I first wrote this post back in 2002, when the events it describes were still fresh in my mind. I’ve continued to revise and update it periodically over the years. It’s long – by necessity – and certainly incomplete. I’ve revised it again, on the 14th anniversary of the April Crisis, mindful that a new generation of readers may not have come across it before. 

The political crisis that gripped Venezuela from April 11th to April 14th, 2002 will keep historians busy for decades to come. In the space of a four day weekend the country cycled through three presidents. Venezuelans watched appalled as an elected official emptied his gun into what they thought was an peaceful opposition march. They saw tanks rolling on the streets of Caracas for unclear reasons, they saw the armed forces’ top-ranking general announce the resignation of the president, then they saw a right wing clique take total control of the state while the private media was first shut down by the government and then launch a conspiracy to black out the story that the coup was crumbling.

It’s a lot to cover in one essay, so do bear with me.

Not Your Grandfather’s Golpe

Though that psychodelic four-day whirlwind of events is commonly described as a “short-lived coup,” or an “failed coup attempt,” it’s clear that the word “coup” is clunky shorthand for what actually happened.

While at its heart, this convoluted story was an attempt to implant an unconstitutional government, a much more subtle understanding of the dynamics at play is needed to grasp the dynamics at play in the crisis. April 2002 witnessed a series of events that fall completely outside the territory of the traditional Latin American golpe. Let’s give it all a fresh look.

How did the April crisis come about?

April 11th started with the call for a huge opposition March on the east side of Caracas. The crowd, variously estimated at 500,000-800,000, came out on just twelve hours notice. In a city of about two million registered voters at the time, these are big numbers. This was before the large opposition march had become routine in Caracas – that happened later, in late 2002 and throughout 2003 and 2004. As of April that year, the march on the 11th was probably the single largest gathering of Venezuelans for political purposes since 1958.

 
With the passing of the years, it’s easy to forget how aggressive the private media were in opposition to Chávez in 2001 and 2002. The private airwaves were saturated with anti-Chávez propaganda around the clock.

Why did several hundred thousand Caracas citizens decided to march to demand the resignation of a president they had democratically elected twice, by huge majorities, in the preceding three years. Did these people all lose their minds?

Without going into a long detour on just how it is that the political crisis caused by the appointment of seven leftist academics and bureaucrats to the board of the state oil company, PDVSA, caused a crisis capable of escalating so explosively, we can say April 11th was the culmination of five months of increasingly vicious political fighting between the government and the opposition.

The opposition accused the government of seeking to impose dictatorial control on every part of society, while the government saw the opposition as counterrevolutionary wreckers intend on turning the clock back to the Puntofijo years. By the start of April, the sense of imminent crisis was palpable in the air. Venezuelans found themselves riveted to the unfolding political drama.

Throughout the crisis, President Chávez gave free rein to his trademark hyper-confrontational style. The perception at the time in the opposition camp was that the government was consciously seeking to provoke a crisis. This perception was later confirmed by the president in his 2004 Memoria y Cuenta address to the National Assembly. With uncommon candor, Chávez accepted that he had worked out a plan – Plan Colina, he called it – to escalate the PDVSA conflict, and appointed a task force to focus on this goal.

“Sometimes it is necessary to provoke a crisis,” Chávez said during his 2004 Memoria y Cuenta.

It worked.

Chávez’s beligerence only escalated through early 2002, coming to a climax with his theatrical firing of seven top PDVSA officials who had resisted his moves to appoint the new board.

With the passing of the years, it’s easy to forget how aggressive the private media were in opposition to Chávez in 2001 and 2002. The private airwaves were saturated with anti-Chávez propaganda around the clock.

By April 9th, when the opposition called a General Paro (work stoppage) to protest Chávez’s PDVSA stance, basic civility had completely broken down – with each side vowing to crush the other outright. The airwaves came to be dominated with propaganda – and Chávez responded by using his power to call cadena (“chain”) broadcasts that took over all the airwaves, to an unprecedented extent.

That the opposition media gave up any notion of journalistic balance in attacking the government is more than evident, even for those of us who substantively agreed with the attacks.

