Seeing April 11th with Fresh Eyes

On the eighth anniversary of the April 11th, 2002 coup, Brian Nelson – author of the most carefully researched history of the April Crisis in print today – contributes this reflection on what happened that day. La versión en español está aquí.

Some days you just can’t think about what’s happening in Venezuela.  It’s too depressing. But if you are reading this, then today is not one of those days for you. And that’s something. Because today is the anniversary of the coup that briefly ousted Hugo Chávez in 2002. It’s a time to reflect, to remember, re-see the coup, especially if you were in Venezuela at the time.  I know it isn’t easy, but it’s important. It’s important to make yourself look.

I’ve heard it said that everyone was a chavista once.  Well, April 11th is the reason I switched from being a Chávez supporter to a critic. 

I could tell (very early on, in fact) by the way that the government reacted to the coup—the way it suspended the truth commission, fired detectives and prosecutors, by its political spin—that it had something to hide.  I wanted to find out what.  Then, in the process of talking to eyewitnesses and the families of victims, something happened.  It became very personal. 

I don’t mean that in a Dirty Harry way; it’s not about payback.  I mean it in the way that sets a headline (“19 dead, 150 wounded”) apart from something that touches you, deeply, to the point that you cannot look away or forget.

That’s what happens when you meet five, ten, fifteen people who have been shot. When you meet the parents of teenagers who were killed…parents who have no legal recourse, no way to find justice. It changes you. Especially when you go back and interview each of them four and five times and you find all your skepticism and detachment melting away. If you decide to let it in, then it will change you, too. (Not letting it in is safer, and maybe even smarter.)

If you’ve read my book, then you know I think it is important to understand events from all possible perspectives and that I, of course, empathize with the victims on both sides. I even understand why the government did what it did to stop the march.  Yet a line must still be drawn.  To empathize is not to condone actions that are clearly wrong.

So what is the Chávez government hiding?  Why, eight years later, have we had no truth commission, no independent investigation, and why does the government refuse to admit  any delegation from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights?

It took a very long time to figure it out—to sort through the piles of seemingly random video clips, photographs, and newspaper articles—to make any sense out of it.  Honestly, if you’d told me how long it was going to take when I started, I would have given up.  

But little by little, April 11th sucked me in; and little by little I put the pieces together. Three years into my researching and writing I would still occasionally hit a critical turning point—an “ah-ha” moment—when three, four, or five different pieces all suddenly fit together.

One of those moments was figuring out who had been killed first and where they had been shot from—critical pieces for interpreting all that would follow. 

Many of the first eyewitnesses that I interviewed thought that the photographer Jorge Tortoza (who was at the head of the opposition march) was the first fatality.  It was hard to know because often within seconds of being shot, many victims were picked up by friends and bystanders and carried away.

Two important sources convinced me that another opposition marcher, Jesús Arellano, had been killed first, just a few minutes before Jorge Tortoza.  One source was a Chávez supporter, Douglas Romero, who accidentally wound up in the anti-Chávez crowd and witnessed the killing of Jesús Arellano first, then Tortoza.  The other piece of evidence was Tortoza’s camera—his last shots were of the dying Arellano.  Discovering that Arellano was the first fatality was enormously important because his death was captured on film and he was clearly shot from the pro-Chávez crowd. 

Pro-Chávez militants killed the first victim. The video evidence is clear. The first casualties were shot neither from the top of Puente Llaguno nor by snipers on rooftops, as conventional wisdom would come to believe, but rather from street level, from Avenida Baralt itself, just before 2:30 p.m. – when the two groups were much closer to each other than they would be for the rest of the day. 

Of course, the fact that the first fatalities were caused by the pro-Chávez gunmen has tremendous implications for the ensuing coup. It completely undermines the government’s narrative about a premeditated plan on the part of the opposition to cause violence as a pretext for a military intervention.

Another “ah-ha” moment was the realization that the National Guard must have been ordered not to interfere with the Bolivarian Circles as they repelled the march on Baralt Avenue. 

The Venezuelan government and its apologists have tried very hard to cover this up, depicting the violence as something beyond anyone’s control.  For example, Greg Wilpert of Venezuelanalysis, wrote, “Chávez could rely on only a small handful of National Guard troops, who stopped the opposition’s advance on two of the three streets leading to Miraflores.”  Baralt Avenue, where the majority of the deaths occurred, was the third street that Wilpert refers to, suggesting that if there had only been more National Guard troops, then things would not have turned so ugly.

But Wilpert is misinformed.  Not only were there plenty of National Guard troops around Miraflores that day, but they were actually deployed, en masse, on Baralt Avenue. They sat there all afternoon, watching a four-hour gun battle and did nothing to stop it. Which brings new credence to reports that Chávez and his cabinet had discussed deploying the Bolivarian Circles in conjunction with the National Guard four days before the march.

It was an anti-Chávez marcher, Andrés Trujillo, who first told me that he had seen National Guard troops standing on the side streets of Baralt Avenue and that those troops prevented people from getting out of the crossfire.  I had been skeptical at first, but then a pro-Chávez eyewitness, Carolina Campos, told me the same thing. 

Searching through the thousands of photographs I had stored up, I eventually found pictures of these troops.  There they were, right on Baralt Avenue, sometimes only feet from the pro-Chávez gunmen, and they did nothing to stop the violence. They didn’t help the police and they didn’t hinder the pro-Chávez gunmen.  

These are two just two important pieces of the April 11 puzzle.  Obviously there are many more, and many involve criminal activity from the opposition, too. But it is clear that it is the Chávez government who has the most to hide and the most to lose from an independent investigation.

In many ways the government’s reaction to the violence is much more telling than the violence itself.  The government had a choice: it could have jailed the gunmen and National Guard troops who were caught on film and in photographs shooting at the marchers.  This would have provided some reconciliation for the victims and proven that the government applies the law equally to all citizens.  It did not choose that route.  Instead, it began building up lies on top of lies to protect itself. 

I suspect that the government feels that it has to lie, simply because the stakes are so high. After all, former Venezuelan president Carlos Andréz Pérez was impeached simply for sending campaign funds to a candidate in Nicaragua. How would Chávez look if a proper investigation were held into the violence on April 11th?  Another reason why keeping control of the National Assembly is so important. Rest assured that Chávez has thought of this.  I’m sure he’s also thought of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who is in jail for complicity in the killing of his opponents in Peru. 

Obviously, many things are driving Hugo Chávez—his ardent belief in socialism, his distrust of the United States and the West, and his desire to become a legendary figure who can unite Latin America at least as well as his political muse, Simón Bolívar.  But as someone who has studied Chávez’s record on human rights, I believe his fear of incarceration is also a factor. His repeated (and finally successful) attempts to change the constitution to allow for his indefinite re-election may be viewed through this lens.  Yes, Hugo Chávez wanted to end term limits so that his revolution could continue, but I believe he also wanted to end term limits to protect himself from prosecution should he lose power.

It’s a crazy thing, April 11th.  Eight years later it’s still with us. In the headlines. It’s the reason Zuloaga was arrested and the excuse that Chávez will likely give when Globovision is finally shut down.  Yet it is an event that most people still know very little about.  I mean, what really happened down there, around Miraflores?  We are still trying to put the pieces together a little bit at a time.  

Brian Nelson

For this anniversary, Brian has published a bunch of new material on the coup on his website, including this important account of the Otto Neustaldt sub-saga. Check it out.

Also, if you haven’t yet, you really should read Brian’s book.