Precisely ten years ago, on the 11th of April 2002, a remarkable event took place in Venezuela. The democratically elected President, Hugo Chávez, was removed from power in a military coup. A mere 47 hours later he was reinstated, but the events of that period tell us much about the nature of modern imperialism.
Chávez was admittedly no stranger to coups d’état himself, having participated in a failed attempt at ousting President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992. Pérez, who was deeply corrupt, was removed from office and imprisoned by the Supreme Court the following year, after the discovery that he had embezzled hundreds of millions of bolivars.
After his arrest, Chávez asked to be allowed to speak on television, in order to urge his fellow conspirators to surrender. According to Richard Gott, in his fantastic biography of Chávez, this short speech “converted him into someone perceived as the country’s potential saviour”, with one phrase in particular “por ahora” (or “for the moment”) acting as a rallying cry, a promise that he would soon return to lead the country to salvation.
Chávez was elected in 1998 on a platform which promised to tackle the poverty and corruption which had become so prevalent across Venezuelan society. Upon entering office he implemented a new constitution and created various social programmes to exploit the country’s vast oil wealth in an effort to benefit the poor through education, health and land reform, all of which provoked the ire of the old corporate and political elite, who had seen their political power deteriorate.
The dominant Venezuelan media, who remain fiercely anti-Chávez, immediately swung into action following the election. The new president was denounced by all sections of the corporate media as dangerous, fascist and totalitarian. When violence broke out during pro and anti-Chávez political rallies on the 11th of April 2002, television footage was manipulated to make it appear as though supporters of the president had been firing on opposition protesters, when it fact they had been protecting themselves from the sniper fire of coup plotters.
Chávez refused to resign and was taken prisoner later that day, then flown to a remote naval base in Turinamo. Meanwhile the coup plotters, led by the new President Pedro Carmona (who was previously the president of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce) took power, announcing the removal of the present government and the abolition of the constitution.
The sense of disappointment felt by those within the Barrios (slums) of the capital Caracas was palpable. The removal of a popular leader who had done so much to improve the quality of their lives proved just too much to take, they quickly decided to do something about it. An uprising took place. Hundreds of thousands flooded into the streets to demand the return of their leader. Faced with such overwhelming opposition, the army quickly switched sides and retook the Presidential Palace. None of this was covered by the Venezuelan media, who preferred to screen Disney cartoons, urging their viewers to stay indoors.
Just before midnight on the 13th of April, Chávez was returned to power. He was flown back into the Miraflores Palace by helicopter following an ultimatum given to Carmona by allies of Chávez, that he be returned to Caracas within 24 hours, or suffer the consequences. During the coup itself, the US had taken the side of the coup plotters, even exploiting the same lies peddled by the illegitimate business-led regime to justify its decision. It later emerged that the US had not only been pre-warned about the coup, but that they had backed and funded the opposition, via the National Endowment for Democracy. This mirrors the actions of the US in countries across the globe, where democratic principles are sidelined in favour of hegemony over others.
Of course, this is not to say that major problems do not remain in Venezuela with crime and corruption. Additionally, with no clear successor to Chávez in place and questions still surrounding his health, the continuation of his Bolivarian revolution is by no means assured.
However, what the citizens of Caracas achieved on that day a decade ago – and since then – cannot be underestimated. Their vocal defence of socialism, repeatedly standing up for the economic and social system which lifted them out of poverty, represents a new model for the fight against imperialism, one which may become increasingly useful as a template for others, as they resist the chains of neoliberalism and austerity within Europe and across the globe.
[Article Photo: quecomunismo, used under a Creative Commons licence.]