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Attempts to whitewash the military coup of April 2002 in Venezuela


Given the overwhelming support opposition voices have been given in western media since Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998, it is unsurprising that some would have had the audacity to attempt at least a partial whitewash of what the opposition and its foreign allies did in April of 2002. I’ll address some of those efforts below.

The Plan Avila Excuse

In a 2004 piece about the coup, Francisco Toro (the founder of the opposition Cracs Chronicles blog who presently writes frequently about Venezuela in the Washington Post) also made much of “Plan Avila” in his attempt to deflect at least some blame away from the opposition:

Chávez personally ordered the activation of Plan Avila. Now, those two words will mean little to foreign readers, but they will send chills down the spine of any Venezuelan.

Plan Avila is an army-run contingency plan designed to quell serious disturbances in Caracas.

As far as I know, the plan had only ever been activated once before, during the massive looting that broke out on February 27th and 28th, 1989.

So Toro alleges that Chavez had ordered the same militarized security plan used during the Caracazo Massacre which Toro simply described as being a response to “looting”. As Wilpert explained, Plan Avila was used when the Pope visited Venezuela in 1996. Also, the reasons for the Caracazo Massacre go way deeper than whatever, no doubt real, problems there were with Plan Avila regarding things like the training of troops. For one thing, no matter what troops did, Perez could obviously count on the support of the US government in ways Chavez could not in 2002. George H.W. Bush called Perez while the Caracazo Massacre was still going on to offer him financial support.

Phil Gunson lashes out at Irish Filmmakers

Phil Gunson, a journalist who has covered Latin America for decades for establishment outlets like  BBC World Service, The Guardian, Newsweek, The Miami Herald and The Economist was so stung by the documentary that he had a critique of it published in 2004 in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Months before the coup, Gunson had written an article for Newsweek in which he seriously asked “But is he [Chavez] really mentally unbalanced?” During the coup, Gunson told NPR that Chavez had “done precisely what he said he would never do which is to have his security forces fire on the demonstrators in the streets.”[1]

It’s easy to see why Gunson would be eager to attack the documentary.

He conceded in his review that “opposition media, as the film rightly points out, behaved disgracefully during the April events” but Gunson still bent over backwards trying to salvage at least some of the opposition’s credibility (and his own). His critique is useful in that it illustrates what an impossible task that is.

Gunson objected that the some footage should have been properly dated.

In June, two months after the violence, Bartley and O’Briain filmed a group of condominium residents discussing how to defend themselves against possible chavista attacks. But the film — whose narrative purports to follow a strict chronology — inserted the interviews before the march [of April 11]. When I challenged Bartley on that in an exchange of e-mails, she dismissed the criticism, saying the producers felt that “the views expressed at this meeting illustrated the collective mind of the opposition long before the coup ever took place.”

The footage actually shows a leader of the resident meeting telling everyone to keep a close eye on their domestic servants because “many are involved with the Bolivarian Circles [organized Chavista groups in poor neighborhoods]. In many ways they pass along information”.  Note how Gunson’s description of the meeting reflexively edited out the repulsive classism of the residents, precisely the type of bias the documentary exposed. I agree with Bartley and O’Brian that the footage of the meeting reveals bigotry that would clearly have existed before the coup, but it should have been shown in sequence or otherwise dated for the viewer.

Gunson also wrote

Before the march neared the palace, a number of people were shot, and several killed there. The film suggests that they were shot by “the coup plotters.” The fact is — as Bartley and O’Briain later admitted — we don’t know who was shooting. Nevertheless, a Venevisión reporter named Luis Alfonso Fernández was hustled off a rooftop for filming chavista gunmen apparently firing at the opposition march.

That film, repeated incessantly on the opposition TV channels, became the most contentious image of the entire day. Bartley accepts a government argument that “the opposition march had never taken that route” and that the gunmen were merely returning fire from snipers and the opposition-controlled police.

