January 19, 2003
* WHO RULES:
ELECTED PRESIDENT OR SELF-APPOINTED CIVIL SOCIETY?
* Venezuela: a coup countered.
There is a name on all Latin-American lips nowadays: that of Hugo Chávez. This 45-year-old army commander, who attempted a coup in 1992, was elected president of Venezuela in December 1998. Since taking office he has, with the support of the left and the have-nots and just as he said he would, embarked on a "peaceful and democratic revolution" that is worrying those who preach globalisation.
This desire to change everything reflects the exasperation of a majority of Venezuelans at the chaos and corruption that have reigned supreme for the past 40 years, and for which the two parties that used to share power - the social-democrat Acción Democratica (AD) and Christian-democrat Copei - are responsible. These parties (whose democratic character no-one is denying) have allowed the development of one of the most corrupt and unequal societies in the world. "Rarely", says the writer Arturo Uslar Pietri, "will one have seen as rich a country as this being so systematically bled white by a few hundred families who for decades, whatever the political ups and downs, have shared out its fabulous wealth between them (1).
There is a yawning chasm between a well-off minority and the rest of the population. It is all the more shocking since Venezuela, the world's second oil exporter, has over the past 25 years earned some $300 billion from petroleum sales - the equivalent of more than 20 Marshall Plans. Yet more than half the Venezuelans live in poverty, a quarter of the population of working age are unemployed, a third of those who do have jobs manage by moonlighting, and over 200,000 children survive by begging.
It is hardly surprising, then, that the presidential election saw the AD and Copei swept aside (they got less than 9% of the votes between them) with Chávez's programme attracting a 57% majority. It is unsurprising, too, that his proposal to call a constituant assembly to draft a new constitution, and have done with the traditional parties' corrupt regime, was in April approved by 88% of voters.
Flanked in his office in the presidential palace by portraits of the libertadors Bolivar, Miranda and Sucre, Chávez echoes Gramsci: "We are, at one and the same time, living through a death and a birth. The death of a worn-out, exhausted and detested system; and the birth of a new and different political order, one that carries the hopes of a whole people. The old one is long a-dying, and the new one has not yet got its bearings, but this crisis is giving birth to a revolution."
What sort of revolution is it? "Besides the economic crisis," Chávez explains, "Venezuela was most of all going through a moral and ethical crisis because of the lack of any social sense among those in charge. Democracy isn't just a matter of political equality. It's also, and especially, about social, economic and cultural equality. These are the goals of the Bolivar-style revolution. I want to be the poor people's president. But we must learn from the failure of other revolutions which, while they claimed to have these aims, either betrayed them or pursued them but did away with democracy in the process."
Some of the international press (2) has been quick to accuse Chávez of being a "radical-left authoritarian", of "drifting towards autocracy", and of "paving the way for a modern form of coup d'état". Yet despite the impassioned atmosphere in Venezuela, where the discussion and political debate going on all around reminds one of France in May 1968, there has so far been no serious violence, no victims, nor any kind of censorship of the political opposition or of the journalists and broadcasters who do not shrink from occasional vicious criticism of the new president.
"The accusations do hurt," Chávez says, "because what we are trying to do is move from a representative democracy - and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that - to a participative one. One in which the people are more fully involved at all levels of the power structure, so that they can fight any violation of human rights more effectively." The draft constitution, now being discussed, does provides for more power and independence for the communes; for instituting referenda as called for by the people; and for submitting all those elected (including the president) to re-election once they are halfway through their term, if that is what the public want. The new constitution, the drafting of which will be completed in November and submitted to a referendum, also provides for the right to conscientious objection, an explicit ban on the "disappearances" engineered by the police, the creation of a "public defender" as mediator, equality for men and women, and the setting up of a "moral power" tasked with fighting corruption and abuses of all kinds.
On the economic front, Chávez wants to get away from the neo-liberal model and resist globalisation. "We must", he insists, "try to find a balance between the market, the state and society. We need to bring the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state together, in an economic system where there is as much of the market as possible and as much of the state as necessary." Private property, privatisation and foreign investment are still guaranteed, although within the limit of the overriding interests of the state, which will keep under its control strategic sectors, the sale of which would mean a partial transfer of national sovereignty.
Just from listening to these plans, can the leading forces in the drive for globalisation help seeing Chávez, with his anti-liberal revolution, as the devil incarnate?
(1) Arturo Uslar Pietri, "Le Venezuela au seuil d'un grand changement", Le Monde diplomatique, December 1998.
(2) See, for example, The New York Times, 21 August 1999, and International Herald Tribune, 1 September 1999.
Translated by Derry Cook-Radmore
The television cameras focused on the presenter, in his improvised studio on the slopes of El Avila. In the background was Caracas, at the foot of the mountain. The presenter made the audience laugh by reminding them he once persuaded Fidel Castro to sing on air - "but he can hardly hold a note!" He passionately described Guatemala, and libertador Simón Bolivar. He crooned, questioned his guests, among them a few ministers. He blew a kiss at the end of a conversation with an ordinary viewer. He had a television presenter's easy manner, but he wasn't a TV professional, but Hugo Chávez, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.
