The 47-Hour Coup That Changed Everything

For the fifth anniversary of the defeat of the April 11-13 coup attempt, the most complete account—in English—of what happened and an examination of the most pressing questions around the events of those days.

The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.

Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.

Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.

Each of these victories against the opposition heightened consciousness in Venezuela about the need to take the Bolivarian revolution further and thus also allowed Chavez to further radicalize his political program. The coup attempt represented a crucial moment in this process because it was the most dramatic expression of the Venezuelan conflict between a charismatic President and a mobilized poor population on the one hand and the country’s old elite and their supporters on the other.

Preconditions for a Coup

With Chavez’s popularity rating apparently sinking in late 2001 and early 2002,[1] especially among the middle class, and the general inability of the country’s old governing elite to accept Chavez as the legitimately elected President of Venezuela, it became just a matter of time for this old elite to form an alliance with dissident military officers and to organize a coup. The events in 2001 that led up to the coup can be summarized as the following:

  • The departure of key former supporters from Chavez’s coalition (half of the MAS – Movement towards Socialism – party, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, and MVR – Chavez’s party Movement for a Fifth Republic – co-founder and Minister of the Interior Luis Miquilena).
  • The business sector’s uproar over 49 law-decrees passed in November 2001 that revamped the country’s banking, agriculture, oil industry, and fishing industries, among other things.
  • The union federation’s (CTV) anger over the government’s push for union elections in October 2001.
  • Chavez’s opposition to the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.”
  • The mass media’s active participation in the political conflict, largely taking the place of the discredited centrist and conservative parties.
  • A developing recession, due to a rapid decline in world oil prices following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Many of these development were a consequence of Chavez refusing to play along in the “politics as usual” game of accommodating the established powers in society, whether the old union leadership, the church, the business class, the private mass media, or the government of the United States. In his first three years in office (1999-2001) Chavez thus proved himself to be a political leader of a completely different sort than the kinds the country’s old elite and the middle class had expected. Until 2000, following the mega-elections, it still looked like Chavez could perhaps be the kind of leader who talked tough, but who acted like a moderate. However, with the 49 law-decrees, especially the land reform and the new hydro-carbons law, Chavez proved that he was a different kind of leader.

Preparing for a Coup

Therefore, the radical sectors of the opposition, which could not accept Chavez as the legitimately elected president, began plans for a coup, which it put into motion in early 2002. One of the first elements in this plan was to demonstrate to the public that there supposedly was widespread discontent within the military. The first to launch this wave of disapproval was Colonel Pedro Soto, a former assistant to President Carlos Andrés Perez, who announced in a public event on human rights, on February 7, 2001, that the president should resign because Venezuela had become a dictatorship.  Soto declared himself to be in rebellion, basing himself on article 350 of the constitution, which says that citizens have a right to civil disobedience, should the government violate constitutional norms. Immediately, the mass media were all over Soto in a frenzy. It seemed as if they were desperate for a new face that would take the lead. Soto, however, was quickly arrested for insubordination and would eventually flee to Miami.

Chavez put the incident off by saying, “He was a traitor together with a group companions… Then he did not get promoted to general, filed a complaint for not being promoted, with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled his claim without merit…” Shortly thereafter, another officer, Captain Pedro Flores Rivero, of the National Guard, joined Colonel Soto in demanding the president’s resignation. Both Soto and Flores gave speeches against the in the Plaza Altamira, in one of Caracas’ most upscale neighborhoods, where they accused the government of being a totalitarian dictatorship.

Eleven days after Soto’s first denunciation, on February 18, another military officer, Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, made similar statements, saying that Chavez had violated the right to freedom of the press, eliminated the separation of powers, and was attempting to set up a regime similar to the one in Cuba. Each officer, in addition to their charges against the government, also claimed that there was much discontent within the military. The series of military officers’ pronouncements thus began to appear planned to coincide with the opposition’s gathering momentum, to create an increasing impression that Chavez no longer had the backing of the country’s military.

PDVSA Management Take the Lead

All along during the time of increasing tensions, ever since the passing of the 49 law-decrees, managers from the country’s state owned oil company, PDVSA, complained about the law that was supposed to reform the oil industry. However, the conflict with the management had been on a relatively low burner until Chavez decided to name a new board of directors for PDVSA. Since the Venezuelan state is the only owner of PDVSA, the president has the authority to unilaterally name its board of directors. Chavez had repeatedly complained to the public about his frustrations about getting direct answers from PDVSA as to its finances. He referred to PDVSA as a “state within a state” and as being a “black box” that he was determined to open. He took his first real step in doing so when he named a new board of directors on February 21. By that time PDVSA already had three presidents in three years, all of whom seemed to be closer to the company’s upper management than to the president.

The last PDVSA president, General Guaicaipuro Lameda, was someone Chavez thought he could trust, but who did not seem particularly eager to help Chavez in figuring out PDVSA’s finances.[2] Chavez thus named Gaston Parra, a fairly well-known leftist engineer who specialized in the oil industry, to the post of PDVSA president. At first the oil industry executives did not say much about the new board. Gradually, though, protests against the new board were voiced, especially from the management. At one point even, a group of PDVSA workers complained that managers were trying to push them into supporting protests against the new board of directors.[3] Talk of a possible general strike began to develop, both amongst the PDVSA management and among the CTV leadership. In early March, the CTV began to speak publicly about the possibility of organizing a general strike for March 18th. A little later it was decided to set the general strike date for April 18th. Meanwhile, the government warned that should the management walk out on their job, in a general strike, everyone who did so would immediately be fired.

The oil management’s rallying cry became “Respect the meritocracy!” in reference to their claim that the new board of directors did not have the necessary experience or background in the oil industry. While it was true that most of them came from outside PDVSA, all of them did have extensive backgrounds as oil industry analysts. The hypocrisy of the management’s claim that inexperienced people were put into place becomes all the clearer when one looks at past boards of directors, named under Chavez’s predecessors, some of whom indeed had nothing at all to do with the oil industry and the management at the time did not utter any complaint.

The overall opposition discourse had begun to revolve primarily around PDVSA, with the opposition’s argument being that PDVSA “belongs to the people, not to the government.” The opposition tried to create the notion that as long as the “meritocracy” runs PDVSA, it would be non-ideological and would be run in the interests of all Venezuelans. However, if the new board of directors were allowed to stay, PDVSA would become an ideologically leftist organization, run in the interests of a political party. Exactly why the “meritocrats,” who were closely identified with former PDVSA president Luis Giusti, someone who followed the precepts of privatization and of neo-liberalism, would be less “ideological” than Chavez’s board nominees was never explained.

In a series of employee meetings, the company’s management and administrative employees decided to engage in work slow-downs, to pressure the government into appointing a new board of directors; one that would be chosen more in accordance with past practices of naming board members as a kind of promotion from within the company. Meanwhile, the largest oil workers union, Fedepetrol, which Carlos Ortega of the CTV was the leader only a year earlier, said that it would support an oil industry strike, should the management call for one. However, the other four oil worker unions[4] sided with Chavez in the dispute.

A few days later, though, Fedepetrol reversed its decision and announced that it would not support the strike after all. Actually, the union’s leadership was divided, with the union’s president, Rafael Rosales, saying about the PDVSA crisis, “The management has its conflicts and we have ours. If someone has reason to protest, it is us, who have been disrespected by this management, since all of our problems are their fault, since they are our bosses.”[5] The union’s general secretary, Felix Jimenez, though, said that Fedepetrol should support the management’s strike.

On the 4th of April, 2002, PDVSA management employees began their strike. Large sections of PDVSA were shut down, such as several gasoline distribution centers, practically all administrative offices, and the El Palito refinery. The stoppage of the refinery later turned out to be extremely costly to PDVSA because the crude oil in its mile-long pipes turned into asphalt and large sections of the refinery ended up being permanently damaged, requiring wholesale replacement of parts of the refinery. The Minister of Labor, Maria Cristina Iglesias announced on television that all those who failed to show up from work would be fired, for abandoning their workplace. She reiterated that this was not a legal strike. Venezuela’s Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, also appeared on television, to say that the oil company strike is completely illegal because it is not being called by any of the recognized unions of the oil company, nor does it involve a labor conflict.

Two days into the PDVSA management strike, the CTV pledged it would join the strike/lockout by calling for a national general strike on April 9. The decision represented a moving up of the original general strike date, which had been set for April 18. Ortega said that the strike would at first be set for 24 hours, but could be extended for 48 hours or turned into an indefinite strike, depending on how the situation evolved and how the government reacted. So as to make the strike sound legal, Ortega said, “We want to dismiss that the CTV supposedly has the intention of weakening the government. What we are asking of the government is to comply with the collective bargaining agreements and that no one mistreats us.”

Ortega also warned, “The government can decree ten thousand states of exception, the strike will take place,” in clear reference to the rumors that Chavez might decree a state of emergency. Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel, though, repeatedly denied that rumors of a state of exception had any basis and said that the “rumors of a state of exception are aimed at creating distress and unrest among the population.”[6]

With the media joining in the conflict and with an increasingly virulent opposition rhetoric on its political talk shows, the government tried to counter these with its “cadenas[7]—the Venezuelan government’s legal prerogative to force all broadcast media (TV and radio) to simultaneously broadcast a special government announcement. In the days leading up to the strike, the government made frequent use of this, broadcasting ten minute messages of the vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, explaining how the government would not give in to blackmail over the PDVSA conflict. Cabello said that last December 10, during the general strike, “we made some mistakes that we will not make this time. For example, December 10 we let ourselves be squashed mediatically… If we have to respond every ten minutes with a cadena so that the information would be true and transmitted to all Venezuelans, then we will do it.”

Finally, on Sunday, April 7th, Chavez stated unequivocally that he had had enough. During his weekly television program Aló Presidente Chavez announced that the top seven managers of PDVSA would be summarily fired. He read each of their names off a piece of paper and declared loudly and full of gratification, as if he were a baseball umpire, “You’re out!” Twelve other managers would receive early retirement. Chavez also said, “I have given clear instructions to the president of PDVSA so that anyone who calls for a strike would be fired immediately, without any discussion.”

The other big announcement Chavez made during his television program was that the minimum wage would be raised 20%, starting May 1st. This was in response to the CTV’s demand that Chavez should fulfill an old campaign promise of raising the minimum wage. The announcement was broadcast on all television and radio networks, interrupting an announcement that Carlos Ortega was about to make.

After the broadcast, Ortega made his announcement, saying that Fedecamaras and numerous other organizations had decided to support the general strike that was being convoked for April 9. Representatives from all groups he mentioned were present. Even Venezuela’s Catholic Bishops Conference joined, represented by the Jesuit priest Mikel de Viana, who said, “If what is happening in PDVSA is going to be the form in which union demands will be met, this is not how the working class should be treated. The only system in which the principle of authority is invoked is in a dictatorship.”[8] Also present were directors of various media outlets, such as Miguel Henrique Otero of the opposition newspaper El Nacional, saying, “We are all in this struggle, in defense of the right to inform.”

The General Strike

That Tuesday, April 9th, 2002, no newspapers appeared, the television channels all broadcast practically the same thing—either voluntarily the statements of the opposition or involuntarily the official government “cadenas”—, public busses and the subway were running, banks were open, but all fast food franchises and many restaurants were closed, as were most schools, practically all privately operated offices were closed, but government offices were open, and, perhaps most importantly, PDVSA’s administrative buildings, located mostly in Caracas, were shut down. The streets tended to be like on a Sunday in the middle class neighborhoods, while in the poor neighborhoods things were quite normal. Throughout the day Venezuelans were presented with completely opposite images of what was going on in Venezuela. While the private media presented only nearly empty streets and closed storefronts (recorded in middle class neighborhoods), the state media and the “cadenas” presented busy streets and open shops and street vendors (in the poor neighborhoods). For someone who was not familiar with Venezuela, the contrasts could hardly have been more confusing.