But Chávez was his own worst enemy in the media war, consciously working to piss off various opponents: his media critics, the unions, the catholic church, and any other institution he could not control. The climate of confrontation and intolerance grew to hard-to-overstate levels: a rhetoric of hatred and violence that was new in Venezuela at the time.

Some elements of the crisis only came to be known much later, and shed some light on the dynamics at play. One, I’ve always found especially telling: as we’ve noted, the proximate cause of the crisis was the appointment of that new PDVSA board. Years later, it was revealed that on April 10th, sensing the mood of national emergency, the newly appointed board members offered their resignation to President Chávez.

Had this gesture been made public, it might – might – have been enough to defuse the whole crisis. The president chose instead to reject their resignation offers and bar them from speaking about them. Within 24 hours, he had hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets of Caracas.

The March

It was enormous.
It was enormous.

The opposition protesters brought together on the morning of April 11th did not know we were about to set off on an insurrectional adventure to the presidential palace. As advertised, the march would last just a few kilometers, from Parque del Este Metro station – as it was known then, before it was renamed – to the PDVSA building in Chuao. Both are in the East side of Caracas, about seven miles east of Miraflores Palace, which sits in the downtown area to the west of the city.

In fact, opposition leaders had planned a risky bait and switch on their own supporters. The night before the march, they had agreed that once the protesters reached Chuao they would call on them to march west, the entire length of the city to the presidential palace.

The decision to re-route the march would be presented as a spontaneous, spur of the moment thing, and given the extremely emotionally charged atmosphere of those days, there was no doubt that the marchers would follow their leaders west.

One of the most interesting revelations in El Acertijo de Abril, Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza’s book about the April Crisis is that the government was fully aware that this was the opposition’s plan by the evening of April 10th. Aporrea’s “Directorate of Social Intelligence” had infiltrated the meeting the night before and learned of the planned detour. The item had reached Miraflores. The rerouting was no surprise to Chávez.

With 12 hours advanced notice, it would have been easy for the Guardia Nacional to block the march route to Miraflores.

The government was fully entitled to move to protect itself from what was, without exaggeration, an insurrectional march. From a public order point of view, the problem was not difficult: Chávez continued to command the Guardia Nacional – a military-style internal security force along the lines of the Gendarmes in France, the Guardia Civil in Spain – which is trained and equiped to deal with public order.

With 12 hours advanced notice, it would have been easy for the Guardia Nacional to block the march route to Miraflores. Simply by blocking off the end of Avenida Bolívar, the Guardia could have kept the marchers a safe distance from Miraflores. The march would have turned into another of many political rallies. There would have been speeches, slogans, and eventually the marchers would have packed it in and gone home. Simple.

This is not how Chávez chose to play it. Instead, he came up with a two-pronged plan to defend the palace.

First, his political machine – and, again, the Aporrea played an important role here – gathered perhaps 3,000 hardcore civilian to surround Miraflores in a counter-demonstration to face down the opposition marchers. La Fuente and Meza confirm that guns were handed out by pro-Chávez politicians to the crowd once the shooting started.

“Some took them,” Meza and La Fuente find, “some did not.”

At least a handful of those supporters were later caught on video shooting south, apparently in the direction of the opposition march. Though it is not clear – because no serious investigation was ever carried out – which of those shooters was responsible for which of the deaths down below, it’s clear that much of the chavista self-defense strategy relied on deploying armed civilian supporters around the palace.

So much so that the Presidential Guard Regiment had gone to the trouble to set up a field hospital to prepare to treat casualties in the parking lot of its Palacio Blanco headquarters, just across the road from Miraflores.

Plan Avila

The second prong of the government’s reaction is the one that really got Chávez in trouble that day.

 
The order to activate Plan Avila set off alarm bells in the military establishment.

At 10:30 am, according to recordings of military radio frequencies made by opposition supporters, Chávez personally ordered the activation of Plan Avila. They’re words to send chills down the spine of any Venezuelan.

Plan Avila is an Army-run – not National Guard, mind you, Army – contingency plan designed to deal with serious disturbances in Caracas.