The date was 17 March. For the 100th edition of his Sunday broadcast Hello President, Chávez had gone overboard: satellite communications with the presidents of Guatemala, Dominica and Cuba. "OK Fidel, let's talk speak on the phone … Hasta la victoria, siempre!" Chávez threw twigs towards the journalists, then said "to those who would like to see the back of me: I know how many of you there are!" His audience applauded: "Long live our comandante!" The comandante was overdoing it: six hours and 35 minutes on air, without a break - but he believed the ritual was an essential way of keeping direct contact with the people who make up his majority: the excluded, the poor and the left.
The escuálidos (1) of La Castellana, Altamira, Palos Grandes and Las Mercedes - the fashionable districts of Caracas - were furious. "He's a demagogue, a populist, and mad." They grudgingly conceded his predecessors were no better, but Chávez was still leading the country to ruin. And then they dismissed him - " his place is not the presidency. A soldier can do only two things: obey orders or give them." The bankers, financiers and middle classes are the social élite, and they detest him. He looks like a taxi-driver or a hotel porter, a have-not from the ranchos, a buhonero (2). But it is precisely because he looks ordinary that he occupies the presidential palace - the Miraflores.
Chávez is a lieutenant-colonel from the parachute regiment who mounted a coup in February 1992 to end 30 years of power by the Democratic Action (AD - Social Democrat) and Copei (Christian Democrat) parties. Venezuela is an oil revenue state, but those parties had dragged 80% of Venezuelans below the poverty threshold. Chávez was imprisoned and then released, and came to power democratically in December 1998. He was endorsed in a referendum in 1999, and instituted constitutional reforms before re-election on 30 July 2000 (3). Chávez won and Venezuela changed hands peacefully.
Since then the government has been pursuing an unusual revolution. "It is neither socialist nor communist, because it falls within the parameters of capitalism, but it is radical and, we are introducing far-reaching economic structural changes," says the minister of the presidency, Rafael Vargas. Washington has reacted badly. Caracas wants to promote an oil policy that keeps the price of crude over $22 a barrel, by revitalising the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It also opposed neo-liberal globalisation and promotes a world at odds with the claims of the United States.
But it is one thing to announce the birth of a new country, and another to effect change. "There is no work, no progress," complains a Valencia worker on the scrap heap, who points out that unemployment levels have not fallen. In a shantytown called Marizabel de Chávez (after the president's wife), a melancholy resident said "the only thing I know how to do is steal. But there is nothing worth stealing around here."
In Barrio Alicia Pietri de Caldera (named after the wife of the preceding president), the better-off earn 84,000 bolivars a fortnight ($76) as private security guards, the only economic growth area. Minimum wages are stagnant at $142, though it costs $216 to feed a family of five (4). Even the government's more generous initiatives make little headway. A woman explained that "the Bolivarian school is open, and there are three free school meals a day. But they have just had to close the canteen because there was no more money to pay the suppliers."
Emperor Chávez is often without his clothes. His Fifth Republic Movement (MVR) was put together in a hurry to win the elections but lacks solidity. With victory in prospect, it was embraced by Chávez supporters and revolutionaries, and also members of the existing political groups and opportunists. The same is true of the parties with which the MVR is allied - the Movement towards Socialism (MAS), the Causa R, Movimiento 1o de Mayo, the Bandeja Roja or the leader of the Homeland for All (PPT), Pablo Medina (5). Sooner or later, they will want the president to pay for their cooperation. It is unsurprising that many have changed their minds, resigned, been sacked or gone over to the enemy. There is a feeling that the government is constantly reinventing itself.
Eroded by 40 years of vote-catching policy, the state machinery and administration are an obstacle course. The ministers or 14 pro-Chávez governors can count on only a few senior officials in their departments to carry out reforms. "We have not witch hunted, we have tried to make the changes using existing staff, most of them AD or Copei militants." This army of middle-rank officials and employees holds back programmes, sabotages projects and thwarts the transfer of resources to local authorities. Faced with the problems, local government secretary-general Diogenes Palau of Puerto Ayacucho (Amazonas province) says: "It takes time to change structures of that kind, you can't sack everyone. You have to move forward in stages."
Chávez has two groups he can rely on to circumvent structures still opposed to him: the army, backbone of the state, and the disorganised groups who brought him to power. In April 2001 he called for the creation of a million "Bolivarian Circles" to support him. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans responded enthusiastically in their streets, districts or barridas (6). In groups of seven to 15, they discussed the future, their lives, their essential needs. The results were immediately passed to the authorities. According to the coordinators of the Bolivarian Circles for Sucre district, in eastern Caracas, that was the way to reach authority - before, a minority of politicians ran the community as they liked.
