Venezuela's curious coup
Riddle wrapped in a mystery
Jun 11th 2009
From The Economist print edition
The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela
By Brian A. Nelson
Nation Books; 355 pages; $26.95
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ON APRIL 11th 2002 nearly a million people marched on the presidential palace in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, to demand the ousting of Hugo Chávez, the elected president whom they accused of undermining democracy and causing the creeping “Cubanisation” of the country. As they neared the palace, violence broke out, 19 people were killed and over 150 wounded. Dramatic video footage aired by an opposition television station appeared to show chavista gunmen firing on the unarmed demonstrators. In confused circumstances, the army announced that Mr Chávez had resigned.
The next day Pedro Carmona, the head of the private-business federation, swore himself in as “transitional” president at the head of an ultra-conservative government, and announced the scrapping of the constitution. This prompted riots by supporters of Mr Chávez. Less than 72 hours after he was ousted, the leftist president was restored to power by loyal army units commanded by General Raúl Baduel.
As Brian Nelson, who teaches at Miami University, writes in this superbly researched account, the short-lived coup “would become one of the most important, yet most misunderstood, events in recent history.” It severely damaged the democratic credentials of the Venezuelan opposition, while Mr Chávez successfully portrayed himself as the innocent victim of an American-inspired conspiracy to overthrow violently an elected government. He used the failed coup to gain an unassailable grip on the armed forces and, in due course, the previously autonomous state oil company. A precipitate rise in the oil price allowed him to shower public money on social and make-work programmes, restoring his popularity and financing an elected autocracy.
So what really happened in April 2002? Mr Nelson interviewed more than 40 of the main actors, including senior advisers to Mr Chávez, army generals and several of the wounded. From their accounts he has woven a compelling narrative. He concludes that Mr Chávez’s brief ouster was “not a coup in the classic sense”, nor a premeditated conspiracy, and he exonerates the United States of direct involvement. He finds that the National Guard and chavista gunmen started the shooting, and were responsible for most of the bloodshed, though some victims may have been killed when the Caracas police, loyal to an opposition mayor, returned fire.
When Mr Chávez ordered the army to suppress the demonstration, his top generals refused. They rightly argued that the order was unconstitutional. When the television images showed the chavistas shedding blood, the president quickly found himself friendless. Though he did not sign a written resignation, he did agree to step down in return for safe passage to Cuba. But the generals failed to broker a constitutional transition. As they dithered, Mr Carmona stepped opportunistically into the power vacuum, staging “a coup within a popular uprising”. The army swiftly withdrew its support from the appalling Mr Carmona, making Mr Chávez’s return inevitable.
Within days his government began “a multi-million dollar campaign to rewrite the history of the coup”. According to Mr Nelson, it destroyed evidence of the killings, blocked all attempts at police and judicial investigation, and swiftly shut down hearings by the chavista-controlled National Assembly. It offered money and benefits to those willing to say they or their relatives had been shot by the opposition, writes Mr Nelson, and harassed those who truthfully claimed the opposite. In this enterprise, Mr Chávez was abetted by foreign admirers, including the Irish makers of an award-winning documentary on the coup which, Mr Nelson finds, contains “many manipulations”.
Those who truly care about human rights may hope that one day Mr Chávez will face trial for his role in the bloodshed of April 11th. Meanwhile, the only ones who were punished are some hapless Caracas policemen, jailed for long terms without evidence. General Baduel, having broken with the president, was arrested last month on corruption charges which he claims are politically motivated. His arrest is part of a wider crackdown on the opposition, intensifying Mr Chávez’s hollowing-out of Venezuelan democracy. This makes Mr Nelson’s scrupulously unbiased account of the events of April 2002 all the more important. It should be read by all those who continue to believe that Mr Chávez is a worthy champion of democracy and the oppressed.
The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela.
By Brian A. Nelson.
Nation Books; 355 pages; $26.95