Making history in Venezuela
In the 1990s, conservatives floated the idea that there was now an end of history, that we’d reached some terminal point where history no longer matters, where planning and coordination from above trumps history. They would impose the Washington Consensus using the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to guide the future economic system of a globalized capitalist world.
Having just returned from ten days in the Bolívarian Republic of Venezuela, read a number of books and articles, and gotten a feel for the history and people of that proud nation, I’ve got a definite feeling history is alive and well and unfolding in Venezuela.
For one thing, Simón Bolívar is a very real presence: Bolívar the liberator, the creator of nations as Spanish colonial rule was defeated in Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia, and what is now Colombia. Bolívar’s dream was a unified and cooperative South American region as a player on the world stage--amazing and audacious, considering this was in the early 1800s. Bolívar exists in statues in town squares all across Venezuela. His face and quotations are rendered in graffiti on walls; his words are also engraved on great buildings. The Venezuelan currency is Bolívars, his face on the coins. Sovereignty and dignity are current themes in Venezuela, concepts straight from Bolívar.
A key moment to begin a historical view of contemporary Venezuela is what has come to be called the Caracazo. On February 27, 1989, as a reaction to a doubling of the bus fares, an urban rebellion took place, first in one area of Caracas, then others, then as media reports spread the news, out into cities across Venezuela. The recently re-elected President Carlos Andrés Perez had bowed to the pressures of the international banking system and done a turnabout from his prior policies, beginning the implementation of the World Bank and IMF neoliberal economics. Doubling the bus fares was the breaking point for the people. When the military were called out to restore order, up to a thousand people were killed, and terror reigned for weeks. The impact of the Caracazo reverberated throughout the society, and in the military as well.
One year after the Caracazo, author Richard Gott interviewed President Perez. His words:
“The decisions I made were extremely difficult, and in general they are still quite unpopular. People resent the harsh measures we have taken. The people’s anguish is being expressed through demonstrations and protests, but we must understand that these are unavoidable. There was no other way out.”
Or was there? The Caracazo was a turning point and a rejection of the stable two party system which had cooperatively governed the country for thirty years.
The Caracazo also had an impact in the military, producing a kind of introspective horror at the repression they’d been ordered to impose. Consciousness had been growing among a small group of officers within the military since the late 1970s as a result of harsh tactics used to suppress lingering guerilla forces. As early as 1977, a group of officers formed a pact to change the attitude of the military from simply serving as a tool of the state to allying more with the interests of the people. It was Simón Bolívar speaking across the centuries: “Damned is the soldier who uses his weapon against his own people.”
Hugo Chávez was among the small group of officers who began organizing, and continued to organize within the ranks of the military to build underground unity. With the Caracazo, this movement magnified. In 1992, Chávez led a failed coup attempt against the increasingly unpopular government. It was spectacularly unsuccessful and only a few people were killed. However, Chávez was allowed to make a one-minute statement on TV to urge his comrades in outlying areas to put down their arms and avoid further bloodshed, as the coup was clearly a failure.
Two things stood out for a nation stunned by these events. First, Chávez shouldered responsibility for the coup and its failure. This was unusual, to say the least, in politicians and military leaders. Second, he said “for the moment, the objectives we set for ourselves have not been achieved.” The phrase, for the moment, “por ahora,” became the slogan of those who wanted change.
With Chávez in jail, there was a second coup attempt in November of 1992. While only 14 were killed in the first attempt, this was much more violent with 170 killed, and it even included an aerial bombing of the presidential palace and fighting in Caracas and Maracay. Again, the leaders were captured and jailed.
Despite a long prison sentence, Hugo Chávez was released early from prison in 1994 after only 2 years. While in prison, he and his fellow soldier prisoners continued to wear their uniforms, were largely respected, and had access to the media for interviews. He would emerge a well-known public figure.
Initially, Chávez devoted himself to stimulating reforms and change in the government. He joined with many others in calling for the election of a constitutional assembly to draw up a new constitution. The Caracazo had catalyzed a big upswing in political organizing, with many newly-active political parties and civic organizations. What grew out of the period was a coalescence of thought, as the Presidential election of 1998 approached, that Hugo Chávez was the logical choice to run for president.
The ruling party and conservative wing of the country were fractured and disorganized, and the door was open for a sweeping coalition victory in December of 1998. In the voting, the coalition of groups supporting Chávez polled 56%. The next strongest candidate was at 39%.