The Bolivarian Circles can submit projects for funding. And the state has begun to accord them substantial resources, through the Peoples' Bank, Women's Bank, fund for the development of micro-businesses, intergovernmental fund for decentralisation (Fides). The opposition accuses the Circles of being shock troops backing a totalitarian programme, and the refuge of "Taliban-like elements". Rumours are rife that the government is arming them. Those concerned shrug and say "All you see here are peaceful individuals working for the benefit of the community." Some militants are less amiable: "The men and women in this process are determined to defend it. Peacefully. But in other ways if need be."
The escuálidos were taken by surprise when, on 13 November 2001, Chávez introduced a more radical element into his revolution by signing the land act, the fisheries act and the law on hydrocarbons. On 10 December the employers organisation, Fedecámaras, headed by Pedro Carmona, launched a general strike to protest against these "attacks on the free market", supported by the media and the Venezuelan Confederation of Workers (CTV). CTV, a corrupt organisation and the driving force behind Democratic Action had for years negotiated collective bargaining agreements with employers, selling its soul and membership for substantial backhanders for its leaders. The government refused to accept that its leader, social democrat Carlos Ortega, had any claim to be representative. On 25 October 2000 Ortega had declared himself the victor in trade union leadership elections marred by violence and irregularities.
On 5 March 2002 Ortega shook hands with Carmona and, with the Church as his witness, signed a pact aimed at democratically and constitutionally ousting the president.
Fedecámaras, CTV, the Church and the middle classes, with the media that had constituted itself a political party, tried to make the country ungovernable. They had no programme, no plans, but declared themselves representative of "civil society", sidelining the majority that continued to back the president. That intolerance made the majority, backing the Petroleós de Venezuela SA revolution, angry: "They claim to represent "civil society". Fine … But we are the people! If this campaign of destabilisation results in the constitutional law being questioned, we shall defend it with our lives."
The authorities were barely rattled by a few statements and protest marches (followed by larger counter-marches by government supporters) and the appearance of four dissident members of the military publicly rejecting the head of state (7). But when the card of economic destabilisation was played, tensions increased. Oil accounts for 70% of Venezuelan exports and 40% of state revenue. Oil prices collapsed as a result of the September 11 attacks. Chávez visited Europe, Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and Iraq. Those visits combined with the action of Ali Rodríguez, the Venezuelan secretary-general of OPEC, made it possible to stabilise prices by lowering production (8).
A public limited company, with the state its sole shareholder, Petroleós de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) is controlled by 40 senior officials. These "oil generals" dictate the law, apply their policy, promote foreign interests, breach the rules of OPEC by increasing production, sell at a loss, undermine the company and are preparing for its privatisation. The Venezuelan government wants PDVSA to work for the benefit of the whole community and retake control of this strategic sector, where tax arrangements are out of control. Twenty years ago, 75% of total profits went to the state (and 25% to the company). Now, the company gets 70% and the tax authorities 30%. The head of state is appointing a new company chairman, Gastón Parra, and a management board. The technocrats promise a proper career for the best performers, effective management, productivity, viability and independence in the face of the politicisation the government is seeking to impose; they advocate a meritocracy. A meritocracy they have just invented to reject the government appointees.
Elsewhere in the world where the state holds the shares, it appoints the managing boards of national companies and tells them what line to take - and that is what previous Venezuelan governments have done. The new protesters in Venezuela, senior officials in positions of trust, could not call for strike action because of the posts they held. "Civil society" acted for them, and activated by the press, radio and television, almost stilled the economic heart of Venezuela. The action was only partially effective, as many workers refused to stop work.
All the time there was shuttling between Caracas and Washington. The Bush administration deplored the Bolivarian president. His reluctance to espouse the "anti-terrorist fight", in particular against Colombian guerrillas; his military agreements with China and Russia; his anti-globalisation statements and his revolution angered Bush. On 6 February the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told the Senate he had doubts whether Chávez really believed in democracy and criticised his visits to governments hostile to the US and suspected of supporting terrorism, like those of Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gadafy (9).
Concerned at the turmoil in their third largest oil supplier, the US feared the suspension of its imports should Venezuela become ungovernable. There was no official attempt to fan the flames. But secretly, on 25 March, Alfredo Peña, the mayor of greater Caracas and a fanatical Chávez opponent, met the US authorities and Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for interamerican affairs (10). A few days later, in Reich's office, he might have bumped into Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecámaras, or Manuel Cova, deputy secretary-general of CTV, who also met representatives of the International Republican Institute.
The shadow of Chile might loom over Venezuela were it not for a significant difference: the army. Chávez claims to know it well and controls it through classmates from his graduation Simón Bolivar year (1975). But rumours contradict his claims. The general in charge of US Southern Command (Southcom) has declared Venezuela the country with the most officers studying in US academies, so he had no doubts about Venezuela.