As far as I know, the contingency plan had only ever been activated once before, during the massive looting that broke out on February 27th and 28th, 1989. The police and the Guardia Nacional had clearly been overrun by the riots, and the decision to deploy the army with orders to shoot looters on sight resulted in a terrible blood-bath.

Thousands were killed by the army during Plan Avila in 1989, giving rise to the first wave of home-grown human rights NGOs in Venezuela. Cofavic, the Victims and Family Members Committee set up to help the relatives of the victims, spent years pushing for an international human rights investigation headed by OAS’s Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Eventually, the commission found against Venezuela, ordering the government to pay restitutions to the families of the victims. The court also ordered Venezuela to disclose the operational details of the plan – which had been protected by military secrecy laws – and to bring Plan Avila into line with international human rights standards.

The Chávez government, which was already in power when these decisions were handed down, never implemented either of the Interamerican Commission’s decisions. Years later, it withdrew from the Interamerican Human Rights system.

The order to activate Plan Avila set off alarm bells in the military establishment. The Venezuelan Army was in no way equipped for policing duty. It had no riot gear, no non-lethal weapons at its disposal, no training in crowd control: just semi-automatic rifles packing live ammo. Moreover, the Venezuelan constitution categorically bans the use of firearms to control civilian protests.

If Plan Avila had been controversial in 1989, when it was deployed to control violent looting by armed groups of people, its application against a huge political march made up largely of unarmed civilians threatened a Tiananmen Square style political massacre.

By one of those quirks of fate, April 11th, 2002 was also the day when the International Criminal Court Treaty came into force worldwide. Fresh from the arrest of Pinochet in London, the officers were only too aware that human rights abuses have no statute of limitation.

In that context, the two key military officers at the top of the Plan Avila chain of command simply refused to follow the president’s orders. This is the key decision that set off the chain of events of the weekend. Until you’ve understood their decision, you’ve understood nothing about April 11th.

Rosendo and Vásquez Velasco

_1928581_vene9In the recording above, Chávez complains of two officers who he is unable to reach to relay the Plan Avila order. Who were those two officers, and why did they start ghosting Chávez at such a critical moment? Was their disobedience part of an insurrectional plot? Were they U.S. stooges? Or did they act on principle?

The first of the two was Major General Manuel Rosendo, head of CUFAN, the Armed Forces Unified Command. A personal friend of Chávez and one-time baseball teammate, Rosendo was seen as a chavista hardliner until that afternoon. Widely derided in opposition circles for his openly political speech during the Independence Day celebrations one year earlier – you have to remember, this was before the sight of men in uniform making openly political speeches had become “normal” in Venezuela – Rosendo was assumed to be a member of the chavista inner circle.

Indeed, on April 7th Rosendo had participated in a contingency planning meeting with Chávez, his cabinet, and members of his party – MVR, as it was then – where he heard their plans to mobilize armed civilians to protect the presidential palace in case of major trouble. Rosendo pleaded with the president not to allow such paramilitary tactics into Venezuelan politics, sensing the potential for bloodletting. Chávez dismissed his concerns.

On the tenth, just a day before the crisis, Rosendo sent a long, emotionally charged letter to Chávez basically begging him to open a dialogue with opposition leaders to defuse the crisis. Chávez, of course, had other plans.

His position matters because, legally speaking, it is the head of CUFAN who had the duty to give the order to activate a contingency plan like Plan Avila.

The second key player that day was Mayor General Efraín Vásquez Velasco, the overall commander of the Venezuelan army. Seen as a moderate until that point, Vásquez Velasco was clearly in good terms with the government. Neither Rosendo nor Vásquez Velasco could, in any serious way, be seen as coup-plotters: intensely spied on by chavista intelligence, they had evidently been seen as trustworthy enough to keep in key command posts.

It later emerged that Vásquez Velasco had met, once, with one of the people later revealed to have been deeply enmeshed in an anti-government conspiracy – former Foreign Minister Enrique Tejera París – all accounts of the meeting agree that the second Tejera Paris obliquely floated the possibility of a coup Vásquez Velasco simply got up and left the room. Looked at closely, Vásquez Velasco’s decisions that weekend were not those of a man angling for power himself.

