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Poor of Venezuela bring down coup, but divisions remain


Even before he was elected overwhelmingly as Venezuela’s president in a free and fair democratic vote in 1998, Hugo Chavez’s critics were warning that he was a dictator-in-waiting and Latin America’s next Fidel Castro.

In April some of these same critics, including business elites and members of the military high command, overthrew Chavez in a coup d’etat that lasted 48 hours. As the poor took to the streets to demand his restoration, Chavez returned to power triumphantly.

The coup plotters’ message was puzzling: We have to overthrow the democratically elected president to save democracy.

Washington’s response? The Bush administration not only did not condemn the April 12 coup, but appeared to endorse it and even blamed Chavez for his own downfall. “Undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela,” the State Department said.

After Chavez returned to power, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned not the coup leaders but, remarkably, Chavez to “respect constitutional processes.”

The stance by the U.S. government, which refuses even to call Chavez’s ouster a coup, provoked a barrage of criticism. It seemed to mark a reversal of U.S. foreign policy, which in the 1990s emphasized support for emerging democracies in a region plagued for decades by brutal U.S.-backed military dictatorships and civilian regimes.

The not-so-veiled U.S. support of the coup against Chavez resurrected memories of past CIA-engineered coups against democratically elected leaders in places such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, or support for right-wing forces such as the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Some experts asserted that the CIA had its fingerprints all over the upheaval in Caracas, too.

“You can’t think of a major coup in Latin America that did not have CIA intervention,” said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think-tank in Washington, D.C. “So why should this one be any different?”

U.S. officials denied they played a part in the coup. But they admitted they met with some of the coup leaders in recent months in both Washington and Caracas, though they said they told the Venezuelans to resolve their differences with Chavez democratically.

One name that arose in the coup’s aftermath was Otto Reich, a key player in the contra campaign in Nicaragua and now Bush’s top policymaker for Latin America. Reich was on the telephone with the business baron the military installed to replace Chavez, Pedro Carmona, on the very day of the coup, according to The New York Times, though U.S. officials denied it. The next day, U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro met with Carmona in the presidential palace, though Shapiro said it was to urge Carmona not to shut down Congress.

Carmona dissolved it anyway, along with the Supreme Court, the Constitution and other hallmarks of democracy, giving him dictatorial powers.

Chavez, 47, rose to power on a wave of resentment over Venezuela’s economic disparities and what the poor see as the corrupt elites’ pillaging of the country’s oil wealth. Venezuela possesses the world’s largest oil reserves outside the Middle East and is the third largest exporter of oil to the United States. Yet 80 percent of the population is mired in poverty, while a tiny wealthy class lives in walled-off mansions.

A dark-skinned campesino who grew up in a mud hut, Chavez dreamed of playing professional baseball but ended up becoming an Army paratrooper. In 1992, disgusted by the country’s ingrained injustice, he led his own coup attempt against President Carlos Andres Perez, who was viewed as a symbol of Venezuela’s corruption, among the worst in the world. The coup failed, but Chavez became a hero to the poor.

He spent two years in jail and then, in 1998, won the presidential election in a landslide. His victory shattered a 40-year grip on power by Venezuela’s two traditional political parties, which are controlled by the wealthy elites. Chavez’s mission, as he sees it, is to break up a mafia that raped the nation.

The poor see Chavez as a messiah, a prophet who is finally giving the powerless a voice. The elites see him as the next Castro, even though he has implemented budget-cutting measures applauded by the International Monetary Fund and won five subsequent national votes by large margins.

While Chavez’s sometimes fumbling and heavy-handed governance undoubtedly has lost him some support, his backers say his achievements are invisible to the world because of Venezuela’s highly biased media, which is owned by a few who have power in the country and who are unwilling to venture into the slums to witness the improvements.

Longtime community activist and Catholic church worker Xiomara Tortoza said the public health clinic in the slum where she grew up in western Caracas today is stocked with medicine -- something indeed revolutionary, since the shelves were bare for years prior to Chavez’s presidency.

Public hospitals that used to lack items as basic as bandages are functioning better today than they have in years, she said. Chavez has opened scores of new public schools and boosted attendance by 1 million children. He “is an instrument of hope” for the poor, Tortoza said.

Perhaps his greatest moment was when, taking a helicopter into disaster zones and comforting shocked survivors, he personally led rescue efforts after mudslides and floods killed thousands of Venezuelans in 1999

When the disaster struck and Chavez disappeared from public view the first day, the local media reported that he was partying on a Caribbean Island with Castro and too drunk to return. In reality, he was in the disaster zone, risking his life by flying through zero-visibility cloud cover in treacherous mountain terrain.

Charles Hardy, a former Catholic priest from Wyoming who served as a Maryknoll associate priest in one of Caracas’ poorest slums for seven years and who still lives in Venezuela, said the wealthy class, business moguls and corrupt labor leaders were predisposed to sabotage Chavez’s government from the start. “These groups had a great hatred for Chavez even before his election, together with the press and certain members of the Catholic hierarchy,” Hardy said. “They lost all power with his election and they are not going down easy, even if this is the best government that Venezuela has had in the past 40 years.”

Chavez has indeed clashed with some of the Catholic hierarchy, saying some are part of the corrupt oligarchy. Venezuelan governments have a tradition of providing some bishops with cars, chauffeurs and even housing, Hardy said.

Just after the 1999 floods, Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco said the disaster was a “punishment of God” directed at Chavez.

Without doubt, Chavez has made mistakes that have not helped his cause. He flaunts his friendship with Castro, visited Saddam Hussein, stacked the Supreme Court with allies, has a revolving door cabinet, and publicly belittles his opponents by name.

But his backers say the local media has handed a megaphone to the wealthy and middle-class who despise Chavez, and virtually turned off the microphone for the poor. The Venezuelan media, in fact, has a bit to answer for after the coup.

On the day tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to demand Chavez’s return, local television networks, which give ample coverage to anti-Chavez marches, refused to broadcast images of the pro-Chavez protesters or the soldiers pumping their fists in the air to urge them on. Instead, they broadcast Hollywood movies and soap operas. Media owners said it was too dangerous to get images of the protests.

The next day when Chavez resumed the presidency, almost all of the nation’s newspapers refused to publish. They cited security concerns.

Some of the media don’t dispute they’ve lost their sense of fair and balanced coverage. Objectivity “is a problem now,” Miguel Henrique Otero, publisher of leading newspaper El Nacional, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “Unavoidably there’s a bias. … The media are the opposition.”

The media’s opposition activities expanded to the point where some hosted meetings plotting Chavez’s overthrow, according to international press reports.

After coup leader Carmona occupied the presidential palace, media moguls pulled up in SUVs and limousines and met with him even before he swore in his cabinet.

Chavez has clearly made mistakes and needs to make adjustments if he hopes to avoid civil war and heal a society being ripped apart by class warfare. Many believe he needs to tone down his rhetoric and reign in some of his supporters who are armed. But his backers say Chavez is not the bloody tyrant the opposition makes him out to be.

Chavez “never sanctioned political assassinations or torture, or even minor human rights violations,” said the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Compared to Fujimori of Peru, Banzer of Bolivia or Rios Montt of Guatemala -- all well-regarded by the White House in their time -- Chavez is a veritable angel, if a somewhat flawed one.”

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday who worked in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, mainly as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.

National Catholic Reporter, May 3, 2002