An Account of April 11-13, 2002, in Venezuela

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.

Preparing for a Coup

Therefore, the radical sectors of the opposition, which could not accept Chavez as the legitimately elected president, began plans for a coup, which it put into motion in early 2002. One of the first elements in this plan was to demonstrate to the public that there supposedly was widespread discontent within the military. The first to launch this wave of disapproval was Colonel Pedro Soto, a former assistant to President Carlos Andrés Perez, who announced in a public event on human rights, on February 7, 2001, that the president should resign because Venezuela had become a dictatorship.  Soto declared himself to be in rebellion, basing himself on article 350 of the constitution, which says that citizens have a right to civil disobedience, should the government violate constitutional norms. Immediately, the mass media were all over Soto in a frenzy. It seemed as if they were desperate for a new face that would take the lead. Soto, however, was quickly arrested for insubordination and would eventually flee to Miami.

Chavez put the incident off by saying, “He was a traitor together with a group companions… Then he did not get promoted to general, filed a complaint for not being promoted, with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled his claim without merit…” Shortly thereafter, another officer, Captain Pedro Flores Rivero, of the National Guard, joined Colonel Soto in demanding the president’s resignation. Both Soto and Flores gave speeches against the in the Plaza Altamira, in one of Caracas’ most upscale neighborhoods, where they accused the government of being a totalitarian dictatorship.

Eleven days after Soto’s first denunciation, on February 18, another military officer, Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, made similar statements, saying that Chavez had violated the right to freedom of the press, eliminated the separation of powers, and was attempting to set up a regime similar to the one in Cuba. Each officer, in addition to their charges against the government, also claimed that there was much discontent within the military. The series of military officers’ pronouncements thus began to appear planned to coincide with the opposition’s gathering momentum, to create an increasing impression that Chavez no longer had the backing of the country’s military.

PDVSA Management Take the Lead

All along during the time of increasing tensions, ever since the passing of the 49 law-decrees, managers from the country’s state owned oil company, PDVSA, complained about the law that was supposed to reform the oil industry. However, the conflict with the management had been on a relatively low burner until Chavez decided to name a new board of directors for PDVSA. Since the Venezuelan state is the only owner of PDVSA, the president has the authority to unilaterally name its board of directors. Chavez had repeatedly complained to the public about his frustrations about getting direct answers from PDVSA as to its finances. He referred to PDVSA as a “state within a state” and as being a “black box” that he was determined to open. He took his first real step in doing so when he named a new board of directors on February 21. By that time PDVSA already had three presidents in three years, all of whom seemed to be closer to the company’s upper management than to the president.

The last PDVSA president, General Guaicaipuro Lameda, was someone Chavez thought he could trust, but who did not seem particularly eager to help Chavez in figuring out PDVSA’s finances.[2] Chavez thus named Gaston Parra, a fairly well-known leftist engineer who specialized in the oil industry, to the post of PDVSA president. At first the oil industry executives did not say much about the new board. Gradually, though, protests against the new board were voiced, especially from the management. At one point even, a group of PDVSA workers complained that managers were trying to push them into supporting protests against the new board of directors.[3] Talk of a possible general strike began to develop, both amongst the PDVSA management and among the CTV leadership. In early March, the CTV began to speak publicly about the possibility of organizing a general strike for March 18th. A little later it was decided to set the general strike date for April 18th. Meanwhile, the government warned that should the management walk out on their job, in a general strike, everyone who did so would immediately be fired.

The oil management’s rallying cry became “Respect the meritocracy!” in reference to their claim that the new board of directors did not have the necessary experience or background in the oil industry. While it was true that most of them came from outside PDVSA, all of them did have extensive backgrounds as oil industry analysts. The hypocrisy of the management’s claim that inexperienced people were put into place becomes all the clearer when one looks at past boards of directors, named under Chavez’s predecessors, some of whom indeed had nothing at all to do with the oil industry and the management at the time did not utter any complaint.