Francisco Ameliach, chairman of the Venezuelan parliament's defence committee, asked about four officers who had recently opposed the president, replied: "If an officer declares himself publicly, it means he doesn't have the army's support. We plotted (Ameliach took part in Chávez's coup) and we know that a colonel involved in a operation of that kind is not going to shout it out on the streets."
The national strike of 9 and 10 April, called by the CTV and Fedecámaras in "defence" of the PDVSA, seven senior officials of which had been fired and 12 others pensioned, was only relatively successful at national level. Having embarked on a desperate venture (or a plan that could not be aborted), the opposition upped the stakes. On the pretext that the government might declare a state of emergency (which it had no intention of doing), it called for a general strike from 11 April. Worryingly, dissident members of the military reappeared: General Nestor González (relieved of his command in 2001) accused President Chávez on television of treason and called on the high command to act.
On 11 April 300,000 opponents marched peacefully towards the headquarters of the PDVSA-Chuao, in eastern Caracas. The idea seems to have been to prove that "civil society" was confronting a dictatorship by creating a few "martyrs". At 1pm, in western Caracas, at the presidential palace, Rafael Vargas burst into his colleagues' office, and said: "The rest of the country is calm, but Carlos Ortega has just made a television broadcast calling for a march on the presidential palace. It's a plot." At 1.40pm, middle-rank officials anticipated what was to happen - the demonstrators were marching on the motorway; they had to be allowed to demonstrate, but stopped before they reached the palace, otherwise the Bolivarian Circles would mobilise and it would end in disaster.
The high command of the National Guard failed to order any sizeable deployment to prevent the inevitable. The opposition got to within 100 metres of the presidential palace, and tens of thousands of pro-Chávez supporters, some armed with sticks and stones, rushed to protect their president. Just 15 members of the National Guard were positioned between the two sides to prevent the clash. The scene was surreal. The most senior guard desperately asked a photographer to lend him a mobile phone to call for reinforcements. His men used tear gas to stabilise the situation.
The Bolivarian Circles were blamed for the 15 dead and 350 wounded (157 shot) that day. It was alleged that members of the Circles had shot at a peaceful demonstration. That is not true. Mysterious snipers on the roofs of buildings shot the first victims actually among the Bolivarian Circles. There was total confusion. Near the El Silencio metro station, a squad of the National Guard responded to the stone throwing of "civil society" with tear gas grenades, and shot directly into the crowd. Small groups of the city police of opposition mayor Alfredo Peña shot arbitrarily at anything that moved. Other police behaved well.
The president's guard of honour is said to have arrested three snipers, two of them policemen from Chacao (in the east of the capital) and one from the city police (11). In the heat of the clashes, a dazed young man said that they had found two, in uniform. Next day on the screens of Venevisión, rebel Vice-Admiral Vicente Ramírez Pérez claimed: "We are in control of all the president's phone calls to the unit commanders. We met at 10am to plan the operation." What operation? At that time, officially, the opposition was still en route to the presidential palace.
The opposition had achieved its aim. At 6 pm, "shocked at the number of victims", General Efrain Vasquez Velasco announced that the army would no longer obey President Chávez. A few hours earlier, almost the whole command of the National Guard had done the same. At 3.15am, General Lucas Rincón read a communiqué: "The president of the republic has been asked to resign and has agreed to do so." That message was broadcast on television every 20 minutes over the next 36 hours.
Appointed president on 12 April, employers' leader Carmona dissolved the national assembly and all the constituent bodies, and dismissed the governors and democratically elected mayors. He was now in complete control and heard White House spokesman Ari Fleischer congratulate the Venezuelan army and police for refusing to shoot at peaceful demonstrators. Fleischer further concluded that Chávez supporters had shot people. While the Organisation of American States (OAS) was preparing to condemn the coup, the US and Spanish ambassadors in Caracas were on their way to congratulate the de facto president.
In a country that had not seen assassinations, disappearances or political prisoners for three years, the crackdown targeted ministers, members of the national assembly and militants. Premises and homes were searched; 120 Chávez supporters were thrown into prison. At the end of his interview on Venevisión, Colonel Julio Rodriguez Salas smiled and said: "We have a major weapon … the media. Let me congratulate you." In the name of democracy, "civil society" had set up a dictatorship. It would be up to the people to restore democracy.
We know what happened next. To avoid a bloodbath, Chávez surrendered without putting up any resistance, but he had not resigned. On 13 April hundreds of thousands of his supporters occupied roads and squares throughout the country. That afternoon, the guard of honour retook the presidential palace and helped ministers reoccupy the president's office. Following the example of General Raúl Baduel, head of the 43nd Parachute Regiment of Maracay, commanders loyal to the constitution retook control of the garrisons. The high command was divided, had no clear plan and feared an uncontrollable response from the people and clashes between militants. It lost its grip. During the night the legitimate president was restored to his people.