All this did not escape notice in Washington D.C., especially in 2001 when the newly-appointed Bush administration was setting up shop. Money, through the National Endowment for Democracy, began to flow to opposition groups in Venezuela at a great rate. Established in 1983 to work against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the NED had the official mission of enhancing the democratic process in the nations to which it sends its money and resources. In reality, the NED is used to influence and steer and even disrupt the political evolution of a country that the U.S. feels is not moving in an acceptable way. This means front organizations, public relations campaigns, electoral assistance, workshops, and dirty tricks, all funded with U.S. taxpayer money. All this and more went on in Venezuela and continues to go on in Venezuela and any place else the U.S. wants a controlling interest in.
This aid and guidance blew into view on the world stage in April of 2002, the infamous three-day coup immortalized in the extraordinary film The Revolution will not be Televised. On the heels of a series of opposition protests, a large march deviated from its planned route and headed towards Miraflores, the presidential palace. At Miraflores, there was already a large pro-Chávez rally in progress. Shots rang out from some tall buildings and people in both rallies were shot as the two groups neared one another. The private TV stations repeatedly showed footage which falsely claimed to depict Chávez supporters firing on the opposition rally. Meanwhile, the state-owned TV station, friendly to Chávez (and reality) was shut down by force. Chávez was captured and taken to a military base. The coup leaders took power, claiming Chávez had resigned. The coup leaders then proceeded to start issuing decrees dissolving the national assembly and supreme court.
Word spread to the barrios. Masses of people came down to surround Miraflores in a peaceful protest. Portions of the military, which had at first believed the resignation story, now reversed themselves and moved in to take the coup leaders into custody. Chávez made a triumphant return to Miraflores by helicopter in the early hours of April 14th.
The U.S. had been the only nation to recognize Pedro Carmona and his brief stint as president, and though they denied it at the time, evidence of U.S. involvement is now public record. Eva Golinger’s well-documented book, The Chávez Code, presents massive evidence of U.S. ties to the coup. Using Freedom of Information Act requests from numerous government agencies, Golinger, a U.S. attorney now living in Venezuela, was able to gather stunning details. For this work she is a hero in Venezuela.
The next big effort at destabilization was the December 2002 management lockdown of the oil industry, an attempt to break the Venezuelan economy and the people’s support of Chávez. The oil company management closed the refineries, creating chaos with long gas lines and material shortages. At the same time, the TV stations began a 24/7 blitz of anti-Chávez programming. Charlie Hardy, one of our guides, mentioned that while local businesses that could remained open, the U.S.-owned fast food franchises throughout Caracas all closed in support of the anti-government efforts.
The lockout did nothing but make for a difficult Christmas season, and in February of 2003, after 64 days, the so-called ‘strike’ was ended. They couldn’t break the will of the people to retain the government they’d elected.
So what was next for the opponents of Chávez?
They began organizing for a recall referendum. After some setbacks with the signature collection process, they were able to get enough valid signatures to force a vote. Millions of U.S. dollars flowed, the attacks on the Chávez government flew, and when the vote took place in 2004, under international supervision, Chávez remained the elected and now re-approved President of Venezuela. Roll on to 2006, the scheduled presidential election, when another internationally-supervised election took place in December. The privately-owned media did its best to make Chávez look bad. Again, Chávez won.
But the war on Venezuelan democracy continues, as any follower of the news can see. Eva Golinger pointed out the three lines of attack being pursued against Chávez:
Congress may be moving soon to name Venezuela a terrorist nation. This is the ‘psy-ops’ war-psychological operations to tell lies so often that they become true. And while this is going on, the U.S. military regularly conducts war games and operations off the Venezuelan coast, even mock invasion drills.
This is a delicate moment in Venezuelan history, not just for Venezuelans, but the region. Venezuelan oil is assisting a number of nations in the region. The Bolívarian ideal of a cooperative regional identity is growing. This is the living history playing out, as the Washington Consensus is being rejected in national elections across the region. Washington is not happy.
And as Bolívar said, “The United States seems destined by providence to plague (South) America with misery in the name of liberty.”
The Iguana editors thank Gainesville Veterans for Peace, musician Anne Feeney, the Marin Interfaith Taskforce and members of the Gainesville community for contributions large and small that helped us get to Venezuela.
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