Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

A Coup to Remember

Is Chávez using the memory of an attempted coup to shore up his flagging support?

RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images
RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images

On April 11, 2002, a loose group of labor and business leaders attempted a coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez. The coup, which lasted only 47 hours, resulted in some 20 deaths, a two-day vacuum of power, and a moral hangover that is still being felt today.

In fact, if it were up to Chvez, Venezuelans would never stop feeling it. Scarcely a week goes by without the president making some reference to the events. On the seventh anniversary this past weekend, he proclaimed, There is nothing similar in 100 years of history of this planet to what happened here in Venezuela on April 13th, 2002, referring to the countercoup by loyalist officers that brought him back to the Miraflores Palace as the beginning of the socialist and anti-imperialist revolution in Venezuela.

Dates are important to Chvez. If he can locate the end of the coup as the beginning of the revolution, then events that came before what's known in Venezuela as 11-A -- for example, his own failed attempt to topple a democratic government in 1992 -- are buried. More importantly, though, this trick gives Chvez a chance to portray the seven years since 11-A as a Manichaean struggle between the forces of democracy (Chvez himself) and would-be despots (anyone who did, does, or might oppose him). As the Venezuelan strongman moves closer to a complete consolidation of power, this national narrative has become increasingly necessary -- and increasingly strained, too.

On April 11, 2002, a loose group of labor and business leaders attempted a coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chvez. The coup, which lasted only 47 hours, resulted in some 20 deaths, a two-day vacuum of power, and a moral hangover that is still being felt today.

In fact, if it were up to Chvez, Venezuelans would never stop feeling it. Scarcely a week goes by without the president making some reference to the events. On the seventh anniversary this past weekend, he proclaimed, There is nothing similar in 100 years of history of this planet to what happened here in Venezuela on April 13th, 2002, referring to the countercoup by loyalist officers that brought him back to the Miraflores Palace as the beginning of the socialist and anti-imperialist revolution in Venezuela.

Dates are important to Chvez. If he can locate the end of the coup as the beginning of the revolution, then events that came before what’s known in Venezuela as 11-A — for example, his own failed attempt to topple a democratic government in 1992 — are buried. More importantly, though, this trick gives Chvez a chance to portray the seven years since 11-A as a Manichaean struggle between the forces of democracy (Chvez himself) and would-be despots (anyone who did, does, or might oppose him). As the Venezuelan strongman moves closer to a complete consolidation of power, this national narrative has become increasingly necessary — and increasingly strained, too.

In the past 60 days, Chvez has, more than ever, used the imagined threat of overthrow and sedition to justify wide seizures of power. Since the February referendum victory that did away with presidential term limits, and perhaps with an eye to next year’s legislative elections, Chvez seems to be looking for excuses to wipe out the opposition — or, possibly, to bait it until the imagined threat becomes an actual threat, giving further justification to his despotism.

At least that is one theory to explain the severity of the recent crackdowns. In addition to arrest warrants for several top opposition leaders including Manuel Rosales, the jailing of the former general turned critic Ral Baduel, numerous takeovers of food producers, banks, and ports, as well as the creation of an appointed mayor of mayors to eliminate powers of locally elected officials, the state also decided to convict an important group of political prisoners.

In early April, choosing a date conveniently close to the anniversary of the 2002 coup, a political court sentenced police commissioners Lzaro Forero, Henry Vivas, Ivan Simonovis, and several others to 30 years in prison on trumped-up charges that they committed crimes against the state on 11-A (Chvez himself only served two years in prison for his own coup). In his televised address April 13, Chvez said it is an act of subversion to criticize the sentence given to the police officers, encouraging his supporters to do what they have to do to any journalists who question the verdict.

Standing before an enormous banner emblazoned with his portrait and the slogan Remember April!, Chvez taunted the opposition, remarking that the revolution was steamrolling the oligarchs and bourgeoisie. Chvez said, We must stay on the offensive, crushing the counterrevolution; we have no other alternative! Any possibility of national reconciliation or dialogue was firmly rejected, as he added that he was the king of fools for having believed during the early years of his presidency that it was possible to reach agreements with the extreme right and the imperial forces.

Meanwhile, as the armed forces stormed and occupied the seaports and airports of opposition strongholds as part of a new political hunting season, one could not help but recall the autogolpe (self-coup) of neopopulist former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori — who was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for human rights crimes. Unlike Fujimori, who used military power to shut down his own Congress, Chvez’s version of an autogolpe does not include the dissolution of the National Assembly (which his party already dominates), but rather a legislative attack.

After fast-tracking a set of overhauls to the Law on Decentralization, the central government seized control of all seaports, airports, and transportation infrastructure in the country. Now, with the passage this week of the Capital District Law, Chvez has invented out of thin air a new political appointment he gets to make personally to supersede the democratically elected mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma. Civilian control over the administration of public affairs in Venezuela is being completely wiped out, in open contradiction to the proclaimed ideals of Chvez’s own revolution.

The manipulation of the legal system has been the primary weapon accompanying these aggressive legislative changes. Some enemies of the state are directly accused of political crimes, such as the police commissioners. Others, such as Rosales and Baduel, are slapped with run-of-the-mill corruption charges and then deprived of any right to due process and defense. Independence within the judiciary is openly discouraged and prevented: Four judges were fired in March just for meeting with Rosales, followed by 10 more within a week. Many political prisoners, such as businessman Eligio Cedeo, whom I represent, are held in preventive detention far beyond any legal limit without any conviction or shred of evidence against them.

The harshness of the recent suppression seems directly linked to global events that have robbed Chvez of his usual straw men. A new administration in Washington is still learning the ropes of diplomacy and statecraft and has its hands full with problems elsewhere. Venezuela has purchased new friends abroad in Russia, Iran, and other petrostates, which protect it from actions in multilateral bodies. (Chvez has even invited the president of Sudan for an official state visit, while opposing his trial on crimes of genocide in Darfur.)

Because of all this, the biggest threat Chvez faces is existential, in that the popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama makes it more difficult to claim an imminent invasion or any need for $5 billion in weapons and a civilian militia armed with locally made Kalashnikovs. For example, Obama’s decision to loosen even a few features of the long-standing embargo on Cuba is anathema to the Venezuelan president, who sees much greater advantages in conflict than dtente. At the same time, Chvez must be anxious about the downturn in global oil prices, something that deals a serious blow to the Venezuelan economy. Lacking a clear outside enemy, Chvez is staking his success upon confrontation — ramping up the discontent of the opposition so that his own excesses can be justified in comparison.

This is not the strategy of a man confident with his own legitimacy — nor is it a very far-thinking one. Historian Enrique Krauze recently argued in The New Republic that Chvez could only be constrained by three outside factors: the economy, the revival of the opposition, and shifting geopolitics. Taken altogether, the former hands off position toward Venezuela of regional leaders such as Brazil will no longer be sustainable, and it is crucial for the United States to work through these more effective intermediaries to ensure that change in Venezuela will not, for once, require bloodshed.

Robert Amsterdam is the founding partner of Amsterdam & Peroff.

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