The images speak for themselves and do not require accepting a “government argument” as Gunson claimed. Venevision showed close up images of chavistas firing from the bridge and simply told the audience in an outraged tone that the shooters were firing at “absolutely unarmed peaceful protesters”. But Venevision never actually showed who they were firing at. As Bartley and O’Brian also observed (and as Gunson ignored in his disingenuous critique) the Chavestas were not just shooting, but also taking cover. The use of close up shots by Venevision also ignored people on the bridge several meters away who were not firing (or armed) but going down for cover.

Appropriately enough, Venevision won the King of Spain Journalism Award for its manipulated footage that was crucial to briefly overthrowing a democracy. [2]

IMAGE 1: CLOSE UP SHOT OF CHAVISTA SHOOTERS ON LLAGUNO BRIDGE AND VOICEOVER USED BY VENEVISION[3]

IMAGE 2: SEVERAL METERS AWAY FROM CHAVISTA SHOOTERS, UNARMED PEOPLE GO DOWN FOR COVER ON LLAGUNO BRIDGE  – NOT MENTIONED BY VENEVISION[4]

Gunson also objected

She fails to mention that several people on the opposition march were shot dead, and many more wounded, less than two blocks from the gunmen. An image she uses showing an empty street below the Llaguno Bridge on which the gunmen were standing was filmed much earlier than the Fernández sequence, according to an analysis of the shadows by Wolfgang Schalk, a Venezuelan TV producer.

But showing that both sides were firing at each other “suggests” (as Gunson  puts it) that people on both sides were killed and wounded on that day, something opposition supporters would be forced to concede only after the coup failed. Moreover, the footage Gunson describes does not just show an empty street below the bridge. It also shows two large crowds of people (clearly only a very small number of whom were armed) taking cover on the both sides of the bridge.[5] In fact Chavistas on the bridge and underneath it were killed and wounded by gunfire, something Gunso failed to mention.[6]

IMAGE 3: CHAVISTAS TAKING COVER ON LLAGUNO BRIDGE BEFORE CAMERA ZOOMS OUT OVER THE NEXT 15 SECONDS TO SHOW EMPTY STREET BELOW

IMAGE 4: EMPTY STREET BELOW LLAGUNO BRIDGE DURING SHOOTOUT. PEOPLE TAKING COVER ON BOTH SIDES OF BRIDGE[7]

The most obnoxious complaint Guson made about the documentary was that it did not show, as he put it, “armed bands of chavista thugs who for years have made the center of Caracas a no-go area, beating up or shooting opposition marchers or TV crews who dare to approach.” Gunson never speaks of opposition “thugs” in his critique.

Gunson seems to think the demonization of chavistas by western media (thanks to reporters like him) was insufficient – that it must also be done by documentaries that expose how a dictatorship was installed with the crucial backing of private media companies. The documentary showed opposition leaders (including Leopoldo Lopez whom Amnesty International would name several years later as a “Prisoner of Conscience”) on private TV while Chavez was deposed thanking the media for making the coup possible. That doesn’t justify violence against the people who work for these outlets, but it more than justifies the disgust felt towards the outlets by millions in Venezuela. It also justifies much more radical reform of the media than Chavez (and Maduro) ever undertook.

IMAGE 5: APRIL 12 LEOPOLDO LOPEZ AND OTHER OPPOSITION LEADERS ON TV THANKING THE MEDIA [8]

The following passage is Gunson’s critique is also remarkable for a few reasons:

While the shooting was going on, Chávez commandeered all radio and TV frequencies for a speech that lasted almost two hours. He had used this prerogative up to seventeen times during the previous day. When private TV channels split the screen during his speeches to show the accompanying violence, the president ordered the National Guard to shut them down. None of this is featured in the film, which wrongly claims that state TV (VTV) was “the only channel to which he had access.” Later that evening, VTV [state TV] went off the air after its staff deserted. The film implies that it was taken over by coup-plotters, and even fabricates a sequence in which the TV screen goes blank during a government legislator’s interview.

Despite the fact that the private media succeeded in installing a dictatorship, and imposed a news blackout trying to keep it in power, Gunson was still outraged that Chavez had been interrupting them during their build up to the coup and even on the day it happened. What should Chavez have done? Resigned at the request of private media barons? Let them dictate the policies he should implement? Who elected them?

