Punto Fijo, February 5th, 2013 (Venezuelanalysis.com) – Twenty-one years after Hugo Chavez launched an aborted coup and first became known on the national stage, Venezuelans are divided on how the 1992 coup attempt should be remembered today.
The Chavez government and its supporters routinely celebrate the February 4th anniversary and have declared it the “Day of National Dignity”.
On Monday, thousands of people gathered in Caracas for a massive rally with the presence of government ministers and officials of the armed forces.
Chavez, who remains in Cuba recovering from surgery, sent a letter expressing his regret for not being able to be present for the day's activities and assured his “spirit and heart” were in Venezuela.
For Chavez’s supporters, the day symbolizes the beginning of the Chavez era and a spirit of rebellion against the status quo of the pre-Chavez era.
“Today we are celebrating the 4th of February, the day our president came out to fight for us,” said one supporter during Monday’s rally.
A lieutenant in the army at the time, Hugo Chavez launched the coup attempt along with a group of young soldiers on February 4th, 1992 with the intention of overthrowing then President Carlos Andrés Pérez and bringing the group’s revolutionary movement to power.
At the time, Pérez had very little support in the country after he had betrayed his campaign promises and enacted an IMF-sponsored economic adjustment package that immediately sunk thousands of Venezuelans into poverty.
The economic package resulted in large-scale protests and rioting in the country’s major cities, to which the Pérez government responded with brutal repression, killing hundreds of people. The repression only served to further discredit Pérez, and would inspire two coup attempts to overthrow him.
“In the midst of a neoliberal crisis and the fall of the Soviet Union, in February of 1992 a group of young military and Bolivarian patriots rose up against the IMF economic package and against imperialism’s re-colonization of Latin America,” said Venezuelan Vice President Nicolas Maduro at the rally on Monday.
For many Venezuelans, including many who oppose Chavez today, the coup represented a revolt against what many considered a corrupt and dysfunctional political system, and was welcomed as a potential alternative.
Although the coup was unsuccessful, it would launch Hugo Chavez into the spotlight as he went on television to publicly take responsibility for the failed attempt, and to call for his supporters to lay down their arms before he was arrested and taken into custody.
“On that February 4th, an image, a voice, a leader, an exceptional human being emerged. He spoke to the people, took responsibility and said they had failed ‘for now’. His words resonated with the people,” said President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello.
On the other side of the political divide, however, the 1992 coup is seen very differently. Many of Chavez’s political opponents have used the coup to accuse Chavez of being undemocratic, and they criticize the government’s celebration of the anniversary.
Opposition lawmaker Maria Corina Machado called it a “coup that stained our streets with blood,” and repeatedly accused the government of celebrating the deaths that occurred.
“They cannot erase the more than 50 people who died on February 4th,” she wrote on Twitter.
Members of the opposition claim there were anywhere from 50 to 100 deaths as a result of the 1992 coup. However, the official count was 14 deaths.
Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez accused the government of trying to turn an undemocratic act into a cause for celebration.
“Today we see how they are trying to use propaganda to turn February 4th into national patrimony when in reality it was a vulgar coup attempt,” he said via Twitter.
Others criticized the government for wasting money on the celebration instead of focusing on the country’s problems.
“Young people are dying every day due to crime while they spend a fortune celebrating February 4th,” said opposition politician Eduardo Fernández.
Chavez was imprisoned for his involvement in the 1992 coup, and spent two years in prison before being pardoned by incoming president Rafael Caldera in 1994. Largely discredited, President Pérez was impeached in 1993 on corruption charges and new elections were held.
Five years later, in 1998, Chavez ran for the presidency and won in a landslide.