Last Saturday, February 4, Hugo Chávez Frías, President of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the failed military coup he masterminded in 1992 to depose the then-President, Carlos Andrés Pérez. The occasion, a sumptuous parade with all the military regalia and lavishness that so much appeals to the South American aesthetic, stirred all sorts of fervent emotions, prompting passionate responses both from detractors and sympathizers of the current regime and causing vast amounts of controversy.
One of the more trivial points of contention was what, exactly, was Sean Penn doing in attendance among a list of diplomatic guests that included Heads of State from eight different countries, such as Cuba, Haiti, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica and Antigua – all there for the XI Summit Meeting of the Alianza Bolivariana para las Américas (ALBA), which took place that weekend in Caracas. Some suggested he was closely following every move of Raúl Castro and Hugo Chávez as part of his research for the remake of Dead Man Walking – a rumor that was neither substantiated nor refuted by Penn’s seemingly obsessive resolve to record the exact weight, to the last gram, of the two presidents, every step of the way.
Jokes aside, the celebrations did spark a vivid debate about the circumstances that led to the military uprising – a chapter of Venezuelan history that Chávez has elevated to almost mystic status, singling it out as the turning point in the general consciousness of the people, who suddenly said “enough!” and actively sought their dignity. Naturally, Chávez’s discourse is inscribed within the eminently opportunistic reinterpretation of facts that characterizes “Bolivarian” ideology, willfully missing out or misconstruing a number of factors that critics have been quick to highlight, such as the fact that the attempted coup was a failure; that Chávez was unable to take the capital, while his associates were successful practically everywhere else in the country; and that the consequences of a shambolic second attempted coup in November 1992 left him and his group not so much in the dark as in the imagination of a truly humorous people, who turned them into the butt of innumerable gags.
Which, of course, became an alternative, and clearly valid, way to remain freshly imprinted in the minds of the people. Roughly two years later, the prosecution’s case against Chávez was voluntarily dropped by the new President of Venezuela, Rafael Caldera, whose lifelong feud with Carlos Andrés Pérez doubtless played an important role in his decision. Chávez, now discharged from the Army, was thus presented with total freedom to engage in politics and even run for office, if he so chose, in the following general elections of 1998. Whose was the last laugh in all this is well-known; but the time is right, 20 years on, to take a closer look at the circumstances that led to the collapse of Venezuela’s Fourth Republic, and the rise of Chávez’s hegemony.
When Hugo Chávez extols the spirited fight of Venezuelan men and women on the morning of February 4, 1992 as a demonstration of the intolerable levels to which rage and frustration had reached, following decades of misgovernance and abuse by the political elite, he deliberately confuses the military coup with the popular demonstrations that took place in Caracas on February 27, 1989, and that quickly spread to other cities in the country. Commonly known as the Caracazo, the social unrest that followed announcements by the newly-elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez of drastic economic measures to curb the crisis that assailed the country through the 1980s was a genuinely spontaneous upheaval by the popular masses. Recognized as a landmark in the recent history of the country, the 20th anniversary of the Caracazo was duly celebrated three years ago by Chávez’s government, who identified it as a pivotal point in the gestation of the revolution.
Few could argue against the importance and the repercussions that the lootings of February 27, 1989 had in the following ten years of Venezuela’s history. But the attempted military coup of February 4, 1992 was an altogether different animal. In sharp contrast to the hugely endorsed protests of 1989, on the morning on February 4, 1992 Caracas was a ghost town. In one of those instances of inexplicable organic behavior displayed by cities, that morning Caracas knew something was wrong. Because cities are nothing if not the people who live in them, and the people of Caracas, deeply dissatisfied and greatly resentful of their government, knew something was about to happen. No one was quite certain how they knew it, or what would happen – but everybody stayed away. Therefore, when the first explosions could be heard, before the break of dawn on Tuesday, February 4, 1992, there was a sense of inevitability in the air – a sense that what for so long had threatened to happen had finally arrived.
The actual events that took place that day are relatively simple to summarize: led by five mid-rank officials (Lieutenant Colonels – no Generals were involved in the movement), ten battalions in five different bases insurrected simultaneously. President Pérez had returned to office from Davos the night before, and it was only through the staunch support of his Minister of Defense, General Fernando Ochoa Antich, that he escaped the Presidential House, despite the barricade rebel forces had placed around it. Always a savvy politician with a natural gift to turn public opinion in his favor, Pérez’s next move was decisive: he went directly to the state TV station and addressed the nation with a message that was as effective as it was simple: stay put at home. The mere image of the president on TV was enough to turn the tide, and within a few hours Chávez was capitulating, publicly requesting his colleagues around the country to put their arms down.
