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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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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