Book review: “The Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela”

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Book review: The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chávez and
the Making of Modern Venezuela. By Brian A. Nelson. New York: Nation Books, 2009. 355 pages.

The Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador are currently shuttling back and forth between their respective capitals and Caracas, attempting to convince the Maduro government and the opposition to initiate a constructive dialogue. Their task is fiendishly complex, for the recent political violence in Venezuela is only the latest chapter in the history of a profoundly divided society in which most main actors have contributed to a steady decay of democracy.

One important book to understand Venezuelan politics is Brian Nelson's The Silence and the Scorpion, a detailed account of the coup that temporarily removed President Chavez from power in April 2002 - and which still strongly influences current affairs today. Nelson's book is a notable achievement in several ways. First of all, it strikes the reader as relatively objective and fair, no small feat given that almost all those involved are still involved in politics, and given that the government has persecuted those challenging its official account (though in the first chapter, the opposition protesters are described in a somewhat more positive light). Secondly, though very detailed and by no means superficial, Nelson excels as a storyteller, weaving together multiple strands that, in their entirety, turn the book into a true page-turner.

The Silence and the Scorpion tries to debunk several myths about April 11, 2002 - he is skeptical of the common assertion that the U.S. government actively supported the overthrow of the Chavez government - rather, he describes U.S policy towards Venezuela as largely disoriented and uninformed. He also shows that the coup was by no means a long-planned strategy, but that events in April surprised everyone, both in government and in the opposition.

Contrary to many other accounts of the episode, such as the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which buys into the Chavez government's narrative, Nelson skillfully shows how both sides committed grave mistakes prior, during and after April 11. President Chavez' handling of the protests during which the fatal shootings took place was certainly inadequate, and Nelson suggests that pro-Chavez forces deserve a larger share of the blame. His assessment is based on a number of interviews of protesters from both sides, several of whom were physically harmed.

Yet his subsequent description of the interim government's incompetent leadership style in the aftermath of Chavez's removal shows that Pedro Carmona, a crude anti-chavista, was hardly a democrat, unwilling to listen to the army that envisioned a caretaker government that involved both chavistas and opposition leaders, willing to build bridges and reduce divisions. Surrounded by an elite largely interested in regaining the privilege lost under Chavez, Carmona's decision to dissolve parliament turned out to be a crass miscalculation that would prove fatal, turning the army against his government. Nelson cites opposition figures who, after the collapse of the Carmona government, leave Venezuela to move into their luxury homes in Florida.

The President's temporary ouster in April 2002 further polarized political affairs, and an increasingly paranoid Chavez government failed to adopt a more inclusive approach. Rather, he became less tolerant towards dissidents, a situation symbolized by the reporter Luis Fernández, who still today receives death threats for having filmed pro-Chavez gunmen firing live bullets at protesters twelve years ago. Several of the shooters filmed back then today occupy important political positions, such as Rafael Cabrices, leader of a pro-Chavez militia unit.

Nelson's book raises alarming questions about the future of Venezuelan democracy. In this context, a Brazilian policy maker and connoisseur of Venezuelan politics recently commented that chavismo would shape Venezuelan politics for generations, just like peronismo had done (and still does) in Argentina. It would be hard to make a more sobering prediction about the future of a country's democracy.

Read also:

Can Brazil pull it off in Venezuela?

Can Brazil Defend Democracy in Venezuela? (Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program)

Venezuela’s tragedy, Brazil’s challenge