 
Even at noon that day, before any of the killings and the military about-faces that came later, it was clear that the government was unlikely to survive.

These were the people whose decisions precipitated Chávez’s fall: two very high ranking army officers trusted by Chávez, who were given an order they felt they could not legally carry out. Having marched that day, having stood on Avenida Baralt with thousands of other people just minutes before the shooting started, I can’t help but be personally grateful to both of them. I might not be here to tell the story if they’d gone the other way.

This is not, however, to deny that there was a military conspiracy afoot that day. As shown on the private TV stations on April 12th (and in The Revolution will not be Televised) there surely was a conspiracy – several conspiracies, in fact – led by lower ranking Army, Guardia Nacional and Navy officers.

The thing to note, however, is that the key decision to disobey Chávez was not made by the conspirators – they were made by members of Chávez’s high military command. The conspirators swung into action only later that night, once Vásquez Velasco and Rosendo had forced Chávez into a corner.

But lets not get ahead of ourselves here.

My April 11th

I spent most of April 11th running around Caracas with a camera crew. We were working on a freelance project when the shit hit the fan – alas, we were not inside the palace.

At 11:00 am, we were in Chuao when the march leaders “spontaneously” announced the change of route. Personally, I had to be at my newsroom by 11:30 to write VenEconomy’s daily 2 minute radio spot for RCR, which would be broadcast an hour later. I took a taxi back to the office, and in a feverish hurry wrote a spot warning that the country would need to give itself a new government and that this new government needed to be as broad based as possible, including even moderate chavistas (miquilenistas), in order to have any credibility or staying power.

I include that tidbit not just for the gloating rights. Even at noon that day, before any of the killings and the military about-faces that came later, it was clear that the government was unlikely to survive. It was also clear (to me, anyway) that the next government needed to take the high road if it was to have any credibility and staying power at all.

It didn’t, and the rest is history.

Radio-spot duly written, I caught another taxi and went downtown to meet the crew at Avenida Bolívar, where I figured the marchers would arrive at 2:00 pm or so – three hours for a seven mile march seemed about right to me. We sat down to eat some roasted chicken at a tasca with one eye glued to the TV sets, but before we’d quite finished, we saw the first few marchers beginning to pour into the Avenue. It must have been about 1:30 p.m. or so.

We started to walk along with the marchers, trying to get some nice shots of what we could all sense would be a historic day. Marching down the street, I kept reassuring the guys on my crew: “it’s ok, they had three hours to prepare,” at the time, I didn’t yet know they’d had more than 12 hours to prepare. “Of course we’ll run into a Guardia Nacional roadblock at the end of the Avenida.”

The end of the avenida came, no road block.

“Don’t worry,” I kept saying “the government can’t be this stupid – obviously there’ll be a road-block on the next block.”

But no. We kept on walking the remaining six or seven blocks to Miraflores, and – to my consternation – realized there would be no Guardia barricade at all. Just a bunch of heavily armed chavistas waiting for us on the other side.

In his exhaustively researched book on the crisis, The Silence and the Scorpion, Brian Nelson – who answered Caracas Chronicles readers’ questions on the coup in 2009 – would confirm that a National Guard batallion was indeed on site, just blocks from Miraflores Palace, but was never deployed to stop the march.

Finally, just one lousy block south from the palace, a thin line of Metropolitan Police officers (i.e. people commanded by the opposition mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Peña) stood trying to keep the opposition crowd at bay. They had no riot gear, no gas masks, nothing. The most radical of the opposition marchers simply walked right past them, through a no-man’s land just one block deep, to the other side, where a similarly thin line of Guardias Nacionales stood trying in turn to keep the pro-Chávez demonstrators away from the opposition, relying mostly on tear gas.

The next hour is a blur of skirmishes, tear gas, and any number of explosions that sounded like fireworks but could well have been gunshots.

