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VENEZUELA
Washington-backed bosses' bid for power defeated by mass protests
The coup that failed

by Bridget Broderick and Martin Sanchez | April 19, 2002 | Page 5

A MOBILIZATION by Venezuela's poor defeated a U.S.-backed coup and returned populist leader Hugo Chávez Frias to power.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice lectured Chávez about the need to respect "constitutional processes." But the U.S. was perfectly happy to see its lackeys in Venezuela overthrow the country's constitutionally elected leader. The Venezuelan people had other ideas, however.

The crisis that led to the coup against Chávez began last month with the second bosses' strike in four months. Management at the state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), called a strike to protest Chávez's appointments of his supporters to the company's board of directors.

Media reports blurred the line between management and office workers and the company's production workers by saying that "oil workers" were on strike. But management was the main force involved.

On April 9, the corrupt leaders of Venezuela's main trade union federation, the CTV, called on union members to join PDVSA employees in a general strike on April 9. The National Chamber of Commerce, Fedecámaras, joined in. Many businesses closed their doors to employees, and Fedecámaras offered to pay their salaries.

In poor sections of the capital of Caracas, employees went to work--and public-sector workers, who are members of the CTV, didn't participate in the walkout. So this was a "popular rebellion" whose chief "rebels" were business leaders, Catholic Church officials and military officers.

On April 11, an estimated 150,000 anti-Chávez protesters marched to the presidential palace and faced off with the National Guard and some 5,000 Chávez supporters. Initial media reports claimed that pro-Chávez snipers opened fire on demonstrators on orders from the president, killing 14 people and wounding more than 200. But subsequent investigations revealed that the municipal police and anti-Chávez opposition played at least some part in the shooting.

The confrontation gave Chávez's opponents the "evidence" they needed to declare the end of the president's popular mandate. The National Guard arrested Chávez and took him to a military base. Pedro Carmona, the head of Fedcámaras, was declared the new president.

But after receiving recognition from the U.S., Carmona--under pressure from right-wing supporters with connections to the CIA, according to some accounts--overplayed his hand. He suspended the constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and fired the Supreme Court. Suddenly, the "democratic opposition" had declared itself an open dictatorship.

Carmona lost the support of the CTV and political parties that had expected to play a part in a coalition government. Meanwhile, the imposition of leaders and policies by the upper class outraged ordinary Venezuelans.

By April 13, tens of thousands of Venezuelans from the poor neighborhoods and countryside took to the streets to show their support for Chávez and the National Assembly. On Saturday, Chávez supporters took over the state television station and began broadcasting footage of street protests and clashes with metropolitan police and the National Guard.

The popular resistance helped to split the army, most of whose midlevel officers had remained loyal to Chávez, an ex-air force lieutenant. With thousands of ordinary people occupying government buildings in the capital, the National Assembly reconvened--and Chávez returned in triumph to Caracas.

Will Chávez deliver on promises of change?

THE DEFEAT of the coup gave Chávez's government a new lease on life. The president announced a Federal Government Commission for a national dialogue with the opposition. But Venezuela's bosses aren't about to give up. They will wait for another opportunity to strike.

Chávez could take this opportunity to push his agenda for social reforms further to the left. But Chávez is no revolutionary. He is a populist who wants to reconcile various social forces to advance his own nationalist agenda.

Compromises with the Venezuelan elite will lead Chávez to concede even more to the neoliberal agenda than he already has. Many sectors that supported Chávez's return to power remain critical of his tight-fisted control, the militarization of the regime and his record of failing to deliver on promises.

Chávez was elected president because he represents a break with Venezuela's past of oligarchy, corruption and two-party control of the system. He has implemented relatively mild social reforms by investing state oil revenues in education, health care and small businesses. But Chávez hasn't spent the kind of money it would take to address the country's mass poverty.

Although he uses nationalist rhetoric to defend Venezuela's right to control its resources, Chávez doesn't oppose international markets. He has conscientiously paid Venezuela's foreign debt each month and opened up the country to oil exploration and investment by foreign multinationals.

Venezuelans today face increasing unemployment, inflation, crime and other effects of poverty. They need more than the promise of change offered by Chávez. They need the reality of change.

The Venezuelans who came out in the streets to defeat the coup can organize independently for real change in their communities and workplaces. The reversal of the coup against Chávez shows where real power lies in Venezuelan society--not with populist leaders, but with the mass of poor and working-class people.

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