Fedecamaras and the CTV, which had taken on the leadership of the opposition, announced that evening that the strike was a success, with 80% of workplaces closed down, and that since the government did not concede to any of the opposition’s demands, such as the removal of the new PDVSA board members, it would extend the general strike another 24 hours. Carlos Ortega explained the reason for continuing by saying, “Our reasons have to do with the aggressive and intolerant conduct of the government, as its response to the demands of the workers.” That night, in the opposition strongholds, a noisy “cacerolazo”—the banging of pots and pans in protest—took place throughout the country.

The next day it became clear that the strike was already losing force. While most streets in the middle class neighborhoods were still much calmer than usual and most stores were still closed, there was noticeably more activity than the day before. Perhaps to animate the opposition, as a strategic ploy to prepare the ground for the coup, General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez announced his non-recognition of President Chavez as Commander in Chief. He said that he was doing this because Chavez was “disrespecting” the Armed Forces due to his supposed support of Colombian guerilla forces. General Gonzalez had been one of the officers accused of corruption in the management of Plan Bolivar 2000.[9]

In a warning of what was to come, one of the leaders of the opposition, the former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda, said to the newspaper El Universal, when asked what would happen when Chavez leaves office, “The armed forces will play a fundamental role, recognizing that we have a government outside of the rule of law…”[10]

Also that day, the opposition announced that it had formed an umbrella organization, called “Coordinator for Democracy and Liberty,” to which all oppositional NGOs (40, according to spokespersons), oppositional parties (about 10), and the CTV and Fedecamaras belong. Their first action would be to organize a demonstration that would gather at Caracas’ Parque del Este and march on the freeway a mere two kilometers, to the one of PDVSA’s main buildings in the middle class neighborhood of Chuao. One of the spokespersons for the umbrella group, which would later come to be known as the “Democratic Coordinator,” said, “We are in a context in which we are applying articles 333 and 350 of the Constitution…”[11]

Coup d’État

The public’s perspective

Friday, April 11, 2002, the opposition marched to the corporate offices of PDVSA-Chuao, which had become one of the key rallying centers. It was estimated that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Venezuelans participated, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Venezuelan history and certainly the largest demonstration of the opposition to Chavez.

Once at the rallying point, one speaker after the other suggested that the demonstration should continue marching towards the Miraflores presidential palace, to demand the president’s resignation. Carlos Ortega, the last speaker said, “You have wasted the resources of the state and now this human river will go towards Miraflores to demand your resignation!” Although demonstration did not have a permit to continue past PDVSA-Chuao, the demonstrators headed towards the presidential palace, which was another eleven kilometers to the west. At Miraflores, however, a crowd of perhaps one thousand Chavez supporters had already gathered a few days earlier, in a more or less constant vigil in front of the palace.

When it became known, around 11 am that day, that the opposition demonstration would head to Miraflores, various pro-Chavez political leaders, such as Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal and National Assembly Deputy Juan Barreto, appeared on state television urging Chavistas to come to the presidential palace to “defend” it against the opposition. Also, members of the group Asamblea Popular Revolucionaria (Popular Revolutionary Assembly – APR, which later turned into the website Aporrea.org) distributed fliers in the surrounding barrios, urging people to come to Miraflores.[12] Within very little time the demonstration in front of Miraflores grew to several thousand, assembling mainly on the Avenida Urdaneta, which passes in front of the north entrance of Miraflores.

Shortly before the opposition demonstration arrived near Miraflores, the government had positioned National Guard troops, which are responsible for maintaining public order, around the palace. At about 1:30 to 2:00 pm the opposition demonstrators began trickling in to the neighborhood of the presidential palace. The demonstrators at the front of the opposition march were clearly out for a fight. Several witnesses reported that they belonged to the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) party, which is very well known in Venezuela for its willingness to commit acts of violence in pursuit of its goals.[13] Two lines of security forces tried to separate the opposition demonstrators from the presidential palace. The first was a line of metropolitan police, which were under the control of Greater Caracas opposition mayor Alfredo Peña, who did not offer any resistance to the demonstrators as they marched up the western side of the palace compound. The second line of security forces were National Guard troops, armed with shotguns that shoot plastic shrapnel (perdigones) and tear gas.

Locations of the two demosntrations. Opposition demonstrators in green, Chavista demonstrators in red. (click on image for full size)
Credit: Defensoria

While the opposition demonstration was trying to get near the presidential palace, at about 1:45 pm, General Lucas Rincon, the country’s highest ranking general read a statement on television that was broadcast on all networks. Behind him was the military high command. In his statement, Rincon denied rumors that President Chavez had been arrested and reaffirmed that the military was solidly in support of its commander in chief.

By 2:30 pm, opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops were engaged in a pitched battle, with rocks and tear gas flying between the National Guard and the demonstrators. The troops managed, though, to prevent the demonstrators from approaching the presidential palace’s north entrance from the west. Photographs and video footage later showed how at one point in the confrontation former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda urged opposition demonstrators to take a different route of approach to the palace, on the east side of the compound, up the Avenida Baralt. The metropolitan police led the charge up the street. With a water cannon vehicle and an armored personnel carrier the police forged its way up the street, towards an overpass known as the Puente Llaguno (Llaguno Bridge), which is one block from the presidential palace. As the police headed up the street, around 3:30 pm, they encountered no resistance from any National Guard troops and, according to Chavista accounts, opened fire on the Chavista demonstrators who were gathered both on the Avenida Baralt and on the bridge. Also around this time, Chavista demonstrators heard shots being fired at them from buildings surrounding their demonstration. A group of perhaps five or six Chavistas was armed and at around 5 pm began returning fire from the police, while taking cover behind the buildings that border the overpass. The shooters on the overpass would later recount that they were also trying to shoot at the people shooting at them from the buildings.

As more and more people were hit and even killed by the gunfire, the Chavista dead and wounded were taken to a first aid tent located across the street from Miraflores, within a government compound known as the “White Palace.” This small first aid tent had been set up three days earlier, in anticipation of any violence that might occur as a result of the pro-Chavez vigil clashing with anti-Chavez demonstrators. TV commentators, upon seeing footage of the tent, immediately raised questions about it, suggesting that such a tent had never before been placed there and that it was there now precisely because Chavez or his supporters had intended to ambush the opposition demonstration from the Llaguno Bridge. Numerous witnesses would later report, though, that first aid tents had been positioned in this location previously, whenever Chavez used the area in front of Miraflores as a rallying point.[14]

While Chavistas were being shot at from both the metropolitan police and from unidentified shooters in buildings (or sharpshooters, many said), opposition demonstrators were being shot at too. However, it was unclear exactly who was firing at the opposition demonstrators. According to most accounts, the opposition demonstrators never came closer to the Llaguno Bridge—where the Chavista demonstrators were—than about 400-500 meters, which means that the small arms that the Chavistas were shooting with were out of range to hit any opposition demonstrators. It is generally assumed that pistols have an effective range of only about 250-300 meters. Nonetheless, at least seven opposition demonstrators were killed and many more wounded that day. According to most eye-witness accounts, the opposition demonstrators were shot at from the buildings near the opposition demonstration. Autopsies also confirmed that the vast majority of the dead received shots from above, many of them to their heads, most likely from nearby buildings.

According to the final report of the office of the Defensoria del Pueblo (Defender of the People, the human rights defender), there were 19 fatalities that day. Seven of the dead had participated in the pro-Chavez demonstration, seven in the anti-Chavez demonstration, and five were non-partisan bystanders. Also, there were a total of 69 wounded that day. 38 in the pro-Chavez demonstration, 17 in the opposition demonstration, and 14 were reporters or unaffiliated passers-by.[15]

Locations of the demonstrators and passers by who were killed in the course of the day of April 11, 2002. Yellow circles = Chavistas; green circles = opposition; blue circles = neither side (click on image for full size)
Credit: Defensoria
Locations of the demonstrators and passers by who were wounded in the course of the day of April 11, 2002. Yellow circles = Chavistas; green circles = opposition; blue circles = neither side (click on image for full size)
Credit: Defensoria

A different kind of battle was taking place in the media while all of the shooting was going on near the presidential palace. That is, all of the private TV stations were broadcasting the battle scenes on the street from the perspective of the opposition demonstration. Shortly after the first demonstrators were being killed by shooters from nearby buildings and by the metropolitan police, at 3:45pm, Chavez took over the airwaves in a national broadcast and made an address to the nation, asking for people to remain calm and severely criticizing the opposition. Repeatedly during Chavez’s speech, he was handed a slip of paper, presumably about what was happening outside the presidential palace, which he would glance at and then continued his address.  A few minutes into the broadcast, however, the TV stations, in an apparently coordinated plan, split their screens and showed Chavez on one half and the street battles in the other half. Chavez, upon being informed of what the TV stations were doing, issued an order at about 4:25 pm, to take all private TV stations off the air. Chavez’s broadcast continued for another hour, until 5:15 pm.

The private TV stations managed to get back onto the air during Chavez’s broadcast, via cable and satellite, although not over the regular airwaves. In addition to broadcasting the fight between opposition and National Guard, the TV stations began showing images of Chavistas shooting from the bridge onto the street below, which was off screen. News commentators then claimed, without showing any actual footage, that the Chavistas who were shooting were firing at “unarmed opposition demonstrators.” This claim was repeated over and over again on all of the media. Later this claim would prove to be one of the key elements in providing the justification for the coup.

While the private TV stations were broadcasting one opposition politician or commentator after the other, as well as the Chavista gunmen shooting from the bridge in the direction of the opposition demonstration, the state television station broadcast interviews with pro-Chavez politicians. Both opposition supporters and Chavistas said that they were ambushed and each argued that their side had suffered most of the casualties in the confrontation that day.

Then, at 7 pm, Chavistas began to realize that a coup was indeed in progress because at that time the first of several military pronouncements was made. Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez, reading a prepared statement from an undisclosed location, with nine other military officers behind him, read a statement that said, “We direct ourselves to the people to no longer recognize the current government, the authority of President Chavez, and of the military high command. Ramirez went on to say that given the deaths of several people in the confrontation in the city center, “the constitution obliges us to avoid more bloodshed and this obligation implies the peaceful departure of the president and the substitution of the high command.”

Next, the entire National Guard leadership, with General Carlos Alfonso Martinez speaking, followed by the vice-Minister for citizen Security, General Luis Alberto Camacho Kairuz, and then by the leadership of the DISIP—the “political police” (similar to the FBI in the U.S.)—all declared their disobedience to the President on television. Camacho Kairuz’s statement gave the first foreshadowing of what was to come. In his televised comments after calling for Chavez’s resignation, he suggested that a provisional junta should be installed to govern the country, which would initiate procedures for modifying the constitution to “return us to what we have always been: the Republic of Venezuela;”[16] that is, to remove the word “Bolivarian” from “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” General Camacho Kairuz also announced the defection of various regiments throughout the country.

The final blow to Chavez’s presidency came at 8 pm when the head of the army, General Efrain Vasquez Velasco appeared on television to renounce Chavez’s leadership, saying “until today I was loyal to you, Mr. President.” Perhaps the greatest surprise was that one of the generals considered to be closest to Chavez, the head of the military high command, General Manuel Rosendo, also declared his disobedience.

