VENEZUELA: Examining the 2002 coup to prevent the next one

Posted on November 30, 2007

“They attempted to execute Chavez but the firing squad refused to shoot.”
— Fidel Castro Ruz

Anyone who knows a lick about Venezuela knows that the private media played a treasonous role in the US-sponsored coup of 2002. In addition to altering camera angles to make it look like government supporters were firing on unarmed opposition demonstrators (actually, it was the opposite), the media were also busy telling the people of Venezuela that President Chavez had resigned (which he didn’t). Further, on the day after the coup, one private TV station joked openly about how it had been complicit in the coup. This shows how over-confident, arrogant and wrong these people were.

Channel 8, the Venezuelan government’s one TV station,was sabotaged by the opposition and knocked off the air. This put the Government in a tough spot because it was imperative to counter the media lie that Chavez had resigned. If not done quickly, both Chavez’ military and civilian supporters might assume that the resignation was a fait accompli and no uprising against the coup would take place. Something had to be done.

That something was the intervention of Fidel Castro in an amazing story that involves also Chavez’ daughter and CNN! In an interview (further down in this post) with reporter Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel gives us a bird’s eye view of what took place during the two days Chavez was imprisoned. You will learn of Fidel’s clever and reasoned approach to the crisis and his unshakable loyalty to President Chavez.

The primary reason for taking a look back at the 2002 coup is because there are distinct signs that another one is on the way. In the build up to the referendum on Venezuela’s constitutional reforms this Sunday, December 2, disturbing events have unfolded which should keep everyone on their toes.

The Venezuelans have just uncovered a memo written by a US embassy official in Caracas to the Director of the CIA suggesting scenarios for how to sabotage the referendum vote. Please see Eva Golinger’s article about “Operation Pliers” for more information.

As Fidel Castro was securing Hugo Chavez’ release during the 48-hour coup, Pedro Carmona was getting sized for the crown he hoped to wear as Venezuela’s next president and presiding over an attorney-general who stood before all the coupsters and summarily dissolved nearly every governmental institution, including the National Assembly. When Chavez supporters heard that Chavez had not resigned, they raced, in the hundreds of thousands, to Miraflores and scared the bejeebers out of Carmona, his white cabinet, and all those blonde women who were roaming around the palace with champagne glasses dreaming of palace soirees.

With close to a million Chavez supporters pressing at gates of Miraflores and the Red Guard closing in with a plan to overthrow Carmona, the “government” was toast within 48 hours. Chavez returned in the wee hours of the morning and triumphantly alighted from a military helicopter. His military had not let him down. And, neither had the people of Venezuela who stayed outside for more than twenty-four hours so that they could greet and cheer their beloved leader.

But it was Fidel, working with a few others, who saved the day. In an interview with Ignacio Ramonet, Fidel gives us the low-down on what happened.

Excerpted From ZNet Article:

Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet – April 22, 2006

IR: On April 11, 2002, there was a coup d’état against Chávez in Caracas.
Did you follow those events.

FC: When we learned that the demonstration by the opposition had changed direction and was nearing Miraflores [Palace], that there were provocations, shootings, victims, and that some high officials had mutinied and come out publicly against the president, that the presidential guard had withdrawn and that the army was on its way to arrest him, I phoned Chávez because I knew that he was defenseless and that he was a man of principle, and said to him: “Don’t kill yourself, Hugo! Don’t do like Allende! Allende was a man alone, he didn’t have a single soldier on his side. You have a large part of the army. Don’t quit! Don’t resign!”

IR: You were encouraging him to resist, gun in hand?

FC: No, on the contrary. That’s what Allende did, and he paid heroically with his life. Chávez had three alternatives: To hunker down in Miraflores and resist to death; to call on the people to rebel and unleash a civil war; or to surrender without resigning, without quitting. We recommended the third choice, which was what he also had decided to do. Because history teaches us that every popular leader overthrown in those circumstances, if he’s not killed the people claim him, and sooner or later he returns to power.

