Hugo Chávez’s failed coups, twenty-five years on

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Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez Frías, asking his men to give up, after the failed coup attempt on February 4th,1992

This year marks the 25th anniversary of two coup attempts in Venezuela, led by Hugo Chávez's MBR-200 movement, since then mythologized by the current government. It also marked, together with the Caracazo three years earlier, the end of a period of remarkable political stability in Venezuela and the beginning of a crisis from which the country with the world's largest proven oil reserves has yet to recover.

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Despite massive social discontent and persistent rumours that a military coup was underway, the two uprisings in February and November 1992 came a surprise to many political analysts. After all, Venezuela had been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, not having seen a coup d'état since 1958. That made it, in 1992, the second longest-standing democracy in South America after Colombia. Contrary to several other countries in the region, it did not experience military coups in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the country's Punto Fijo pact, though rigid and far from problem-free, was seen as reasonably stable by neighboring countries. Indeed, Venezuelan governments enjoyed legitimacy to speak on domestic issues in other countries. This became most apparent in the aftermath of the military coup in Suriname in 1990. The government of Venezuela not only suspended diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo, but also referred the matter to the OAS Council, where Suriname was sharply criticized. In In Search of a Path, Roger Janssen describes how Venezuela took the lead:

The frustration in the region was clearly illustrated by Venezuela’s reaction. Caracas was not content to just call on the OAS to discuss the coup, it also threatened to lobby the organization to take further measures should the military fail to hold free and fair elections within the designated time. Venezuela deemed the situation so grave that it cancelled all aid programmes. The most drastic step, however, was the decision to recall the Venezuelan Ambassador from Paramaribo. President Pérez, a personal friend of Arron [Surinam's Vice President], denounced the coup as a ‘deep insult to the dignity of the whole of America’ and threatened that Venezuela might take additional actions ‘against this disgraceful military coup which once again opens the chapter of military dictatorships’. (p.242/243).

Yet by that time already, Venezuela's economy was in deep trouble, and there is reason to believe that Pérez's strong reaction was partly motivated by fears that he could face a similar fate at home. Forced to adopt tough austerity measures due to low oil prices, the government had admitted that little more than half of Venezuela's population was able to afford more than one meal a day, similar to the misery it endures today. Massive protests in response to austerity measures in 1989 -- remembered as the 'Caracazo' -- led President Pérez to call a state of emergency and to set the military on protestors to restore order, leading to the death of hundreds of protesters. The famous Punto Fijo system seemed weakened beyond repair. As Daniel Levine writes, Venezuela's democracy suffered from a multitude of problems, including "elite and mass defections, leadership failure, organisational rigidities, institutional immobilism and inefficacy, declining legitimacy, and the limited capacity of new movements to consolidate into viable political alternatives." This suggests Venezuela's democracy profoundly weakened, and may not have survived even without the rise of Hugo Chávez. Still, the coup attempts of 1992 were a prelude to broader changes that would take place in the course of the following years.

Both coups were badly planned and numerous mistakes assured that they faltered quickly. Yet paradoxically, it was the government's gross mishandling of the situation in the aftermath -- above all, allowing the highly telegenic Hugo Chávez to speak on national television and say that he surrendered "for now", that made him instantly known across the country, helping him build a national movement after he was released from prison by Pérez's successor Rafael Caldera.

The region reacted swiftly. As Francisco Rezek, Brazil's foreign minister, remembers,

That attempted coup d'état of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, bringing together all the foreign ministers of the region (...) we all went to Caracas, we gathered around an oak table, still marked by the furrows of the rifle bullets by the frustrated coup. We knew that President Carlos Andrés left much to be desired at that time, but he was the legitimate ruler of Venezuela and it is not possible to accept the idea that the ruler is removed from power with rifle bullets in the president's meeting room (...)

The second coup attempt in November, Chávez was still in prison, but recorded a message to the nation asking for the population's support. Yet while his supporters succeeded in taking over Venezolana de Televisión, a state-run TV station, and broadcast Chávez's video, they failed to take over other broadcast outlets such as Televen, which allowed Pérez to address the nation and declare that the rebellion had failed. In total, 172 people died in the clashes. The government's response was harsh, in many ways similar to the brutal tactics Maduro would adopt 25 years later to crush resistance. Pérez imposed a curfew, limited freedom of speech, and tens of Chávez's supporters are said to have been executed by the government. Other supporters were tried in ad hoc courts, which were later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Only ten years later, Hugo Chávez, by then in power, would face a coup attempt that succeeded for 48 hours before faltering and allowing him to return to power. All that only reinforces an obvious point relevant for policy makers today: Venezuela's deep problems -- most of them related to the country's obscene oil wealth and its economic dependence on it -- precede the rise of Chávez, and there is little to suggest that any future, post-chavismo government, can solve them easily. Venezuela, irrespective of who will be in power in the coming years, will be a long-term patient, and as such, policy makers in the region must adopt a long-term strategy when it comes to dealing with the country.

Read also:

How Venezuelan Refugees Are Surviving in Brazil (Americas Quarterly)

Venezuela’s problems go far beyond chavismo

Venezuela: No Solution Without Beijing

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