Understanding the 2002 Venezuelan Coup

An Account of April 11-13, 2002, in Venezuela: The 47-Hour Coup That Changed Everything
by Gregory Wilpert
April 15, 2007

The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.

Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.

Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.

Each of these victories against the opposition heightened consciousness in Venezuela about the need to take the Bolivarian revolution further and thus also allowed Chavez to further radicalize his political program. The coup attempt represented a crucial moment in this process because it was the most dramatic expression of the Venezuelan conflict between a charismatic President and a mobilized poor population on the one hand and the country’s old elite and their supporters on the other.

Preconditions for a Coup

With Chavez’s popularity rating apparently sinking in late 2001 and early 2002,[1] especially among the middle class, and the general inability of the country’s old governing elite to accept Chavez as the legitimately elected President of Venezuela, it became just a matter of time for this old elite to form an alliance with dissident military officers and to organize a coup. The events in 2001 that led up to the coup can be summarized as the following:

* The departure of key former supporters from Chavez’s coalition (half of the MAS – Movement towards Socialism – party, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, and MVR – Chavez’s party Movement for a Fifth Republic – co-founder and Minister of the Interior Luis Miquilena).
* The business sector’s uproar over 49 law-decrees passed in November 2001 that revamped the country’s banking, agriculture, oil industry, and fishing industries, among other things.
* The union federation’s (CTV) anger over the government’s push for union elections in October 2001.
* Chavez’s opposition to the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.”
* The mass media’s active participation in the political conflict, largely taking the place of the discredited centrist and conservative parties.
* A developing recession, due to a rapid decline in world oil prices following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.

Many of these development were a consequence of Chavez refusing to play along in the “politics as usual” game of accommodating the established powers in society, whether the old union leadership, the church, the business class, the private mass media, or the government of the United States. In his first three years in office (1999-2001) Chavez thus proved himself to be a political leader of a completely different sort than the kinds the country’s old elite and the middle class had expected. Until 2000, following the mega-elections, it still looked like Chavez could perhaps be the kind of leader who talked tough, but who acted like a moderate. However, with the 49 law-decrees, especially the land reform and the new hydro-carbons law, Chavez proved that he was a different kind of leader.

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