The general public that was following the events on television that evening was presented with very contradictory images. On the four major private television channels, which had been off the air temporarily, but which could be received by those with cable or satellite access, the images were of Chavistas shooting at off-screen targets and commentators claiming that they were firing at unarmed opposition demonstrators. The constant repetition of this footage was intermingled with the pronouncements of various opposition politicians and of military officers declaring their disobedience. Meanwhile, on state TV (channel 8), the broadcast was live from the Miraflores presidential palace, where several ministers and pro-Chavez National Assembly deputies were being interviewed about the day’s events. Key to the Chavista understanding of what had happened, the deputies flatly contradicted the private TV stations’ claim that it was opposition demonstrators who had been shot at. Instead, they said that it was Chavistas who were killed, many of whom were lying dead in the presidential palace itself. Deputy Juan Barreto said during these broadcasts that it was the oppositional party Bandera Roja that was the main culprit in the deaths that day; that they placed snipers in the neighboring buildings to shoot at Chavistas.

Between 9 pm and 10 pm, the state television channel (VTV) explained to its viewers that Chavez was meeting with both his ministers and the military high command, to decide how to deal with the crisis. Then, suddenly, at about 10 pm, VTV went off the air. More or less around the same time the private TV channels could be received over the regular airwaves, via antenna, again.

Rumors began to spread that Chavez had resigned and that he had asked to be taken to Cuba. Supporters of the opposition became ecstatic at the news of this possibility and congregated at the Caracas city airport, La Carlota, in the hopes of seeing Chavez’s departure. An airplane there appeared to be getting ready to leave. However, it was then announced, at about 10:30 pm, that the plane was for Chavez’s wife, Marisabel Rodriguez de Chavez, who was flying with her daughter to her hometown of Barquisimeto, in western Venezuela.

The mystery of what was happening in Miraflores continued until 1:30 am, when General Efrain Vasquez Velasco confirmed that Chavez was negotiating with military officers the conditions of his resignation. The negotiations continued with little news until 3:30 am, when General Lucas Rincon Romero took to the airwaves to announce in a brief statement that the “President of the Republic was asked to resign, which he accepted.” Rincon added that the military high command would be at the service of the “new authorities.” About half an hour later, television viewers were able to barely make out images of Chavez, as he was being escorted into the military compound of Fuerte Tiuna (Fort Tiuna). To Chavistas it seemed that Chavez had been toppled via a classic coup, while to anti-Chavistas it seemed that a ruthless dictator was finally removed from office.

The author’s perspective

By April 11, I had been living in Venezuela for about one and a half years. I considered myself to be an interested bystander, in that I thought the Chavez government’s policies were interesting and worth supporting, but I had reservations about Chavez because I thought that too often he seemed to do himself more harm than good because of the way he pursued his policies. It was not until the days leading up to the April 9th general strike, though, that I involved myself in a deeper analysis of political events in Venezuela. By the time the CTV and Fedecamaras called for an unlimited general strike, it had become obvious to me that something big was about to happen. The rhetoric was so extreme on both sides that it seemed nearly impossible for any kind of resolution of the conflict without a major confrontation of some sort.

So, on April 10th, I suspected that what some members of the opposition were aiming for was a coup, as this seemed to be the only solution for the opposition.[17] That is, the opposition was arguing that it wanted Chavez’s resignation, but given that Chavez had declared unequivocally that he would never resign, a confrontation in the form of a coup seemed the only option for the opposition. A referendum, as many in the opposition had suggested, also seemed unviable, since that option was flat-out rejected and a recall referendum would, according to the constitution only be possible once half of Chavez’s term in office had passed, on August 19, 2003. More likely seemed to me was that the opposition was hoping Chavez would declare martial law and that the opposition would use such an occasion as an excuse for a coup.

The day of the opposition demonstration to Chuao and then to Miraflores, my wife and I were at home, watching the protest on television. In the early afternoon, shortly after the demonstration headed for the presidential palace, my wife received phone calls urging her to join the pro-Chavez demonstration at Miraflores. We both decided to go, but we first had to find a babysitter for our daughter. Around 3 pm we decided that she would go ahead and I would join her later, once the babysitter arrived.

I was finally able to head towards Miraflores at about 4 pm. Taking the subway, I got off one stop beyond the closest one for the Miraflores presidential palace because the Miraflores stop had been closed. Walking back, I had to cross El Calvario, a city park where opposition demonstrators had gathered who did not want to fight the National Guard. Since the park is much higher than the surrounding area, one could clearly see the battles between opposition demonstrators and the National Guard from there. Tear gas was everywhere and the demonstrators were breaking down a schoolyard wall, to use its rocks against the Guard. I phoned my wife and told her where I was and that I had to circle around the entire area, since soldiers were blocking my way to get to the pro-Chavez demonstration. As I crossed the now infamous Avenida Baralt, I saw some motorcycles and then a police van zoom past me. Hardly any opposition demonstrators were to be seen on the street. I did see someone lying on the street who looked like he might be dead. I took a picture of him and just as I was about to get closer, I heard shots being fired. Just like most people, my first thought was that it could be fireworks, which were quite common, but then I realized that the man lying on the street might have been shot. Suddenly I could hear rapid bursts of gunfire and I and some other people who were milling around the area ran for cover behind the columns of a building (at Plaza Caracas). Once the shooting stopped, I continued towards the National Assembly, figuring that somewhere there must be a gap in the National Security line, so I could get to the Chavista demonstration.

I found a gap at the National Assembly and finally made it to the pro-Chavez demonstration, on Avenida Urdaneta. However, as I approached the overpass over the Avenida Baralt (Puente Llaguno), the crowd got extremely dense and I could not advance anymore. I asked someone what was going on and he exclaimed to me, “They are shooting at us!” I struggled to figure out where the shots where coming from, which I could hear and then noticed that people had completely cleared away from the overpass. Everyone seemed to be trying to hide behind the buildings that kept them protected them from shots coming from the street below. At the two ends of the bridge I saw several men returning fire towards the street below, just as was later shown on television.

At one point many in the crowd pointed at one of the buildings nearby. When I looked, I could see a soldier on the roof. At first I thought that perhaps this was one of the snipers that I heard people mention. But then I realized that he seemed to be searching the rooftop and people were shouting at him to go to one of the lower floors, where they seemed to have seen someone shooting.

Finally, at around 6 pm, the shooting stopped and I could cross the bridge. I joined up with my wife, just as the rally in front of the presidential palace was ending. We decided to go back home. Once home, we turned on the TV and I saw the scene that I had witnessed of the Chavistas shooting from the bridge. To my amazement, though, the announcer was claiming that the Chavistas were firing at the unarmed opposition demonstration. I could not believe my ears because I had seen—with my own eyes, from the bridge—that no opposition demonstrators were visible on the street below. Then, later in the evening, when I heard the pronouncements of the military claiming that Chavez was responsible for the deaths and shootings, I was convinced that a coup was in progress. I immediately decided to tell my side of the story and began writing about it.[18]

What Happened Behind the Scenes

To this day much controversy and speculation remains about what really happened on April 11, behind the scenes of the coup. Large sectors of Venezuela’s opposition still claim that what happened was not a coup, but the resignation of a president, who decided to do so after realizing that he no longer had the support of the military. On the other hand, many Chavez supporters argue that what happened was a classic coup that was largely organized and financed by the CIA. It seems that while the former story has no basis in reality, aspects of the latter story are possible, even though little evidence for it has emerged so far. The truth of what happened behind the scenes will probably never be fully known, but a more sophisticated analysis of the complicated events is possible.

Much of the behind the scenes account presented here is based on research conducted by Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza, who try to present one of the more balanced and thoroughly investigated accounts, even if they have blinders of their own as regards to the possible existence of a larger conspiracy that brought the coup about. This is actually precisely the unresolved issue that exists to this day: was the coup a planned conspiracy that was carried out according to plan (in its earlier stages), but which ultimately failed due to the conspirators’ hubris and the Chavistas’ superior strategy? Or, was it a confluence of unforeseen events that first favored the opposition by removing Chavez from power and then favored Chavez by putting him back into power? Some, such as the Venezuela blogger Francisco Toro,[19] argue that it was a little bit of both, while investigators such as La Fuente and Meza seem to argue that it was mostly unplanned. Chavista analysts, such as Guillermo Garcia Ponce and Rodolfo Sanz, argue that it was all planned to the last detail and carried out according to plan.[20] It seems obvious to me, that there was indeed a carefully planned conspiracy where elements of luck aided the conspirators at first, but failed them later on. At heart, though, it seems that whether the entire coup in its early successful stage was a plot depends on whether two key players were in on it from the beginning: Generals Efrain Vasquez Velasquez, the head of the Army, and Manuel Rosendo, the head of the military high command (comparable to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S.).

According to the accounts of several key opposition players in the coup, such as by Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo and Colonel Julio Rodriguez, work on the plot to overthrow Chavez had begun at least nine months prior to April 11th.[21] Also, there are several circumstantial indications that a plot to overthrow Chavez was in the works well before April 11, such as Pedro Carmona supposedly having ordered a presidential sash while he was in Spain a few weeks earlier and General Medina Gomez, who some say was the mastermind behind the plot, requested to be Venezuela’s military attaché to the U.S. and returned from Washington DC one day prior to the coup. All this strongly suggests that there was a carefully laid out plan for a coup.

Perhaps the first conspiratorial element to come into play on April 11 was the decision to redirect the opposition march towards Miraflores. During an April 10 planning meeting for the protest, it was already decided to re-route the march to Miraflores and to present this as a spontaneous suggestion. The idea was to spread it as a rumor, as a chant “towards Miraflores!”, and then as a suggestion to be made by one rally speaker after the other. The reason it had to appear spontaneous was that, first, the opposition had no permit to march to Miraflores and, second, announcing the plan in advance, would surely have meant an early confrontation with state security forces, long before they got near the presidential palace.

However, apparently the DISP and also pro-Chavez activists had infiltrated the opposition’s planning meeting and knew of the plan to re-direct the demonstration to Miraflores. Pro-Chavez forces were thus more or less prepared for the march and had extra time to get ready for it. They were convinced that the reason for the re-directing of the march was to try and take the presidential palace by force. “The objective of the plan was to surround and assault the seat of government in order to consummate the coup against the president and the constitution,” says Guillermo Garcia Ponce, who belongs to the president’s inner circle of advisors.[22]

The government knew it could not trust the metropolitan police, under control of the vehemently oppositional mayor Alfredo Peña, to stop the demonstration before it got to the presidential palace. It thus had to rely on the National Guard, which was equipped and trained to deal with crowd control. A plan was in place already to post National Guard troops on the Avenida Bolivar, in order to keep the opposition demonstration at least one kilometer away from the presidential palace. However, the order to position the National Guard troops had been countermanded by someone. National Guard General Carlos Alfonso Martinez, who was one of the first generals to renounce the government that day, explained the situation as follows during the National Assembly hearings that investigated the coup:

In the organizers’ speeches in front of the masses, they began to insist that the march should not end here [at PDVSA Chuao] and that it should continue to the Miraflores Presidential Palace to solicit the resignation of the president. In practice, scenario 1 had ended and began to transform itself into scenario 2.

Scenario 2 was realized with the aggravating factor that the National Guard deployment that was planned for the Avenida Bolivar had not been executed.[23]

The government thus could not control the crowd as it had planned to. As a result, Chavez decided to activate a notorious military plan known as “Plan Avila.” Plan Avila, named after the mountain range that borders Caracas to the north, is a plan to mobilize the country’s armed forces in case of a national emergency. The first time it was activated, in February 1989, it was meant to control the riots and raiding that gripped Caracas and other cities as a reaction to a package of neo-liberal economic reforms. Between 300 and over 1,000 people were killed as soldiers and police fired on rioters and looters at will.