The overall opposition discourse had begun to revolve primarily around PDVSA, with the opposition’s argument being that PDVSA “belongs to the people, not to the government.” The opposition tried to create the notion that as long as the “meritocracy” runs PDVSA, it would be non-ideological and would be run in the interests of all Venezuelans. However, if the new board of directors were allowed to stay, PDVSA would become an ideologically leftist organization, run in the interests of a political party. Exactly why the “meritocrats,” who were closely identified with former PDVSA president Luis Giusti, someone who followed the precepts of privatization and of neo-liberalism, would be less “ideological” than Chavez’s board nominees was never explained.

In a series of employee meetings, the company’s management and administrative employees decided to engage in work slow-downs, to pressure the government into appointing a new board of directors; one that would be chosen more in accordance with past practices of naming board members as a kind of promotion from within the company. Meanwhile, the largest oil workers union, Fedepetrol, which Carlos Ortega of the CTV was the leader only a year earlier, said that it would support an oil industry strike, should the management call for one. However, the other four oil worker unions[4] sided with Chavez in the dispute.

A few days later, though, Fedepetrol reversed its decision and announced that it would not support the strike after all. Actually, the union’s leadership was divided, with the union’s president, Rafael Rosales, saying about the PDVSA crisis, “The management has its conflicts and we have ours. If someone has reason to protest, it is us, who have been disrespected by this management, since all of our problems are their fault, since they are our bosses.”[5] The union’s general secretary, Felix Jimenez, though, said that Fedepetrol should support the management’s strike.

On the 4th of April, 2002, PDVSA management employees began their strike. Large sections of PDVSA were shut down, such as several gasoline distribution centers, practically all administrative offices, and the El Palito refinery. The stoppage of the refinery later turned out to be extremely costly to PDVSA because the crude oil in its mile-long pipes turned into asphalt and large sections of the refinery ended up being permanently damaged, requiring wholesale replacement of parts of the refinery. The Minister of Labor, Maria Cristina Iglesias announced on television that all those who failed to show up from work would be fired, for abandoning their workplace. She reiterated that this was not a legal strike. Venezuela’s Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, also appeared on television, to say that the oil company strike is completely illegal because it is not being called by any of the recognized unions of the oil company, nor does it involve a labor conflict.

Two days into the PDVSA management strike, the CTV pledged it would join the strike/lockout by calling for a national general strike on April 9. The decision represented a moving up of the original general strike date, which had been set for April 18. Ortega said that the strike would at first be set for 24 hours, but could be extended for 48 hours or turned into an indefinite strike, depending on how the situation evolved and how the government reacted. So as to make the strike sound legal, Ortega said, “We want to dismiss that the CTV supposedly has the intention of weakening the government. What we are asking of the government is to comply with the collective bargaining agreements and that no one mistreats us.”

Ortega also warned, “The government can decree ten thousand states of exception, the strike will take place,” in clear reference to the rumors that Chavez might decree a state of emergency. Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel, though, repeatedly denied that rumors of a state of exception had any basis and said that the “rumors of a state of exception are aimed at creating distress and unrest among the population.”[6]

With the media joining in the conflict and with an increasingly virulent opposition rhetoric on its political talk shows, the government tried to counter these with its “cadenas”[7]—the Venezuelan government’s legal prerogative to force all broadcast media (TV and radio) to simultaneously broadcast a special government announcement. In the days leading up to the strike, the government made frequent use of this, broadcasting ten minute messages of the vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, explaining how the government would not give in to blackmail over the PDVSA conflict. Cabello said that last December 10, during the general strike, “we made some mistakes that we will not make this time. For example, December 10 we let ourselves be squashed mediatically… If we have to respond every ten minutes with a cadena so that the information would be true and transmitted to all Venezuelans, then we will do it.”