The next hour is a blur of skirmishes, tear gas, and any number of explosions that sounded like fireworks but could well have been gunshots. I, for one, can’t tell the difference. The thin line of Guardias had enough tear gas on hand to keep the two sides more or less apart, but opposition hot-heads kept charging them. The atmosphere was impossibly tense, and soon, it became clear to me that this would not end without significant violence.

By 3:30 we retreated from the Calvario stairs towards Avenida Baralt. Jumpy as hell, I kept trying to persuade my crew to just get the hell out of there – whatever footage we might get out of the melee didn’t seem worth the ration of lead I could feel we were likely to get. After getting some shots on Avenida Baralt – with the chavistas on Llaguno Bridge clearly visible – a man walked up to us. As he did, my camera woman swung the camera to film him. He put his hand over the lense and said, “no, you can’t film me. I just came to tell you that you need to get out of here. You’ll be picked off in particular because of the camera. Get out, now.”

So we did. We didn’t get a single recognizable shot of the guy, so I have no way to know who he was. An infiltrated DISIP suddenly gripped with a spasm of conscience? A guardian angel? I have no idea. I do know that five photographers and cameramen were wounded that day, and one of them, Jorge Tortoza, was killed. For all I know, that guy saved my camerawoman’s life.

We started walking, in the mass of confusion, first south and then back towards the east side. At that time – 4:00 or so – a huge opposition crowd was still walking west on Avenida Mexico, towards the palace. The streets were filled with people, rumors and confusion. For a while, the marchers chanted, simply, “Ejercito cagón! Ejercito cagón!” – the Army is chickenshit, as a way to urge the officers to join the protests in defiance of Chávez.

About five minutes after leaving Avenida Baralt, I turned on my pocket radio to scan for news. To my astonishment, what I heard was Chávez’s voice, on yet another cadena nacional – a live nation-wide broadcast that all TV channels and radio stations are forced to carry simultaneously. The first news blackout of the weekend was on.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but the cadena started only minutes after the start of the shootout that left 20 dead and over 100 injured – most of them on Avenida Baralt, the street I’d been standing on five minutes earlier. Because there were so many loud bangs in the air, people did not initially realize that shooting had started. Many of the first to be wounded figured they had been hit with a rock or a bottle: only gradually did it become clear live shooting had started.

When all was said and done, there were deaths on both sides. Because no proper investigation has ever been held, the question of who started shooting has been shrouded in mystery and partisan invective for years. In The Silence and the Scorpion, Brian Nelson argues strongly that the first people to shoot that day were chavista civilians not on Puente Llaguno but down below, south from the bridge on Avenida Baralt and shooting southward very close – as close as 20 meters – from the opposition crowd, with the first casualties falling a few minutes before 2:30 p.m.

In this telling, the Policía Metropolitana units (the “ballena” and the “rinoceronte”) dispatched into the avenue were sent there precisely to neutralize the street level shooters, including this guy, who was never identified, but was caught on video:

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None of this would be known to me until years later. What was clear to me right then is that, with the cadena, Chávez had taken a decisive step to block reporting of the shooting taking place just feet from the palace.

Since I had a radio instead of a TV, I did not see what millions of Venezuelans saw. To counter Chávez’s decision to give a rambling speech in the middle of a national emergency, the private TV stations took the unprecedented decision to split their screens down the middle during the speech. On one side you saw the president speaking, while on the other side you saw live video images of the shooting spree taking place just meters from where he was.

For more than two long hours during perhaps the worst episode of political violence in Venezuela since the 60s, Chávez continued to speak while people died outside. He never stopped to try to do something to stop the shooting. Every few minutes, an army officer would enter the frame and slip the president a bit of paper containing a casualty tally, which Chávez would read, and then continue talking in his most natural voice. He never stopped to do something to stop the violence raging just outside his door.

Not all the shooting that day happened on Avenida Baralt – people died at several other locations, again on both sides. Minutes after the start of the shooting on Avenida Baralt, one man was killed standing directly behind Miraflores, in the Chavista march on Avenida Urdaneta – well away from line-of-sight from the Hotel Eden and the opposition march. The shots, according to police investigations, came from the Bolero building.

