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Viva Chavez: U.S. Fails (Twice) to Overthrow Venezuela’s Elected President

By Asad Ismi

Even as the U.S. military invaded and occupied Iraq, mainly to plunder the world’s second largest oil deposits, Venezuela, the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, slipped out of Washington’s grip. On April 13, Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Venezuela, celebrated his defeat of a U.S.-sponsored military coup which took place a year earlier. Chavez also celebrated his recent victory over a four-month U.S.-backed economic destabilization campaign that petered out in February. “Nobody is leaving! We will stay forever, fighting battles,” Chavez told a cheering crowd in Caracas. He denounced “global imperialism” and “savage neoliberalism,” and blamed foreign interests and “the fascist oligarchy” within Venezuela for the aborted coup against him. “God bless April 13,” Chavez said. “A miraculous day. The first great victory of the world’s people in this century.”

Venezuela’s poor majority has certainly won a lot under Chavez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” named for Simon Bolivar, the 19th century liberator of South America. A former army colonel, Chavez was elected president in 1998 and again in 2000 by the largest majority in 40 years. He ran on a platform to redistribute wealth to the 80% of Venezuelans who are poor–and that is exactly what he has done through reforms in the health, education, and agricultural sectors. Chavez has made health care universal for the first time in Venezuelan history, and has quadrupled health spending, thereby reducing infant mortality from 21 to 17 per thousand in less than four years. He has set up first-aid posts in shanty towns, built rural clinics, and launched major immunization campaigns in poor areas. Fifteen breast-milk banks have been established where babies can get mothers’ milk. The government subsidizes a national chain of pharmacies called SUMED, where drugs are 30-to-40% cheaper than market prices.

The state has doubled education spending, tripled literacy courses, and guaranteed free education up to the university level; 3,000 new schools have been built and two million children added to the educational system, a 25% increase. The children get three meals a day in their schools–nutrition that many are unlikely to receive at home. Chavez has also launched a massive public works program, created 450,000 new jobs, reduced official unemployment from 18% to 13%, and built 200,000 new units of public housing, more than were constructed during the last 40 years. All this social and economic improvement has raised Venezuela four places on the United Nations Human Development Index.

The government has expropriated unused rural land belonging to rich Venezuelans and given thousands of land deeds to poor peasants; it plans to give land to more than 100,000 families. Chavez has helped the new owners set up cooperatives and provided them with micro-credit, training, and technical help. He has also established a Women’s Bank which gives micro-credit loans. In Venezuela’s cities, the government has moved to give the poor land that they were illegally occupying. Land committees of 200 families in poor neighbourhoods have been created that help measure plots of land and decide on communal property. Chavez has also created subsidized “popular markets” in which soldiers buy produce from farmers in the countryside, transport it to cities, and sell it at below cost to small merchants who pass on a 30% price drop to consumers. His army background has enabled Chavez to forge an alliance between the military and the poor in which soldiers set up clinics and build houses in shantytowns.

A Republic of the Poor

The blueprint for this impressive social program is contained in Chavez’s Bolivarian Constitution of 1999, which was formulated by a Constituent Assembly and approved by a public referendum. The constitution is the most democratic in Latin America, providing for removal of elected public officials halfway through their term; it also enshrines the rights of indigenous people, women and children for the first time. Most importantly, the document states that Venezuela is a participatory democracy. To promote this system, Chavez has set up 130,000 grassroots “Bolivarian Circles” in communities and workplaces across Venezuela. Their task is to “raise the consciousness of citizens and develop all forms of participatory organizations in the community, including projects in health, education, culture, sport, public services, housing, and the preservation of the environment, natural resources and our historical heritage.” The circles have helped raise mass consciousness among the poor for the first time, and this is Chavez’s greatest accomplishment. The poor in Venezuela are rising up to claim their country and its resources.

Since its formation, Venezuela has been dominated by a rich white elite descended from Europeans who ruled over a poor black, indigenous and mestizo majority. Starting in 1958, power was shared by the Democratic Action (DA) and Christian Democratic (COPEI) parties, which ran the most corrupt governments in Latin America, stealing Venezuela’s enormous oil revenues, cutting average real income by two-thirds, and plunging 80% of the population into poverty. The final straw came in 1989 when the government of Carlos Andres Perez pushed through austerity measures demanded by the IMF. When the poor took to the streets in protest, 200 of them were gunned down by the army in Caracas and the political system started disintegrating. In 1992, Chavez, who comes from a poor family and is mixed black and indigenous, launched an unsuccessful coup citing the slaughter of the protesters as his reason for concluding that neither of the two major political parties was fit to govern. The next year, Andres Perez was impeached for corruption.

