April 2002 Coup: When the People Defended Chávez and the Revolution

Randolph Borges, Orinoco Tribune, April 12, 2023 —

Twenty-one years have passed since the failed coup against Hugo Chávez’s government, and today very few insist on denying it was a coup. The weight of each one of the events that took place between April 10 and 14, 2002, leaves the testimony of a bloody forced displacement of the constitutional president from power.

In the structure of the planning and perpetration of the coup, there are several political and economic actors, headed by the United States Embassy and seconded by political and business sectors, the media and a lot of hatred.

This hatred began to grow in November 2001 after the approval of 49 Enabling Laws, empowering the executive to legislate on hydrocarbons, land tenure, and fishing law. All the laws were rejected by the national oligarchy, and the media dedicated numerous spaces to questioning them.

In December 2001, the first national strike test was carried out. Although it was not well attended, it served as a test for the plans that would be developed shortly after. Thus, 2002 arrived and the opposition—reflected in Fedecámaras, Consecomercio, Fedenaga, the CTV and the Episcopal Conference—grouped in the infamous Coordinadora Democrática (Democratic Coordinator). They just had to wait for the right moment to strike.

The national strike
The Coordinadora Democrática called a national strike to begin on April 9, 2002. Initially, they wanted to do it on April 19 to take advantage of Venezuela’s national independence holiday as a symbol of the protest, but it transpired that President Chávez would leave the country due to commitments from his office, and they decided to bring the date of the coup forward. Thus, the business shutdown began on April 9.

The strike was called and directed by Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecámaras, Carlos Ortega, president of the CTV, and a sector of the powerful PDVSA leadership. The strike was joined by some isolated pronouncements by soldiers without troop command who opposed the government.

On April 10, an officer of the highest rank issued a threat that shook the Chavista government, “You [Chávez] negotiate to achieve your communist objectives and sell and betray your homeland and people for your personal ambition… We are a country worthy of being governed by someone better than you.” That was part of the speech delivered by Army General Néstor González González.

Throughout the day, the government sought to calm the agitated political climate with national television broadcasts showing the country in complete calm, but some television channels divided the screens to show the opposite of what the government material offered. This action, unprecedented in the history of official broadcasts, confirmed that the media was at the forefront of the moves of this complex chess game.

On the afternoon of April 10, 2002, Carlos Ortega announced the indefinite nature of the strike. A massive march is announced in eastern Caracas, culminating in a rally in front of the PDVSA headquarters. Some soldiers loyal to the government received the order to move out of their bases under the pretext of carrying out exercises for a possible war with Colombia. Government authorities received information that the opposition march could be diverted to Miraflores. There is an atmosphere of a coup d’état. Chavismo would also mobilize the next day.

April 11: the great march
The dawn of April 11 brought a divided Caracas. From the early morning hours, Chavistas and opponents gathered at the ends of the city. The mobilization called by sectors that opposed Hugo Chávez achieved an attendance that astonished the organizers themselves, thanks to the good agitation work that the media had been carrying out for days.

The opposition demonstration was diverted to march towards the government palace without having the corresponding permission. They had the protection of the Metropolitan Police, led by opposition mayor Alfredo Peña, who had the task of opening the way for the mobilization towards Miraflores.

In the city center, the Chavistas were already surrounding all the entrances to the government palace, having been warned that the opposition march was advancing towards them. The clash was inevitable. The Metropolitan Police opened fire in the middle of the pro-government rally, while the opposition had placed snipers in buildings near the presidential palace.

Wounded fell on both sides. Some armed men on the Chavista side were accused of shooting at the opposition crowd. However, later ballistic studies showed that hitting opposition protesters from that distance would have been impossible. It was also proven that they were trying to stop the Metropolitan Police that indiscriminately fired live ammunition toward the Chavista demonstration.

Hugo Chávez condemned the violent actions on national television. At that time, several channels divided the screen again to repeat the manipulated images of those who shot at the Metropolitan Police agents at Puente Llaguno. Several high-ranking officials called for Chávez’s resignation through a recorded communication in which they accused the president of causing “the dozens of deads” left in the streets. Later, it was revealed that this was a pre-recorded speech from the previous day.

At the end of the day, it was reported that Hugo Chávez had allegedly resigned from the Presidency of the Republic after the bloody events of that fateful day. Yet there was no document evidencing the presidential resignation.

That day, 19 people died in the streets of Caracas, and dozens were injured. In the evening hours, the state channel, which denied the president’s resignation, was taken off the air. Chávez was imprisoned by those who carried out the coup and took him out of Miraflores.