As for VTV [the state broadcaster] Gunson’s account appears to be that its staff simply “deserted” for reasons unrelated to the coup. So nothing to do with the fact that Carmona dictatorship was rounding up members of the Chavez government (those it could find since many went into hiding), imposing a siege on the Cuban embassy, and repressing chavista supporters in the streets. An opposition governor, Enrique Mendoza, was eventually prosecuted for leading the police raid that shut down VTV. Mendoza said on camera during the coup that “this garbage of channel 8 [VTV] will be going off the air in the next few hours”. Mendoza denied his role and eventually benefited from the amnesty Chavez granted many of the perpetrators at the end of 2007.

Gunson claims that a “more serious” problem with the documentary is the “deliberate blurring of responsibility for the coup” and that it overstates the extent to which the military turned on Chavez. For example, Gunson gives the example of General Lucas Rincon who was later made a minister in the Chavez government.

It’s possible the documentary was unfair to Rincon since he became the face of the “fake news” (as we’d call it today) that Chavez had resigned. He was a Chavez minister for a while afterwards, and has been Venezuela’s Ambassador to Portugal since 2006.

Rincon’s “grammatically twisted statement” [as Bart Jones called it] announcing a Chavez resignation deprived the rebels of any pretext to bomb Miraflores. If the intention was to at least temporarily appease the rebels, then that could also explain why Rincon made no mention of conditions or even of the constitution.[9]

Clearly, a very significant military rebellion took place or Chavez would never have given himself up to his captors. Beyond that, what do we conclude about General Lucas Rincon and others in the high command? Were some of them involved (even if only in the last moments) in pressuring Chavez to resign – something Chavez (and they) would not want to later acknowledge? In historic events like these, unanswered questions always linger, often forever.

The documentary abridged the story of the coup somewhat. It could not coherently explore every significant aspect of it. There was nothing in the film, for example, about the explosive revelation of CNN correspondent Otto Neustaldt which was available before the documentary was released in 2003. In a journalism conference held in September of 2002, Neustaldt said he had taped Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez denouncing deaths during the April 11 protests that had not yet taken place. Neustaldt’s efforts to later deny and retract what he said at the conference were, as Wilpert explained, very dubious.

Gunson’s attack on the films was an attempt to obscure the obvious – that Venezuela’s private media, with help from international media and the US government, toppled a democratically elected government and replaced it with a dictatorship.

NOTES

[1] Bart Jones, The Hugo Chavez Story, pg 330

[2] Bart Jones, pg 328

[3] All images captured via Youtube  English subtitles, in white,  of what the broadcasters as the image is broadcast are supplied in the documentary.

[4] As Leopoldo Lopez and others thanked the media for their role in the coup (see Image 1) these images of people taking cover on the bridge actually appear very briefly in the screen behind them them.

[5] Ten years later, another documentary(Llaguno Bridge: Keys to a Massacre) proved that the last opposition death occurred 43 minutes before the Venevision footage showed Chavistas firing from the bridge. Audio of a Chavez speech captured in the footage allowed an exact time to be established. Exact time for various incidents was also established, as the documentary explains, through close up examination of watches people were wearing. The documentary also interviewed people who had been wounded by gunfire on the bridge who said they had been fired on by police and by snipers in nearby buildings.

[6] See 54:41 point on of of Llaguno Bridge: Keys to a Massacre describing the details about Chavistas killed and wounded by gunfire on and underneath the bridge.

[7] Note that I added the text and arrows in red to the screenshot

[8] Víctor Manuel García, who sits to Leopoldo Lopez’s left is the one who actually says “Thanks to the media” indicated by the subtitles. Lopez nods approving as the media is praised. Garcia is a pollster who proudly depicted himself as a coup conspirator on this TV show. To Garcia’s left is Rear Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, one of the leaders of the march on Miraflores on April 11, 2002. Molina later said to the Washington Post that he “felt” he had US support. (Bart Jones 343, 321, 312),

[9] Bart Jones pg 337. Rincon said “The military leadership abhors today’s events. In light of these events, it was requested of the president that he resign his post, which he accepted.”

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