Venezuela on April 11: The 2002 Coup to the 2015 Economic War

On the anniversary of the April 11th 2002 coup which temporarily ousted the Chavez government, teleSUR speaks to two Venezuelanalysis journalists and Venezuela-based activists, Z.C. Dutka and Rachael Boothroyd, about the relevance of the April 11-13, 2002 coup to the current situation in Venezuela.


On April 11, 2002 Venezuela’s right wing opposition, supported by the U.S. government, launched a coup in which democratically elected President Chavez was forcefully removed from office, kidnapped, and replaced in office by Pedro Carmona, the head of Venezuela’s business confederation Fedecamaras.

The coup plotters then annulled the constitution, and dissolved all public bodies. The coup was reversed when mass protests by the Venezuelan people and sectors of the army loyal to the constitution returned Chavez to power on April 13.

Today, the Venezuelan government has argued there is a multi-faceted “war” being waged on the Bolivarian revolution, with economic sabotage by the business and wealthy classes, a psychological war by the private Venezuelan media, as well as violent attacks by some sectors of the opposition, including the four month long “guarimbas” or violent street barricades last year that left 43 dead.

teleSUR spoke to two Venezuelanalysis journalists and Venezuela-based activists, Z.C. Dutka and Rachael Boothroyd, about the relevance of the April 11-13, 2002 coup to the current situation in Venezuela. Dutka has lived in Venezuela since 2008, and Boothroyd lives in Caracas, where she is also working on a PhD at the University of Liverpool on space, hegemony and the transformation of the Venezuelan state. 

TeleSUR: What light does the 2002 short lived coup shed on the current situation in Venezuela with the opposition and the U.S?

Dutka: The 2002 coup was a sharp example of what most people already knew, that the Venezuelan opposition, with the support of the U.S. government, would stop at nothing to reroute Venezuelan politics back to neoliberalism. Since that attempt proved to be such a magnificent failure, they’ve focused their efforts on more subversive tactics associated with “color revolutions”; like corporate and social media campaigns, false NGOs, and economic sabotage. The idea is to create an environment of chaos while branding wealthy opposition leaders as “liberators” and “human rights activists.” 

Boothroyd: The 2002 coup was symptomatic of the impatience of the opposition to gain power democratically, their calculation that it was highly unlikely that they would be able to win power at the ballot box, as well as a reactionary response to the series of enabling laws which Chavez passed between 1999-2001.

This series of laws really rocked the stronghold that the country’s elite had historically exercised over the Venezuelan economy and its political system. The 2001 reform of the Hydrocarbons Law in particular paved the way for the government to retake control over state oil company, PDVSA, which had basically just become a managerial entity tasked with administering contracts to foreign companies. These laws sent a message to opposition forces that the revolution looked set to be more than just a cosmetic overhaul of politics as is, as well as message to international economic organizations such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank that Venezuela intended to follow a sovereign and independent path in terms of its economic system.

Thirteen years later, and the impatience of the opposition and Washington hasn’t subsided, as you can imagine. Having lost virtually all democratic contests since 1998 (with the singular exception of its extremely narrow win in the Constitutional Referendum of 2007) and having falsely assumed that the revolution would fall following the death of Chavez in 2013, this desperation has now reached boiling point. Last year we saw the result of that in the violence which followed Maduro’s election and the numerous terrorist and paramilitary plots which were exposed against the Venezuelan government.

This despair has left the opposition fragmented and incoherent. The continuity between the present moment and the 2002 coup is perhaps most evident if you take a look at the call for a National Transition Agreement penned by opposition figures, Maria Corina Machado, Leopoldo Lopez and Antonio Ledezma, released on the 11th of February this year, just a day before rogue airforce officials had planned to attempt a coup against the Maduro government. 

The language and intent of the proposed agreement are almost exactly the same as those employed in the Bases for a Democratic Agreement, dubbed the “Post-Chavez Plan” and released just a month prior to the 2002 coup.

Signed by the head of the Confederation of Venezuela Workers (CTV), Carlos Ortega and President of Venezuela’s business federation, FEDECAMARAS, Pedro Carmona Estanga (who would go on to become temporary president in the illegal government which took power in the 47 hours following the coup), the “Bases for a Democratic Agreement” document also maintained that the Chavez administration was in its “death throes,” in an almost identical fashion to the 2015 “National Transition Agreement”. Both also accuse the government of human rights abuses. 

The other element which has also not altered since 2002 is the opposition’s obvious connections to the U.S. A factor which is a huge thorn in its side and which is preventing it from making sufficient political headway amongst the Venezuelan population.

