How The Oligarchs Were Defeated ― Remembering The April 2002 Coup

On the anniversary of the April 2002 coup attempt, Green Left Weekly recalls the events around and consequences of the right-wing coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez from power twelve years ago.


On the anniversary of the April 2002 coup attempt, Green Left Weekly recalls the events around and consequences of the right-wing coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chavez from power twelve years ago.

The Venezuelan people have marked the 12th anniversary of the right-wing military coup on April 11, 2002, that briefly ousted former President Hugo Chavez.

In an historically unprecedented event, the coup was overturned within 48 hours by a mass uprising of the people and soldiers loyal to the Bolivarian revolution.

This year’s anniversary occurs in the context of one of the most intense right-wing destabilisation campaigns since the dramatic days of 2002.

There are parallels between then and now. In both cases, the old elites rebelled against government measures that sought to benefit the poor. While decrying repression and lack of democracy, in both instances, right-wing forces employed violence in order to remove a government by undemocratic means.

But there are also key differences. The Bolivarian revolution today controls the state oil company and enjoys strong support within the military. Most importantly, it is based on greater organisation among the people.

Below, we publish an excerpt from 2013’s Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First-Century Socialism, written by Roger Burbach, Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes, which looks at the April 2002 coup. You can order the book at Resistance Books.

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In November 2001, [Chavez] issued 49 decrees covering such areas as the oil sector, land reform, cooperatives, and oil wealth redistribution. The laws asserted the government’s willingness to shift away from neoliberalism and take Venezuela down a very different path.

The decrees were far from socialist measures, but powerful domestic sectors understood the package of laws to represent a direct challenge to their interests. This put Chavez on an inevitable collision course with the traditional elites.

The response by the capitalist class was immediate. In December 2001, Fedecamaras, Venezuela’s largest and most important business federation, together with the corrupt right-wing leadership of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), organised a largely successful general strike.

Wealthy landowners declared their opposition to the new land decree, which sought to redistribute idle lands to peasants, by publicly burning copies of the law.

The new hydrocarbon law, which reasserted state control over the country’s oil reserves, and Chavez’s subsequent decision to appoint a new board of directors at [the state oil company] PDVSA, further infuriated those who historically had accumulated their wealth by appropriating the country’s oil rent.

With a showdown inevitable, Chavez began to organise his support base into circulos bolivarianos (Bolivarian circles), formed to encourage people to collectively discuss the country’s new constitution and promote the dozens of reforms.

Over the next three years, these two competing blocs would face off three times. Each time, Chavismo came out victorious, in doing so consolidating its military, economic, and political hegemony.

The first major showdown occurred on April 11, 2002, when a Fedecamaras and CTV rally against Chavez’s changes to PDVSA morphed into a mobilisation aimed at toppling the Venezuelan president.

Following days of agitation by the anti-Chavez media, rally organisers ignored the previously established march route for the April 11 protest and directed the angry crowd toward Miraflores, the presidential palace. There, snipers were in position to ensure civilian deaths among the anti-Chavista protesters and those that had gathered outside Miraflores to defend their president.

Once chaos and violence ensued, dissident elements in the military took Chavez hostage, blaming him for the bloodshed, and claiming that he had resigned. In his place, the coup plotters anointed Fedecamaras president Pedro Carmona as the country’s new president.

Carmona immediately dissolved the National Assembly, the courts, and the new constitution. Within hours the Bush administration announced Washington’s willingness to work with the “new government”, asserting that the “undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked [the] crisis”.

As repression escalated in the streets, spontaneous protests erupted across the country, demanding the return of Chavez. Thousands marched to the Fuerte Tiuna military barracks in Caracas, calling on their brothers and sisters in uniform to oppose the coup.

As divisions developed among the coup plotters, high-ranking military officers began to voice their opposition to the coup, calling on the people and soldiers to rise up. Demonstrations around Miraflores grew. More military battalions came out in support of Chavez.

The coup plot began to unravel and within forty-seven hours Chavez had returned to power.

The defeat of the coup by a civic–military uprising was critical in consolidating Chavez’s hegemony within the armed forces. The events helped publicly expose the counter-revolutionary elements in the military, allowing the government to subsequently purge hundreds of rebellious officers.

The civic–military alliance forged through this process provided the revolution with a vital weapon for defeating the second major attempt to bring down Chavez.

At the end of the year, PDVSA management, capitalists, corporate media and corrupt trade union officials united forces once again. This time the strategy was to strangle the country’s economy by halting production in the strategic petroleum sector. They hoped that the ensuing crisis would turn the people against Chavez, forcing him from power.

The PDVSA lockout did temporarily bring the Venezuelan economy to a halt, yet, like the coup, this destabilisation attempt back-fired. For two months, loyal PDVSA workers, soldiers and community activists mobilised to restart production.

The Venezuelan government quickly fired all PDVSA managers and employees involved in the lock-out. This allowed the state to purge the existing right-wing bureaucracy, placing the company firmly in the hands of the revolution.

For the first time in history, Venezuela’s oil wealth was under the control of a government intent on using oil revenue to tackle social inequality and transform the economy. Chavez could also count on the support of a mobilised population.

The impact of this two-month-long battle, which directly pitted the old capitalist elites against an alliance of workers, urban poor and the military, had a profound radicalising effect on the consciousness and organizing capacity of the people.

Within only a few months, in April 2003, workers sympathetic to the revolution created the trade union confederation the National Union of Workers (UNETE).

The qualitative leaps in worker and community organisation proved crucial to defeating the third major offensive by the opposition. Using the expanded democratic rights available under the new constitution, the opposition set about collecting signatures to invoke a recall referendum against Chavez.

The months leading up to the August 2004 referendum were dominated by constant mobilisations both for and against the Venezuelan president. To organise his base, Chavez called on the people to form patrullas (patrols). Each was composed of ten people, tasked to campaign for Chavez in their neighborhood.

These patrols were coordinated by Units for Electoral Battle (UBE), which were organised to cover each voting centre.

The grassroots strategy of relying on the people and not electoral machines paid off: Chavez won with a record number of votes, almost five million (58% of votes cast). Turnout was also historically high, at 70%.

This third powerful defeat for the opposition in less than three years allowed Chavez to consolidate his democratic credentials within and outside Venezuela.

It also sent the opposition into a state of terminal decline. Divided, in November 2004 they were almost completely wiped off the electoral map in regional elections for governors and mayors. In December 2005, they committed political suicide, boycotting National Assembly elections and handing legislative control to pro-Chavez forces.

Running on a platform that stressed the need to deepen the revolution and move toward socialism, Chavez was re-elected president a year later with more than 7 million votes.