The opposition had apparently learnt no lessons, and, a few days later, was already increasing its pressure. But, as a militant remarks, pointing to the groundswell in the country for three years, the opposition should have no, illusions as, with or without Chávez, Venezuela will never again be what it once was.
* Maurice Lemoine has just published Amérique Centrale. Les naufragés d'Esquipulas, L'Atalante, Nantes
(1) Pejorative term used by the president to describe his opponents (who use it as a mark of honour) meaning bony, skeletal, colourless.
(2) Unofficial market trader.
(3) See Ignacio Ramonet "Chávez" and Pablo Aiquel "Venezuela waits for superstar's magic to work", Le Monde Diplomatique English edition, October 1999 and November 2000.
(4) Datanálisis, in El Universal, Caracas, 14 March 2002.
(5) After breaking its links but never entering into an alliance with the opposition, the PPT rejoined Chávez.
(7) Colonel Pedro Soto, Rear Admiral Carlos Molina, Captain Pedro Flores and Commander Hugo Sanchéz.
(8) The Middle East crisis also contributed to that rise.
(9) Miami Herald, 7 February 2002.
(10) Involved in Iran-Contragate in the 1980s and with close links to the Cuban-American lobby, Reich's appointment was for a long time blocked by Congress.
(11) El Nacional, Caracas, 13 April.
Translated by Julie Stoker.
"We had a deadly weapon: the media. And now that I have the opportunity, let me congratulate you." In Caracas, on 11 April 2002, just a few hours before the temporary overthrow of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, Vice-Admiral Victor Ramírez Pérez congratulated journalist Ibéyiste Pacheco live on Venevision television. Twenty minutes earlier, when Pacheco had begun to interview a group of rebel officers, she could not resist admitting, conspiratorially, that she had long had a special relationship with them.
At the same time, in a live interview from Madrid, another journalist, Patricia Poleo, also seemed well informed about the likely future development of "spontaneous events". She announced on the Spanish channel TVE: "I believe the next president is going to be Pedro Carmona." Chávez, holed up in the presidential palace, was still refusing to step down.
After Chávez came to power in 1998, the five main privately owned channels - Venevisión, Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Globovisión and CMT - and nine of the 10 major national newspapers, including El Universal, El Nacional, Tal Cual, El Impulso, El Nuevo País, and El Mundo, have taken over the role of the traditional political parties, which were damaged by the president's electoral victories. Their monopoly on information has put them in a strong position. They give the opposition support, only rarely reporting government statements and never mentioning its large majority, despite that majority's confirmation at the ballot box. They have always described the working class districts as a red zone inhabited by dangerous classes of ignorant people and delinquents. No doubt considering them unphotogenic, they ignore working class leaders and organisations.
Their investigations, interviews and commentaries all pursue the same objective: to undermine the legitimacy of the government and to destroy the president's popular support. "In aesthetic terms, this revolutionary government is a cesspit," was the delicate phrase used by the evening paper Tal Cual. Its editor, Teodoro Petkoff, is a keen opponent of Chávez. Petkoff is a former Marxist guerrilla who became a neo-liberal and a pro-privatisation minister in the government of rightwing president Rafael Caldera. The Chávez government is not, of course, above criticism. It makes mistakes, and the civilian and military personnel who surround it are tainted by corruption. But the government was democratically elected and still has the backing of the majority. It can also be credited with successes, nationally and internationally.
When it comes to discrediting Chávez, anything goes. There was a scandal in Caracas in March when a faked interview with Ignacio Ramonet, the director of Le Monde diplomatique, was circulated. In a statement alleged to have been made to Emiliano Payares Gúzman, a Mexican researcher at Princeton University, Ramonet was supposed to have said: "Chávez lacks a respectable intellectual corpus, and that is why his ship is always off course. When he won the elections, it seemed to me that he had something about him. But populism won out, as so often happens in such cases. I have seen videos in which he sings boleros while setting out his economic programme, if indeed he has one. I think those true and verifiable facts speak for themselves, I don't need to voice my opinion of somebody like that."
Venezuela Analítica (1) immediately posted the "statement" on the web, without checking on its authenticity, and it then became headline news in El Nacional. The paper was delighted to give credence to the idea of Chávez being isolated internationally, and made no attempt to check with the supposed interviewee. When Ramonet denied having made the statement, El Nacional rounded on the hoaxer (2) and, less overtly, without even apologising, on Ramonet.
The "information" that has been published has verged on the surreal. For example, "sources from the intelligence services have uncovered agreements entered into with elements linked to Hezbollah on the Venezuelan island of Margarita, who are controlled by the Iranian embassy. You will remember that when Chávez was campaigning, a certain Moukhdad was extremely generous. That debt had to be repaid, and now Iran is to make Venezuela an operational base, in exchange for training Venezuelans in Iranian organisations for the defence of the Islamic Revolution. Terrorism is in our midst" (3).
