Venezuela’s Turning Point

Defeating Venezuela's 2002 coup sent a message to the world: under Hugo Chávez we are in charge of our own affairs.


Ten years ago Latin American history reached a turning point. In Venezuela, a US-backed military coup against the elected government of Hugo Chávez was stopped dead in its tracks after just a few days. It marked a clear break from the coups and subsequent dictatorships installed to defend economic elites that had cast a long shadow across Latin America. (Indeed, Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile shows what could have happened in Venezuela.) A tide of progressive governments across the continent followed.

Over the three days of the coup many were killed. Like many others, I had a friend shot dead by coup police. Casualties and human rights abuses were widespread and all democratic institutions annulled. Having appeared on national TV the day before to warn that a coup was coming, I was concerned I’d be arrested. I was lucky. The others dragged away from my apartment block were not.

The seizure of power united much of the old order – big business, media moguls, landowners, the church hierarchy – with the US. They opposed reforms giving the government a greater share of the nation’s oil wealth. But against these powerful forces stood millions of long-excluded Venezuelans. They rose up, took over the city centres and surrounded army bases demanding the return of their elected president. In defeating the coup, they began a new chapter in Venezuelan history.

Ten years on, how do these momentous events relate to the challenges facing my country today? The defeat of the coup was not only a victory for democracy – though more elections have been held in Venezuela over the past 12 years than in the previous 40 years, and with record turnouts. It was also a catalyst for social progress, economic change and provided a new basis for our international relations. In the aftermath, a free health service was established giving millions access to a doctor for the first time. Over a million people, mainly women, were taught to read and write. A 25-year decline in GDP per head – with real incomes falling to levels of the 1950s – was reversed.

Nonetheless, Venezuela continues to confront many problems. The free-market shock therapy of the 1980s and 1990s resulted in social devastation. Some difficulties were even longer term, a product of an oil state whose primary purpose was, for decades, to share this wealth among narrow interests rather than developing the nation. Today, providing affordable homes for the millions still living in shanty towns, tackling crime and diversifying the economy are some of the greatest challenges.

It was only with the defeat of the coup that the force capable of carrying out such fundamental change emerged. Millions of Venezuelans became active in politics like never before, taking charge of developing their local areas through new community councils. This mass involvement ensures that the sharing of wealth and social investment is not about clientelism but emancipation. It also offers vigilance against inefficiency, bureaucracy and corruption.

Sharp differences over Venezuela’s economic direction lay at the heart of the coup. They continue today. Ahead of presidential elections in October, the government believes that state-led development policies are the best way to address ongoing challenges. In contrast, the rightwing candidate promotes the free market and a return to IMF policies.

In foreign relations, the US-backed coup also left its mark. Over 10 years, we’ve built our closest-ever links with Latin America nations. We are working closely with the Bric nations, with European governments and have more embassies than ever before, a sign of our commitment to constructive engagement.

Maintaining this independent path is a constant challenge, not least with US state agencies like the National Endowment for Democracy spending millions of dollars supporting movements opposed to the elected government. This intervention should end. The Venezuelan people should be allowed to decide their own future. That was, after all, the loudest message from the people on the day they defeated the coup.

Samuel Moncada is the current Venezuelan ambassador to the UK.