Chavez, when he first noticed that the National Guard troops could not be controlled, tried to activate Plan Avila by calling General Manuel Rosendo, the highest ranking officer of the military. However, he could not reach Rosendo and, suspecting that Rosendo might have switched sides and might be hiding, he called one of his most trusted generals, Jorge Garcia Carneiro. Using a two-way radio and a pre-established military code, Chavez told Carneiro to activate the plan by sending a deployment of tanks to the presidential palace. The tanks, though, had a difficult time leaving the military installations at Fuerte Tiuna because the rebelling officers had already begun to block some of the city’s main arteries, precisely to prevent troop movements and the mobilization of Chavez’s supporters. Also, as of 2 pm, several generals, in a coordinated effort, blocked the entrances to Fuerte Tiuna. This was well before any deaths had occurred in the city center, thus invalidating the common argument that the military rebellion was in protest against Chavez’s responsibility for deaths.

One of the main controversies over what happened during the coup is over the nature of Plan Avila. Generals Rosendo and Vasquez both used the activation of this plan as the main reason for declaring disobedience to their commander in chief. According to the opposition, this was exactly the same plan that was applied in 1989 and would thus have meant a massacre of civilians, had the plan actually been implemented. A ruling of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, in August 2002, found that the Venezuelan government must change this plan, in order to comply with human rights standards. The human rights organization COFAVIC says that the Chavez government has only partially applied the ruling, mostly as concerns reparations for affected families of the events of February 1989, but not with respect to the training of soldiers in human rights or crowd control.[24]

Even though the plan is meant to be secret, General Jorge Garcia Carneiro, Chavez’s one-time defense minister, testified during the National Assembly Hearings that the plan is primarily meant to secure important installations during a national disaster, such as food distribution, communication, and government centers. It is not meant to control crowds, which was not Chavez’s intention, according to Garcia Carneiro. Rather, Chavez called on it to secure the presidential palace, which some of the tanks he mobilized that day then proceeded to do by the evening.

While Chavez was struggling with getting his troops under control, the rebellious generals and other high-ranking officers were planning their pronouncements to the public. One of the stories, that of how Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez made his public announcement, caught much attention and controversy because it potentially provides strong evidence that the coup was planned down to the last murderous detail.

Also unbeknownst to the general public at the time, while the opposition was marching towards Miraflores, the five newly appointed PDVSA board members turned in their resignation, seeing that the country was heading for a head-on collision between opposition and government over their appointment. The news about their resignation never got out to the public, though, other than in the form of a rumor.

The Neustaldt Testimony

The evening of April 10, the day before the opposition demonstration and coup, CNN correspondent Otto Neustaldt received a phone call from a close friend of his who was actively involved in the opposition.[25] According to Neustaldt, this friend told him, “Otto, tomorrow the 11th there will be a video of Chavez, the demonstration will go towards Miraflores, and there will be deaths and 20 high ranking officers will pronounce themselves against the government and will demand Chavez’s resignation.”

The next morning, at 11am, Neustaldt’s friend called again to say, “We no longer know if there will be 20 officers who will rise up, but it will still be a significant or at least representative number, who will ask for Chavez’s resignation. Everything else will remain as planned. There will be a video, several deaths, and then the officers will come out and talk.” It was going to be Neustaldt’s task to video tape the pronouncement and to then pass it on to the media.

Once at the location where the pronouncement was going to be made, Neustaldt and the officers, led by Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez, were ready, but the microwave equipment to make a live broadcast had not arrived yet. Neustaldt thus suggested to the officers that perhaps they should do a trial run of their pronouncement, which he could record. They agreed and recorded the pronouncement. To Neustaldt’s surprise, the Vice-Admiral, with ten other high-ranking officers behind him, said that there have been several deaths in the city, when, at the time the pronouncement was being read, around 2pm, not a single death had happened yet.

Finally, when the microwave equipment arrived to make the live broadcast, around 3:45pm, Chavez began his nationally televised broadcast, making it impossible for the officers to broadcast their pronouncement live. According to Neustaldt, he then offered the officers to take the test recording to the international media, so that they could at least get their message out this way. The officers agreed and Neustaldt took a motorcycle, leaving his equipment behind, to Reuters and to other broadcasters.

When Neustaldt’s version of this first recording became public, five months after the coup, it caused an uproar. If what he said was true, that the officers predicted the murders well beforehand and made a recording where the deaths are mentioned, then clearly there was a conspiracy to which the officers belonged. However, right after Chavez and the state television channel went public with Neustaldt’s video taped testimony, Neustaldt held a press conference, in which he denied that he said what he seemed to be saying at the conference. According to him, his statements were taken out of context and edited in a way to make it sound like he was saying things he did not say. Ironically, at Neustaldt’s press conference, sitting next to him, was the same lawyer, Carlos Bastidas, who was also the lawyer defending Vice-Admiral Ramirez. A few days later, Venezuela’s state TV decided to show the entire conference video and it was obvious that nothing Neustaldt said was taken out of context.

At least two other witnesses to these events, Neustaldt’s journalist friend[26] and Vice-Admiral Ramirez say that Neustaldt was lying at the conference and that actually the officers’ pronouncement was made after the death of the journalist Jorge Tortoza, which happened at 4:20pm. Coup investigators La Fuente and Meza recount how witnesses remember Tortoza’s name being called out as one of the dead, before the recording was made. However, in an interview made on April 12th by the journalist Ibeyese Pacheco, Vice-Admiral Ramirez clearly says that his recorded pronouncement of the 11th was made before any deaths had occurred.

There are several interesting things to note about this dispute about Neustaldt’s statement at the university conference. First, who is more likely to be lying? Would a professional journalist lie who was not involved in the coup and who would not have anything to gain by implicating high ranking officers who, if what he says is true, do not hesitate to kill innocent bystanders? Perhaps he was simply wrong about the timing of events and the recording was made after the first deaths had happened, which was around 3:30pm. In that case it would have been made during the president’s national broadcast. But then why would Ramirez himself say that the recording was made beforehand? Did he too get the timing wrong?

The second interesting issue is that clearly there are powerful interests at stake in covering up what really happened April 11. Why, for example, would Neustaldt come up with a convoluted and patently false claim that he did not say what he said? One can only speculate at this point, but given the presence of Ramirez’s lawyer at Neustaldt’s press conference, it would not be too far-fetched to assume that Neustaldt was acting under pressure from Ramirez, probably under a death threat.

Finally, the most thorough accounting of the coup, La Fuente and Meza’s book, El Acertijo de Abril (The April Puzzle), makes no mention of Neustaldt’s version of events, even though the book goes into great detail about how this first pronouncement came about. Also, the testimony is not mentioned even though the book came out one and a half years after the testimony and even though it was one of the most controversial post-coup incidents. If true, Neustaldt provides the most damning testimony that the rebellious officers deliberately organized the assassination of pro- and anti-Chavez civilians in cold blood, in order to blame Chavez for the deaths and to provide a justification for their rebellion. Given the seriousness of the charge, it seems as if the La Fuente and Meza book deliberately attempts to cover-up the involvement of some of the main masterminds behind the coup.

Chavez’s Dilemma

Towards the evening of April 11, once it was clear that the military was no longer fully under his control and with almost 20 civilian demonstrators killed and over 100 wounded near the presidential palace, for which the press blamed the president, Chavez had to decide what to do, but could not make up his mind right away. It appeared that the coup was successful and so Chavez had to decide whether to give himself up peacefully to the rebelling generals or whether to put up a fight.

In the late evening, Chavez met with the military high command in his office. Except for José Vicente Rangel, his cabinet was not in the meeting and everyone was wondering what was going on. Finally José Vicente Rangel emerged to say that the generals were rebelling and that most of them were demanding Chavez’s resignation. Others were demanding that Chavez be arrested and tried.

It was around 8pm and the state television channel had been taken off the air, so there was no way now for Chavez to get a message out to the citizens or his followers. Shortly thereafter, cell phones no longer worked either, according to Guillermo Garcia Ponce’s account of the events. The executive had been almost completely cut off from the outside world. Nonetheless, the president of the National Assembly, William Lara, was able to reach CNN and Telemundo by telephone and made some statements to an international audience.

Several witnesses of those late night hours say that Chavez appeared depressed. Apparently he was stunned by the number of defections and betrayals that had occurred that day. Just a few weeks earlier, Chavez had said that the Armed Forces would never betray him and that he knew the military “better than the back of my hand.” Late that night, in a meeting with his cabinet, Chavez said, “I have considered that I should resign. There is a problem of governability here. What do you think I should do?” Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel responded, “President, we should resist until we are out of ammunition.”[27]

The cabinet discussed the situation and considered several alternatives. One was to move the executive to the main military barracks that was still supporting Chavez, in Maracay, where General Raul Baduel was in command of Venezuela’s best trained and equipped forces. Baduel had been part of Chavez’s original MBR-200 and was still loyal to Chavez. The second alternative was to resist in the presidential palace. And the third possibility Chavez and his cabinet considered was to surrender.

The first option, of going to Maracay, was discarded early on because doing so would only have been possible if there had been a safe way to get there. Originally Chavez thought he could do so with the tanks that he had ordered to come to Miraflores. However, the coup generals managed to convince the tank battalion to return to Fort Tiuna, so this option was no longer viable.

The second option, of resisting in Miraflores, with the help of the presidential honor guard, which remained loyal to Chavez, would have almost definitely meant a battle and bloodshed. According to Chavez himself and to most witnesses who were present, Chavez said he rejected that option for that reason.

Finally, after long discussions with both his cabinet and with the rebelling generals, the generals got impatient and phoned Chavez to tell him that if he did not resign in the next fifteen minutes, they would order a military attack on the presidential palace.[28] So, at about 3 am, Chavez decided that he would resign, but only if four conditions were met. First, if the physical safety of everyone in his government is guaranteed. Second, if the constitution is respected, which meant that the resignation would have to be presented to the National Assembly. Third, that Chavez could address the country live. Fourth, that his closest advisors and family could leave the country together with him. General Manuel Rosendo and General Hurtado Sucre, who were acting as go-betweens between Chavez and the main rebel generals, took the message to Fort Tiuna, where the rebel generals were ensconced. Rosendo and Hurtado returned shortly thereafter and told Chavez that his conditions had been accepted. Chavez thereupon authorized Lucas Rincon Romero, the highest ranking officer in the Venezuelan military, to tell the country that he had agreed to resign. Rincon, in a brief address to the nation, then read his famous statement that Chavez had resigned.

Most Venezuelans had waited until 3:20am to finally hear Rincon’s statement to the country. Opposition sympathizers were ecstatic with the news, while Chavez supporters became very depressed. However, many people could not be absolutely certain that Rincon was telling the truth. Given the large number of defections from the Chavez camp in the military, it seemed all too possible that Rincon might have lied to the nation because he too had decided to switch sides. The opposition, though, had no doubts that this was the end of Chavez as president.

However, as it turned out, despite Rincon’s seemingly last word on Chavez as president, the ordeal was far from over. Shortly after Rincon read the statement, according to Chavez’s version of events,[29] he heard from the rebel generals that they would not accept his conditions after all. Chavez thus decided that he would not resign, but instead let himself be arrested and was then taken to Fort Tiuna, where he was seen one more time on television, around 4am, as he entered the fort.

Once in Fort Tiuna, General Vasquez Velasquez asked Chavez to sign the resignation. Chavez responded, “I will not sign anything. From this moment on I am in your hands and you do what you believe to be right.” To which Vasquez said, “I inform you that from this moment on you will be in the custody of the Armed Forces.”