On 21 March El Nacional ran the headline: "Hugo Chávez admits to being the head of a criminal network." Next day Tal Cual referred to "the feeling of nausea provoked by the aggressive words he uses to try to frighten Venezuelans". The president was insulted, compared with Idi Amin, Mussolini or Hitler, called a fascist, dictator or tyrant, and subjected to a spate of attacks. In any other country actions would have been brought for libel. "An ongoing and disrespectful attack," was how the minister of trade, Adina Bastidas, put it. "They accuse me of funding the planting of bombs in the streets. And I cannot defend myself. If you attack them, they complain to the United States!"
Chávez responded to this media bombardment, sometimes using strong language, especially during his weekly broadcast Aló presidente! on the only state-controlled television channel. But his regime in no way resembles a dictatorship, and his diatribes have not been followed by measures to control the flow of information. Since Chávez took office, not a single journalist has been imprisoned, and the government has not shut down any media. Yet it is accused of "flouting freedom of information" and of "attacking social communicators".
On 7 January a group of the president's supporters besieged the offices of El Nacional chanting hostile slogans. Shouting "tell the truth!", they hurled objects at the building. The number of attacks on journalists is increasing, according to Carlos Correa, general coordinator of Provea (4), an organisation for the defence of human rights, and they are being criminalised. "Although there have been no deaths, the situation is serious. Since the media bosses decided to oppose Chávez politically, it is no longer possible to have a reasonable discussion about the country's problems. But to claim there is no freedom of expression is outrageous."
"You read the newspapers, you watch the TV news and you have the impression that the country is gripped by conflict," says Jesuit Father Francisco José Virtuoso sadly. "Naturally that all adds to the tension." The popular majority is striking back in this war in which it is the target, no longer prepared to tolerate journalists who consider themselves above the law or the anti-democratic control of information.
Incidents are on the increase. The official agency Venpres described three media personalities as "narcojournalists"; the journalists in question - Ibéyise Pacheco (editor of Así es la noticia, a member of the El Nacional group), Patricia Poleo and television presenter José Domingo Blanco (Globovisión) - decided to make capital out of the accusations. After condemning their "persecution" in front of the cameras at the US embassy, they left for Washington, where they got a heroic welcome. The Venpres article, signed by a J Valeverde (5), was repudiated by President Chávez and condemned by the defence minister, José Vicente Rangel; it led to the censure and resignation of the director of Venpres, Oscar Navas. But that did not halt a campaign, in Venezuela and abroad, against a government accused of "muzzling the media".
The media has proved adept at using the self-fulfilling prophecy - both in relation to government supporters and the government. By protesting about infringements of liberty, when under no threat, and using lies and manipulation, the media provoked a reaction, sometimes inciting its victims to do wrong. Those misdeeds were then portrayed as the cause (and not the consequence) of the media's unhappy relationship with the government and much of the population.
We must condemn the attacks by the president's supporters on television units or journalists. But how could those supporters tolerate always being described as "Taliban" or as "villains"? We should protest when journalists, even if they are aggressive and completely identified with the oligarchy, are described as "narcojournalists". But those journalists had themselves bombarded the president with false accusations and portrayed him as the accomplice of Colombian "narcoguerrillas".
Led by men of influence and top journalists, the media is taking over from other players in the process of destabilisation: Pedro Carmona's employers' association (Fedecámaras), Carlos Ortega's Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, dissident members of the military, the technocrats of the national oil company (PDVSA) and a few discreet US officials (6). United in the Venezuelan Press Bloc (BPV), the media finally showed its hand when it joined in the first general strike on 10 December 2001.
"Free" opinions published in print -"Time for a change of government" or "Time to overthrow this government" (7) - were reinforced by dubious manipulation of the broadcast media. On 5 April two TV presenters gave their own commentary on a strike of petrol stations that was linked to the PDVSA conflict: "Have you remembered to fill up? Hurry, because tomorrow there won't be a drop left in the country." By encouraging motorists to rush out to buy petrol, they provoked unnecessary chaos, though the strike was only partial and the stations were still receiving supplies.
On 7 April Ortega and Carmona announced that there was to be a general strike. The editor of El Nacional, Miguel Enrique Otero, stood shoulder to shoulder with them and spoke on behalf of the press: "We are all involved in this struggle in defence of the right to information." Two days later the BPV, which had just been visited by the new US ambassador, Charles Shapiro, decided to back the strike. From then on the television companies broadcast live from the headquarters of the PDVSA-Chuao, the designated assembly point for opposition demonstrations.
"Take to the streets" thundered El Nacional on 10 April (in an unattributed editorial). "Ni un paso atrás! (not one step backwards)" responded the hoardings on Globovisión. Another TV company broadcast: "Venezuelans, take to the streets on Thursday 11 April at 10am. Bring your flags. For freedom and democracy. Venezuela will not surrender. No one will defeat us." The call to overthrow the head of state became so obvious that the government applied Article 192 of the telecommunications law. More than 30 times -for all television and radio channels - it requisitioned 15-20 minutes' air time to broadcast its views. But the broadcasters divided the screen in two and continued to urge rebellion.