IR: At that moment, did you try to help Chávez somehow?

FC: Well, we could act only by using the resources of diplomacy. In the middle of the night we summoned all the ambassadors accredited to Havana and we proposed to them that they accompany Felipe [Pérez Roque], our Foreign Minister, to Caracas to rescue Chávez, the legitimate president of Venezuela. We proposed sending two planes to bring him here, in case the putschists decided to send him into exile.

Chávez had been imprisoned by the military putschists and his whereabouts were unknown. The television repeatedly reported the news of his “resignation” to demobilize his supporters, the people. But at one point, they allow Chávez to make a phone call and he manages to talk to his daughter, María Gabriela. And he tells her that he has not quit, that he has not resigned. That he is “a president under arrest.” And he asks her to spread that news.

The daughter then has the bold idea to phone me and she informs me. She confirms to me that her father has not resigned. We then decided to assume the defense of the Venezuelan democracy, since we had proof that countries like the United States and Spain — the government of José María Aznar — who talk so much about democracy and criticize Cuba so much, were backing the coup d’état.

We asked María Gabriela to repeat it and recorded the conversation she had with Randy Alonso, the moderator of the Cuban TV program “Mesa Redonda”
[Round Table], which had great international repercussion. In addition, we summoned the entire foreign news media accredited to Cuba — by then it must have been 4 o’clock in the morning — we informed them and played them the testimony of Chávez’s daughter. CNN broadcast it at once and the news spread like a flash of gunpowder throughout Venezuela.

IR: And what was the consequence of that?

FC: Well, that was heard by the military people faithful to Chávez, who had been deceived by the lie about a resignation, and then there is a contact with a general who is on Chávez’s side. I talk to him on the phone. I confirm to him personally that what the daughter said is true and that the entire world knows Chávez has not resigned.

I talk with him a long time. He informs me about the military situation, about which high-ranking officers are siding with Chávez and which are not.
I understand that nothing is lost, because the best units of the Armed Forces, the most combative, the best trained, were in favor of Chávez. I tell that officer that the most urgent task is to find out where Chávez is being detained and to send loyal forces there to rescue him.

He then asks me to talk to his superior officer and turns me over to him. I repeat what Chávez’s daughter has said, and stress that he continues to be the constitutional president. I remind him of the necessary loyalty, I talk to him about Bolívar and the history of Venezuela. And that high-ranking officer, in a gesture of patriotism and fidelity to the Constitution, asserts to me that, if it’s true that Chávez has not resigned, he continues to be faithful to the president under arrest.

IR: But even at that moment nobody knows where Chávez is, true?

FC: Meanwhile, Chávez has been taken to the island of La Orchila. He is incommunicado. The Archbishop of Caracas goes to see him and counsels him to resign. “To avoid a civil war,” he says. He commits humanitarian blackmail. He asks [Chávez] to write a letter saying he is resigning.

Chávez doesn’t know what’s happening in Caracas or the rest of the country. They’ve already tried to execute him, but the men in the firing squad have refused and threatened to mutiny. Many of the soldiers who guard Chávez are ready to defend him and to prevent his assassination. Chávez tries to gain time with the bishop. He writes drafts of a statement. He fears that once he finishes the letter, [his captors] will arrange to eliminate him. He has no intention of resigning. He declares that they’ll have to kill him first. And that there will be no constitutional solution then.

IR: Meanwhile, was it still your intention to send planes to rescue him and take him into exile?

FC: No, after that conversation with the Venezuelan generals, we changed plans. We shelved Felipe’s proposition to travel with the ambassadors to Caracas. What’s more, shortly thereafter we hear a rumor that the putschists are proposing to expel Chávez to Cuba. And we immediately announce that if they send Chávez here, we shall send him back to Venezuela on the first available plane.

IR: How does Chávez return to power?