The debate that followed among the coup generals was about whether to let Chavez go to Cuba or whether to keep him in Venezuela and try him for “crimes against humanity.” Another option, which some chroniclers claim was considered, was to turn Chavez over to U.S. authorities, where he might be tried for a crime, along the lines of the capture of General Manuel Noriega or Panama. Later, after his release, Chavez would argue that supporting evidence for this hypothesis was a U.S. plane on the island where he was held captive for part of the time. In the end, on the insistence of Daniel Romero, a lawyer and assistant to former President Carlos Andrés Perez, the generals decided to keep Chavez in custody and to let the “transition” government decide his fate.

The Coup within the Coup

In the early morning hours of April 12th, the Generals, with Efrain Vasquez Velasco as one of the most important ones, decided to hand the presidency to Fedecamaras president Pedro Carmona. Later it would be argued that with Chavez’s resignation and the apparent disappearance of the country’s vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, the military had the duty to fill this “vacuum of power,” as it would be called. In actuality, though, Pedro Carmona’s designation as “interim” president had been long in the making.

Discussions about who should succeed Chavez had begun practically ever since Chavez first assumed the presidency in 1999. Towards the end of 2001 it appeared that the main candidate as successor to Chavez would be CTV president Carlos Ortega. However, powerful economic sectors in Venezuela and the military seemed to prefer Pedro Carmona. By late March 2002, the proposal had been floated that rather than one president, there should be “junta,” consisting of Pedro Carmona, Carlos Ortega, and an officer—either Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez or General Vasquez Velasco.

The final decision was, though, that Carmona would be the transition president. Carmona appeared on television, at 4:51am, to make the announcement. At that time, a list of candidates for the rest of the transition cabinet had already been made, as well as a draft of the infamous decree that would abolish all state institutions.

The next day was a very busy one for the coup leaders. Everyone who was anyone in the opposition gathered at the presidential palace, to celebrate, to congratulate, and to lobby for positions in the transition government. The private mass media was celebrating too, with tremendous headlines that cheered, “It’s Over!” (El Universal), “Chavez Resigned” (El Universal), “The Assassin Has Fallen” (Asi es la Noticia), “Good-bye Hugo” (Tal Cual). Napoleón Bravo’s morning talk show (24 Horas) opened program with, “Good morning, we have a new president,” and then Bravo proceeded to read the resignation letter Chavez supposedly signed, but actually did not sign. The state media, though, was still off the air.

Already early in the morning the first signs became visible that the coup was drifting to the far right of the political spectrum. According to Miguel Manrique, an advisor to CTV president Carlos Ortega, Ortega had become very upset when he heard that the military named Carmona as president without consulting with him.[30] In the morning of the 12th Ortega met with Carmona in the presidential palace to urge larger civilian participation in the transition government. He then left the capital, to go to his home town of Coro, about 300 kilometers west of Caracas and was not heard from again during the coup regime.

While the coup organizers were working out the details of a decree that would name Carmona as president, among other things, Isaias Rodriguez, the country’s Attorney General, managed to convince the private broadcast media to let him onto live television with the argument that he wanted to publicly announce his resignation. Once on live television, at 2:04 pm, he said, “This is a coup d’état. There is no doubt about it. The Inter-American Democratic Charter and the Washington protocol have been violated here.” He went on to say that Chavez did not resign and that even if he had, it would not be effective unless he did so to the National Assembly and that next in line of succession is the vice-president and then the president of the National Assembly. A few minutes into his announcement, as soon as they noticed that Rodriguez was not announcing his resignation, the private television stations cut him off mid-sentence. Already word had spread, by word of mouth and via the community media, that Chavez had not resigned and that he was being held against his will on a military island somewhere. Isaias Rodriguez’s announcement thus confirmed what many had already suspected.

Also that afternoon, various police forces, opposition leaders, and mayors decided to start a witch hunt for pro-Chavez officials. The first whose home was raided was that of the Interior Minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin. As he was being illegally arrested by the police, neighbors who sympathized with the opposition hit him and launched insults at him. The next to receive similar treatment was Tarek William Saab, a member of Chavez’s party in the National Assembly. Tal Cual editor Teodoro Petkoff was among the very few in the opposition who publicly protested against this type of illegal witch hunt. Also arrested illegally and beat-up by enraged opposition followers was the governor of Tachira state, Ronald Blanco la Cruz. Numerous raids were also conducted in community media offices, where equipment was confiscated, and of homes of members of Bolivarian Circles. In the case of the Bolivarian Circles, which had been accused of being behind the shots fired from the Llaguno bridge, the justification for the raids was that officials were looking for arms caches. None were found, though.

Suspecting that Vice-President Diosdado Cabello was hiding in the Cuban embassy, a mob surrounded the embassy and cut off all of its water, electricity, and phone lines. They trashed the cars parked outside, assuming that these belonged to employees of the embassy, and threw rocks into the windows. Television cameras broadcast these activities live, while the police stood by and watched. Eventually the major of the city district in which the embassy is located, Enrique Capriles Radonski, came and climbed the wall of the embassy compound in order to talk to the ambassador. Once inside, he asked the ambassador if he could search the premises, to make sure that no Chavez government officials were hiding there, saying that if he did this, the crowd would leave the embassy alone. The ambassador refused.[31]

Finally, by 5 pm, the coup organizers had their decree and the names of the transition cabinet ready. Prior to that, a debate had been raging around a proposal various opposition legislators had made, to convoke the National Assembly to ratify Carmona as president. The idea was to vote out of office National Assembly president William Lara and to replace him with an opposition deputy. Apparently a few deputies from the Chavez camped had decided to switch sides, so that the opposition could turn the slight Chavez majority into a majority for itself, with 90 out of the National Assembly’s 165 votes. Following this, Carmona would be named president by the National Assembly. However, upon consulting with Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, who had been deeply involved in the coup organizing from the start, and Vice-Admiral Ramirez Perez and General Rodriguez Salas, they convinced Carmona that convoking the National Assembly would be a bad idea. Instead, they supported the decree that had been prepared by Daniel Romero and others.

So, at 5:30 pm, in an assembly hall in Miraflores, the lawyer Daniel Romero read the coup decree to a hall full of opposition dignitaries. With obvious glee Romero read each of the eleven decree articles that specified:

  1. The designation of Pedro Carmona as president of the Republic of Venezuela.
  2. The removal of “Bolivarian” from “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.”
  3. The dissolution of the National Assembly and the convocation of legislative elections for December 2002. The new legislature would have powers to reform the constitution of 1999.
  4. The creation of a “Consultative Council” to consult the president. It would consist of 35 representatives from “diverse sectors of Venezuelan society.”
  5. The president will coordinate policies of democratic transition.
  6. National elections will be held within one year. Carmona would not be eligible for reelection at that time.
  7. The president would have the power to remove and name new officials to any national, state, or local post in order to guarantee governability.
  8. The dismissal of all Supreme Court judges, of the Attorney General, of the Comptroller General, of the human rights defender (Defensor del Pueblo), and of the members of the National Electoral Council. The president can name new individuals to these posts.
  9. The 48 law-decrees that were passed with the enabling law in November 2001 would be suspended.
  10. The country’s juridical order would be maintained, but only insofar as it does not contradict the decree.
  11. The “democratic transition and national unity government” would give up its powers in accordance with this decree.

Following the reading of each point the crowd gathered in the hall cheered wildly. 27 representatives of different groups were then asked to come forward to sign the decree, to give it legitimacy. One of the first to sign was the Cardinal. Most of the rest of the signers either came from the old AD/Copei elite or were former leaders of leftist parties, such as Pablo Medina and Américo Martin.

Then, Pedro Carmona swore himself in as President of Venezuela, swearing to “reestablish the validity of the 1999 constitution.” Normally the president of the National Assembly swears in the president, but in this case, following the dismissal of all high-level state officials, no one could have sworn in Carmona. Then, the new ministers were announced. All of them came from either the military or Venezuela’s political right-wing, making a mockery of the claim that this was a broad-based “national unity” government.

The Counter-Coup

While the coup organizers were busy preparing their decree and divvying up state power, Chavez’s inner circle began working on getting the word out that Chavez did not resign and that he was being held prisoner. Already people living in the barrios near Fort Tiuna began mobilizing to the Fort, to demand their president’s release. Also, there were three military centers that were clearly unwilling to accept the “transition” regime: the paratrooper regiment of the air force base at Maracay, one hour from Caracas, the presidential honor guard in Miraflores, and battalions within Fort Tiuna. The resistance that would happen in Maracay and in Miraflores would prove to be crucial in restoring Chavez to power.

The next morning, April 13th, as the spontaneous demonstrations in support of Chavez grew increasingly larger, the Greater Caracas city police (Policia Metropolitana), began repressing these demonstrations. Also, rioting and looting broke out in many poor neighborhoods, as Chavez supporters vented their anger on their surrounding infrastructure. The metropolitan police ended up shooting and killing between 50 and 60 people in the confrontations with demonstrators.[32] Many of these deaths happened in front of Fort Tiuna, where the Metropolitan police repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to disperse the crowd with live ammunition. Also, demonstrations were taking place throughout the country, with people demanding the immediate return of their president.

None of this was viewable on television, however. The previous day, on the 12th of April, all four main private TV channels were broadcasting interviews with gloating opposition leaders and the resume of Pedro Carmona. On the 13th, however, a complete news blackout had taken over. The private broadcasters were showing nothing but cartoons and old Hollywood movies. Channel 8, the state television channel was off the air for all of the 12th and most of the 13th. The lack of information was bizarre. At first one had the impression that there was no news simply because nothing was happening, because everything was back to “normal,” now that Chavez was out of office. Anyone who could receive cable television or who was in some way connected to the network of Chavez supporters, knew, via CNN or via word of mouth (or directly, if they lived in or near a barrio) that nothing was normal at all. Later, the owners of the media outlets would claim that the reason they did not broadcast any news was because it was too dangerous to send reporters onto the street. This argument, though, is hardly credible, especially because they could at least have reported on their fear of going onto the street. Also, it was later learned that in the afternoon of the 12th, Carmona had gathered the heads of the main media outlets and asked them to make sure that their broadcasts do not contribute to any instability in the country.

In Fort Tiuna, General Garcia Carneiro was relatively isolated because his sympathies for Chavez were well known. No action was taken against Garcia Carneiro, though, partly because he pretended to support the coup generals. The generals, in turn, assumed that Garcia Carneiro was simply someone who would go with however was in charge and so did not pay much attention to him. When he left Fort Tiuna, in the evening of the 12th, he went straight to the main entrance where Chavistas had gathered, to encourage them and to tell them that Chavez had not resigned.

As word gradually spread about the demonstrations, the rioting, and the repression, General Raul Baduel, who is well known in Venezuela for being a practicing Taoist, drafted a manifesto in Maracay, under the heading, “Operation Rescue National Dignity.” The four main points of the manifesto were:[33]

  1. To end the terror being exercised by the metropolitan police in the barrios of Caracas.
  2. To immediately reinstate the constitutional order.
  3. To avoid a military confrontation.
  4. To seek the immediate resignation of the usurping government.

The news of the manifesto and of the paratrooper’s unwillingness to accede to the coup regime spread very quickly, especially with the help of the Bolivarian Circles. At 1:34 pm, Gen. Baduel made a public announcement of the paratroopers’ resistance to the coup regime. Shortly thereafter, more and more battalions throughout the country made similar statements, which were broadcast mostly by the international media or community media.