The 12th: Carmona’s self-proclamation
On the morning of April 12, the witch hunt began. Right-wing mayors Henrique Capriles Radonski and Leopoldo López, who ruled wealthy municipalities in the capital, launched proceedings to arrest deposed government officials. The arrests of Minister of the Interior Ramón Rodríguez Chacín and Deputy Tarek William Saab were broadcast on television as heroic acts, as well as the siege of the Cuban Embassy.

At the other end of the city, Attorney General of the Republic Isaías Rodríguez gave a press conference under false pretenses so that the media would broadcast it. In his speech, he confirmed that President Chávez had not resigned and that, on the contrary, he was being held at the Fuerte Tiuna military barracks.

The media involved in the coup d’état immediately took the broadcast off the air. Only a few radio stations continued the broadcast with a detailed explanation of how the arrest of the country’s highest official occurred.

In the afternoon, drunk with power, the coup leaders from the clergy, the oligarchy and status quo traditional political parties took over Miraflores Palace and gathered to witness the self-proclamation of Pedro Carmona, businessman and head of Fedecámaras, as President of the Republic. In the act, all officials elected by popular vote were stripped of their positions, parliament was dissolved, Judiciary and Citizen Power officials and governors were dismissed, and the word “Bolivarian” was removed from the official name of the country.

The media justified and disguised the coup by saying there was a power vacuum. However, that never existed because the constitution establishes that the vice president assumes control in the total absence of the president. If the vice president is also absent, the command will fall to the president of parliament. None of that happened. The coup was beginning to falter.

April 13: Resurrection
The early morning of April 13, 2002, offered an inexplicable panorama for those who perpetrated the coup d’état. The television stations programmed movies, cartoons and soap operas. The informational silence was evident after the infophrenia unleashed days before. In the streets and the alternative media, the reality was different, and people began to wonder where Chávez was.

The visible face of the coup d’état, Pedro Carmona, arrived early at the government headquarters. There, he received a visit from United States Ambassador Charles Shapiro and Spanish Ambassador Manuel Viturro de la Torre, whose governments immediately recognized the dictatorship of the Venezuelan businessman as legitimate.

A piece of information reached many alternative media outlets: Chávez was being held on the island of La Orchila and his life was in danger. The streets began to heat up with demonstrations in favor of the deposed president, which were heavily repressed by the de facto rulers.

The military sector was also abuzz. The evident rupture of the constitutional thread provoked the discomfort of many high-ranking military officers who faced the situation. On the afternoon of April 13, the cornered coup leaders left the Miraflores Palace amid the unfavorable change of scenery. The people in the streets applied pressure and a crowd surrounded the presidential palace asking for the return of Chávez as the highest authority in the country.

Faced with the abandonment of the palace, Chavismo recovered the seat of government and began to move the pieces to restore order. The Venezuelan constitution establishes that in the absence of the president, the mandate rests with the vice president, who at that time was Diosdado Cabello Rondón. Once located and sworn in, his first order was to find Chávez to return him to power.

The return to institutionality
At dawn on April 14, Chávez’s return to power was a fact. He just had to wait for the soldiers to rescue him and bring him back safe and sound. Yet that was precisely one of the problems. On the island of La Orchila, where he had been held, Chávez was guarded by soldiers who obeyed the coup leaders, so the loyal forces feared a confrontation.

On April 12, a handwritten letter from Hugo Chávez himself was released. He briefly stated that he had not resigned. The letter was written in Turiamo on a piece of paper that a loyal soldier gave him and then took it upon himself to spread. In it, the president said, “I have not renounced the legitimate power that the people gave me.”

The informational silence continued in the Venezuelan media; only a few learned of these events through international media and SMS messages. The owners of television channels alleged that they were “fearing for the safety of their workers,” perhaps fearing reprisals for their complicity in the coup.

Through international media, the president of the National Assembly, William Lara, notified the country and the world that the conspirators had been defeated and democracy restored.

The coup plotters fled, many leaving the country. The most unprotected were detained in the Miraflores Palace, where Attorney General of the Republic Isaías Rodríguez read their rights. The government palace was surrounded by thousands of people who awaited the president’s return.

In the early morning of April 14, 2002, a helicopter flew over the government building. In it came President Chávez and his trusted men, who fortunately did not have to confront their brothers in arms, as the soldiers who only obeyed orders also aligned with Chávez.

From the Miraflores Palace, Hugo Chávez once again presented himself to the country on radio and television broadcasts. He asked his political opponents for sanity and respect for the Constitution. The image of him with a crucifix in his hand went around the world. The pardon he granted to the coup plotters a few months later opened the door to new schemes.

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