The Coup in Venezuela: An Interview with Temir Porras

Justin Podur

On April 11, 2002,
the elected President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, was overthrown in a military
coup. The coup started with a business-called general strike and a media
campaign against Chavez. Demonstrators marched on the presidential palace and,
according to several eyewitness accounts, exchanged gunfire with Chavez
supporters and some—probably mostly Chavez supporters—were killed. Members of
the military claimed that Chavez ordered the military to open fire on an unarmed
demonstration and used this as a pretext to order his arrest. The coup leaders
circulated the rumor that Chavez had resigned, when he in fact had not, and he
was subsequently imprisoned.

The United States
immediately denied that there had been a coup, while simultaneously denying that
they had anything to do with it. The replacement president, Pedro Carmona,
dissolved the National Assembly and Supreme Court, promising new elections in a

The governments
of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, and Cuba refused to recognize the Carmona
government. Pro-Chavez demonstrations erupted. The demonstrators occupied a
major television station, surrounded the presidential palace, and parts of the
military who were still loyal to Chavez began to mobilize. Many demonstrators
were killed in clashes with police. By Sunday, April 14, 2002, Chavez was back
in power. He gave a speech Sunday afternoon in which he said there would be no
“witch hunt” against the opposition and that those who plotted the coup would be
punished, but in accordance with the law.

Condoleeza Rice
of the Bush administration stated that she hoped Chavez had learned his lesson
and that he would “respect constitutional processes” and take the opportunity to
“right his ship.” Given that he was constitutionally elected and that the U.S.
had supported (and likely helped to bring about) the 24-hour dictatorship, this
was a remarkable display of hypocrisy, even by State Department standards.

Chavez’s program,
the “Boli- varian Revolution,” calls for using the country’s resources for the
benefit of the people of the country. Chavez helped revive OPEC, resulting in a
rise in the price of oil. His foreign policy included close relations with Cuba
and diplomatic relations with U.S. enemies such as Iraq and Libya. He initiated
land reform programs, reformed the tax system, and increased spending to health
and education. These are the kinds of policies the U.S. consistently opposes and
punishes violently.

The day after the
coup Z Magazine received an email from some workers in the Chavez
government, asking if we could interview them. They had serious security
concerns, but by the time we finally connected with them, their government was
back in power and they could give us their names. Temir Porras Ponceleon and
Maximilien Arvelaiz were hired just weeks before the coup to work as Chavez’s
press relations advisors. Temir Porras provided an eyewitness account of the
coup and the counter-coup, and some background on the “Boli- varian Revolution.”

Who carried out the coup and how much support do anti-Chavez forces have in the

opposition to Chavez is an alliance of the most reactionary groups in society.
They’re opposed to social, political, and economic changes. The opposition has a
base in the upper and the upper-middle class.

There are a few
things you have to understand, though, about the changes that we are talking
about and the level of opposition that we are talking about. Let’s take just
basic levels of taxes and government services. If you look at Europe, where
neoliberal governments are in power, where they have slashed taxes and public
spending, then most neoliberal countries in Europe are like the USSR compared to
Venezuela in terms of taxation and social spending. The changes Chavez is
proposing don’t put Venezuela at even half the taxation levels of the United

So these are very
mild changes and they have met totally systematic refusal by the opposition. The
refusal is, of course, because they stand to lose, but there’s also a cultural
component. That is to say, Chavez is black, he is indigenous, he speaks to the
people. That is also something elites can’t stand.

Why did the
coup fail?

In part, because
of the army. The army is mostly of the people. It’s poor people. It’s not an
army made up of aristocrats. There are very few people in the army who come from
a wealthy background—60 percent of the country is poor and that’s reflected in
the army. As a result, the dictatorship couldn’t win. Besides that, the tactical
mistakes they made, their program was so blatant that they couldn’t get
international recognition.

What were
these tactical mistakes?

The Carmona
government was so stupid and brutal, that they alienated the army almost
immediately. Carmona’s government dissolved the National Assembly. They
dissolved the Supreme Court. They dissolved the Constitution and promised to
reinstate it in a year with fresh elections. They detained many government
ministers without charges, using municipal police. They suppressed the
demonstrators brutally.

