By David Abel | Defense Week | 9/9/1999
CARACAS - I sniffed news the moment I emerged from the shabby subway stop in front of the Capitol. But it didn't require a journalist to smell what would make headlines around the world. The dispersing cloud of tear gas was a telling sign.
What was underway here in one of Latin America's oldest democracies that August morning was nothing less than a revolution, or as it's less euphemistically known, a coup d'etat.
I knew that not because an array of police and soldiers were driving armored trucks shooting water cannons and hurling tear-gas grenades just outside the Capitol. Nor because thousands of opponents and supporters of the new president, a failed leader of a bloody coup in 1992, were exchanging insults and burning each other's icons. Neither was it the gas masks donned by TV cameramen or the 40 people pummeled by the frenzied crowds.
It was from a few simple questions I asked one of several hundred soldiers in red berets and battle gear who was guarding the spiked-gate entrance surrounding the congressional compound.
"Who's allowed to enter?" I asked the initially reticent guard. He looked at another soldier who appeared to be his superior.
Then he responded: "Only members of the national assembly."
"Does that mean members of Congress can't enter?" I prodded.
He repeated himself, unequivocally and ominously for Venezuela's 38 years of uninterrupted, if woefully corrupt, democracy: "Only members of the National Assembly."
What this and other soldiers' statements meant was, in effect, equivalent to the president of the United States telling senators and congressmen they couldn't enter the Capitol without the executive's permission.
Here's why: After weeks of simmering tension between Venezuela's newly elected populist President Hugo Chavez and the opposition-controlled Congress, and shortly after his supporters snatched much of the powers of the nation's Supreme Court, the former Army lieutenant colonel and paratrooper made good on his warning to dissolve the disobedient Congress.
But Chavez learned from his previous attempted coup, which left dozens dead and el comandante in jail for two years. While both this power grab and the last one enjoyed the support of most of the nation's 23 million people, whom have long lived in dire straits despite Venezuela's vast oil wealth, this putsch has been much neater.
A few months after being elected with a sweeping majority, Chavez called for a national referendum on whether Venezuelans should rewrite their 1961 constitution, based roughly on the U.S. Constitution. Calling it "moribund" and a tool used by corrupt politicians to keep the people down, the fiery-tongued president used his access to national airwaves to sway the masses in his favor. Gaining the majority’s blessings was not difficult, given their increasing desperation and disillusionment with the status quo, not unlike the Germans during Hitler's democratic rise to power.
Now, 121 of 131 elected members of the constitutional assembly are the president's supporters, including his wife, brother and five former ministers. Chavez has so far let the assembly do his dirty work and ignored a Supreme Court ruling that says the assembly's only legal function is to rewrite the nation's constitution.
His supporters then proclaimed themselves Venezuela's "supreme" decision-making body. They gathered in the Capitol during Congress's summer recess and have since acted as if the body was omnipotent. For example, one of the constitutional assembly's first decrees was a "judicial emergency," enabling Chavez’s supporters to sack hundreds of lower court judges and oust Supreme Court justices they deemed corrupt.
Their second significant decision was what provoked the melee at the Capitol late last month.
The constitutional assembly declared a "legislative emergency," stripping Congress of all its powers, except budget oversight. But that authority too was removed this week after disgruntled lawmakers sought to use their remaining powers to prevent Chavez from traveling abroad. The assembly simply assumed the additional powers. Now, assembly leaders say they will issue a decree to strip state governors and big-city mayors of most of their powers.
The coup de grace occurred last week when Chavez mobilized the National Guard to block congressmen from convening in the Capitol. Members of Congress ended their summer recess early and called an emergency session to protest the assembly's action. But the National Guard wouldn’t let them enter. When several congressmen challenged the soldiers by climbing the gates, they were beaten and doused with pepper spray.
"This finally shows the truth: Chavez wants to take all the power for himself and rid the nation of its checks and balances," Godofredo Marin, a congressman from the opposition Evangelical Party, told me after he was denied access to the Capitol. "This was the first violent action of the dictatorship. This is the way it starts. The same thing happened in Cuba."
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