On 11 April military and civilian press conferences calling for the president's resignation marked the next phase. On RCTV, Ortega called on the opposition to march on Miraflores (the presidential palace). At about 4pm, when the scale of the conspiracy was apparent, the authorities gave the order to block the frequencies used by the private channels. Globovisión, CMT and Televen went off air for a few moments before resuming their broadcasts using satellite or cable. All screens broadcast an image that had been edited to show armed counter-demonstrators firing on "the crowd of peaceful demonstrators". As a result the Bolivarian Circles, the social organisation of Chávez supporters, were blamed for deaths and injuries (8).
The conspirators, including Carmona, met at the offices of Venevisión. They stayed until 2am to prepare "the next stage", along with Rafael Poleo (owner of El Nuevo Pais) and Gustavo Cisneros, a key figure in the coup. Cisneros, a multimillionaire of Cuban origin and the owner of Venevisión, runs a media empire - Organización Diego Cisneros. It has 70 outlets in 39 countries (9). Cisneros is a friend of George Bush senior: they play golf together and in 2001 the former US president holidayed in Cisneros's Venezuelan property. Both are keen on the privatisation of the PDVSA (10). Otto Reich, US assistant secretary of state for Interamerican affairs, admits to having spoken with Cisneros that night (11).
At 4am on 12 April, to avoid bloodshed, Chávez allowed himself to be arrested and taken to the distant island of Orchila. Without presenting any document signed by Chávez to confirm the news, the media chorused his "resignation". The boss of the bosses, Carmona, proclaimed himself president and dissolved all of the constituent, legitimate and democratic bodies. Venezolana de Televisión, the only means of communication available to the government, was the first broadcaster forced to shut down when Carmona took power (12).
The press greeted the coup (though they censored any use of that word) with undisguised enthusiasm. And for good reason. Interviewing Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo and Victor Manuel García, director of statistical institute Ceca, at 6.45am, presenter Napoleón Bravo boasted that he had allowed his own house to be used to record a call to rebellion by General González González. García described his role at the dissident military centre of operations at Fort Tiuna: "We were short of communications facilities, and I have to thank the press for their solidarity and cooperation in helping us to establish communications with the outside world and pass on the instructions that General González González gave me."
"One step forward" was the triumphant headline in El Universal. Journalist Rafael Poleo, who had filed the account of the first meeting of the rebel leaders, took responsibility (with others) for the document setting up the new government. During the afternoon "President" Carmona offered Poleo's daughter, Patricia, the post of head of the central information bureau. The decree establishing a dictatorship was countersigned by the employers, the church and the representatives of a pseudo "civil society", and also by Miguel Angel Martínez, on behalf of the media. Daniel Romero, private secretary of the former social-democrat president Carlos Andrés Pérez, and an employee of the Cisneros group, read it out.
The desire for revenge provoked repression. The interior minister, Ramón Rodríguez Chacín, and a member of parliament, Tarek William Saab, were arrested, and heckled and manhandled by a crowd. RCTV triggered a manhunt by publishing a list of the most wanted individuals and broadcast violent searches live, aping the hectic pace of US news broadcasts. The live broadcast on all channels of attorney general Isias Rodríguez's press conference was suddenly taken off air after only five minutes when he talked about the excesses of the "provisional government" and condemned the "coup".
On 13 April the Chávez supporters were unleashed, and officers loyal to him retook control. But the only way Venezuelans could get information was through CNN broadcasts in Spanish - available only on cable, or on the internet sites of the Madrid daily El País and the BBC in London. Announcing the rebellion by the 42nd parachute division in Maracay, CNN expressed amazement that the press were saying nothing. The freedom of information that had been clamoured for had been replaced by silence. Screens were filled with action films, cookery programmes, cartoons and baseball games from the major US leagues, interspersed only with repeats of General Lucas Rincón's announcement of the "resignation" of Chávez.
Thousands logged on to the internet and got on their mobile phones, but only the alternative press was able to beat the blackout. Popular newspapers, television and radio began life in the poor districts, and were an important source of communication and information. Short on experience, they were the first targets of the "democratic transition". According to Thierry Deronne, the presenter of Teletambores, Chávez had never asked them to broadcast his speeches.
But the anti-Chávez powers did not hesitate long after their coup before arresting editorial staff and seizing equipment, ensuring that the only way the people could find out what was really happening was via the opposition press. In Caracas, Radio Perola, TV Caricuao, Radio Catia Libre and Catia TV were searched and personnel subjected to violence and detention.