One of the most puzzling subplots here concerns the arrests made by the police at the Hotel Ausonia on the 11th, where several foreigners were arrested with guns, jailed until April 16th, and then released unconditionally by a court under the restored Chávez government. They immediately vanished. Who were they? The government has hinted they were opposition sharpshooters, but forensic tests did not show they had fired weapons recently. They were never questioned or arrested after the 16th, and may have been simple criminals who chose the wrong hotel at the wrong time. But who can be sure?

Chávez’s speech continued through 5:30 pm. Towards the end, he announced he was shutting down the country’s main TV stations as a response to their conspiratorial actions against him. This, again, seemed like a blunt ploy to cover up the coverage of the afternoon’s violence. Little did he know that by the time that decision was taken, the horse was already out of the stable: the private TV channels had already split their screens and broadcast live images of the massacre, so everyone in the country more or less knew what was happening.

The next few hours were a time of utter confusion. In Caracas, the terrestrial TV towers were taken over by the Guardia Nacional and the private TV stations shut down. However, private broadcasters remained on the air in the rest of the country, and in Caracas for satellite TV subscribers. I didn’t have a satellite dish at home, so like a lot of other people in town I made my way to the house of my nearest Satellite Dish owning relative: my sister Ana, in my case. There, we sat astonished watching the news coverage of the violence. It was the first time in our lives we had seen people killed in large numbers for political reasons. The sense of crisis grew minute by minute.

By 10:00 pm, Chávez’s former number two man, Luis Miquilena, went on television to openly denounce the government’s power play. Given his large following in the National Assembly and the Supreme Tribunal – since he had been given primary responsibility for selecting pro-Chávez candidates to those posts – Miquilena’s desertion opened the door, in the eyes of many, to the possibility of a constitutional solution to the crisis. Within hours of the notorious split-screen ”cadena”, Chávez’s congressional majority had vanished.

Then came, the coup de grace.

A Venevision camera crew led by journalist Luis Fernández, in an outstanding bit of bravado, managed to get actual images of some government supporters shooting down into Avenida Baralt from Llaguno Bridge (this “bridge” is really an overpass that crosses over Avenida Baralt.) The images were the only direct evidence of people shooting available that night.

Years later, Brian Nelson would establish that Luis Fernández’s video was probably shot around 4:30 p.m., around two hours after the start of the gun-fight. The opposition crowd on Avenida Baralt had dissolved hours earlier. The video shown on a loop that night really was of a gun-fight between civilian chavista gunmen and the police, not the unarmed crowd that had been there two hours earlier.

But in the feverish atmosphere of that night, nobody stopped to work out detailed timelines. For the private TV stations, Fernández’s tape was propaganda gold: the footage got played again, and again and again, and presented as evidence that the opposition march had been ambushed by government supporters.

One of the gunmen was identified as Richard Peñalver, a pro-Chávez municipal council member in the district where I lived – in fact, an elected official. The footage showed him emptying his gun with glee towards the south of the bridge, the area where the opposition march had spent much of the afternoon. At the time, the footage seemed incredibly damning, and whatever support Chávez still enjoyed within the armed forces quickly crumbled.

Now, viewers of The Revolution will not be Televised know that, as far as the Chavistas were concerned the footage of Puente Llaguno was a blatant manipulation, since amateur video taken from a different angle and made public later showed no protesters on the southern part of Avenida Baralt at that time. Indeed, the Llaguno gunmen were crouching for cover as they shot, suggesting they were facing incoming fire. In testimony after the fact, they claimed they were merely returning fire against the Metropolitan Police units in the Avenue below shooting north towards them.

Eventually, Chávez did manage to persuade one tank batallion – Batallón Ayala – to mobilize to defend Miraflores Palace. This is one confusing subplot in the whole saga – the images of tanks rolling around the streets of Caracas show one of the last units in Caracas still loyal to Chávez – they were mobilized by him, to repel any attack on the palace. In chavista propaganda following the crisis, those images were re-invented as images of tanks deployed to overthrow the government.

But by the time the Batallón Ayala tanks reached Miraflores, it was too late though. The bulk of the army had turned against Chávez. There were threats to bomb the palace from the air, Allende style. Of course, if you’re facing an F16 strike, a tank on the street is about as useful as an ashtray on a motorcycle, so the tanks really played no tactical role.

