MASS UPRISING DEFEATS CIA COUP IN VENEZUELA
By Andy McInerney
The revolutionary process underway in Venezuela passed a decisive test over the weekend of April 13-14. Hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants across the country rose up to defeat a U.S.-backed coup attempt organized by the Venezuelan capitalist class against President Hugo Chávez.
It was a genuine victory of people's power in the first open clash of social classes in the oil-rich South American country. But the victory also lays bare the fundamental question of the Venezuelan Revolution: how to organize the popular classes--the workers, peasants, soldiers and students--to defend the revolution against further assaults by the propertied oligarchy and the weight of U.S. imperialism.
The Venezuelan Revolution, a process that opened with Chávez's election in 1998, is at a decisive crossroads. Its progress will require the international solidarity of all progressive people, especially in the United States.
CHÁVEZ AND THE "BOLIVARIAN REVOLUTION"
Venezuela is a mineral-rich South American country bordering the Caribbean Sea. It is the third-largest exporter of oil to the United States--down from the largest when Chávez was elected in 1998.
But the tremendous wealth that the oil industry generates has never impacted the lives of Venezuela's working class. More than 80 percent live in poverty. One percent of the population owns 60 percent of the arable land.
The tremendous social inequities have caused tremendous explosions of popular outrage. In 1989, the ruling class unleashed a military assault on tens of thousands of people demanding lower food prices; more than 3,000 were massacred.
In 1992, junior military officers led by Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez staged a coup attempt in solidarity with huge demonstrations against International Monetary Fund-dictated austerity measures.
After spending two years in prison, Chávez toured the country, advocating what he described as a "Bolivarian Revolution" against the pro-U.S. Venezuelan oligarchy. Named for the great South American independence leader Simon Bolivar, Bolivarianism has come to mean using Venezuela's wealth for the benefit of the people of Latin America, and Latin American unity against U.S. domination.
His 1998 election was the result of an alliance between his Fifth Republic Movement, based on progressive junior military officers and rank-and-file soldiers, and the parties of the working class and left.
His new government began to dismantle the political power base of the rich oligarchy. The two main political parties of the ruling class--the Democratic Alliance and the Social Christian COPEI party--essentially collapsed. A new constitution and National Assembly enshrined many of the key progressive political features of the new Bolivarian Republic.
In the arena of foreign relations, the Chávez government steered clear of the traditional servile position to U.S. imperialism. Chávez traveled to visit Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He encouraged an independent OPEC. He brokered a deal providing Cuba with oil at terms favorable to Havana. He refused to participate in the Pentagon's military campaign against Colombia's Marxist insurgencies.
Beginning in June, the Venezuelan government began to turn its attention from the political arena to the economy. In November, Chávez signed a package of 49 laws aimed at addressing the social disparities in the country. At the heart of these laws were a land reform law and legislation aimed at restricting the power of the old oligarchy in the state industries, especially the state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.
The pro-U.S. ruling class in Venezuela had been grumbling since the 1998 elections about Chávez's independent foreign policy and populist rhetoric. But when he began to make moves that affected their vast wealth and private property, grumbling changed to outright opposition.
BOSSES LEAD ANTI-CHÁVEZ OPPOSITION
The center of the opposition to the Chávez government is Fedecamaras, the national association of businesses. On Dec. 10, business and industry bosses shut their doors in a lockout aimed at forcing Chávez to reverse his economic policies.
The bosses in Fedecamaras have been able to count on the support of the reactionary leadership of the CTV trade union federation. The CTV has traditionally been an organ of the Democratic Action party, one of the two parties of the traditional Venezuelan elite. It claims to represent about 18 percent of the workforce, almost entirely in the better- paid industries.
Beyond being utterly corrupt and hated by millions of Venezuelan workers, the CTV leadership is completely in the political thrall of the pro-imperialist elite. For example, CTV leaders were among the first to condemn the Venezuelan government's oil deal with Cuba.
The April 12 coup attempt was preceded by three days of demonstrations sponsored by Fedecamaras and backed by the CTV. The pretext for the demonstrations was Chávez's attempts to restrict the power of the old political elite in the Petroleos de Venezuela management.
Despite the wild encouragement by all the main press in Venezuela--still owned and managed by elements of the ruling class--the protests failed to generate support beyond the wealthier middle classes. The British Independent described the scene in the capital city of Caracas on April 11, the second day of protests: "In the downtown area and western districts of the capital, generally poorer than the east, business continued almost as normal with most people ignoring the strike call. Traffic jammed the streets as usual and most shops opened."
Lacking broad support, the counter-revolutionary organizers decided to stage a provocation. On April 11, they led a demonstration to face off against Chávez supporters gathered near the presidential palace in Miraflores.
Chávez ordered the National Guard to separate the two demonstrations. But the rightists would not be denied their pretext for violence. Sharpshooters fired into the pro- Chávez crowd, killing two people outright. Police loyal to the anti-Chávez mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Pena, also opened fire into the pro-Chávez demonstration.
Of the 11 people reported killed, six were Chávez supporters. Observers report that most of the hundreds wounded in the ensuing battle also came from the pro-Chávez ranks.
The battle served its purpose. During the early morning hours of April 12, elements of the military arrested Chávez and declared Fedecamaras head Pedro Carmona president.
The illegitimate government immediately showed its reactionary face. The National Assembly, a hallmark of Chávez's democratization campaign, was abolished and Chávez supporters were driven underground. All of Chávez's economic laws were rescinded.
