For the months leading up to the April 12 coup in Venezuela, there were reports and rumours coming that a coup was imminent. In December 2001, the San Francisco Examiner ran a story by Conn Hallinan who had detected the ‘scent of another coup in Venezuela’ (http://www.zmag.org/content/Colombia/hallinanchavez.cfm). This was cause for alarm. John Pilger, and others, made the analogy to Chile.
There was news of the sort of changes Chavez was making and planning, summarized by Gregory Wilpert on the day of the coup as “: a new democratic constitution which broke the power monopoly of the two hopelessly corrupt and discredited main parties and put Venezuela at the forefront in terms of progressive constitutions; introduced fundamental land reform; financed numerous progressive ecological community development projects; cracked-down on corruption; promoted educational reform which schooled over 1 million children for the first time and doubled investment in education; regulated the informal economy so as to reduce the insecurity of the poor; achieved a fairer price for oil through OPEC and which significantly increased government income; internationally campaigned tirelessly against neo-liberalism; reduced official unemployment from 18% to 13%; introduced a large-scale micro-credit program for the poor and for women; reformed the tax system which dramatically reduced tax evasion and increased government revenue; lowered infant mortality from 21% to 17%; tripled literacy courses; modernized the legal system, etc., etc.” (http://www.zmag.org/content/LatinAmerica/wilpertcoup.cfm)
There was some news of Chavez’s foreign policy, which was far saner towards Cuba and Colombia than that of the United States. And there was some news of his relatively strong bargaining position. He had plenty of support in the population. His country was a huge oil producer and that gave him strategic leverage. And he was, after all, from the military and had credibility in the army. Wouldn’t that make it difficult for the US to engineer a coup the way they did in Chile in 1973, or Brazil in 1964, or in most of the other countries of Latin America?
Apparently not. And somewhere, probably to some extent in Venezuela but to a large extent here, those of us who like things like lower infant mortality, higher literacy, more democratic participation, more education, fairer natural resource politics, failed to grasp what Edward Said called “the power of systematically disseminated information as a way of protecting people”. Said was talking about Palestinians, and he elaborated:
“We have simply never learned the importance of systematically organising our political work in this country on a mass level, so that for instance the average American will not immediately think of “terrorism” when the word “Palestinian” is pronounced. That kind of work quite literally protects whatever gains we might have made through on-the-ground resistance to Israel’s occupation. What has enabled Israel to deal with us with impunity, therefore, has been that we are unprotected by any body of opinion that would deter Sharon from practicing his war crimes and saying that what he has done is to fight terrorism Not to have understood this is part of the tragedy of today.” (http://www.zmag.org/content/Mideast/Saidfuture.cfm) This was the case for Venezuela as well. It wasn’t that Americans thought of ‘terrorism’ when they thought of ‘Venezuelans’. It was that the first they probably heard about Chavez and Venezuela was the page-six story they read yesterday on the overthrow of the president there. There was no ‘body of opinion’ in the US that could have protected the gains Venezuelans made through the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ of Chavez. There wasn’t enough systematically organized information about Venezuela, its history and context, its current politics and prospects, its possibilities and the possibilities for action in solidarity with Venezuelan people.
If there is a lesson here for social movements in the world, that is it. A people can wrest gains from their own elites through their own actions and through their own electoral processes. But if those elites are free to control information and to import whatever they need from the rich countries to repress their people, they can destroy any such gains.
It is important that this lesson be learned soon. The Venezuelan people are now unprotected and their elites are going to try to roll back the gains they have made. The Colombian people are unprotected as their government, backed by US power, continues to escalate the war against them. And Brazilians, who could well elect the Worker’s Party to power, have experience of the power of dirty media campaigns, business-run phony ‘strikes’, and violence in undermining social gains. There, today, is no ‘body of opinion’ ready to protect Brazil from a repeat of the Venezuelan coup.
The beginning of the latest sentence in the five-hundred year colonization of Latin America was the passage of NAFTA in 1994 that swept Mexico’s prospects for independent development away. The punctuation at the end of that sentence will be the passage of the FTAA in 2003 or 2005. In between, there has been counterinsurgency war in Chiapas and Colombia, the continued torture of Cuba, aerial fumigation all over the Andes, dollarization and disaster in Argentina, famine in Central America, and now a coup in Venezuela.
The coup has implications beyond the continent as well. The April 13, 2002 edition of La Jornada, a Mexico City daily, had an editorial that pointed this out. There is an interpretation of recent events in West Asia that suggests that the US was trying to restrain Israel’s program of ethnic cleansing so that they could win Arab support for their designs on Iraq. The Arab nations refused to support war against Iraq, and so the US refused to restrain Israel’s murderous campaign. What were the bargaining chips the Arab countries had? The most important was that to attack Iraq, the US would have to use bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But also, lurking in the background, was the oil. It’s true that at this point the Arab countries probably need to sell their oil at least as badly as the West needs to buy it. But having oil-rich Venezuela back firmly under its thumb makes the US stronger relative to the Arab nations, in pressing for its own murderous plans.