“Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.” [Chavez] “stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” New York Times Editorial, April 13, 2002
The April 2002 attempted coup against president Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was widely applauded in U.S. corporate media editorials the day after the coup. In Venezuela itself, the mainstream media helped mobilize the anti-Chavez demonstrations which were used as the coup pretext. But a people’s movement, with information and support from online and alternative news sources, ended up reversing the coup. In the months since, evidence is mounting of direct U.S. participation.
In fact, it appears that the U.S. embassy in Caracas has been a busy meeting place of coup plotters and that the attempt to overthrow the democratically elected President Hugo Chavez and end the reform-minded government has been in the works since the Bush administration took office. A closer look at the events that led to the coup reads like a modern day saga of Allende or Arbenz, except that in this episode of U.S. intervention the media has taken on an unusually direct and destructive role.
When the popularly elected Hugo Chavez and the left-leaning Quinta Republica Movement were swept into power in 1998, they promised to reform a hopelessly corrupt government and redistribute wealth in a society where 80% of the population lives in extreme poverty while the middle class and oligarchy squander Venezuela’s oil and natural resources. Endorsed by voters in six national elections, the Bolivarian Revolution, as the Chavista project is known, has created: (1) a new progressive constitution, (2) a new national assembly and Supreme Court, and (3) development banks for poor communities, small businesses, and women. The government has also increased spending on health and education and instituted a moderate program of land reform, which pays cash at market rate for unused land. In addition, the Chavez government has called for regional integration and cooperation in opposition to the U.S.-proposed free trade policies. All of this has made it clear that Venezuela is offering an alternative to the neo-liberal policies that have impoverished the majority of Latin Americans in the past two decades.
The Chavez government also earned scorn from the U.S. for its policies designed to strengthen OPEC, for developing closer relations with Iraq, Iran, Libya, and other oil producing nations, and for pulling out of the regional war games led by the U.S. Until recently, Venezuela’s delegation to OPEC was headed by Ali Rodriguez, an oil policy expert and former leftist guerrilla whose leadership helped stabilize Venezuelan oil pricing and production. Prior to the Chavez government, Venezuela did not adhere to OPEC agreements and overproduced oil by nearly 40%. The stabilization has allowed Venezuela to continue its social and economic reforms without subjecting them to the volatility brought on by overproduction. Venezuela has also developed petroleum export agreements favorable to other Latin American nations, particularly Cuba.
Petroleros de Venezuela (PdV)–the state monopoly and it’s million member union, Venezuelan Worker Confederation–has operated as a state within the state and is widely seen as a corrupt mafia-like organization. Attempts to reform the industry and its union is one of the major challenges facing Chavez. It also is one of the key elements used by the coup organizers to destabilize the country. With a series of strikes, supported by the national chamber of commerce and the mainstream media corporations, PdV’s union mobilized the elite and middle classes to create a hostile environment in which a military-backed coup could take place. Also, fueled by centuries of ingrained racism, the ruling class went a step further and demonized President Hugo Chavez, a dark skinned mulatto. It is worth noting that the vast majority of poor Venezuelans are darker skinned and make up the core support for Chavez, the first dark skinned president in Venezuelan history.
The role of the Venezuelan media prior to and during the coup is one of the more ominous developments. Far from being objective observers, the media establishment and the moguls who own it are overtly biased and active political players. All the major media outlets regularly ran free ads encouraging the middle class to take to the streets. But Henrique Otero, publisher of one of the two main dailies, is arguably the worst offender, playing a key role in organizing the coup in addition to demonizing Chavez and inciting demonstrations. Another far right and seditious media mogul instrumental to the coup is Gustavo Cisnero of the Cisnero Group, which owns Venevision, Caracol Television (the local Direct TV affiliate), and the U.S.-based Spanish language network, Univision. He is Venezuela’s wealthiest man and a close friend of George Bush.
The media conglomerates are closely aligned with the Venezuelan oligarchy and have extensive ties to the right wing Latin American community in Miami. Also, the media moguls either control or are closely allied with most of the Spanish language media across the continent and in the U.S. The transnational character of the media and its direct role in destabilizing a democratically elected government in order to install a right wing dictatorship backed by elements of the military have sent shock waves across the hemisphere. The ominous message to Latin American democracy is this: there will be no fair coverage of any mass movement, government, or candidate that goes against the will of the ruling classes.
In the tense, post-coup environment in Venezuela, the media continues to play a biased and political role, even stretching credibility by insisting that there was no attempted coup. Henrique Otero recently pulled out of a conciliatory dialogue with the president, demanding that Chavez undo the reforms underway to create a more favorable environment for the business community. Venezuelans across the political spectrum are calling for the media to act more responsibly and some in government are demanding explanations for the media’s role in the coup attempt, which included taping prepared statements by the Generals involved on the day before the coup, according to government reports.
The media in the U.S. was just as biased in its coverage of the coup and the events leading up to it, often repeating the coverage in the Venezuelan press. Even more disturbing was the overt support for the coup expressed in editorials in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post.
Although the U.S. has denied that it encouraged the coup, evidence is emerging which points to direct U.S. involvement. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, met on several occasions with the planners and had direct contact with coup leader, Pedro Carmona, while the coup was in progress. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit entity created by the U.S. Congress and the AFL-CIO. It has also been reported that U.S. naval ships were in the area and disrupted communication in Venezuela during and after the coup. As with most U.S. interventions, it will be years before the full extent of its role is uncovered. However, the intentions of the Bush administration are quite clear: attempt reform or exercise national sovereignty and there is a high price to pay.
In the end, it was the Venezuelan people who preserved the Venezuelan Constitution and reinstated President Hugo Chavez. The loyal Chavistas are the masses of Venezuelans who, despite a history of disenfranchisement and despite a media blackout and disinformation campaign, mobilized to defend their president and government. Although the final chapter of this saga has not yet been written, the Venezuelan people and their defense of democratic principals is a heroic chapter in the history of Latin America.
Eric Quezada is a freelance writer and community organizer based in San Francisco.