In 2002, Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela almost died in its infancy. On April 11 of that year, a general strike took place and a massive demonstration called by the unlikely alliance of the main Venezuelan business organisation, Fedecamaras, and the biggest trade union confederation, the CTV, marched on the streets of Caracas towards the Palacio of Miraflores, the presidential palace.
On April 12, the head of the army, General Efrain Vasquez Velasco, ordered the arrest of Hugo Chavez, who had refused to resign as president of Venezuela. The now deposed head of state was sent to a military base on the Venezuelan Caribbean coast.
A day later, Pedro Carmona, the president of Fedecamaras, was sworn in as president. The United States recognised the new government. Washington had good reasons to dislike the fiery lieutenant colonel: Chavez had criticised the US intervention in the Middle East and established a close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Iran.
By the April 13, the coup had failed. A group of generals and soldiers loyal to Chavez and thousands of his followers took control of the Miraflores palace. The members of the new government left the palace in haste. Chavez returned to Caracas triumphantly.
In many ways, the latest confrontation between the opposition and the government of President Nicolas Maduro can be explained by the events of April 2002. When Chavez was elected president in 1999, he called for a constituent assembly to draft a new “Bolivarian” magna carta, and was re-elected under the new Constitution.
Chavez had challenged the establishment like nobody before in the history of Venezuela’s democracy. The 2002 strike and coup were a reaction to Chavez’s new way of doing politics. The establishment, comprising the business sector, the old trade union bureaucracy and the traditional political parties, did not like Chavez’s way. After Chavez returned to power, the relationship between the Bolivarian government and the opposition deteriorated even further.
The president consolidated his control over the army, and his anti-US rhetoric became even more bellicose. From then on the opposition, by then an informal coalition of parties from the right and the far left, made it its life’s mission to get rid of Chavez.
When he died in March 2013, Chavez’s heir, former bus driver Nicolas Maduro, was elected. His rise to power coincided with the fall of oil prices in the international markets. In an economy that has failed to diversify and an excessive dependency on oil revenues, the slump in crude prices has caused hardship and hyperinflation.
Throughout his government, Chavez nationalised at least 1,200 private companies, many of them in the agricultural sector. Many people believe that the inefficient control the state has over the means of production has contributed to the shortages of basic products from corn flour to toilet paper. Many distribution companies which have remained in private hands, however, have resorted to speculation, by hiding basic produce in clandestine warehouses in order to provoke an increase in prices.
It is easy to understand why then, in 2015, Venezuelans gave the opposition control of the National Assembly.
It is war
The opposition is trying to use their majority in the Assembly to crush every reform implemented by the Chavez government. As soon as they took over the National Assembly, for instance, the opposition tried to put an end to a vast project of social housing created by Chavez, to help the poor and the victims of natural disasters, by privatising it.
The National Assembly has also tried to block joint ventures between PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, and Russian investors. And on more than one occasion, parliament has tried to pass legislation disavowing the authority of the president, in spite of the fact that they do not have the mandate to do so.
According to Hinterlaces, a respected pollster, 61 percent of Venezuelans want a solution to the current economic crisis and only 33 percent want to replace the current government.
The response from the supreme court, controlled by judges close to the government, was expeditious. In late March, it decided to strip away from the National Assembly some of its powers. This decision was rejected by the attorney general, Luisa Ortega, a staunch supporter of the Bolivarian process.
Later, the powerful Defence Council asked the court to restore the powers of the National Assembly. The supreme judges duly obliged and returned the powers to the National Assembly. Furthermore, the government has banned prominent leaders of the opposition, like former presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles (who supported the 2002 coup attempt), from public life, and other leaders are in prison, accused of promoting violence to depose the president.
The opposition insists that the country wants Maduro out of power. But, according to Hinterlaces, a respected pollster, 61 percent of Venezuelans want a solution to the current economic crisis and only 33 percent want to replace the current government. Furthermore, all attempts by the opposition to involve the armed forces in the removal of Maduro from power have turned out to be futile, because the military have reiterated their loyalty to the government.
The current crisis has forced many Venezuelans to put in practise an economy of survival. From the moment one enters Venezuela, the visitor is accosted by people who want sell you Bolivares, the local currency, at a much better rate than in the official Casas de Cambio.
To cope with the shortages of foodstuffs in supermarkets, many Venezuelans are replacing unavailable products, like corn flour and pasta, with produce in which the country is self-sufficient: fruits and vegetables, mainly plantains and potatoes. They have created Local Provisioning and Production Committees (CLAPs), in conjunction with local communities and with the support of the government to provide an alternative food distribution network.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the health service, where hospitals suffer an acute shortage of basic medicines. In the meantime, opposition activists and Chavista militants settle their differences in the streets of Venezuela.
The talks between the government and the opposition, sponsored by the former prime minister of Spain, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, and the former presidents of Panama, Martin Torrijos, and Dominican Republic, Lionel Fernandez, have been abandoned because the opposition is not prepared to make concessions. And many Venezuelans feel that neither side is prepared to listen to the very people they claim to represent.
Javier Farje is a Peruvian-born British journalist based in London. He is an analyst with TV networks from Latin America and the Middle East.