The Venezuela Coup, 20 Years Later

Dan Beeton looks at the enduring legacy of Venezuela’s short-lived 2002 coup d’etat, and the subsequent countercoup, for US-Latin American relations.

On April 11, 2002, Venezuela’s democratically elected government, headed by Hugo Chávez Frías, was ousted in a military coup d’etat. Then, dramatically, two days later, the coup was overturned by a mass mobilization of Venezuelans. They demanded the restoration of democracy and the return of a government that appeared to be making good on its commitment to redistribute Venezuela’s oil wealth to benefit the country’s most marginalized sectors. These events led to lasting ramifications not just for Venezuela, but for Latin America and the Caribbean as a whole, paving the way for a “pink tide” of progressive movements that took power democratically throughout the region. In many cases, similar power struggles ensued, pitting left-leaning governments supporting economic and social gains for the poor, the working class, and marginalized communities, against powerful factions of society seeking, generally, to maintain a status quo that has served to benefit mostly a small number of elites and foreign interests while exploiting and repressing the majority population.

The coup itself was not novel, of course, but it was the first Latin American coup in the twenty-first century, and showed that the US government would continue to prioritize its perceived geopolitical interests — and those of multinational corporations — in the region over democracy. The US would go on to support coups, and other sorts of undemocratic political transitions, in Haiti (2004), Honduras (2009), Paraguay (2012), Brazil (2016), and Bolivia (2019) — and would show support for attempted coups in Bolivia (2008), Ecuador (2010), and Venezuela (2019). Elements of the 2002 Venezuela coup playbook would also be repeated in many cases.

Much has since been written about the trajectory the Chávez government took following its survival of the coup, for better and for worse. The experiences of late 2002 and early 2003 (in which many of the same opposition forces continued their attempt to topple the government through a crippling months-long managerial strike that paralyzed the oil industry), and 2004, when Chávez handily survived a recall referendum, demonstrated both that Chávez had nothing to lose by turning farther left (he would proclaim his government’s goal of working toward “socialism for the twenty-first century” in 2005), and that he would need to take firm action if he were to gain control of the Venezuelan economy and be able to carry out his agenda. Chávez sacked PDVSA’s striking managers, which subsequently allowed Venezuela to achieve some of the strongest economic growth in the region for several years after. This was accompanied by impressive poverty reduction and the launching of the many misiones — programs designed to provide low-income Venezuelans with food, health care, education, and other needs.

The “self-proclaimed socialist” President Chávez (as international media loved to call him) that we remember now is really the post-coup Chávez. More than 20 years after he was first elected, it is easy to forget that he originally campaigned on a “third way” platform, calling to mind Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. So what did Chávez do in his first years that so upset his opponents, foreign and domestic, that they overthrew him?

At home, Chávez’s fledgling government embarked on long-overdue land reform. It enacted a new constitution, which consolidated a breaking of the old political order exemplified by the punto fijo pact that had ensured that political power alternated between the nominally social democratic Accion Democratica party and more conservative Christian democrat COPEI party. The traditional parties and factions lost seven elections in just three years.

On the global stage, amid the start of the US’s “Global War on Terror” and George W. Bush’s imperious declaration that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Chávez did not hesitate to harshly condemn the US bombing of Afghanistan and its predictable civilian death toll. Chávez’s government reinvigorated OPEC; its oil diplomacy led to production cuts and a global oil price stabilization. Worse, Chávez sought to renegotiate oil deals with foreign companies that, for years, had supplied US and other companies with cheap oil while providing little revenue to Venezuela itself. He stopped allowing US counternarcotics flights from entering Venezuelan airspace, and ended the US military presence at the Fuerte Tiuna military base. He was skeptical of the US effort to expand NAFTA throughout the hemisphere as the “Free Trade Area of the Americas.” And he conspicuously developed a close relationship with the Cuban government.

The US government was wary of Chávez well before he was elected president. Once he was in office, this began to turn toward open hostility, and in the months before the coup, some observers, such as John Pilger and Conn Hallinan, began to warn that a coup d’etat appeared likely.

Shortly after Chávez’s denunciations of the US war on Afghanistan in late 2001, which he made on TV while holding up photographs of Afghan children killed in US strikes, US military and intelligence agencies met to discuss their Venezuela strategy. Within Venezuela, militant opposition sectors launched a protracted effort to undermine the Chávez government with the goal of toppling it. Senior military officers held press conferences denouncing the “dictatorship” and calling for “civil disobedience” against the country’s recently reelected president. The main trade union federation, the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), close to the corrupt, centrist traditional parties that Chávez’s movement had made suddenly irrelevant, joined with the main business association, Fedecámaras, to launch a “general strike” (mostly involving temporary closures of small businesses rather than actual worker strikes).