The direct consequences of the attempted coup in the reality of a country that was deeply immersed in a downward spiral were traumatic. The bonanza of the 1970s had long disappeared, and the preposterous levels of inflation witnessed during the second half of the 1980s had caused serious damage in the self-esteem of a people who once prided themselves of being the leading force in Latin America. Social inequality, widespread poverty, popular discontent and the political deadlock that cancelled every effort by Pérez’s government to address the situation were now met by the sort of political violence and instability that had not been seen in the country since the heady days of guerrilla warfare in the 1960s. Furthermore, any progress in the stabilization of a critical economic situation in Venezuela through the diluted but still coherent policies put forward by Miguel Rodríguez, Pérez’s Minister of Planning and Coordination, as part of the package that triggered the violence of February 1989 was stalled by an invigorated sense of uncertainty and a total absence of trust. Few, if any, knew it at the time, but they were the dying days of a corrupt and unscrupulous system of political polarization that for 35 years dominated – and abused – Venezuelan society.
The failed coup of February 1992 was quickly followed by another attempt in November that same year. The second uprising was a disaster, but the flailing grip on power Carlos Andrés Pérez had held during a presidential term in which he had faced violent antagonism from the very start finally gave way. Most importantly. however, the two military rebellions of 1992 were firm evidence that the belief in the democratic system was quickly eroding in Venezuela. Not only within the armed forces, which clearly had been filtered by political and seditious elements, but, crucially, in the popular consciousness. Because if it is true that, despite Chávez’s efforts to re-write history and to describe the attempted coup of February 1992 as a joint civil and military movement, there was little or no popular support for the insurrection, there was similarly little enthusiasm to upheld the democratic system, to support President Pérez in his mandate or, even, to condemn the perpetrators of the rebellion.
The fact is that the age of strong political parties had come to an end in Venezuela, and public opinion was now looking for powerful personalities – leaders, really – on whom to place their trust. Pérez himself had been one such character, backed though he had been by the country’s largest political party, Acción Democrática. His successor, Rafael Caldera, was another mythical figure from Venezuela’s past struggles against the dictatorship of the 1950s. He was one of the few who immediately recognized the imminent danger faced by Venezuela’s democratic system, not through the military revolts but through the generalized apathy. Surely, he also saw in this the opportunity to take the center stage of Venezuelan politics once more, like he had done through the 60s, as the staunch activist of democracy that he had always been. A few months later, President Pérez was impeached, and through the ten months of uncertainty when the country was left to steer itself with a vacuum of power, Rafael Caldera emerged as the champion of the masses, a modern-day caudillo. But after a year of tough campaigning President Caldera was too old and too weak to save the country from the pits of the banking crisis of the mid-nineties, which claimed over a dozen institutions in the country and plunged it into the darkest, most miserable hour it lived through the XX century.
Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez, clinically depressed and highly medicated during and after his incarceration, rose from his own ashes in 1997, five years after the failed coup of February 1992 and three years after his release from prison. It was only then, and not before, that he founded his political party, MVR; it was only then that he embarked on a political career whose first steps were nothing short of embarrassing. But the campaign of 1997 was long and riddled with mistakes by every candidate and every party in contention, and Chávez is nothing if not shrewd, and the powers that be aligned themselves in such a way that he became the next popular leader, the next caudillo, whose messianic powers would bring prosperity to a people who were well beyond down and out.
Twenty years after hearing the name of Hugo Chávez Frías for the first time, and following close to 15 years of hegemony, Venezuela faces a crisis that is not dissimilar in nature to the one that prompted his emergence into the scene: despite the very high price of oil, Chávez’s obsession against the high and middle classes has resulted in a steep increase in the levels of inflation experienced by the country; added to this, a protectionist currency exchange policy has made it difficult to access any foreign currency at all, which has created a huge black market where everything is available at extraordinary prices; traditionally high rates of crime have also seen a sharp increase, with the gruesome crisis in the jail of El Rodeo recently highlighting major issues in the country’s penitentiary system. Most telling, perhaps, has been Chávez’s reformed – and contradictory – discourse, following his bout with cancer, which created a temporary vacuum in the nation’s highest echelons of power, comparable to the one experienced in 1993.
Within this environment, the opposition has galvanized its chances by electing a single candidate to battle it out with Chávez in the next general elections. The “primaries,” first conducted in Venezuela’s history last Sunday, February 12, recorded close to 3 million voters, who ended up electing Henrique Capriles Radonski as the unified candidate of the opposition. It would take a terribly naïve mind to assume that Chávez will be overwhelmed by this rival, or that his days in power are numbered. After all, his electoral base has always hovered above 3 million people, peaking at 7 million. Moreover, Chávez is an expert campaigner who is at his best when addressing his people through the aggrieved countenance of his interlocutor. Indeed, Chávez spent the best part of his first term in power campaigning from one election to the next, always obliterating the opposition.
A lot has happened since, to be sure, and there is no denying that a sense of disappointment has dampened the prospects of Chávez’s revolution, of late. Whether this will be enough to displace him from power is doubtful at best – but Chávez himself has identified such feeling, as evidenced by the more conciliatory rhetoric he has used since his return to office from medical leave. In this sense, it might well be that the time has come in Venezuela for change to arrive. Ever the chameleon, Chávez will do everything in his power to be the agent who brings about such change – even if that means altering the course of his policies.
As things stand, Chávez’s mightiest enemy is his own health: if he can win the battle against cancer, then he must be odds on to come out of the presidential elections on top and continue his quest for the perfect revolution.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2012.