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Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All

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  • robalini
    Please send as far and wide as possible. Thanks, Robert Sterling Editor, The Konformist http://www.konformist.com FOREIGN POLICY IN FOCUS http://www.fpif.org/
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 17, 2002
      Please send as far and wide as possible.


      Robert Sterling
      Editor, The Konformist


      Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All
      by Gregory Wilpert
      April 15, 2002

      The Counter-Coup
      It looks like Venezuela is not just another banana-oil republic after
      all. Many here feared that with the April 11 coup attempt against
      President Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was being degraded to just another
      country forced to bend to the powerful will of the United States. The
      successful counter-coup of April 14, though, which reinstated Chavez,
      proved that Venezuela is a tougher cookie than the coup planners

      The coup leaders against President Chavez made two fundamental
      miscalculations. First, they started having delusions of grandeur,
      believing that the support for their coup was so complete that they
      could simply ignore the other members of their coup coalition and
      place only their own in the new government. The labor union
      federation CTV, which saw itself as one of the main actors of the
      opposition movement to President Chavez, and nearly all moderate
      opposition parties were excluded from the new "democratic unity"
      cabinet. The new transition cabinet ended up including only the most
      conservative elements of Venezuelan society. They then proceeded to
      dissolve the legislature, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's
      office, the national electoral commission, and the state
      governorships, among others. Next, they decreed that the 1999
      constitution--which had been written by a constitutional assembly and
      ratified by vote, following the procedures outlined in the previous
      constitution--was to be suspended. The new transition president would
      thus rule by decree until next year, when new elections would be
      called. Generally, this type of regime fits the textbook definition
      of dictatorship.

      This first miscalculation led to several generals' protest against
      the new regime, perhaps under pressure from the excluded sectors of
      the opposition, or perhaps out of a genuine sense of remorse, and
      resulted in their call for changes to the sweeping "democratic
      transition" decree, lest they withdraw their support from the new
      government. Transition President Pedro Carmona, the chair of
      Venezuela's largest chamber of commerce, immediately agreed to
      reinstate the Assembly and to the rest of the generals' demands.

      The second miscalculation was the belief that Chavez was hopelessly
      unpopular in the population and among the military and that no one
      except Cuba and Colombia's guerillas, the FARC, would regret Chavez'
      departure. Following the initial shock and demoralization that the
      coup caused among Chavez supporters, this second miscalculation led
      to major upheavals and riots in Caracas' sprawling slums, which make
      up nearly half of the city. In practically all of the
      Caracas "barrios" spontaneous demonstrations and "cacerolazos" (pot-
      banging) broke out on April 13 and 14. The police immediately rushed
      in to suppress these expressions of discontent, and somewhere between
      10 and 40 people were killed in these clashes with the police. Then,
      in the early afternoon, purely by word-of-mouth and the use of cell
      phones (Venezuela has one of the highest per capita rates of cell
      phone use in the world), a demonstration in support of Chavez was
      called at the Miraflores presidential palace. By 6pm about 100,000
      people had gathered in the streets surrounding the presidential
      palace. At approximately the same time, the paratrooper battalion, to
      which Chavez used to belong, decided to remain loyal to Chavez and
      took over the presidential palace. Next, as the awareness of the
      extent of Chavez' support spread, major battalions in the interior of
      Venezuela began siding with Chavez.

      Eventually the support for the transition regime evaporated among the
      military, so that transition president Carmona resigned in the name
      of preventing bloodshed. As the boldness of Chavez supporters grew,
      they began taking over several television stations, which had not
      reported a single word about the uprisings and the demonstrations.
      Finally, late at night, around midnight of April 14, it was announced
      that Chavez had been set free and that he would take over as
      president again. The crowds outside of Miraflores were ecstatic. No
      one had believed that the coup could or would be reversed so rapidly.
      When Chavez appeared on national TV around 4am, he too joked that he
      knew he would be back, but he never imagined it would happen so fast.
      He did not even have time to rest and write some poetry, as he had
      hoped to do.

      So how could this be? How could such an impeccably planned and
      smoothly executed coup fall apart in almost exactly 48 hours? Aside
      from the two miscalculations mentioned above, it appears that the
      military's hearts were not fully into the coup project. Once it
      became obvious that the coup was being hijacked by the extreme right
      and that Chavez enjoyed much more support than had been imagined,
      large parts of the military decided to reject the coup, which then
      had the snowball effect of changing military allegiances. Also, by
      announcing that one of the main reasons for the coup was to avoid
      bloodshed and by stating that the Venezuelan military would never
      turn its weapons against its own people, Chavez supporters became
      more courageous to go out and to protest against the coup without
      fear of reprisals.