It was against this backdrop of economic sabotage — and what was reported in the international media as organized labor’s discontent with the Chávez administration — that the coup took place. The catalyzing event that would justify military action against Chávez, and that would explain the quick emergence of a new, unelected government headed by Fedecámaras president Pedro Carmona, was violence connected to a massive opposition march on the presidential palace where marchers faced off against a wall of supporters of the elected government and presidential guard troops who fired tear gas at the opposition demonstrators. Snipers fired on the crowd, mostly killing chavistas, but Venezuela’s opposition-controlled private media blamed Chávez for the killings — accusations soon relayed by international media and the US State Department. This supposed chavista violence became a key part of the pretext for the coup and the narrative that, with the military turning on him, Chávez had decided to resign and flee. In fact, he was taken prisoner and held at military bases (where, Chávez would later claim, he was nearly executed).

Meanwhile, the hastily assembled coup regime abolished Venezuela’s Congress, Supreme Court, and constitution. The coup was greeted with applause in the US, with the International Republic Institute (IRI) — a US government-funded group set up in large part to “do today [what] was done covertly [before] by the CIA” — openly celebrating, and the New York Times praising Chávez’s removal in an editorial. The IMF quickly offered assistance to the “new administration” in prepared remarks just hours after the coup had transpired, suggesting that the Fund’s leaders may have had advance knowledge. (Several members of the US Congress would later ask the Fund to explain this, but never received more than a dismissive response.)

On the ground in Venezuela, some opposition leaders, some of whom are still prominent today, such as Leopoldo López, participated in the coup by helping to persecute and detain officials from the elected government. But what Carmona, López, and other coup supporters didn’t count on was the reaction of the Venezuelan people. Tens of thousands mobilized, coming down from the barrios that line the hillsides above Caracas, and marched on the presidential palace. Chávez retained supporters in the military as well, where he had first organized his revolutionary movement, and the combination of popular pressure and military support for the elected government — along with the revelation that Chávez never had, contrary to Venezuelan media claims, resigned — led to the coup being overturned on April 13.

The golpistas quickly began to back peddle; some who had signed the infamous “Carmona Decree” abolishing the democratic government would deny they had, or would express regret. International supporters of the overthrow of the elected government, including the New York Times, were forced to walk back their statements and admit they had betrayed principles of democratic governance.

Following his return, Chávez was emboldened; even more so after he survived the 2002–2003 oil lockout and took control of PDVSA. He easily triumphed in a 2004 recall referendum (Ricardo Hausmann’s baseless claims of a rigged vote notwithstanding). Within three years, Chávez moved away from his previous “third way” positioning and proclaimed that his government would pursue “socialism for the 21st century.”

Meanwhile, the “Pink Tide” took off, with the elections of Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay (2004), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Manuel Zelaya in Honduras (2006), and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay (2008), in addition to Lula da Silva (Brazil, 2002) and Néstor Kirchner (Argentina, 2003). Regional integration projects soon took off: the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), Petrocaribe and Petrosur (which provided discounted Venezuelan oil to neighboring countries), and UNASUR, among others. The Pink Tide governments also buried the US’s central policy priority for the region at the time: the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which would have expanded NAFTA throughout nearly the entire hemisphere. The Mar del Plata, Argentina summit where the FTAA met its end in 2005 was such a fiasco for the US government that President Bush left early.

Countering Venezuela became the main priority for the US in Latin America and the Caribbean, as a 2006 State Department memo, published by WikiLeaks, made clear. Scores of other cables record how often Venezuela would be a prime topic of discussion between US officials and government and civil society figures in the region, as first Bush and then the Obama administration attempted to stop countries from joining Petrocaribe and other Venezuela-led initiatives, despite privately acknowledging the significant economic benefits for the countries that joined them.

Despite its failure, the Venezuela coup fit a pattern for US-backed regime change efforts. NGOs and activist groups received funding and training from the US government and affiliated groups (notably, the National Endowment for Democracy, NED, of which the IRI is a core grantee). US officials and NED advisors worked hard, although with limited success, to get Venezuela’s opposition to unify and agree on a long-term strategy for throwing out the Chávez government. A similar playbook had been used in places like Serbia, and it would be implemented in subsequent coups in Haiti, Honduras, and Bolivia, with many of the same antagonists (the NED and its core grantees, major media outlets, the business community, and often the Catholic Church hierarchy and the military — except in Haiti, where the military was abolished, but active coup participants included former military).

Denial that a coup had happened after the fact is also a key element of the strategy, one that followed coups in Haiti, Honduras, and Bolivia as well. “It makes perfect sense that in a time when the international community frowns upon coups, that if one were to organize a coup, the first order of business would be to make the coup look like it was something else,” long-time Venezuela analyst Greg Wilpert wrote in an introduction to a 2003 book on the Venezuela coup. Yet internally, the US State Department itself referred to the events of April 2002 in Caracas as a “brief coup” (in 2004 and 2005 cables, for example).