As Dr. Maria Paez Victor, a Venezuelan sociologist, explains, “The significant thing about Chavez is that it’s not just Chavez. It’s Chavez and the people. For the first time in Venezuelan history, politics belongs to the people and not the elite. The people believe that this is their government, that they can influence it and change their country with it. And so they are willing to support it as they have never supported any other government.” It is this overwhelming public support that has kept Chavez in power in the face of a coup attempt and a contrived economic destabilization.

Offending the Global Dictator

Predictably, Venezuela’s remarkable social transformation under Chavez has made him a target for “regime change” in Washington. As the enforcer of neoliberalism and elite control, the United States has overthrown many governments in Latin America and around the world for attempting to redistribute wealth. Through coups, invasions, assassinations, covert wars and economic coercion (in short, state terrorism), the U.S. has perpetrated the genocide of about half a million Latin Americans since 1950.

Particularly galling to the oil-driven Bush Administration has been Chavez’s petroleum strategy, as well as his foreign policy. Venezuela is the second largest supplier of oil to the U.S. and a founding member of OPEC. Chavez has revitalized the oil cartel, sought closer relations with fellow oil producers such as Iran and Libya (considered enemies by the U.S.) and slashed Venezuelan oil output, causing prices to nearly double to more than $20 a barrel. He has also doubled the royalties charged foreign oil companies in Venezuela, including ExxonMobil, the biggest U.S. company. To finance his social spending, Chavez has moved to take control of the revenues of Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the national oil company, which had been run for the exclusive benefit of its management and employees. The Venezuelan government depends on oil income for half of its budget, but only 20% of PDVSA’s income went to the state, 80% being taken for “operating costs,” another term for managerial corruption.

In foreign policy, Chavez has made it clear that Venezuela will follow an independent course and not be dictated to by Washington. As Maria Paez explains, “The Bolivarian doctrine is a continental doctrine. Just as Bolivar freed Latin America from Spain, Chavez envisions the whole region, and not just Venezuela, as an area for human development free from exploitation and control by the U.S. and multinational corporations.” Following this course, Chavez has refused to participate in the FTAA negotiations. He has established close relations with Cuba, which he calls “an example for nations throughout the world.” Chavez is on friendly terms with Fidel Castro, and Venezuela has provided Cuba with oil in exchange for medical services. He has removed Pentagon military advisers from the Venezuelan defence ministry and refused to allow U.S. planes to fly over Venezuela in support of Washington’s backing for the murderous regime in Colombia. Most offensive to the Bush Administration was Chavez’s criticism of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 when he declared: “You cannot fight terror with terror,” displayed photographs of burned Afghani children, and demanded an end to “the slaughter of innocents.” Shortly thereafter, the U.S. withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela temporarily and began plotting Chavez’s overthrow.

The 48-Hour Coup

According to investigative reporter Greg Palast in The Observer (U.K), visits to Washington by Venezuelans scheming to oust Chavez began several months before the coup and continued until weeks before the event. The visitors were received at the White House by Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Bush’s key policy-maker for the region. The callers included Pedro Carmona, the head of Fedecamaras, the main Venezuelan business association. His partners in coup planning were dissident military generals such as Lucas Romero Rincon, head of the Venezuelan army, Carlos Ortega, leader of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV–the corrupt business union federation), the private media, and the Catholic Church hierarchy–all of them representing the upper and middle classes who felt threatened by Chavez’s mission to redistribute wealth and power to the poor majority. Romero Rincon and Manuel Cova, deputy secretary-general of CTV, also met Reich. The Observer states: “Reich is said by OAS [Organization of American States] sources to have had ‘a number of meetings with Carmona and other leaders of the coup’ over several months. The coup was discussed in some detail, right down to its timing and chances of success, which were deemed to be excellent.”

The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy (NED), created by Congress and “long used by the CIA for covert operations abroad,” gave $1 million in funding to anti-Chavez groups before the coup. This included $154,377 given to the CTV through the AFL-CIO; it was the CTV’s protests that ignited the coup attempt.

On April 11, 2002, following demonstrations for and against Chavez in Caracas during which 19 people were killed, a junta composed of Romero Rincon and other dissident generals ousted Chavez and replaced him with Carmona. The latter immediately dissolved the National Assembly, the Constitution and the courts, dismissed governors and elected mayors, broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, and revoked Chavez’s OPEC policy, the last two being the two main U.S. concerns. But hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters occupied roads throughout the country on April 13 and most military commanders stayed loyal to Chavez, leaving the coup leaders with no choice but to reinstate Chavez as president the same day. Carmona became known as “Pedro the Brief–Dictator for a Day.” The U.S., which had immediately recognized Carmona’s government, was forced to back down when Latin American countries refused to do so.

