headed by a member of Andres Perez’s Democratic Action Party.
The opposition to Chavez did manage to organize some large demonstrations, which, however, were vastly exaggerated by the venal Venezuelan media, all of which supported the coup. After the coup, the media outdid themselves denouncing Chavez’s supporters as “hordes,” and “goons.” The offices of the pro-Chavez neighborhood associations were decried as “dens” by TV, although no weapons were found in them.
The demonstrations against Chavez, made up of small business people and some privileged workers, indeed resembled the demonstrations against Allende before the 1973 coup that led to the slaughter of tens of thousands of industrial workers in their factories.
Such mobilizations by their nature are typically not the result of any leftist excesses by a reform government but rather of its hesitations, of its failure to take the actions necessary to mobilize the masses that have the most to lose by a continuation of, or return to, the status quo. The middle layers waver between the fundamental classes in the society, between the bourgeoisie and the workers. If they follow the bourgeoisie, it reflects a weakness in the working-class camp.
In fact, Dick Emanuelson, the correspondent of the Paris daily Liberation, reported that in the lead-up to the coup, anti-Chavez gangs were allowed to terrorize the population, without any interference from the police-and even with their encouragement.
That would also indicate the hesitations of the Chavez regime. He did nothing to change the makeup of the police. They remain, apparently, a typical Latin American police force, the hired goons of a gangster bourgeoisie.
In all, the scenario that began to unfold on April 11 in Venezuela was a sadly familiar one, typical of the fate of reform governments in Latin America that have tried to avoid a head-on collision with the region’s rapacious and murderous ruling classes. But then, suddenly, it all changed.
The coup failed. The military had to put Chavez back in office, and call it all off. The coup-makers found themselves dependent on the generosity of the man that they had called a dictator and a tyrant and his “gang of goons.”
The outcome of the coup was also probably the biggest political embarrassment the United States had suffered in Latin America since the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. (Damaging facts of U.S. involvement have already come out.) It was also the first time in Latin American history that a U.S.-sponsored coup against a reform regime failed. What was it that explains this stunning turn of events?
The basic reason seems to be that the coup-makers and their imperialist sponsors underestimated the depth of feelings of the masses who live in the country’s slums-85 percent of the population-and the anti-imperialist and anti-oligarchical aspirations of the ranks of the army.
Chavez, a representative of the populist current in the military, initially came to prominence by leading an unsuccessful coup. His action came in the context of massive outbursts of rage against the austerity measures dictated by the International Monetary Fund and implemented by supine and corrupt local governments.
Then, on the strength of his protest in arms against the policy of the government, the poor masses of the country gave him an overwhelming electoral victory. So, when big business and its imperialist overlords tried to remove him, they came pouring out of their slums and threatened to set the country aflame. At the same time, the ranks of the army divided, with important units backing Chavez.
An April 21 Washington Post article pointed out the polarization in the military between officers coming from the white middle class (predominant in the navy and air force) and the officers and soldiers, like Chavez, in the more plebeian army, coming from the mixed-race masses of the population.
It contrasted Rear Admiral Carlos Molina, who sounded the initial call for ousting Chavez in February, with the populist leader. While Molina was lily white and had been educated in Catholic schools in the capital city, Chavez was “kinky haired,” hailed from the back country, and had been educated at least partially by radical teachers.
The Washington Post article pointed out that Molina was one of five officers now under house arrest for his part in the failed coup, but that he was “unrepentent.” It quoted him as saying: “We felt we were acting with U.S. support,” referring to the coup. “We agree that we can’t permit a communist government here. The U.S. has not let us down yet. This fight is still going on because the government is illegal.”
Obviously Molina thinks that the interest of the capitalist and landlord robbers are higher than any laws made by an elected government, since Chavez was elected overwhelmingly, and in order to install their regime, the coup-makers had to dissolve the National Assembly and suspend the constitution.
That is certainly also the attitude of the capitalists and their U.S. overlords. And unless they are defeated decisively or Chavez surrenders entirely to their demands, they are going to prepare another coup.
In response to the April coup, however, Chavez seems to have opted for “reconciliation” with the capitalists, which is exactly the wrong course. It can only deepen the errors that opened the way for the coup in the first place by discouraging his supporters and emboldening his opponents.
However, in defeating the rightist coup by their mobilizations, the poor masses of Venezuela have won an unprecedented victory. It is certainly going to encourage them to press their demands and to find new forms of organization.
Moreover, the popular uprising against the attacks on the living standard of the masses has been long in developing, and is paralleled in other Latin American countries, most notably in Argentina. It is becoming harder and harder to contain.