Finally, on Sunday, April 7th, Chavez stated unequivocally that he had had enough. During his weekly television program Aló Presidente Chavez announced that the top seven managers of PDVSA would be summarily fired. He read each of their names off a piece of paper and declared loudly and full of gratification, as if he were a baseball umpire, “You’re out!” Twelve other managers would receive early retirement. Chavez also said, “I have given clear instructions to the president of PDVSA so that anyone who calls for a strike would be fired immediately, without any discussion.”

The other big announcement Chavez made during his television program was that the minimum wage would be raised 20%, starting May 1st. This was in response to the CTV’s demand that Chavez should fulfill an old campaign promise of raising the minimum wage. The announcement was broadcast on all television and radio networks, interrupting an announcement that Carlos Ortega was about to make.

After the broadcast, Ortega made his announcement, saying that Fedecamaras and numerous other organizations had decided to support the general strike that was being convoked for April 9. Representatives from all groups he mentioned were present. Even Venezuela’s Catholic Bishops Conference joined, represented by the Jesuit priest Mikel de Viana, who said, “If what is happening in PDVSA is going to be the form in which union demands will be met, this is not how the working class should be treated. The only system in which the principle of authority is invoked is in a dictatorship.”[8] Also present were directors of various media outlets, such as Miguel Henrique Otero of the opposition newspaper El Nacional, saying, “We are all in this struggle, in defense of the right to inform.”

The General Strike

That Tuesday, April 9th, 2002, no newspapers appeared, the television channels all broadcast practically the same thing—either voluntarily the statements of the opposition or involuntarily the official government “cadenas”—, public busses and the subway were running, banks were open, but all fast food franchises and many restaurants were closed, as were most schools, practically all privately operated offices were closed, but government offices were open, and, perhaps most importantly, PDVSA’s administrative buildings, located mostly in Caracas, were shut down. The streets tended to be like on a Sunday in the middle class neighborhoods, while in the poor neighborhoods things were quite normal. Throughout the day Venezuelans were presented with completely opposite images of what was going on in Venezuela. While the private media presented only nearly empty streets and closed storefronts (recorded in middle class neighborhoods), the state media and the “cadenas” presented busy streets and open shops and street vendors (in the poor neighborhoods). For someone who was not familiar with Venezuela, the contrasts could hardly have been more confusing.

Fedecamaras and the CTV, which had taken on the leadership of the opposition, announced that evening that the strike was a success, with 80% of workplaces closed down, and that since the government did not concede to any of the opposition’s demands, such as the removal of the new PDVSA board members, it would extend the general strike another 24 hours. Carlos Ortega explained the reason for continuing by saying, “Our reasons have to do with the aggressive and intolerant conduct of the government, as its response to the demands of the workers.” That night, in the opposition strongholds, a noisy “cacerolazo”—the banging of pots and pans in protest—took place throughout the country.

The next day it became clear that the strike was already losing force. While most streets in the middle class neighborhoods were still much calmer than usual and most stores were still closed, there was noticeably more activity than the day before. Perhaps to animate the opposition, as a strategic ploy to prepare the ground for the coup, General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez announced his non-recognition of President Chavez as Commander in Chief. He said that he was doing this because Chavez was “disrespecting” the Armed Forces due to his supposed support of Colombian guerilla forces. General Gonzalez had been one of the officers accused of corruption in the management of Plan Bolivar 2000.[9]

In a warning of what was to come, one of the leaders of the opposition, the former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda, said to the newspaper El Universal, when asked what would happen when Chavez leaves office, “The armed forces will play a fundamental role, recognizing that we have a government outside of the rule of law…”[10]

Also that day, the opposition announced that it had formed an umbrella organization, called “Coordinator for Democracy and Liberty,” to which all oppositional NGOs (40, according to spokespersons), oppositional parties (about 10), and the CTV and Fedecamaras belong. Their first action would be to organize a demonstration that would gather at Caracas’ Parque del Este and march on the freeway a mere two kilometers, to the one of PDVSA’s main buildings in the middle class neighborhood of Chuao. One of the spokespersons for the umbrella group, which would later come to be known as the “Democratic Coordinator,” said, “We are in a context in which we are applying articles 333 and 350 of the Constitution…”[11]

Coup d’État

The public’s perspective

Friday, April 11, 2002, the opposition marched to the corporate offices of PDVSA-Chuao, which had become one of the key rallying centers. It was estimated that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Venezuelans participated, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Venezuelan history and certainly the largest demonstration of the opposition to Chavez.