      Very important, though, was that the coup planners seem to have
      believed their own propaganda: that Chavez was an extremely unpopular
      leader. What they seem to have forgotten is that Chavez was not a
      fluke, a phenomenon that appeared in Venezuela as a result of
      political chaos, as some analysts seem to believe. Rather, Chavez'
      movement has its roots in a long history of Venezuelan community and
      leftist organizing. Also, it seems quite likely that although many
      people were unhappy with Chavez' lack of rapid progress in
      implementing the reforms he had promised, he was still the most
      popular politician in the country.

      The media and the opposition movement tried to create the impression
      that Chavez was completely isolated and that no one supported him any
      longer. They did this by organizing massive demonstrations, with
      extensive help from the television stations, which regularly
      broadcast reports of the anti-Chavez protests, but consistently
      ignored the pro-Chavez protests, which, by all fair accounts, tended
      to be just as large. The television channels claimed that they did
      not cover pro-Chavez demonstrations because protestors threatened
      their lives. While this seems unlikely, since demonstrators usually
      unequivocally want their demonstrations covered by the media, they
      could have gotten protection, if they had cared to.

      The Media
      Nearly the entire media is owned and operated by Venezuela's
      oligarchy. There is only one neutral newspaper, which is not an
      explicitly anti-Chavez newspaper and one state-run television
      station. During the coup, the state-run station was taken off the air
      completely and all of the other media kept repeating the coup
      organizers' lies without question. These lies included the claim that
      Chavez had resigned and had dismissed his cabinet, that all of the
      demonstrations' dead were "martyrs of civil society" (i.e., of the
      opposition, since the media does not consider Chavez supporters as
      part of civil society), and that Chavez had ordered his supporters to
      shoot into the unarmed crowd of anti-Chavez demonstrators.

      The media never addressed the repeated doubts that members of Chavez'
      cabinet raised about his resignation. Also, the media did not release
      the names of those who had been shot, probably because this would
      have shown that most of the dead were pro-Chavez demonstrators.
      Finally, the media edited the video footage of the shootings in such
      a way as to avoid showing where the Chavez supporters were shooting--
      namely, as eyewitnesses reported, at police and individuals who were
      shooting back while hidden in doorways. Also, they did not show the
      pro-Chavez crowd repeatedly pointing at the snipers who were firing
      at them from the rooftop of a nearby building.

      These media distortions in the aftermath of the coup drove home the
      point of just how powerful the media is at creating an alternate
      reality. Those Chavez supporters who were at the demonstration and
      witnessed the events realized more than ever that power needs a
      medium and that those who control the media have much more power than
      they let on. This is why the television stations became a key target
      in the hours leading up to Chavez' reinstatement. The takeover of
      four of the eight stations was essential to Chavez' comeback because
      it showed the rest of the military and the rest of Venezuela that
      Chavez still had strong support among the population and that if the
      people really wanted to, they could fight for what was right and win.

      Quo Vadis Chavez?
      An aspect of Chavez' rise to power that is often forgotten in
      Venezuela is that as far as Venezuelan presidents are concerned,
      Chavez has actually been among the least dictatorial. True, Chavez is
      a deeply flawed president with many shortcomings, among which one of
      the most important is his autocratic style. However, during earlier
      presidencies, such as that of Carlos Andres Perez (1989-1993), the
      killings of demonstrators were nearly a monthly occurrence. Also, the
      outright censorship of newspapers was quite common during the Perez
      presidency. None of this has happened during the Chavez presidency.