At the time of the 2002 coup, the U.S. government admitted that it had financed and met with the coup leaders and organizations involved. This dynamic has continued since then, and in fact, funding to anti-government groups has increased under the Obama administration. This year, the NED (National Endowment for Democracy) and the U.S. Agency of International Development (USAID) has an increased budget destined for Venezuelan opposition “youth” and “civil society” groups. 

This is of course part of the ongoing attempted coup against the Venezuelan government which began in 1999 and which has been advanced through all conceivable means – economic strangulation, street violence, military conspiracies – to name but a few. However, perhaps what best defined the 2002 coup, and what caused most impact throughout the world, was the role of the media in aiding and abetting it.

The media deliberately manipulated imagery or refused to broadcast the actual news. On the ground, hundreds of thousands of people had surrounded the presidential palace demanding Chavez’ return, but there were only cartoons being broadcast on the nation’s television screens. It was only through community media and on the ground communications that any real information managed to make its way to the general population. 

Media tycoon and owner of Venevision, the biggest private television channel in Venezuela, Gustavo Cisneros, is reported to have met with coup makers both before and after the event. His channel played perhaps the most substantial role in manipulating the footage of Llaguna Bridge, which served as a pretext to delegitimise the democratic mandate of the Chavez government. Today, the media continues to be one of the most powerful tools that the opposition has available, despite the steady expansion of state and community media. Venevision is still in operation. In fact, just last month it was revealed that Cisneros had donated up to a million U.S. dollars to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State for the Obama administration.

So as you can see, these anti-government elements are historically linked and continue to be so, from George Bush, through to Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, to Gustavo Cisneros and Venezuela’s old political elite, to which even the opposition’s newest faces belong. From Maria Corina Machado, to Henrique Capriles Radonski and Leopoldo Lopez, who all come from families belonging to Venezuela’s business elite.

2. In Venezuela, on the anniversary of defeating the coup on April 13, people chant that “every 11 has its 13” – meaning that every attack is met with a stronger resistance. What does that mean for you both in light of how things are now?

Dutka: April 11, the day that the coup was carried out, was a day of fear and confusion, which on April 12 became indignation and a mass movement. By April 13, the Venezuelan people had their president back. I think the saying is a reminder of what they people are capable of if they resist fear, if they recognize their power as a unified majority. Every 11th has its 13th; every time they cut us down we’ll rise up even stronger.

I think, by now, even Barack Obama has learned that Venezuelans hold their self-determination dear. Ten million people signed the petition against his executive order. That’s a 1/3 of the population.

Boothroyd: One of the defining characteristics of the new “Latin American left in power” is the dialectical synergy between the governments and the people. In this sense, the 2002 coup is absolutely transcendental as it represented the consolidation of this synergy and an irrefutable demonstration of “popular power” in the face of a right wing and imperialist attack.

The phrase “Every 11 has its 13” is a reference to the significance of this outpouring of people power in the narrative and history of the revolution. It has become an exceptionally powerful historical reference point and symbol in the Venezuelan revolutionary collective consciousness, much like the 1989 Caracazo, for instance, when up to 3000 mostly barrio residents were massacred for rioting in protest against the imposition of a neoliberal privatisation programme with no democratic mandate.

At that moment, the people took to the streets to be visible, to demand that their presence be recognised, to destroy and defy the symbols of the economic and political system which oppressed and dehumanised them. It was a perfect illustration of Martin Luther King’s famous “A riot is the language of the unheard,” although in this case it would be necessary to add “of the systematically silenced”. However, in 2002 I think we saw a historical shift, because the people went out onto the street with a clear political and revolutionary objective: to ensure the historical continuity of a political project that they felt ownership over and with which they felt identified. It was a very creative and revolutionary moment. 

Sadly though, last year, due to the never ending onslaught of the attacks against the government, many activists personally said to me that if there were “another 11, then there won’t be a 13”.

I think the reactions to the opposition violent barriacades and this year’s U.S. sanctions and Executive Order have dispelled this fear. The Venezuelan people, no matter how tired, have time and time again proved that they are always ready to fight against imperialism and reactionary politics. If there is one thing which has consistently defined people here, it is their dedication to upholding a democratic system and their rejection of foreign intervention.

Ultimately, at the root of this phrase is the recognition that revolutions have cycles, both in terms of the revolution-reaction dialectic and government-people synergy. It might seem for a moment that the right wing is making headway, but in the last instance it is people power which holds the upper hand in the balance of forces. At least, according to the logic of the phrase and to how history has played out over these last fifteen years.