Once at the rallying point, one speaker after the other suggested that the demonstration should continue marching towards the Miraflores presidential palace, to demand the president’s resignation. Carlos Ortega, the last speaker said, “You have wasted the resources of the state and now this human river will go towards Miraflores to demand your resignation!” Although demonstration did not have a permit to continue past PDVSA-Chuao, the demonstrators headed towards the presidential palace, which was another eleven kilometers to the west. At Miraflores, however, a crowd of perhaps one thousand Chavez supporters had already gathered a few days earlier, in a more or less constant vigil in front of the palace.

When it became known, around 11 am that day, that the opposition demonstration would head to Miraflores, various pro-Chavez political leaders, such as Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal and National Assembly Deputy Juan Barreto, appeared on state television urging Chavistas to come to the presidential palace to “defend” it against the opposition. Also, members of the group Asamblea Popular Revolucionaria (Popular Revolutionary Assembly – APR, which later turned into the website Aporrea.org) distributed fliers in the surrounding barrios, urging people to come to Miraflores.[12] Within very little time the demonstration in front of Miraflores grew to several thousand, assembling mainly on the Avenida Urdaneta, which passes in front of the north entrance of Miraflores.

Shortly before the opposition demonstration arrived near Miraflores, the government had positioned National Guard troops, which are responsible for maintaining public order, around the palace. At about 1:30 to 2:00 pm the opposition demonstrators began trickling in to the neighborhood of the presidential palace. The demonstrators at the front of the opposition march were clearly out for a fight. Several witnesses reported that they belonged to the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) party, which is very well known in Venezuela for its willingness to commit acts of violence in pursuit of its goals.[13] Two lines of security forces tried to separate the opposition demonstrators from the presidential palace. The first was a line of metropolitan police, which were under the control of Greater Caracas opposition mayor Alfredo Peña, who did not offer any resistance to the demonstrators as they marched up the western side of the palace compound. The second line of security forces were National Guard troops, armed with shotguns that shoot plastic shrapnel (perdigones) and tear gas.

While the opposition demonstration was trying to get near the presidential palace, at about 1:45 pm, General Lucas Rincon, the country’s highest ranking general read a statement on television that was broadcast on all networks. Behind him was the military high command. In his statement, Rincon denied rumors that President Chavez had been arrested and reaffirmed that the military was solidly in support of its commander in chief.

By 2:30 pm, opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops were engaged in a pitched battle, with rocks and tear gas flying between the National Guard and the demonstrators. The troops managed, though, to prevent the demonstrators from approaching the presidential palace’s north entrance from the west. Photographs and video footage later showed how at one point in the confrontation former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda urged opposition demonstrators to take a different route of approach to the palace, on the east side of the compound, up the Avenida Baralt. The metropolitan police led the charge up the street. With a water cannon vehicle and an armored personnel carrier the police forged its way up the street, towards an overpass known as the Puente Llaguno (Llaguno Bridge), which is one block from the presidential palace. As the police headed up the street, around 3:30 pm, they encountered no resistance from any National Guard troops and, according to Chavista accounts, opened fire on the Chavista demonstrators who were gathered both on the Avenida Baralt and on the bridge. Also around this time, Chavista demonstrators heard shots being fired at them from buildings surrounding their demonstration. A group of perhaps five or six Chavistas was armed and at around 5 pm began returning fire from the police, while taking cover behind the buildings that border the overpass. The shooters on the overpass would later recount that they were also trying to shoot at the people shooting at them from the buildings.