By the afternoon of the 13th, General Vasquez Velasco, without whom the coup would probably never have gotten as far as it had, felt that Carmona had gone too far. First, he was upset that Carmona had named Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez as Defense Minister. Ramirez Perez was of a lower rank than he was and it was because of him, not Ramirez Perez, that Chavez had fallen. Also, he was upset with Carmona’s decree, which had abolished practically all state institutions – a move that went much further than he thought Carmona and his supporters would go. Vasquez Velasquez decided to summon all of the rebelling generals to discuss the situation.

Meanwhile, at the Miraflores presidential palace, the presidential Honor Guard began to implement its plan to retake the palace. Already a day earlier it had begun working on what to do. The Honor Guard was practically hand-picked by Chavez and so constituted among the most loyal troops in the country. That the coup organizers failed to replace these constituted perhaps one of the greatest errors of the short-lived coup regime.

While the honor guard was conspiring and pretending to go along with Carmona coup, Carmona and the other coup leaders were receiving the news of General Baduel’s refusal to recognize the coup regime and doubts Vasquez Velasquez was having. Carmona began to realize that the coup was in trouble. He sent someone to find Carlos Ortega, who was in his hometown of Punto Fijo, and offered to name CTV Vice-President Manuel Cova as Vice-President of Venezuela.

However, just as the coup leaders gathered in Miraflores were getting ready to swear-in the cabinet, an officer of the Honor Guard tipped-off the gathered dignitaries, warning them to leave as fast as possible. The Honor Guard had planned to arrest all of the cabinet and Pedro Carmona just as they were being sworn in. Most managed to escape in time, but many ended up being captured. TV crews that were in Miraflores at the time recorded how many of the gathered Venezuelan elite ran for their cars, as they tried to escape.

The coup leadership, including “Transition President” Pedro Carmona, fled to Fort Tiuna, believing that they would be safer there, since this is where most of the rebel generals were. Throughout the day Carmona had been receiving reports about the demonstrations and riots that were happening everywhere.

A fax arrived to the offices of the Honor Guard that afternoon, surreptitiously sent by a soldier loyal to Chavez who was supposed to be guarding the president. The fax, written in Chavez’s handwriting and signed by him, said,

“To the Venezuelan People: I, Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias, Venezuelan, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, declare: I have not resigned the legitimate power that the people have given me.”

The Honor Guard rapidly photocopied the fax and distributed it among the demonstrating crowd of Chavez supporters outside the presidential palace.

Back in Fort Tiuna, in the meeting General Vasquez Velasco had with the generals, many of them pleaded with him not to make a pronouncement, but finally he decided to go ahead and drafted a statement that he then read to the press at 4:37 pm. Gen. Vasquez Velasco explained that errors had been committed in the “transition” and went on to demand the “compliance” with twelve “norms.” The statement, which, according to the general, were supported by the officers of the Army and of the troops in Fort Tiuna, specified, first, that the transition had to follow the norms set forth in the constitution of 1999. It also demanded the “elimination” of the Carmona decree and the reinstatement of the National Assembly. It went on to demand respect for the state’s institutions. Finally, the statement demanded that Chavez be taken to a country of his choice and that he be allowed to appear live on television, just as Chavez had originally demanded as a condition for his resignation.

However, by that time it was too late to save the coup. General Baduel had already launched the plan to bring back Chavez to Miraflores, the president’s Honor Guard had already taken back Miraflores, and in Fort Tiuna Colonel José Montilla and several other officers were in the process of arresting the coup generals. Also that afternoon, around 4:40 pm, on CNN, Chavez’s wife, Marisabel Rodriguez de Chavez, said that she spoke to her husband via telephone and confirmed once again what most Chavistas had already heard through the grapevine, that Chavez had not resigned and that he is being held prisoner in a military installation on the Island of Orchila, 300 kilometers off the Venezuelan coast.

In a last-ditch effort to save the coup from its collapse, Pedro Carmona decided, at 5:11 pm, from his hideout in Fort Tiuna, to announce on television that he would reinstate the National assembly. By this time, though, Carmona was practically completely surrounded by troops loyal to Chavez. Still, in an interview with CNN around that time, he claimed that his transition government is in complete control and that the situation in the rest of the country is “completely normal.”

Also around this time, Chavez supporters decided to stage demonstration in front of the private television broadcasters, as well as at the newspaper offices of El Nacional and El Universal. In the case of the TV stations, the demonstrators threw rocks at the buildings, braking windows and causing the stations to interrupt their cartoons and Hollywood movies and to focus on the angry demonstrators outside of their studios. Eventually some of the demonstrators managed to storm the studios of RCTV (channel 2), took it over, and held several television journalists captive. They then proceeded to interview them about their role in the coup, broadcasting the interviews live on TV.

A little after 8 pm various leaders of Chavez’s movement, supporters, and journalists re-took Channel 8, the state television station. At first the broadcasts were washed out and difficult to see because inexperienced people were using the equipment, but gradually the picture improved, as Chavez supporters talked about their experiences during the past two days. Also, an hour later they were able to confirm that Chavez would return to the presidential palace soon.

Chavez’s Imprisonment and Return to Power

After spending the night of April 11th in custody in Fort Tiuna, Chavez was taken the next morning to the naval base Turiamo, in accordance with orders from Vice-Admiral Ramirez Perez. The base is located a few short hours outside of Caracas, in the state of Aragua. In the helicopter to Turiamo Chavez was certain that they would kill him once he arrived. Before he had left, a waiter who was serving both Chavez and Carmona in Fort Tiuna told Chavez that he had overheard how Carmona and others were talking about the option of killing him.[34]

Once at Turiamo, two women soldiers asked Chavez to sign a statement confirming that he was in good health. He confirmed this, but added that he also did not resign, which the soldiers included in their report. They later sent the fax to the Attorney General, who then went on the air to say that Chavez had not resigned. Also at Turiamo, Chavez wrote the note that said he had not resigned, dropped it into the trash, where another soldier picked it up and faxed it to Miraflores.

Chavez was then, in the afternoon of the 13th, flown to the island military base of La Orchila. While there he exercised a bit and spoke to the soldiers who were guarding him there. In the late afternoon, once the coup was already falling apart, Cardinal Ignacio Velasco and one of the coup generals flew to the island to meet with Chavez. Chavez, did not know what was happening in the country, as his captors kept him without access to information ever since he had left Fort Tiuna. He knew, though, that if the coup organizers were sending two such high level representatives to speak to him, that it must be important.

Cardinal Velasco tried to convince Chavez to sign a resignation letter, arguing that his doing so would be best for the country. The cardinal also told Chavez that a plane would take him to any country he wanted to go to. Chavez responded that he would not sign a resignation letter as long as his original conditions of safe passage, television address, and proper resignation in front of the National Assembly had not been met. He said he would, though, agree to sign a statement saying that he had abandoned the presidency. After some resistance, the general and the cardinal finally agreed to Chavez’s proposal. As the statement was being typed up, one of the soldiers who was guarding him whispered to him that he should not sign anything. That, combined with the obvious nervousness of the other soldiers and the rush that the cardinal and general appeared to be in, convinced Chavez that something was going on that he did not know about. So when the document was ready, Chavez said, “Look, I definitely won’t sign anything. Thanks very much for your visit.”[35] The cardinal and the general suddenly agreed and quickly left. A few minutes later they were back again and Chavez found out that the plane they had come with had left without them and instead a paratrooper squadron was arriving on the island to take Chavez back to Miraflores. At 2 am he was on his way.

Chavez landed in Miraflores, amid tremendous cheers from the crowd of 30 to 40,000 supporters who were gathered outside of the presidential palace compound. The people who were waiting for Chavez had heard several hours earlier, since perhaps around 10 pm, that Chavez would return soon. While they were waiting, various ministers and leaders of Chavez’s movement gave speeches to the crowd from the top of an improvised stage, which was the top of a van. Finally, when Chavez arrived at 4 am, many people were crying with joy, to see their president return.

Chavez went straight to the Salon in Miraflores where his cabinet and television cameras were waiting for him. His address to the nation was broadcast on all stations live at 4:35 am. “I send a message from the depth of my heart to Venezuela and the world that this palace is of the Venezuelan people. …the people have retaken this palace and they will not be removed!” said Chavez. Also, acknowledging that he too had committed errors said, “we must make decisions and adjust many things… We must respect dignity, without retaliations, no witch hunts… We should not tolerate disrespect for liberties we have won.”[36]

A Coup Conspiracy, a “Vacuum of Power,” or Something Else?

In the days following the coup opposition leaders were emphatic in stressing that what had happened April 11-13 was not a coup, but a “vacuum of power.” According to this version of events, Chavez had resigned, and his vice-president and the president of the National Assembly had disappeared. It thus fell upon “civil society” (the opposition’s term for itself) and the military to find a new president.

Another version of events, claimed mostly by the most radical opposition groups, was that Chavez had planned all of the events of those days himself, in order to trap the opposition and to stage a “self-coup” (autogolpe). Chavez’s ultimate goal supposedly was to purge the military and to use the incident as an excuse to persecute the opposition. Aside from the fact that there is no evidence for this version of events, if a self-coup was the true goal, it would seem that the plan ended in failure, as practically no one was persecuted afterwards, even though many oppositional military officers were removed from command.

The question of whether what happened was a coup or a “vacuum of power” is not really a serious question, in that practically everyone except the most die-hard anti-Chavistas agree that what happened was indeed a coup. However, there is the interesting question of what exactly made the coup possible. What were the coup’s most immediate causes and what were the causes of its ultimate failure?

The Coup’s Causes and Plot

Ultimately, the coup had its causes in the polarization of Venezuelan society, which is not something that Chavez brought about, but which is something that he made visible and accentuated. This is not to say that the coup was merely a reflection of the rich versus poor or light versus dark skinned Venezuelans, as many pro-Chavez commentators argue. Rather, Chavez made visible the existing extreme polarization of Venezuelan society in a way that no other Venezuelan president has before him. At the same time, his particular style of governing alienated some who might under different circumstances be natural allies, such as some of the more moderate leftist parties and their political leaders.

Part of his style, which certainly contributed to the crisis, has been his relative unwillingness to compromise with political opponents. This is an aspect which caused another group of former allies to switch sides (such as Luis Miquilena and his supporters in the National Assembly). This unwillingness to compromise also contributed to the radicalization of the positions of various opponents, who, under other circumstances, might never have supported a coup.

Another key contributing factor to the development of a coup dynamic in Venezuela was the unwillingness of the country’s old elite to accept Chavez as the country’s democratically elected president. This sector, to which one must probably count the former governing parties AD and COPEI, the CTV leadership, Fedecamaras, the Church hierarchy, right-wing officers in the military, and much of the private mass media (especially El Universal,RCTV, and Globovisión), had always argued that Chavez was dangerous and that his election and initial popularity were merely a fluke that was caused by the implosion of the Punto Fijo system. These groups could never tolerate Chavez as president and sought to find ways to oust him from office ever since he was first elected and still do to this day.

These were the broader societal dynamics that contributed to the coup. However, the details of the events of April 11 appear to have been largely planned by a small clique, which knew that they could count on the tacit support of practically the entire opposition. The core of this clique probably consisted of General Enrique Medina Gomez, who was Venezuela’s military attaché in Washington, Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez of the navy, Isaac Perez Recao, a wealthy and very young businessman and arms dealer, Pedro Carmona, the president of Fedecamaras and former manager in one of Perez Recao’s businesses, and Daniel Romero, a friend of Perez Recao’s and assistant to former president Carlos Andres Perez. What follows is largely speculation on my part, but it seems that there is sufficient evidence to make some educated guesses.

The plot to overthrow Chavez was probably very simple. At its heart it aimed to create a situation of maximum political tension, in which it could later be said that Chavez had lost legitimacy and could either be forced or convinced to resign. The combination of the loss of legitimacy and the resignation would then be sufficient to convince Venezuelans and the rest of the world that this was not a coup, but a legitimate transfer of power.