They immediately
started persecuting anyone with “Bolivarian” leanings. They started a campaign
to criminalize Bolivarians and also they would do things like take literature
from the Chavez government and show it as evidence of criminal intent. All this
in the first 24 hours. One mayor, Leopoldo Lopez, called Chavez a criminal on

They did it all
in front of cameras, so that everyone could watch on television. It became so
obvious that they were going to be a disaster, so quickly, that they couldn’t


Do you think
that your movement is in a better or worse position to carry out your reforms?

I think we’re in
a better position. We are on the high ground, morally, now. The opposition has
revealed itself and is thoroughly discredited and isolated now. The U.S. cannot
say that Chavez is a dictator. As badly as they want him to be, he is not a

I’m pretty sure
this is historically unprecedented. Can you remember one case of a dictatorship
overthrowing a democratically elected leader and then having to return him to
power, triumphant, within 24 hours?

Did your
movement make any errors, errors that made you more vulnerable to the coup, that
made your reforms more vulnerable?

We were
vulnerable to the coup for many reasons. One is that we were overconfident about
the incompetence and isolation of the opposition. Another is that we were
overconfident about the unity of the army behind us. We just didn’t think Chavez
could be in such trouble so quickly.

I hope that in
the future Chavez will avoid useless conflicts, like that with the petrol
company, PDV. We alienated ourselves from people who might have supported us,
with that kind of politics. The thing to do now is to continue with the reforms
and affirm their democratic character, keep them solidly on course, and avoid
useless conflicts.

There are other
weaknesses, and strengths, in the movement. One obvious weakness is how much of
it is centered around the charismatic figure of Chavez. I hope that we can admit
that. Another thing I hope we can admit is that this whole Bolivarian movement
is fairly new and has a unique history. It doesn’t have a long history of
opposition the way the Worker’s Party (PT) in Brazil has, for example. In a
sense, the Bolivarians won before going through that whole processs of struggle
and popular organization. We are now organizing from a position of power. I hope
we don’t neglect organization as a result.

Still another
difference between the Bolivarian movement and Brazil’s PT is—and I’m not a
“vanguardist”—but our movement is new and as a result we have a deficit of
skills and expertise. We lack people who share our ideals and also have the
kinds of administrative skills we need. To remedy this is a whole process of
education, formation, and building a movement. It’s the kind of thing the PT did
in their long years in opposition.

Were there any
weaknesses internationally that can be remedied to help prevent this from

Yes. On the one
hand, there were these internal weaknesses in our movement. On the other hand,
we had a lack of international protection. There are reasons for this, but the
result is—well, let me give you an example. Let’s take the Worker’s Party in
Brazil again The PT is in power in Porto Alegre. The mayor of Porto Alegre makes
changes in the city’s budget—good changes—and the social movements of the world
applaud. I don’t think we see that level of applause for the changes made in
this entire country—the fourth-largest oil producer in the world.

It’s an unusual
situation. Chavez is one of the most emblematic leaders of the Third World
today. He is the model of resistance to neoliberalism. He is, in many ways, one
of the most important figures of the anti-globalization movement. But I think
that two months ago, he didn’t know it. His politics, without him having having
advisers from ATTAC [a strong part of the anti-globalization movement in
Europe], consists of ATTAC’s suggested policies and alternatives to
neoliberalism. Yet he didn’t know ATTAC until recently and ATTAC didn’t pay much
attention to him either.

In part, this is
because of the nature of the Bolivarian movement. It is a real people’s
movement. That means it’s not so Internet savvy. Most of its members don’t get
online. Many of its members don’t know people like Galeano. It’s not a perfect,
ideologically sophisticated movement in that sense.

It is an
authentic movement of people who are learning as they go, as they make changes.
It’s as emotional as it is intellectual and this is a strength and a weakness.
It’s not people doing things because a book tells them to do it.

In a way Chavez
is like that too. Eclectic, curious, always changing and learning as he goes.
He’s almost an instinctive revolutionary.                              Z

Podur is a graduate student in environmental science at the University of
Toronto and a commentator for
Z Magazine and ZNet. See
Venezuela Watch at watch.htm.