      President Hugo Chavez is an individual who raises the passions of
      people, pro or con, unlike anyone else. It almost seems that
      Venezuelans either love him or hate him. A more balanced picture of
      the president, however, would show, first, that he is someone who
      deeply believes in working for social justice, for improving
      democracy, and believes in international solidarity. Also, he is a
      gifted and charismatic speaker, which makes him a natural choice as a

      However, one has to recognize that he has some very serious
      shortcomings. Among the most important is that while he truly
      believes in participatory democracy, as is evidenced in his efforts
      to democratize the Venezuelan constitution, his instincts are those
      of an autocrat. This has led to a serious neglect of his natural
      base, which is the progressive and grassroots civil society. Instead,
      he has tried to control this civil society by organizing "Bolivarian
      Circles," which are neighborhood groups that are to help organize
      communities and at the same time to defend the revolution. The
      opposition easily stigmatized these circles, however, as being
      nothing other than a kind of SS for Chavez' political party. Another
      crucial flaw has been his relatively poor personnel choices. Many of
      the ministries and agencies suffer from mismanagement.

      Finally and perhaps the most often mentioned flaw, is his tendency
      for inflammatory rhetoric. Accusations that Chavez divided Venezuelan
      society with his constant talk about the rich and the poor are
      ridiculous, since Venezuelan society was divided along these lines
      long before Chavez came to power. However, by trying to belittle his
      opponents by calling them names, such as "escualidos" (squalids), he
      made it virtually impossible for real dialogue to take place between
      himself and his opponents.

      The crucial question that Chavez supporters and opponents alike are
      now asking is whether Chavez has grown through the experience of this
      coup. In his initial statement after being freed from his military
      captors, he said, "I too have to reflect on many things. And I have
      done that in these hours. … I am here and I am prepared to rectify,
      wherever I have to rectify." Right now, however, it is too early to
      see if he really is going to change his ways, so that he becomes more
      productive in achieving the goals he has set for Venezuela.

      While Chavez' many progressive achievements should not be forgotten,
      neither should his failures be overlooked, most of which have
      important lessons for progressives everywhere. The first lesson is to
      keep the eyes on the prize. Chavez has become so bogged down with
      small, day-to-day conflicts that many people are no longer sure if he
      remembers his original platform, which was to abolish corruption and
      to make Venezuelan society more egalitarian. While greater social
      equality is extremely difficult to achieve in a capitalist society,
      it is fair to say that Chavez' plans have not had enough time to bear
      fruit. He has a six-year social and economic development plan for
      2001-2007, of which only a small fraction has so far been
      implemented. However, on the corruption front, he has fallen
      seriously behind.

      The second lesson is that the neglect of one's social base, which
      provides the cultural underpinnings for any desired changes, will
      provide an opening for opponents to redefine the situation and to
      make policy implementation nearly impossible. By not involving his
      natural base, the progressive and grassroots civil society, Chavez
      allowed the conservative civil society, the conservative unions, the
      business sector, the church, and the media to determine the discourse
      as to what the "Bolivarian revolution" was really all about.

      The third lesson is that a good program alone is not enough if one
      does not have the skillful means for implementing it. Chavez has some
      terrific plans, but through his incendiary rhetoric he manages to
      draw all attention away from his actual proposals and focuses
      attention on how he presents them or how he cuts his critics down to

      Finally, while it is tempting to streamline policy implementation by
      working only with individuals who will not criticize the program,
      this creates a dangerous ideological monoculture, which will not be
      able to resist the diverse challenges even the best plans eventually
      have to face. Chavez has consistently dismissed from his inner circle
      those who have criticized him, making his leadership base, which used
      to be quite broad, smaller and smaller. Such a narrow leadership base
      made it much easier for the opposition to challenge Chavez and to
      mount the coup.

      Whether Chavez and his opposition have learned these lessons remains
      to be seen. Venezuelan society is still deeply divided. One has to
      recognize that, at heart, this conflict is also a class conflict.
      While there certainly are many Chavez opponents who come from the
      lower classes and numerous supporters from the upper classes, the
      division between Chavez supporters who come from the lower light-
      skinned classes and the opponents who come from the higher dark-
      skinned classes cannot be denied. What Venezuela needs, if social
      peace is to be preserved, is a class compromise, where social peace
      is maintained at the expense of a more just distribution of
      Venezuela's immense wealth. However, today's globalized world makes
      such a compromise increasingly difficult to achieve because free
      market competition militates against local solutions to this
      increasingly global problem. But perhaps Venezuela is a special case
      because of its oil wealth, which might allow it to be an exception.
      Such an exception, though, will only be possible if power plays, such
      as the recent coup attempt, come to an end.

      (Gregory Wilpert <Wilpert@...> lives in Caracas, is a former
      U.S. Fulbright scholar in Venezuela, and is currently doing
      independent research on the sociology of development.)

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