As more and more people were hit and even killed by the gunfire, the Chavista dead and wounded were taken to a first aid tent located across the street from Miraflores, within a government compound known as the “White Palace.” This small first aid tent had been set up three days earlier, in anticipation of any violence that might occur as a result of the pro-Chavez vigil clashing with anti-Chavez demonstrators. TV commentators, upon seeing footage of the tent, immediately raised questions about it, suggesting that such a tent had never before been placed there and that it was there now precisely because Chavez or his supporters had intended to ambush the opposition demonstration from the Llaguno Bridge. Numerous witnesses would later report, though, that first aid tents had been positioned in this location previously, whenever Chavez used the area in front of Miraflores as a rallying point.[14]

While Chavistas were being shot at from both the metropolitan police and from unidentified shooters in buildings (or sharpshooters, many said), opposition demonstrators were being shot at too. However, it was unclear exactly who was firing at the opposition demonstrators. According to most accounts, the opposition demonstrators never came closer to the Llaguno Bridge—where the Chavista demonstrators were—than about 400-500 meters, which means that the small arms that the Chavistas were shooting with were out of range to hit any opposition demonstrators. It is generally assumed that pistols have an effective range of only about 250-300 meters. Nonetheless, at least seven opposition demonstrators were killed and many more wounded that day. According to most eye-witness accounts, the opposition demonstrators were shot at from the buildings near the opposition demonstration. Autopsies also confirmed that the vast majority of the dead received shots from above, many of them to their heads, most likely from nearby buildings.

According to the final report of the office of the Defensoria del Pueblo (Defender of the People, the human rights defender), there were 19 fatalities that day. Seven of the dead had participated in the pro-Chavez demonstration, seven in the anti-Chavez demonstration, and five were non-partisan bystanders. Also, there were a total of 69 wounded that day. 38 in the pro-Chavez demonstration, 17 in the opposition demonstration, and 14 were reporters or unaffiliated passers-by.[15]

A different kind of battle was taking place in the media while all of the shooting was going on near the presidential palace. That is, all of the private TV stations were broadcasting the battle scenes on the street from the perspective of the opposition demonstration. Shortly after the first demonstrators were being killed by shooters from nearby buildings and by the metropolitan police, at 3:45pm, Chavez took over the airwaves in a national broadcast and made an address to the nation, asking for people to remain calm and severely criticizing the opposition. Repeatedly during Chavez’s speech, he was handed a slip of paper, presumably about what was happening outside the presidential palace, which he would glance at and then continued his address.  A few minutes into the broadcast, however, the TV stations, in an apparently coordinated plan, split their screens and showed Chavez on one half and the street battles in the other half. Chavez, upon being informed of what the TV stations were doing, issued an order at about 4:25 pm, to take all private TV stations off the air. Chavez’s broadcast continued for another hour, until 5:15 pm.

The private TV stations managed to get back onto the air during Chavez’s broadcast, via cable and satellite, although not over the regular airwaves. In addition to broadcasting the fight between opposition and National Guard, the TV stations began showing images of Chavistas shooting from the bridge onto the street below, which was off screen. News commentators then claimed, without showing any actual footage, that the Chavistas who were shooting were firing at “unarmed opposition demonstrators.” This claim was repeated over and over again on all of the media. Later this claim would prove to be one of the key elements in providing the justification for the coup.

While the private TV stations were broadcasting one opposition politician or commentator after the other, as well as the Chavista gunmen shooting from the bridge in the direction of the opposition demonstration, the state television station broadcast interviews with pro-Chavez politicians. Both opposition supporters and Chavistas said that they were ambushed and each argued that their side had suffered most of the casualties in the confrontation that day.

Then, at 7 pm, Chavistas began to realize that a coup was indeed in progress because at that time the first of several military pronouncements was made. Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez, reading a prepared statement from an undisclosed location, with nine other military officers behind him, read a statement that said, “We direct ourselves to the people to no longer recognize the current government, the authority of President Chavez, and of the military high command. Ramirez went on to say that given the deaths of several people in the confrontation in the city center, “the constitution obliges us to avoid more bloodshed and this obligation implies the peaceful departure of the president and the substitution of the high command.”