FC: Well, at one point we again get in contact with the first general with whom I had spoken and he informs me that they’ve located Chávez, that he’s on the island of La Orchila. We talk about the best way to rescue him. With great respect, I recommend three basic steps: discretion, efficacy and overwhelming force. The parachutists from the base at Maracay, the best unit of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, who are faithful to Chávez, carry out the rescue.

Meanwhile, in Caracas, the people have mobilized, asking for Chávez’s return. The presidential guard has reoccupied Miraflores [Palace] and also demands the president’s return. It expels the putschists from the palace. Pedro Carmona, president of the management association and very temporary President-usurper of Venezuela, is almost arrested right there at the palace.

Finally, at dawn on April 14, 2002, rescued by the faithful soldiers, Chávez arrives in Miraflores amid a popular apotheosis. I almost did not sleep the two days of the Caracas coup, but it was worthwhile for me to see how a people, and also patriotic soldiers, defended the law. The tragedy of Chile in 1973 was not repeated.

IR: Chávez is a representative of the progressive armed forces, but in Europe and Latin America many progressives reproach him precisely because he is a military man. What opinion do you have about that apparent contradiction between progressiveness and the military?

FC: Look, in Venezuela we have an army playing an important role in the Bolivarian revolution. And Omar Torrijos, in Panama, was an example of a soldier with conscience. Juan Velasco Alvarado, in Peru, also carried out some notable acts of progress. Let’s not forget, for example, that among the Brazilians, Luis Carlos Prestes was an officer who led a march in 1924-26 almost like the march led by Mao Zedong in 1934-35.

Jorge Amado wrote about the march of Luis Carlos Prestes in a beautiful story, “The Gentleman of Hope,” one of his magnificent novels. I had an opportunity to read them all, and that march was something impressive. It lasted more than two and a half years, covering enormous territories in his country, and he never suffered defeat.

In other words, there were prowesses that came from the military. Let’s say, I’m going to cite a Mexican military man, Lázaro Cárdenas, a general of the Mexican Revolution, who nationalized petroleum. He is very prominent, carries out agrarian reform and gains the support of the people. When one talks about affairs in Mexico, one mustn’t forget the roles played by personalities like Lázaro Cárdenas. And Lázaro Cárdenas originated in the military.

One mustn’t forget that the first people in Latin America to rise up in the 20th Century, in the 1950s, were a group of youths who rebelled, young Guatemalan officers, who gathered around Jacobo Arbenz and participated in revolutionary activities. Well, you can’t say that’s a general phenomenon but there are several cases of progressive military men.

In Argentina, Perón also came from military origins. You need to see the moment when he emerges. In 1943, he was appointed Minister of Labor and drafted such good laws that when he was taken to prison the people rescued him — and he was a military chief. There was also a civilian who had influence over the military men, he studied in Italy, where Perón also had lived; he was Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and they were popular leaders.

Perón was an embassy attaché. He worked in Rome in the 1930s during the Mussolini period and was impressed by some of the forms and methods of mass mobilization he witnessed. There was influence, including in some processes, but in those cases where I mention that influence, Gaitán and Perón used it in a positive sense, because the truth is that Perón carried out social reform.

Perón commits, let us say, a mistake. He offends the Argentine oligarchy, humiliates it, strips it of its symbolic theater and some symbolic institutions. He worked with the nation’s reserves and resources and improved the living conditions of the workers. And the workers were very grateful, and Perón became an idol of the workers.

And there you have it. The recently intercepted US embassy memo calls for a huge role by the private media in the sabotage of the referendum this Sunday. Further, it calls for the opposition to engage in armed conflict against their fellow countrymen. Because the stakes are so high, it is important to have up to date information, over this weekend especially. Tune in to a new online radio station for live coverage of the referendum vote. “Radio Venezuela en Vivo” broadcasts in English, French, and Portuguese.

Never underestimate the power of the media to do the empire’s bidding and reserve your right to be skeptical. The only things that counts in the coming days are: the people of Venezuela, their Bolivarian revolution, and their democratically-elected president. The pundits will try to make it about anything but. Keep your eyes on the prize and the coup makers!