The 2002 Coup: Destabilization and Revolution in Today’s Venezuela

Katherine Castrillo, writer and queer organizer, recalls the mass protests against the 2002 U.S.- backed coup and contextualizes people’s power in Venezuela today.


Fourteen years ago, the Venezuelan people reversed a U.S.-backed coup against the Bolivarian Revolution and democratically elected President Hugo Chavez. People across generations, the gender spectrum and political lines remember vividly how through people’s protests and an alliance with the nation’s armed forces Chavez returned to the presidency within 48 hours despite the opposition’s hope to topple the Revolution.

Today, the Venezuelan people in support of the Bolivarian Revolution, continue to organize against destabilization strategies. Venezuelans are building their own means to create and consolidate 21st Century Socialism. In this interview Katherine Castrillo, member of the Sex and Gender Revolutionary Diversity Alliance (ASGDRe following its Spanish acronym) and writer for laculturanuestra.com, speaks to the events of April 2002 and affirms how the moment marked the Venezuelan people’s commitment to the Bolivarian Revolution and belief that “another world is possible.”

First, can you tell teleSUR about your experience in 2002? Where were you when the coup happened?

In 2002, I was 17 years old and lived in one of Latin America’s largest barrios: Petare. Three years had passed since Hugo Chavez became president. Politically and socially the times were filled with instability. The media’s reaction to everything Chavez said or did was ferocious. Previous administrations ostracized our people for decades causing us to suffer hunger and abject poverty. Due to this, we were largely illiterate. However, on television, Chavez spoke about political plans and shared new information with us that translated into a blossoming consciousness.     

In high school they taught us about the “advantages” of globalization and free trade. However, very pedagogically, Chavez talked about neoliberalism’s adverse effects and the urgency to abandon economic models that benefit the few. For me, a daughter of Colombian immigrants, my father in construction and my mother a domestic worker, I witnessed firsthand the injustices associated with labor exploitation and the conditions we faced.

On April 11th, I was with my family and neighbors in Petare watching the news [when we learned about the coup]. Although the opposition’s leadership seemed willing to create a completely destabilized climate, we didn’t imagine that they would change the protest route to the Presidential Palace Miraflores. Since Petare is far from Miraflores, practically on the other side of the city, we didn’t know what to do.

Before anyone could move, President Chavez came on television to explain what was happening. However, all private media channels split their news screens, something that never happened before during a presidential address. On the other side of the screen they showed images of the opposition in downtown Caracas.

The barrio was in total silence. President Chavez was taken from Miraflores. It was a hard hit. That night, families gathered in our homes to discuss what we could do.

On April 12th, people (in my barrio) didn’t dare leave their homes because we were under curfew. On live television, the opposition dissolved the Constitution and all public powers. We watched the news all day as the media vulgarly celebrated (the opposition’s actions).

How did different organizations, popular movements and communities respond?

On April 13, early in the morning, and very spontaneously, Chavismo swept through my barrio. People looked for motorcycles and buses that would take them downtown, to Miraflores and the Fuerte Tiuna (military base). The people were determined to fight this (coup). This is something we felt collectively. Women in particular responded: “If Chavez fought so much for us, why would we leave him alone now?” This was the first time in my life that I had seen workers, mechanics, caretakers, transgender people, students, lesbians, seamstresses, gays, everyone united without any prejudice, forming a network based in solidarity and support to look for President Chavez wherever he had been kidnapped.

During this time, we obviously did not have the same technology we have today and few people had access to internet. Anyone who had information shared it and we multiplied it the best we knew how to direct people to the march. From this day, we were conscious of the popular movement’s strength.

How do you see the politics of the 2002 coup manifest today?

The ASGDRe says that the opposition and U.S. empire have continued a “soft coup.” Internal and external enemies have never stopped to arm media and economic strategies to take power. Since 1999, we have suffered a coup and the elite’s oil strike in 2002, a constitutional referendum to remove President Chavez in 2004, an economic war, speculation and inflation, paramilitary infiltration in our barrios and along the border with Colombia as well as a shortage of food, medicine and other products of first necessity.

All of these situations are part of a coup strategy maintained by the same political groups that today, from the National Assembly, hide behind a “discourse of peace” as they approve the Amnesty Law which would lift the sentences for all those who burned down property, shot against and killed Venezuelans or called for people to do so in 2002.

What does the 2002 coup mean for the region and especially for popular movements?

2002 serves as a testament that Venezuelan popular mobilization is crucial in order to defend our political proposal. We are its protagonists, we are its voice and we are the cry to defend participatory democracy.

Regionally, we have endured coups that have instituted dictatorships resulting in thousands of disappeared and the extermination of leftist political processes. The ability to takeover the streets spontaneously — this is important that the people manifested without any logistical preparations in 2002 — reaffirms that “only the people can save the people.” This is not an empty expression. We’ve seen it just recently in Brazil, with thousands of people defending Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff. We challenge these coups because we have lived through times that have reinstated right wing politics, poverty and torture.

What importance do today’s events and coup attempts in Venezuela have for people across Latin America and the Caribbean?

The most significant result of today’s events are the political and organizational outcomes coming from the base: food sovereignty networks part of and from the communes as well as critical analysis developed in popular assemblies. We are in the process of building a communal state and a productive nation. This is different than the people protesting against the government, although this is what the right wing has hoped for (under our present condition). Today, the people’s entire will (is behind) creating, working the land, strengthening our politics and guiding this process.

For example, the campesinos that recuperated their lands years ago from the bourgeois, thanks to land reform supported by Chavez, established this year that they will prioritize sowing necessary foods that require less time to harvest. Factories recovered by workers have joined with communes to begin production, processing and distribution plans for basic foodstuff.

Several months ago, the campesino movement along with diverse national and local organizations founded the social movements’ network called the Hugo Chavez Patriotic Front.

This goes to show that with all these offensives against the Bolivarian Revolution that resulted in spontaneous marches in 2002 have transformed into organic spaces inspired by the base and people’s power today.

What should the world know about Venezuela’s popular process today?

The project that we started with Chavez, calling for popular power as the central axis of social and cultural transformation in Venezuela, did not die on March 5, 2013, when Chavez died. Sex and gender diversity movements for example understand that our struggles are not isolated. We self-identify as lesbians, bisexuals, trans and gays but, we also recognize that we are campesinos, feminists, workers and environmentalists and we will continue to strengthen our capacity against destabilization, sabotage and coup attempts.

We recognize ourselves as active subjects guaranteed rights and above all, we educate ourselves collectively defending our dignity and supporting our work. All of this is possible due the Revolution. That’s why our social movements have not sold out or negotiated with the right wing.

To our brothers and sisters in other countries, we ask for your support, people to people, and we extend our hands to continue our shared struggle against misogyny, exploitative landowners, imperialism and homophobia.