A Petroleos de Venezuela manager, Edgar Paredes, told a press conference on April 12: "Not a single barrel of oil for Cuba."
ANOTHER COUP 'MADE IN THE USA'
The coup model was time tested and had all the markings of a plot hatched by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The alliance of the business elite with the reactionary trade union leadership; the attempt to use connections with the high command in the interests of big capital; the pretext of mass disturbances to justify military intervention to "restore law and order"--all these elements have been used in U.S.-backed coups, most notably in 1973 Chile.
Despite the refusal of most of the world to recognize the coup--the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American nations condemned the "interruption of constitutional order" on April 13--the United States government openly embraced the coup plotters.
A growing mountain of evidence shows the extent to which the U.S. was involved in the coup:
On April 16, the Bush administration acknowledged that Otto Reich, assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, was in phone contact with the coup leaders on the morning of the attempted takeover. The April 17 New York Times reported that the admission gives the appearance that Reich was "stage-managing the takeover." Reich has a long history of working with CIA counter-revolutionary operations in Latin America, particularly against Cuba and Nicaragua.
The April 14 edition of the STRATFOR newsletter, a U.S.- based think tank, details reports that both the CIA and the State Department had a hand in the events leading up to the coup.
An April 15 Reuters report details Chávez's account of a U.S.-registered civilian plane parked nearby to where he was imprisoned during the coup.
The April 16 New York Times carried the closest thing a U.S. government official comes to admitting involvement. "We were not discouraging people" from making the coup, according to "a Defense Department official who is involved in the development of policy toward Venezuela."
The April 22 issue of Newsweek magazine reported that elements of the Venezuelan military had been in contact with the U.S. embassy in February to discuss plans for a coup. The U.S. government acknowledges the meeting but denies encouraging the coup.
In February, the AFL-CIO joined forces with the notoriously anti-communist National Endowment for Democracy to host leaders of the right-wing CTV labor federation in Washington. The NED played a leading role in coordinating the political campaign against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua.
Two of the main military coup plotters, Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and Gen. Ramirez Poveda, were graduates of the infamous U.S. School of the Americas, a school with a long list of coup-plotters and death-squad organizers among its alumni.
THE MASSES STRIKE BACK
Despite the alliance between Venezuelan reactionaries and the Bush administration, an outpouring of the country's poor and oppressed classes turned back the overthrow of the Chávez government.
In Caracas, some 200,000 people from the poor and working class neighborhoods descended on the Presidential Palace in Miraflores demanding Chávez's return. Barricades went up across the city. Masses of people clashed with anti-Chávez police units. Hundreds of Chávez supporters were killed or wounded in the clashes.
Peasants from across Venezuela set out for Caracas in buses to protest the coup.
The mass outpourings strengthened the resolve of pro-Chávez units in the military. Throughout the city, troops wearing the signature red berets of Chávez supporters joined demonstrations and refused to fire on the crowds. Rank-and- file soldiers fraternized with the people.
The force of the mass intervention split away the military rank and file and junior officers, along with some of the higher officers undoubtedly anxious to be found on the winning side, from the reactionary coup plotters.
Within a day, the pressure of the pro-Chsvez masses forced the collapse of the coup from within. Fedecamaras head Carmona resigned as "interim president" on the evening of April 13. Chsvez was released from prison early in the morning of April 14.
Carmona and some 100 other military and political participants in the coup were arrested and charged with rebellion, although many were later released to house arrest pending trial.
WHICH WAY FORWARD?
The Venezuelan people's victory in overturning the U.S.- sponsored coup electrified progressive and working-class partisans across Latin America and the world. It was a major embarrassment for U.S. imperialism, which arrogantly underestimated the power of the masses and overestimated its own ability to rule by fiat.
In an unbelievable show of cynicism, Condoleeza Rice, George Bush's National Security Adviser and defender of the coup plotters, called for Chávez to "respect constitutional processes" following his return to power.
"This is no time for a witch hunt," she warned.
In fact, Chávez's first messages upon returning to power were of conciliation. He urged his supporters to return to their homes peacefully. He called for national unity. "I haven't any thirst for revenge," he said in a 5:00 a.m. address on April 14.
On April 16, Chávez invited his political opponents to take part in an advisory council that would discuss differences, a move that won guarded support from the U.S. State Department.
But in a signal that he was not making an about face on his policies, he also announced that oil would again flow to Cuba.
The pro-Chávez forces, those committed to the process they call a Bolivarian Revolution, are in a position of unprecedented strength. They have survived the first attempt at counter-revolution. The coup authors are running for cover.
Chávez's loyalists would have every legal basis to prosecute the organizations involved in the coup--from the Catholic Church hierarchy to the reactionary CTV leadership to the Fedecamaras business owners and landlords. They would be perfectly within their rights to open a massive investigation of all these plotters and their ties to U.S. imperialism.
The masses of poor and working people have shown their willingness to fight to advance the revolutionary process that Chávez is leading.
The main question is the extent to which the pro-Chávez forces are organized to carry out these tasks. The central task in any revolution is the creation of organs of popular power that can fight for and defend the class interests of the revolutionary classes.
Already, Chávez has promoted the "Bolivarian circles," armed neighborhood groups to defend the Bolivarian Revolution, for exactly this purpose. It is no accident that one of the main military tasks of the coup regime was aimed at the Bolivarian circles.
The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has survived its first major test. Its ability to withstand future assaults and coup attempts, as well as its ability to address the social needs of the working classes, will depend on the leadership's ability to deepen the organization of the poor and working classes.
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