In Venezuela, A Coup or Uprising?

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/05/2002

It was an ominous, if all-too-familiar image for Latin America: Flanked by a row of stern-faced military men, their golden epaulets and brass medals shimmering in television lights, the newly installed "transitional leader" lauded the arrest of the nation's democratically elected president and decreed the dissolution of its legislature, supreme court, and constitution.

At the same time last month, and as familiar and ominous for many throughout this coup-plagued region as the scene playing out in the presidential palace, another US government was making friendly overtures to the latest group of generals and civilian elites to grab power in Latin America. Earlier on that chaotic day in Venezuela, the US State Department issued a statement praising the military and blaming the bloody turn of events on the nation's ousted president, Hugo Chavez.

Almost immediately, from Havana to Mexico City to Buenos Aires, headlines decried US imperialism. Reports of meetings between US officials and opposition leaders led to rumors of CIA involvement and shadowy US military attaches calling the shots from local military bases.

With memories of US complicity in the toppling of elected governments in Chile, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, politicians throughout Latin America had good reason to question the depth of Washington's support of democracy. Critics around the world blasted the Bush administration for hypocrisy. If Chavez wasn't an outspoken leftist who had befriended Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, among other snubs to Washington, they asked, would the administration have welcomed his overthrow?

The criticism hit the mark, especially after a counter-uprising returned a triumphant Chavez to the presidential palace within 48 hours. The Bush administration denied any role in engineering his ouster and withdrew support for the transitional regime.

But was the administration right from the beginning? After all, the military chiefs refused to fire on their own people. Television images from the mass demonstrations on April 11 showed Chavez supporters firing on unarmed marchers, killing at least 17 and wounding more than a hundred. And with his radical policies and growing disregard for democratic checks and balances, few argue that Chavez didn't, as the State Department said, "provoke" the crisis.

Moreover, Chavez, a former paratrooper jailed after leading a bloody coup attempt in 1992, had already dismantled much of the democracy that brought him to power.

A mestizo promising to help the poor, Chavez won a landslide victory at the polls three years ago. Riding a wave of popularity, the charismatic leader oversaw the writing of a new constitution, which allowed him to stay in power more than twice as long as under the previous one. He forcefully dissolved the congress and replaced it with a new national assembly stacked with friends, fired all the supreme court justices and appointed his allies, politicized the military and armed groups of urban supporters.

Given the events that led to Chavez's fall from power before dawn on April 12, including rallies of hundreds of thousands of people, was what occurred a coup or a popular uprising?

"There was no secret plot, as was the case when Chavez led a military assault against the government in 1992," says Ricardo Hausmann, the former chief economist of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington and a former government minister in Venezuela who now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "These were mass demonstrations."

Unlike a traditional coup in which civil liberties are taken away, Hausmann and others argue, the opposition rose up to defend and promote them.

"Like Fujimori in Peru, this was a neo-authoritarian regime - elected and using democratic means to take over all public power," says Carlos Blanco, a columnist for the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal and another former government minister now at Harvard. "What happened . . . was an uprising against authoritarianism."

Both Hausmann and Blanco, however, argue the uprising was "hijacked" when Pedro Carmona, the head of Venezuela's top business association appointed by generals as the nation's transitional leader, dissolved the national assembly and supreme court - rash, unpopular decisions that helped speed Chavez's return to power.

Yet with his support in polls below 30 percent and a restive population thronging around the presidential palace, they and others justify the pressure on Chavez and his Cabinet to resign.

To others, such overt military pressure on a fairly elected president represents the difference between a coup and a legitimate overthrow of an authoritarian regime. Instead of asking Chavez to resign with a gun pointed to his head, they argue, the opposition should have followed the constitution and acted against the president in the congress or the supreme court.

"This was absolutely a coup," says Arturo Valenzuela, director of Western Hemisphere affairs in the Clinton administration who now oversees the Center for Latin American Studies at Georgetown University. "They didn't resort at all to constitutional order. If Chavez resigned, power should have gone to the vice president."

Although they acknowledge Chavez's bent toward authoritarianism, Valenzuela and others criticize the Bush administration for applauding a coup.

"If Chavez did order his supporters to shoot protesters, as the opposition contends, then the military had justification to arrest him," says Jennifer McCoy, a Venezuela specialist and director of the Americas Program at the Atlanta-based Carter Center. "But does that justify overthrowing the whole government? Absolutely not."

Those who support the Bush administration's response to Chavez's brief ouster, however, argue that at the time it appeared as though Chavez had been swept from power in a fashion similar to the toppling of elected autocrats like Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Peru's Alberto Fujimori.

The military's intervention came at a time of chaos, they argue, after the president ordered troops and tanks to confront the thousands of protesters nearing the presidential palace, after men wearing Chavez's trademark red berets were seen on live television spraying bullets at the opposition, and after General Lucas Rincon, chief of the armed forces and one of the president's most trusted allies, publicly confirmed Chavez's resignation.

"There's no question this popular uprising looked like a coup - and that it eventually became one because of stupid, illegitimate decisions that led the new regime to collapse," says Hausmann. "But what happened was a mess of Chavez's own creation. The armed forces behaved professionally in refusing his orders and the Bush administration was right from the beginning: Chavez provoked the crisis and he lost control of it."

David Abel can be reached at

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