At the end of April, Wayne Madsen, a former U.S. naval intelligence officer, told The Guardian (UK) that U.S. military attaches had explored the possibility of a coup with Venezuelan military officers. Madsen said, “I first heard of Lieutenant Colonel James Rogers [the assistant military attache at the U.S. embassy in Venezuela] going down there last June [2001] to set the ground.” Madsen, an intelligence analyst, added that the U.S. Navy helped the coup attempt with “signals intelligence” and “communications jamming.”

Strike of the Rich

The U.S. and the Venezuelan opposition learned nothing from the humiliating defeat of their coup attempt. In fact, Condoleeza Rice, Bush’s National Security Adviser, arrogantly declared after the coup collapsed: “I hope Chavez has learned the right lessons.” As Professor James Petras, an expert on Latin America, puts it, “[This] in effect means we organize one coup, you better do what we want, or we’ll come back with a second coup.” But the failed coup showed that the army was behind Chavez, and allowed the president to purge senior officers opposed to him, thus eliminating any further threat from the military. So the U.S. had to focus on economic destabilization as a fallback strategy to remove Chavez. The NED gave another $1 million to the opposition for 2002, and the latter called its fourth “general strike” at the start of December 2002. This strike targeted PDVSA, the national oil company, whose management and administrative workers walked off the job, reducing oil exports to a trickle. This did significant economic damage, causing the loss of $6 billion in revenue. Many businesses in upper-middle-class neighbourhoods closed as well, and firms refused to pay taxes. It was an odd general strike: Workers laid off by large companies, including multinationals, were told that they would receive full pay for the duration of the lockout as long the companies succeeded in ousting Chavez. But blue-collar oil workers stayed on the job, as did workers in electricity, transport, the public sector, basic industries, and the subway.

One million people from the slums of Caracas and the countryside demonstrated for Chavez in January 2003, while the opposition could only muster 70,000 in a counter-demonstration. All this, combined with Chavez’s firing of 5,000 oil executives, caused the U.S.-contrived strike to collapse a few weeks later.

Government control of PDVSA allows Chavez to use the biggest source of national revenue to finance radical reforms. Also, the strike had the unintended effect of empowering Venezuelan workers as never before, elevating their consciousness and encouraging them to take over enterprises. As one observer described it: “There is a mood among workers of self-confidence, one which emerged when the workers in PDVSA ran the company by themselves after the management and technicians abandoned it. In workplace after workplace, workers are talking about taking over and running their enterprises as cooperatives. PDVSA itself now has two representatives of its workers in its management, and an associated firm in petrochemicals is being run as a cooperative. In particular, the takeover of enterprises by workers is occurring when the owners threaten to shut down… Rather than giving in, Venezuelan workers are moving in.”

Stemming from this upsurge in labour activism, a new union federation was formed in March 2003, called the National Union of Workers (UNT) with more members than the CTV; it includes some unions formerly in the CTV such as the petroleum workers’ union. The UNT is independent of the government, but supports its direction.

Turning the Tide

Chavez’s victory, though impressive, is not yet complete. Although the U.S. has failed twice to unseat him (first through a coup and then by fomenting labour unrest), the opposition is now pinning its hopes on a mid-term referendum on Chavez’s rule in the fall (his current term goes from 2000 to 2006) but the president is unlikely to lose this vote. The coup and the strike have galvanized the poor majority into vehemently defending Chavez, and their votes far outnumber the opposition’s.

This leaves only one way for the U.S. to remove Chavez–a method that was demonstrated on April 12, 2003 (the anniversary of the coup) when a bomb destroyed three floors of the OAS headquarters in Caracas where Chavez was negotiating with the opposition. There was no one in the building when the explosion occurred at 2:45 a.m., but the warning was clear. However, even if Chavez were to be assassinated, it would not stop what appears to be the most significant mass movement in the Americas. The empowerment of the poor in Venezuela is irreversible, and they have made it clear that they are ready to arm themselves and defend their gains at any cost. Any attempt to roll back Chavez’s social reforms will lead to civil war. Confronted with this kind of popular determination, the U.S. empire’s efforts to regain control of Venezuela’s economy may well be frustrated.

The events in Venezuela in recent years have enormous implications, not only for the rest of Latin America but for the whole Third World. Venezuela is a microcosm of a world dominated by a rich corporate elite which has condemned 80% of its population to poverty and oppression for centuries. The success of the Bolivarian experiment in Venezuela so far shows the way for the poor globally to take back a world that rightfully belongs to them. As Chavez said in February, “The time of the people is upon us. After 200 years of clamoring for justice, there is no going back for this revolution.”


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, July 2003.

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor‘s international affairs correspondent and author of the report Profiting from Repression: Canadian Investment in and Trade with Colombia (2000).