3. Where are the people and forces involved in the 2002 coup today? 

Dutka: Chavez didn’t exile or imprison the people who signed the Carmona decree, which dissolved the National Assembly and suspended most civil liberties during Pedro Carmona’s brief rule. He had ample reason to do so. Aside from the obvious treason, Leopoldo Lopez was filmed kicking the Cuban ambassador in a forced arrest. Former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma exercised authority in the 1989 Caracazo massacre which saw 3000 Venezuelans slaughtered at the hands of police and the military. 

Today, Lopez and Ledezma are in jail, while Maria Corina Machado faces trial in Venezuela and Panama. Some would consider that justice, but the truth is that these three, along with many other decree signatories, maintain a significant social media presence and have drawn even more international attention to themselves as so called freedom fighters. They have played their cards carefully. Lopez has skipped out on at least three trial dates, prolonging his detainment, while his wife Lilian Tintori seeks the support of world leaders in an ongoing international tour. 

Boothroyd: Apart from those three main faces, others, such as Carmona, are living abroad in places like Colombia and Miami thanks to the protection of Washington and its allies.

It’s fair to say though, that all these figures are not having much impact on national politics (with the exception of their subversive activities) or on the Venezuelan population. Capriles is perhaps the exception here, although he is no less involved in subversive activities, he did manage to gain 49 percent of the electoral vote in 2013. Although his popularity does appear to have somewhat waned. 

Nevertheless, much of the opposition’s political discourse and action is actually designed for consumption abroad, in the U.S. and Europe, rather than in Venezuela. I say consumption because these figures are, in essence, paid to voice these opinions, which are basically performances designed with the gaze of the international media in mind, and which employ the aesthetic, linguistic and “moral” codes established by liberal capitalist political norms and “human rights” organizations. 

Of course, the discourse used by the opposition gains more traction in Washington than Venezuela, where the dominant narrative surrounding democracy has changed too substantially for their liberal soundbites to resonate to the same extent as they do in the U.S.

4. What lasting impact did the 2002 coup have on Venezuelan politics? 

Dukta: The coup was such a contemptible attempt to undercut Venezuela’s self-determination, that it accidentally succeeded in politicizing a large sector of the population that hadn’t yet taken part in social movements. Venezuelan youth created political circles and collectives, students volunteered en masse to bring literacy to underprivileged sectors, mothers joined the community organizations and party branches, and in the next elections, voter turnout was among the highest in world history.

It also put Venezuela’s vindictive private media in the spotlight- illuminating the need for communication services that were not throttled by opposition business magnates.

Community radio stations sprouted up over the country while state-funded channels like Avila TV benefited a generation of artists and filmmakers aiming to protagonize authentic popular culture.

It also drew the attention of solidarity groups around the world, who from then on kept a close watch on the budding revolution. Venezuelanalysis, an English news site, was formed in Caracas to fill the gap between Venezuela’s abysmal international coverage and the reality on the ground.

Boothroyd: It’s hard to overestimate the importance of April 13, 2002. It not only led to the radicalisation of the revolution, but it was also a key moment when Chavez in particular, I think, realized the central role of popular power in guaranteeing the future of the revolutionary process. 

From this moment on we see a concrete attempt by the existing state to “institutionalize” and consolidate popular power through a variety of mechanisms such as the communal councils, the communes and community media. Since then it has also sought, to mixed success, to empower these expressions of popular power by channeling state resources and delegating state functions to them.

In this sense, the 2002 coup acted as a springboard for the construction and political orientation of the Bolivarian project. In particular, its focus on radical democracy, both in terms of the necessity of democratizing the country’s economy and political structures, as well as the identification of the state as a central site for revolutionary transformation.

As Dutka mentioned, Venezuelanalysis was also born out of this reactionary offensive and media blackout, as were many community media collectives, who, armed with their humble resources, became the only source of real information. Venezuelanalysis’ founder, Gregory Wilpert, was in Venezuela when the coup unfolded, and it become his principle inspiration for founding Venezuelanalysis the following year – to get out information that could challenge the hegemony of the narrative constructed by the corporate media and to bring people closer to what was happening on the ground in Venezuela. 

A final observation is that the 2002 coup was also a moment which cemented the idea of the “civic-military alliance” within the Bolivarian revolution. It was of course, the working class soldiers from the Presidential Guard who moved to take back the presidential palace and arrest the coup makers. Some have argued that their role has been overlooked, while others maintain that they would never have acted if it were not for the pressure of the people hammering on the gates outside. One thing is certain however, and that is that without this dialectical interplay, Venezuela would be living a very different political experience today.

This is an unabridged version of an interview which originally appeared on TeleSur English.