In the late afternoon of 13 April, crowds gathered in front of RCTV (then Venevisión, Globovisión, Televen and CMT, as well as the offices of El Universal and El Nacional), throwing stones and compelling journalists to broadcast a message calling for "their" president to be restored. It was an intolerable attack on the press; terrified journalists broadcast an appeal for help on air - conveniently forgetting that they were supposed to be on the rebel side. "We too are part of the people; we too are Venezuelans and we are doing our duty. It is not possible that the supporters of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez [no mention that he was head of state] should consider us their enemies."
It was 20 hours before the state channel Venezolana de Televisión came back on the air with the help of militants from the community media and from soldiers from the presidential guard. The silence was broken and Venezuelans then found out that the situation was changing. Except for Ultimas Noticias, no newspaper was published next day to announce the president's return. The private television channels broadcast no bulletins. Globovisión alone rebroadcast the information that had been transmitted by the international agencies (13).
Although the restoration of democratic normality did not result in media repression, the media continues play victim. It gives priority to the "coup heroes", speaks of a "power vacuum" and calls for the resignation of Chávez - described as a "murderer". Openly called the "hate media", it claims to be the "coup media".
(1) Seze on www.analitica.com.
(2) Gúzman claimed to have done it to show just how unreliable the Venezuelan press was.
(3) "Entrelíneas", El Nacional, 15 March 2002.
(4) Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en derechos humanos.
(5) It was later discovered that this was the pseudonym of an unsavoury character called Rafael Kries.
(6) See "Venezuela: a coup countered", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, May 2002.
(7) "Overthrow the government", El Universal, 20 March 2002.
(8) See Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2002, and the photographs posted on our website.
(9) Including: Univisión (80% of broadcasts in Spanish in the United States), Canal 13, Chilevisión, DirectTV Latin America, Galavisión, Playboy TV Latin America, Playboy TV International, Uniseries, Vale TV, Via Digital, AOL Latin America.
(10) The former would like to see it in the hands of a US company close to his interests, and the latter has his eye on Citgo, the American subsidiary of PDVSA.
(11) Newsweek, Paris, 22 April 2002.
(12) The same applies to Radio Nacional de Venezuela and the official news agency Venpres.
(13) Some journalists have resigned in disgust, like André Izarra, of RCTV where the management has imposed a ban on pro-Chávez reporting.
Translated by Julie Stoker.
When he took over as president, Hugo Chávez ousted an élite whose hold on the country had been marked by incompetence and corruption. The aggression he often shows towards the old political guard, institutions and their representatives has plenty to justify it.
Since December 1998 there has been strong opposition, evident in the departure of many of the well-to-do - mainly to Miami. There, they join up with the $90bn (three times Venezuela's foreign debt) of Creole wealth that has been tucked away there over the years, while 70% of Venezuelans are living below the poverty line.
The national and foreign mass media, linked to the traditional political world and economic and financial groups, buzz with criticism. Chávez is compared to Perón, Castro, even indeed to Gaddafi and Mussolini. Speaking of Venezuela, the famous Peruvian author, Mario Vargas Llosa, has gone so far as to talk of the suicide of a nation.
Leaving aside the forceful rhetoric and the far-from-orthodox methods, the consultations that are profoundly changing the face of Venezuelan politics are being held within an entirely legal framework. That does not stop the Church from complaining about the regime's authoritarianism, and accusing the president of manipulating the Bible. The governor of Zulia, Lieutenant-Colonel Francisco Arias, who is a Christian-Democrat and staunch Catholic, reassures the traditionally dominant classes and stakes his political claim not so much by saying he is trying to save endangered democracy, as by promising to open up the economy and limit the role of the state.
Business circles are fulminating against what they call the state socialist and interventionist trend of the new constitution. They rail in particular against the mixed economy; social security payments to mothers of families and over-65s who have never paid contributions; curbs to all unfair dismissals; and cutting the working week to a maximum of 44 hours. When the government decreed a 20% increase in wages on 3 July, firms retaliated with massive lay-offs.
Although Chávez has given reassurances to American investors, the US misses no opportunity to express "deep concern" at the events that have rocked its main oil supplier. By establishing good relations with Cuba (and playing baseball with Fidel Castro), and by suspending the Unitas and Red Flag joint manoeuvres that Venezuela's armed forces have held each year with the US, the fiery Bolivar-style president is driving a wedge into Washington's regional strategy.
Worse still, he has forbidden US military aircraft based on the Dutch island of Aruba to overfly his territory on their way to spy on the Colombian guerrillas, and has spoken out firmly against the Colombia Plan. Peter Romero, the US under-secretary of state for Latin-American affairs, showed the degree of irritation the Caribbean neighbour is causing when, on 29 January, he criticised the priority the Venezuelan government was giving to politics over the economy. He said: "In Venezuela, the government is not being controlled, and we gringos are not noted for our patience" (1). In late July a report by the Mercantil and Santander banks showed that over the previous six months the outflow of capital had exceeded the amount earned from oil sales (2).