The very first step thus had to be to create a situation of maximum tension. This was done by exploiting the conflict between PDVSA and the president, where the private media helped tremendously in raising the pitch and the stakes (with Chavez’s help). Next, once people were mobilized, a situation was created in which Chavez and/or his supporters appear to act in ways that de-legitimate the government. The coup plotters did this by placing armed men in the buildings surrounding both demonstrations and having them shoot at these, causing Chavistas to return fire and causing general confusion and mayhem, for which Chavez could be blamed. Since key Chavez advisors, such as the vice-minister for citizen security, General Camacho Kairuz, was in on the coup plans and knew of Chavez’s probable reaction to the demonstration heading for Miraflores, the coup plotters knew that any attempt to stop the march, especially with the use of Plan Avila troops, could be used as an additional argument to justify a military uprising against Chavez.

The next element was to have military officers in place who would denounce the president for the supposed human rights violations of the day. Apparently there were far more high ranking officers who were willing to do this than Chavez had realized. These officers, who later proved to be quite right wing, such as General Carlos Alfonso Martinez, General Enrique Medina, and many others, would then be used to pressure Chavez to resign on the basis that he no longer controlled the military and, if that was not enough, that there would be a threat of violent confrontation in the presidential palace.

Once Chavez was gone from the presidency, the coup organizers were probably certain, due to their previous discussions with U.S. government officials, that the Bush administration would endorse the coup. They would endorse it, provided, of course, that it did not look like a coup.

With Chavez facing the terrible alternative between resigning or fighting it out in a situation where his legitimacy was in question, the coup planners had Chavez in a lose-lose position. Chavez managed to beat the coup plotters, though, when he got out of the alternative by neither resigning nor fighting. At first, Chavez believed that resignation or fighting were indeed his only alternatives. However, the false announcement that Chavez had resigned meant that the opposition could no longer threaten with bombing, so Chavez no longer felt pressure to resign. He was free to let himself be arrested, thus robbing the opposition of one of the main ingredients it needed for the coup to succeed.

The Reasons for the Coup’s Failure

All of the foregoing, if that was indeed the plan, happened according to plan. Things only started to go wrong when, first, Chavez’s resignation was announced when, in reality, he had not resigned. This created the impression among the opposition that they had succeeded and made some of them careless in the next phases of their effort to replace Chavez. Among Chavez supporters this created the demand to see the resignation letter and to see Chavez, which the opposition could not allow. Once rumors started circulating that Chavez had not resigned, there was nothing the opposition could do, since they could not prove that he had resigned. This then increased people’s willingness to go onto the street and to demand Chavez’s return.

The next factor that contributed to the coup’s failure was that the coup was taken over by the country’s most right-wing elements. More moderate supporters of the coup, such as General Vasquez Velasco, did not realize that they were actually instruments of a very radical faction of the opposition. The naming of Pedro Carmona as president, the “national unity” decree, and the exclusion of any moderate factions of Venezuelan society from the Carmona government took large sectors of the opposition by surprise. The coup government thus ended up being stillborn, as sooner or later many initial supporters would have turned against it. This weakness, however, might not have been necessary for the coup to fail. It is quite probable that the lack of a signed resignation and the large support base for Chavez, both in the population and in the military, would have been enough to doom the coup.

That is, the larger than expected popular support for Chavez was perhaps one of the more important elements in the coup’s demise. Opposition supporters generally minimize the importance of this factor, downplaying the number of people went to the streets and the impact this had on Chavez’s return. However, it is unlikely that the military officers that were loyal to Chavez would have reacted as quickly and as decisively as they did if they had not seen the spontaneous demonstrations in support of Chavez. General Jorge Garcia Carneiro, who played an important role in securing Fort Tiuna, described the impression the demonstration made on him as follows:

“The morning of the 12th I believed that things were lost. I was truly submerged in a world of confusion, even though there was a little bit of hope because the day before the people had presented signs of rebellion. Once I saw the people, this multitude, ferociously demanding the presence of Chavez, of course this gives one more strength.”[37]

In effect, the opposition never seemed to consider it a possibility that Chavez supporters would reject the coup or that they would believe it was a coup. Given that opposition leaders and supporters receive most of their information from the private mass media and that this media was actively involved in creating the impression that Chavez had lost practically all popular support, it was no surprise that the opposition ended up believing its own propaganda machine. When the people did take to the streets, the generals could hardly have called out the troops to repress the demonstration, since this was precisely their claim to legitimacy: their refusal to repress a civilian demonstration.[38]

In effect, the opposition made the error of believing its own propaganda, that Chavez was a highly unpopular president. Although apparently scientific polls appeared to confirm this impression to the opposition, the pollsters had not yet become accustomed to a Venezuela in which the country’s poor had political preferences. That is, prior to Chavez, the main citizens who counted, because they voted, were from the middle class. However, three years into Chavez’s presidency, the country’s poor had awakened politically and had become a previously unrecognized political force. Pollsters and the media, thinking that their class was the only class that counted, failed to see that Chavez was still immensely popular among the poor, who would go to great risks in making sure that he would be returned to power.

Another important error on the part of the coup planners, which contributed to their failure, was that they did not exchange the Presidential Honor Guard. The honor guard was thus free to plot the re-taking of the presidential palace, which, for its tremendous symbolic value, represented a nearly fatal blow to the coup. Similarly, the coup organizers did not seem to have any contingency plans in place for how to react to General Raul Baduel’s efforts to bring Chavez back. The Maracay paratrooper regiment is one of the country’s best armed and trained forces and would have intimidated any other regiment if it had come to a real confrontation. The coup organizers seemed to believe that Baduel would not react if sufficient generals had already renounced Chavez as commander in chief.

Unresolved Questions 1: Who were the snipers?

There seem to be four main unresolved questions, which, if they remain unresolved, will continue to shroud the coup in controversy. The first of these is the question of who shot the pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators on April 11th. It seems obvious that the only ones who could possibly have had an interest in causing a confrontation and in causing deaths that day were the masterminds behind the coup and therefore it is reasonable to believe that it was they who made sure those shots were fired.[39] However, other than the testimony provided by Otto Neustaldt and by various coup organizers who bragged about having planned the coup, solid proof still has not yet surfaced.

Seven people were arrested on April 11th, in the hotel Ausonia, which is across the street from where several people were killed. When the DISIP (a national police force) arrested them, several weapons and drugs were found on them. Five of them had false identification papers and several were apparently Colombians. On the 13th the suspects were presented to a judge, but the hearing ended up being postponed, apparently due to the confusion the country was in. Finally, when they had their hearing on the 16th, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to hold them any longer and let them go. According to Attorney General Isaias Rodriguez, the suspects have all fled the country.[40] One of the most promising leads on identifying the assassins was thus lost amidst the confusion of the coup days.

Unresolved Questions 2: What is Plan Avila?

A second unresolved question is whether the Plan Avila that Chavez invoked, in order to prevent a confrontation between pro- and anti-Chavez demonstrators and to prevent an assault on Miraflores, represented a potential violation of human rights and thus warranted the military disobedience of Generals Vasquez Velasco and Manuel Rosendo and of other officers. It would seem, though, that as long as there was no order to attack demonstrators, the plan would merely have protected governmental installations with lethal force. That is, as long as no one tried to physically attack governmental buildings, such as the presidential palace, no one would have been injured. As such, the plan is clearly not a plan to attack. National Guard General Francisco Belisario Landis, who was in charge of the National Guard on April 11th, explains that, “The Plan Avila was the one that was applied when the Pope visited Venezuela… It is implemented when the police force has been overcome and there is a situation in which the public order has been significantly altered or there is a latent, visible, and notorious threat to it.”[41] If the plan has been applied to control crowds before, such as during the Pope’s visit, it makes little sense to say that Generals Vasquez and Rosendo were justified in disobeying Chavez on April 11th, on the basis that this is a lethal plan (in which they were no doubt at least partly responsible for drafting).

Unresolved Questions 3: Were Rosendo and Vasquez part of the plan?

This leads to the third unresolved question of whether Vasquez and Rosendo were part of the coup plan in the first place. The fact that Gen. Vasquez was considered for the post of Defense Minister back in March suggests very strongly that the coup organizers could count on his support for their project. More than that, Tejera Paris, a former foreign minister of Venezuela who was also being considered for the transition presidency, reports that meetings were held at his home to discuss the coup. According to La Fuente and Meza, Paris recounts how, “Various officials came here [to his home] and one of them, a major, told me that he would arrange a meeting with [Gen.] Vasquez Velasco. … He came to my home one morning in March dressed as a civilian. He made a great impression on me, of a decent and concerned man, reluctant to change the government. I think he knew that Chavez presented a problem, but he did not want to topple him. But we talked about how the coup should unfold.”[42]

Vasquez Velasco later confirmed that he indeed met with Tejera Paris, but always denied that he was part of any plan to topple Chavez. This claim, however, does not sound particularly credible, given the key position he had in the success of the coup. If it had not been for the rebellion of Vasquez Velasco (and of General Manuel Rosendo), the coup would in all likelihood have failed. The coup organizers must have known how he was going to react to the events of the day, which Vasquez knew of well in advance.

Unresolved Questions 4: How involved was the U.S. government?

Finally, one of the biggest unresolved questions is what role the Bush administration played in the coup. There are numerous instances of circumstantial evidence that suggest that the Bush administration was involved in one way or another. In late 2003, though, several documents have surfaced, as a result of a series of Freedom of Information Act requests made by the lawyers Jeremy Bigwood and Eva Golinger, that the CIA did know that a coup was being planned. The documents that show that the Bush administration was aware of the coup plans are the five “Senior Executive Intelligence Briefs,” issued between March 5 and April 8, 2002.[43] This brief is distributed to the 200 highest level decision-makers in the U.S. government.

The April 1 brief states:

“President Chavez is facing continued strong opposition from the private sector, the media, the Catholic Church, and opposition political parties angered by a host of laws he decreed in December. Reporting suggests that disgruntled officers within the military are still planning a coup, possibly early this month.”

The next brief, of April 6, states, under the headline, “Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt:

“Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month. [deleted section] The level of detail in the reported plans [deleted]—targets Chavez and 10 other senior officials for arrest—lends credence to the information, but military and civilian contacts note that appears ready to lead a successful coup and may bungle the attempt by moving too quickly.”

The brief goes on to note that the coup will be unsuccessful as long as it is not supported by a broader political base. It then continues,

“To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA…”

Considering that this is exactly how the coup unfolded, it would seem that the CIA was indeed quite well informed about the plans.

The April 8 brief makes it very clear that the CIA knew that a coup was in the works:

“Disgruntled military officers are planning a coup, although the military and the opposition as a whole appear to prefer that Chavez be removed by constitutional means.”

When these documents became public, in November 2004, the Venezuelan government demanded an explanation from the Bush administration. At first a Bush administration spokesperson said that the administration did not send a warning to Chavez, since this would have constituted “interference” in Venezuela’s internal affairs. Later, another spokesperson backtracked, saying that the administration had indeed warned Chavez. Chavez, though, denied ever having received such a warning.

More importantly, though, these briefs reveal that the Bush administration was at the very least contributing to the coup, when it claimed, contrary to its own intelligence findings, that the events of April 11th were Chavez’s own fault. White House spokesperson Ari Fleisher said on April 12th,

“We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. The Venezuelan military and the police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government’s role in such human rights violations. (…) The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed. This government has promised early elections.”[44]

By endorsing the coup, with its confirmation of the opposition’s version of events as the only valid version, the U.S. government essentially became an accomplice to the coup, regardless of whether the U.S. government also had a larger hand in the coup behind the scenes. More than that, since it is now proven that the Bush administration knew of the coup plans well in advance, its endorsement of the opposition’s version of events constitutes active participation in the cover-up of the actual events in order to support the coup plotters’ version of what happened.