Next, the entire National Guard leadership, with General Carlos Alfonso Martinez speaking, followed by the vice-Minister for citizen Security, General Luis Alberto Camacho Kairuz, and then by the leadership of the DISIP—the “political police” (similar to the FBI in the U.S.)—all declared their disobedience to the President on television. Camacho Kairuz’s statement gave the first foreshadowing of what was to come. In his televised comments after calling for Chavez’s resignation, he suggested that a provisional junta should be installed to govern the country, which would initiate procedures for modifying the constitution to “return us to what we have always been: the Republic of Venezuela;”[16] that is, to remove the word “Bolivarian” from “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” General Camacho Kairuz also announced the defection of various regiments throughout the country.

The final blow to Chavez’s presidency came at 8 pm when the head of the army, General Efrain Vasquez Velasco appeared on television to renounce Chavez’s leadership, saying “until today I was loyal to you, Mr. President.” Perhaps the greatest surprise was that one of the generals considered to be closest to Chavez, the head of the military high command, General Manuel Rosendo, also declared his disobedience.

The general public that was following the events on television that evening was presented with very contradictory images. On the four major private television channels, which had been off the air temporarily, but which could be received by those with cable or satellite access, the images were of Chavistas shooting at off-screen targets and commentators claiming that they were firing at unarmed opposition demonstrators. The constant repetition of this footage was intermingled with the pronouncements of various opposition politicians and of military officers declaring their disobedience. Meanwhile, on state TV (channel 8), the broadcast was live from the Miraflores presidential palace, where several ministers and pro-Chavez National Assembly deputies were being interviewed about the day’s events. Key to the Chavista understanding of what had happened, the deputies flatly contradicted the private TV stations’ claim that it was opposition demonstrators who had been shot at. Instead, they said that it was Chavistas who were killed, many of whom were lying dead in the presidential palace itself. Deputy Juan Barreto said during these broadcasts that it was the oppositional party Bandera Roja that was the main culprit in the deaths that day; that they placed snipers in the neighboring buildings to shoot at Chavistas.

Between 9 pm and 10 pm, the state television channel (VTV) explained to its viewers that Chavez was meeting with both his ministers and the military high command, to decide how to deal with the crisis. Then, suddenly, at about 10 pm, VTV went off the air. More or less around the same time the private TV channels could be received over the regular airwaves, via antenna, again.

Rumors began to spread that Chavez had resigned and that he had asked to be taken to Cuba. Supporters of the opposition became ecstatic at the news of this possibility and congregated at the Caracas city airport, La Carlota, in the hopes of seeing Chavez’s departure. An airplane there appeared to be getting ready to leave. However, it was then announced, at about 10:30 pm, that the plane was for Chavez’s wife, Marisabel Rodriguez de Chavez, who was flying with her daughter to her hometown of Barquisimeto, in western Venezuela.

The mystery of what was happening in Miraflores continued until 1:30 am, when General Efrain Vasquez Velasco confirmed that Chavez was negotiating with military officers the conditions of his resignation. The negotiations continued with little news until 3:30 am, when General Lucas Rincon Romero took to the airwaves to announce in a brief statement that the “President of the Republic was asked to resign, which he accepted.” Rincon added that the military high command would be at the service of the “new authorities.” About half an hour later, television viewers were able to barely make out images of Chavez, as he was being escorted into the military compound of Fuerte Tiuna (Fort Tiuna). To Chavistas it seemed that Chavez had been toppled via a classic coup, while to anti-Chavistas it seemed that a ruthless dictator was finally removed from office.

The author’s perspective

By April 11, I had been living in Venezuela for about one and a half years. I considered myself to be an interested bystander, in that I thought the Chavez government’s policies were interesting and worth supporting, but I had reservations about Chavez because I thought that too often he seemed to do himself more harm than good because of the way he pursued his policies. It was not until the days leading up to the April 9th general strike, though, that I involved myself in a deeper analysis of political events in Venezuela. By the time the CTV and Fedecamaras called for an unlimited general strike, it had become obvious to me that something big was about to happen. The rhetoric was so extreme on both sides that it seemed nearly impossible for any kind of resolution of the conflict without a major confrontation of some sort.