In Haiti in 2004, the prevailing narrative put forward by US officials as well as most of the media was that the democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had not been overthrown in a coup, but had “resigned” and chosen to flee the country. Never mind that Aristide and Haiti’s first lady were escorted onto a US plane by US Special Forces soldiers; that the Aristides had no idea where the plane was taking them; that Aristide said it had been a “‘new coup d’etat,’ or ‘modern kidnapping’”; and never mind that one of the only other witnesses to these events not in the employ of the US, Aristide’s helicopter pilot, would have the same description of these events as the Aristides. In the wake of the coup, it was easy for the media to overlook the hunting down and persecution of officials and supporters of the ousted government, as the media all but vacated Haiti after the coup, even as thousands were murdered and hundreds imprisoned on bogus charges. As with Venezuela in 2002, the coup government was quickly offered assistance by international finance institutions in Washington, which had previously enacted an aid embargo and had withheld hundreds of millions in loans to Aristide’s government. Some of the same individuals, affiliated with the IRI, even appear to have been involved in both the Venezuelan and Haitian coups.

The 2009 Honduras coup followed a similar playbook, with President Zelaya being forced onto a plane and flown out of the country (after it stopped at a US airbase to refuel) while coup supporters suggested that Zelaya had somehow staged the whole thing and that no coup had taken place. As with Venezuela in 2002, evidence suggests that US officials knew of the coup plans in advance, but there is no indication that they warned the democratically elected government. (It is notable that State Department cables published by WikiLeaks also show that US officials believed there was a credible threat to Evo Morales’s government in Bolivia in 2008, and that he even might be overthrown or killed, but this was not what the US government communicated to the world or to the Bolivian government at the time.)

The following year, Ecuador’s left-wing president, Rafael Correa, came close to being overthrown, and even killed, amid a dramatic confrontation with protesting police officers that ended in a shootout at a hospital where Correa was being treated after he was tear-gassed by the police. Paraguay’s progressive president Fernando Lugo, a former priest, was ousted in a parliamentary coup in 2012 that foreshadowed Brazil president Dilma Rousseff’s fate in 2016. In each of these cases, loud voices proclaimed that these were not “coups,” or coup attempts.

Though it was especially bloody, and racist violence and threats of violence were employed against officials of the elected government to force their departure, there are today still some (even in academia) who loudly deny that the Evo Morales government ended in a coup d’etat. Morales only resigned and left Bolivia after the head of the military asked him to resign, and even then, Morales almost didn’t make it out of Bolivia alive. Violent repression, including two notorious massacres of Indigenous Bolivians, followed the coup. The coup government targeted journalists and activists, and many former government officials were forced to flee the country or take shelter in embassies. Yet anyone who condemned these events as a “coup” was systematically criticized and harassed on social media.

The Bolivian coup, like Venezuela’s, would also effectively be overturned, but only after a year, through elections that were finally organized only after strikes and popular mobilizations demanding that elections be held. Morales’s Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party won overwhelmingly, making it impossible for the pro-coup right to even make credible claims of election fraud. The elected government is attempting to hold the coup perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but the initial arrests and charging of top officials were promptly condemned by US officials and the likes of Human Rights Watch, who dismissed them as “revenge justice.”

Whether the Bolivian government will be able to successfully hold accountable those who overthrew an elected government, and those who were responsible for the repression and violence that took place under the coup government, is important not just for Bolivia, but for the region. If coup perpetrators rarely face consequences for their crimes, and if the US continues to condemn efforts to hold such individuals to account, there is much incentive and little to dissuade antidemocratic forces in Latin America from continuing to carry out coups.

But if countries in Latin America and the Caribbean work together to oppose extralegal regime changes, and demand consequences when coups are attempted, then perhaps the Latin American coup d’etat will become a relic of the past. There are important lessons from the regional response to the Honduras coup, when a majority of countries in the region loudly rejected the coup and would have overturned it, returning Zelaya to office, had the US not blocked this at the Organization of American States (OAS). The episode brought US-Latin American relations to a historic low and led to the creation of the Committee of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), intended to be an alternative to the OAS, and which included all the countries of the Americas except for the US and Canada.

With the Pink Tide returning, and with the OAS especially tarnished following its disgraceful role in the lead-up to the Bolivia coup, regional integration initiatives like CELAC should be pursued even more vigorously than before. Otherwise, Latin American elites and their allies in the US will continue their attempts to veto democracy, and resort to using the bullet when the ballot doesn’t go their way.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.