The question of whether the U.S. government was clandestinely involved in the coup remains unresolved though. While the security briefs leave the impression that the U.S. was merely observing events and not participating in them, it is important to note that the security briefs are prepared by the intelligence section of the CIA, not its operational arm. That is, the CIA covert operations arm could have had a hand in the coup, even though the security brief presents events in Venezuela from an observer’s and not a participant’s perspective.

However, there are numerous other bits and pieces of evidence that point to U.S. government complicity and perhaps even leadership in the coup. It will probably take twenty years, as was the case with the uncovering of U.S. involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s Salvador Allende, before the full story of U.S. involvement in the Venezuelan coup is revealed.

One of the pieces of evidence comes from Chavez himself, who has on several occasions told of the story of a formal farewell reception, held April 8th, 2002, for the Chinese military attaché, which was attended by a large cross-section of Venezuela’s national and foreign military representatives. At that reception, a U.S. marine officer by the name of David Cazares asked to speak to “General Gonzalez” of the Venezuelan military. Not knowing that there were at least two General Gonzalezes in Venezuela’s military, he was directed to the wrong one. Cazares wanted to speak to General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez, the General who was actively plotting the coup with the opposition, but was instead directed to General Roberto Gonzalez Cardenas, a Chavez loyalist. Since the name tag on the uniform only says the first last name, he could not have known that he was approaching the wrong Gonzalez. According to Chavez, he said to Gen. Roberto Gonzalez, “Why haven’t you contacted the ships that we have on the coast and the submarine we have submerged in La Guaira?[45] What has happened? Why has no one contacted me? What are you waiting for?” Puzzled about the question, the wrong Gonzalez merely responded, “I’ll find out.” Thereupon Cazares gave the general his business card, so that he might contact him. Chavez says that Roberto Gonzalez gave him the card as proof.[46]

A second piece of the puzzle, which fits well with the story above, was provided by Wayne Madsen, a former officer of the National Security Administration (NSA) – the military’s spy and electronic eavesdropping arm. According to Madsen, “Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX) training exercises in the Caribbean the US Navy provided signals intelligence and communications jamming support to the Venezuelan military,” [47] during the coup. Furthermore, “The National Security Agency (NSA) supported the coup using personnel attached to the US Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force East (JIATF-E) in Key West, Florida. NSA’s Spanish-language linguists and signals interception operators in Key West; Sabana Seca on Puerto Rico and the Regional Security Operating Centre (RSOC) in Medina, Texas also assisted in providing communications intelligence to US military and national command authorities on the progress of the coup d’êtat.”

An intelligence report by Venezuela’s Air Force, which was submitted to coup president Pedro Carmona and found in the Presidential palace after it was re-taken by Chavez confirms that U.S. ships entered Venezuelan territorial waters. According to the report, “These ships were identified as NC1 3300, NC22027, and NC# 2132; they entered territorial waters at 9:00am on April 12, 2002, without due authorization. After 4:00pm they headed towards the high seas.”[48]

Colonel Rodgers, along with Colonel Ronald McCammon signed their names upon entering Fort Tiuna, the Caracas military headquarters, on April 11 and were seen there by several witnesses.[49] The U.S. State Department later denied the existence of these officers or that any officers were in Fort Tiuna at that time. Wayne Madsen elaborated on this information in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian. “I first heard of Lieutenant Colonel James Rogers [the assistant military attaché now based at the US embassy in Caracas] going down there last June [2001] to set the ground,” said Madsen to The Guardian.[50]

Finally, Chavez and other witnesses say they saw a U.S.-registered airplane on the island that Chavez was being held captive on, La Orchila. The island is a military base and thus normally would not have any U.S. planes on it. According to one account, the plane belonged to a Paraguayan banker named Victor Gil of Total Bank and that the plane’s purpose was to take Chavez to Puerto Rico.[51]

What these bits and pieces of evidence point to is a suggestive picture of direct U.S. government support for the coup. The exact extent and nature of this support will probably remain an issue of controversy for quite some time. It seems that the support was minimally in the form of supportive statements and advice on what the coup would have to look like in order for the U.S. to accept it. It seems more plausible, though, that the support was much more substantial than that and included extensive coordination between Venezuelan and U.S. coup planners, logistical military support as described by Madsen, and a plan for secretly flying Chavez to the U.S. or some other country, as happened to both President Bertrand Aristide of Haiti in 2005 and to General Manuel Noriega in 1990, when they were deposed with U.S. help.


Elizade, Rosa Miriam and Luis Baez (2004), Chávez Nuestro, La Habana: Casa Editorial Abril

Garcia Ponce, Guillermo (2002) El Golpe de Estado del 11 de Abril. Caracas: Comando Política de la Revolución

Golinger, Eva (2005), The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela, Havana: Editorial José Martí (also published in 2006 at: Olive Branch Press)

Harnecker, Marta (2003), Hugo Chávez Frías: Un Hombre, Un Pueblo. Caracas: Asociación Civil Universitario por la Equidad (Published in 2005 in English as: Understanding the Venezuelan Revolution, New York: Monthly Review Press)

La Fuente, Sandra and Alfredo Mesa (2004) El Acertijo de Abril. Caracas: Random House Mondadori

Rosas, Alexis (2005) La Noche de los Generales. Self-published

Sanz, Rodolfo (2003) Dialectica de una Victoria. Los Teques: Nuevo Pensamiento Critico

[1] According to opposition polls, Chavez’s approval rating dropped from around 60% in early 2001 to 35% in early 2002.

[2] Later General Guaicaipuro would go on to become one of the main protagonists in the April coup against Chavez and would be treated as a potential presidential candidate of the opposition.

[3] El Universal, March 13, 2002, “Denuncian Presiones a Petroleros”

[4] Fetrahidrocarburos, Sintrap, Sindicato Nacional Unitario de Trabajadores Petroleros, and Sindicato Marino de PDV-Marina.

[5] El Universal, April 6, 2002, “Fedepetrol se divide por crisis de PDVSA”

[7] The Word cadena means “chain,” which is a reference to the connecting of all broadcast outlets to one government signal.

[8] El Universal, April 8, 2002, “La CTV permanecerá en la calle”

[9] Chavez would later accuse General Gonzalez Gonzalez of being one of the coup plotters’ main liaisons to the U.S. embassy.

[10] El Universal, April 11, 2002, “Conflicto bajo la lupa”

[11] Article 333 says that all citizens have the duty to make sure that the constitution is upheld, should it be violated. Article 350 states that Venezuelans will not recognize any government or authority that violates the constitution.

[13] Personal testimony to the autor.

[14] La Fuente and Mesa (2004), p.110, fn.66

[16] El Universal, April 12, 2002, “Altos oficiales desconocen autoridad del presidente Chávez”

[17] At that time I wrote an article for ZNet, called, “An Imminent Coup in Venezuela?” (http://www.zmag.org/content/LatinAmerica/wilpertvenez.cfm)

[18] The result was a series of articles that were published in a wide variety of places, but mainly on the ZNet website. See, for example: “Coup in Venezuela: An Eyewitness Account,” April 12, 2002 (http://www.zmag.org/content/LatinAmerica/wilpertcoup.cfm) and “Venezuela: Not a Banana-Oil Republic after All” April 15, 2002 (http://www.zmag.org/content/LatinAmerica/wilpertcounter.cfm)

[20] Garcia Ponce (2002) and Sanz (2003)

[21] Admiral Carlos Molina admitted to this on the 12th of April on the television program 24 Horas: “the fall of president Chavez has been in the planning since a year ago and in some sectors even further back than that. Nonetheless, all of the ideas and currents for getting rid of this doomed government converged, just as it turned out.” Colonel Julio Rodriguez, in an interview with the journalist Ibeyise Pacheco, late in the evening of April 11th, said in response to being asked what was behind the events of the day, “Twelve months ago a firm movement began to be organized in all seriousness, that fortunately was realized on this day.”

[22] Garcia Ponce (2002), p.9

[23] Asamblea Nacional, “Informe de la comisión parlamentaria especial para investigar los sucesos de abril de 2002,” Chapter 3.

[25] This account is based on Otto Neustaldt’s own testimony during a conference at the Universidad Bicentenaria Maracay, on July 16, 2002. His testimony was filmed and two months later broadcast on the state television program VTV. A summary of the account can be found at: www.asovic.org/reb150902.htm

[26] The friend was the journalist Lourdes Ubieta, who Neustaldt describes as a close friend of Isaac Perez Recao, someone who was deeply implicated in the coup plotting by several participants.

[27] La Fuente and Meza (2004), p.49

[28] La Fuente and Meza do not mention this in their account. However, several pro-Chavez witnesses support this version of events, such as Aristobulo Isturiz (in the documentary Chronica de un golpe) and Guillermo Garcia Ponce (in his book, El Golpe de Estado del 11 de Abril).

[29] Marta Harnecker (2003), Hugo Chávez Frías: Un Hombre, Un Pueblo

[30] Phil Gunson and David Adams, St. Petersburg Times, April 22, 2002, “The Unmaking of a Coup”

[31] Two years later, Capriles Radonski would be arrested for his role at the Cuban embassy during the coup. He was imprisoned for several months, but eventually the case was first dismissed and then re-opened again.

[32] The official number, according to the Attorney General’s office was 56.

[33] Taken from Gracia Ponce (2002), p.58

[34] Harnecker (2003), p.220

[35] Ibid., p.226

[37] Harnecker (2003b), p.51

[38] Although, over 60 people were killed by the Caracas police, controlled by opposition Mayor Alfredo Peña, for rioting and demonstrating in support of Chavez during April 12 and 13, 2002.

[39] While this explanation seems reasonable to most people, there still are many in the opposition who argue that actually Chavez had an interest in placing snipers in the buildings. That is, Chavez wanted the coup to happen because it was not actually a coup, but a “self-coup,” a staged coup which Chavez used to identify his enemies within the government and so that he could use the event as a means for repressing the opposition. There is no evidence, though, to give this interpretation any credence. Also, after the coup Chavez became more much softer on the opposition than he was beforehand.

[40] La Fuente and Meza (2004), p.152-153

[41] Interview with Ernesto Villegas Poljak, in Quinto Dia, July 26, 2002, “La GN jamás recibió la orden de activar el Plan Ávila”

[42] La Fuente and Meza, p.136

[43] The documents are posted at: www.venezuelafoia.info/CIA/CIA-index.htm

[45] La Guaira is Venezuela’s main port, just north of the capital Caracas.

[46] Chavez recounted this story during a luncheon with international journalists in September 2003.

[47] His report was available online shortly after the coup, but is no longer posted, except at: http://www.uvm.edu/~wmiller/venezuelancoup.htm

[48] Cited in: Golinger, Eva (2005), The Chavez Code: Cracking U.S. Intervention in Venezuela, Havana: Editorial José Martí, p.15

[49] General Garcia Carneiro, who was instrumental in re-taking Fort Tiuna during the counter-coup, told of seeing the two colonels in the Fort on April 11th in his testimony to the National Assembly.

[50] “American navy ‘helped Venezuelan coup,’” by Duncan Campbell in The Guardian, Monday April 29, 2002

[51] Elizade, Rosa Miriam and Luis Baez (2004), Chávez Nuestro, La Habana: Casa Editorial Abril, p.288