So, on April 10th, I suspected that what some members of the opposition were aiming for was a coup, as this seemed to be the only solution for the opposition.[17] That is, the opposition was arguing that it wanted Chavez’s resignation, but given that Chavez had declared unequivocally that he would never resign, a confrontation in the form of a coup seemed the only option for the opposition. A referendum, as many in the opposition had suggested, also seemed unviable, since that option was flat-out rejected and a recall referendum would, according to the constitution only be possible once half of Chavez’s term in office had passed, on August 19, 2003. More likely seemed to me was that the opposition was hoping Chavez would declare martial law and that the opposition would use such an occasion as an excuse for a coup.

The day of the opposition demonstration to Chuao and then to Miraflores, my wife and I were at home, watching the protest on television. In the early afternoon, shortly after the demonstration headed for the presidential palace, my wife received phone calls urging her to join the pro-Chavez demonstration at Miraflores. We both decided to go, but we first had to find a babysitter for our daughter. Around 3 pm we decided that she would go ahead and I would join her later, once the babysitter arrived.

I was finally able to head towards Miraflores at about 4 pm. Taking the subway, I got off one stop beyond the closest one for the Miraflores presidential palace because the Miraflores stop had been closed. Walking back, I had to cross El Calvario, a city park where opposition demonstrators had gathered who did not want to fight the National Guard. Since the park is much higher than the surrounding area, one could clearly see the battles between opposition demonstrators and the National Guard from there. Tear gas was everywhere and the demonstrators were breaking down a schoolyard wall, to use its rocks against the Guard. I phoned my wife and told her where I was and that I had to circle around the entire area, since soldiers were blocking my way to get to the pro-Chavez demonstration. As I crossed the now infamous Avenida Baralt, I saw some motorcycles and then a police van zoom past me. Hardly any opposition demonstrators were to be seen on the street. I did see someone lying on the street who looked like he might be dead. I took a picture of him and just as I was about to get closer, I heard shots being fired. Just like most people, my first thought was that it could be fireworks, which were quite common, but then I realized that the man lying on the street might have been shot. Suddenly I could hear rapid bursts of gunfire and I and some other people who were milling around the area ran for cover behind the columns of a building (at Plaza Caracas). Once the shooting stopped, I continued towards the National Assembly, figuring that somewhere there must be a gap in the National Security line, so I could get to the Chavista demonstration.

I found a gap at the National Assembly and finally made it to the pro-Chavez demonstration, on Avenida Urdaneta. However, as I approached the overpass over the Avenida Baralt (Puente Llaguno), the crowd got extremely dense and I could not advance anymore. I asked someone what was going on and he exclaimed to me, “They are shooting at us!” I struggled to figure out where the shots where coming from, which I could hear and then noticed that people had completely cleared away from the overpass. Everyone seemed to be trying to hide behind the buildings that kept them protected them from shots coming from the street below. At the two ends of the bridge I saw several men returning fire towards the street below, just as was later shown on television.

At one point many in the crowd pointed at one of the buildings nearby. When I looked, I could see a soldier on the roof. At first I thought that perhaps this was one of the snipers that I heard people mention. But then I realized that he seemed to be searching the rooftop and people were shouting at him to go to one of the lower floors, where they seemed to have seen someone shooting.

Finally, at around 6 pm, the shooting stopped and I could cross the bridge. I joined up with my wife, just as the rally in front of the presidential palace was ending. We decided to go back home. Once home, we turned on the TV and I saw the scene that I had witnessed of the Chavistas shooting from the bridge. To my amazement, though, the announcer was claiming that the Chavistas were firing at the unarmed opposition demonstration. I could not believe my ears because I had seen—with my ow

Leave a comment