When I arrived in Venezuela to do my research in 2002 I found that there were two competing narratives about the coup: one pro-Chávez narrative and one anti-Chávez narrative.
Each side claimed that the other had initiated the violence and that they had sparked the coup. So I quickly realized that if I could figure out who really started shooting, I would be a lot closer to understanding what had happened.
Juan Querales came to the march with his sister because he knew it would be an historic event. A 9mm bullet cut his femoral artery and he bled to death at the Vargas Hospital. His sister told me that she is certain that he was killed by National Guard troops loyal to Chavez.
|Photo by Gabriel Osorio
Supporters of President Chávez believed that the opposition initiated the violence. They believed that the opposition placed gunmen at the head of the opposition march as it approached the palace and wanted to cause deaths to spark a coup. If you believe this narrative, then Hugo Chávez is a victim. He is a democratically elected president who has been attacked by conspirators (most likely by right-wing conspirators perhaps supported by the United States). If this is what you believe, then Hugo Chávez is, therefore, someone that democratic people everywhere should defend.
Opponents of Hugo Chávez believed that the Chávez government itself initiated the violence; that the National Guard troops and loyalists opened fire on the march to keep it from surrounding the palace. If you believe this narrative, then Hugo Chávez is not the victim, he is the aggressor. He is an elected official who has broken the law and who uses violence to suppress his opponents. If this is what you believe, then the rebelling generals were right to arrest him and want to place him on trial.
People are still very divided about these two narratives, even today. Those who devoutly believe in Chávez believe the first narrative; those who oppose him believe the other. It is a very polarized and divided society.
But what is the truth?
Many people think because there were deaths and injuries on both sides, then it must be because civilians on both sides were shooting at each other and were equally violent. But I discovered that this was not true.
My research shows that the pro-Chávez gunmen initiated the violence as the march arrived near the palace at about 2:30 p.m. These first victims (Jesús Arellano, Jorge Tortoza, Malvina Pesate, et al.) were shot by gunmen on the street who were very close to the marchers, perhaps as close as 20 meters, shooting Southward. Jesús Arellano—shot in the chest while looking North; Jorge Tortoza—shot behind the left ear while jogging East; Malvina Pesate—shot though the cheek while facing North. All three of these killings were captured on video and it is clear that they were shot from the North. The killing of Jesús Arellano was actually captured on two films and in one of them we can see, about 20 meters up and across the street, a pro-Chávez gunman taking aim in his direction. (To watch these videos, click here.)
In response to this first round of casualties, the Metropolitan Police—who were concentrated a block away on Eighth Street—came and tried to separate the two groups. However, the pro-Chávez crowd perceived this separation as an attack by the police; they thought the police were helping the march get through to the palace, so they turned their weapons increasingly on the police. Over the next hour and a half or so the distance between the march and the pro-Chávez crowd steadily increased to about 3 city blocks with the police in the middle. There was still a lot of firing, but the number of casualties was smaller. Still, more and more Chávez supporters were being shot as the police returned fire on the gunmen (and hit unarmed Chávez supporters mixed into the crowd, too).
A bit after 4:30 the gunfight between the police and pro-Chávez gunmen reached its apex and Luis Fernandez captured one side of it in his award-winning video. This is the time when the pro-Chávez side suffered most of its casualties. Indeed, my research shows that during this last 45 minutes of the violence the pro-Chávez side suffered all of their fatalities. The Metropolitan Police shot most of them—by this time the police had called in SWAT-type units with high caliber rifles to “neutralize” the gunmen. In a gunfight between poorly trained Chávez loyalists versus police sharp-shooters, the Chávez loyalists were tragically outgunned. The police hit gunmen, but they also hit pro-Chávez bystanders.
That is why there were dead on both sides. Not because both groups were shooting at each other, but because the police interceded to protect the marchers from the pro-Chávez gunmen. Given that the pro-Chávez side initiated the violence, the Chávez government’s claim that it was the victim of an attack is considerably weakened. All of the videos, photographs and (most of the) testimony support this. There are dozens of pictures and several long videos of Chávez supporters using guns and rifles, yet there is no evidence of a single opposition marcher using a gun (the only weapon recorded was a boy with slingshot on 8th Street). What’s more, we now know that the government had been aware of the likelihood that a march might come to the palace for weeks and had created a plan for protecting it that included using the Bolivarian Circles (Chávez’s militia groups) as a paramilitary force. This was openly discussed with Chávez during his cabinet meeting on April 7th.