An evening in Fuerte Tiuna

At around midday, Generals Rosendo and Vásquez Velasco had decided to go to Miraflores and tender their resignations to Chávez, explaining why they could not implement his orders in light of international human rights law – nothing more. But as the evening wore on, more and more active duty military officers came forward to withdraw their support for the government and demand Chávez’s resignation. The small conspiratorial cliques that had formed between military friends privately terrified of Chávez’s rhetoric all burst into the open at once.

A reporter friend of mine actually went to Fuerte Tiuna that night to witness the toppling of a government as it happened. There was so much confusion at the fort that he was simply allowed to slip in and mingle with the assembling generals. The story he tells is one of sheer confusion, with a bewildering array of generals milling around trying to decide what to do, while opposition civilians hung around different cubicles drafting God only knows what on the PCs they could find. Chief among them: opposition “leading light” Allan Brewer Carias, together of course with Pedro Carmona, head of the Business Federation FEDECAMARAS.

By the middle of the evening, the private TV broadcasters were back on the air in Caracas, and the state-run TV channel had been abandoned by its chavista managers, who feared retribution. In one of those unforgettable moments, I turned to Channel 8 that evening, only to see a 30 year old nature documentaries of little ducklings…the last tape hastily thrown on the air as the managers ran.

As it became clearer and clearer that the government was in the process of collapsing, the Chávez regime started to “melt away.” Any number of pro-Chávez officials and political activists went into hiding.

A confused set of negotiations ensued between Chávez and a now openly rebellious army. Faxes were exchanged, Chávez was initially offered safe passage to Cuba – and according to many reports, he actually accepted that offer – only to later see it rescinded later. By 3 a.m., Chávez had decided to give himself up, and go to the army’s main installation in Caracas, Fuerte Tiuna, to be told his fate.

The negotiations at Fuerte Tiuna on night from April 11th to the 12th were complex, chaotic and confusing. By most accounts, Chávez agreed in principle to resign if he was guaranteed safe passage for himself and his entire family to Cuba. But splits between the rebellious officers became evident to him: one group, the pragmatists, wanted to just send him off into exile and start afresh. A second group, the maximalists, argued that Chávez should be tried in Venezuela for the afternoon’s deaths and that, in any case, he could become a deeply destabilizing figure if allowed to flee to Cuba.

By any standard, the military chain of command had gone to all hell, and the evening became a kind of civilian-military free for all. 

Later, it would become clear that Chávez had masterfully intuited the Army’s disarrayed and leveraged it to his advantage. General Francisco Usón – then Chávez’s Finance Minister, who would wind up in jail after falling from favor with the regime – inadvertently gave the game away with a series of inconsistent calls to the President that revealed the army’s disarray.

By any standard, the military chain of command had gone to all hell, and the evening became a kind of civilian-military free for all. Though nominally still in charge, Vásquez Velasco had lost control of the coup.

At around 2:40 a.m. on what was already April 12th, much of the nation was still glued to the TV coverage of the crisis. Suddenly, one last cadena: General Lucas Rincón, the highest ranking member of the armed forces and a chavista loyal enough to have earned a third sun (equivalent to five stars in the US military), came on the screen. He’s flanked by what remains of the pro-Chávez high command of the Armed Forces.

Rincón read a prepared statement. Using an oddly circumloquoitous formlation in the passive tense that left it unclear exactly who had done the asking, Rincon announced that President Chávez had been asked to resign, a request “which he accepted.”

“La cual aceptó…” was the soon infamous formulation.

Rincon proceeded to tender his resignation together with that of the other pro-Chávez generals, making the collapse of the regime an apparently done-deal. Celebrations rang out through the east of Caracas. According to his later congressional testimony, an exhausted Rincon then went to sleep.

Bafflingly, Rincon remained a member of Chávez’s inner circle for years after this event, serving in the powerful post of Interior Minister.

Chávez was sent on a helicopter periplo around a series of military facilities: first to the naval base in Turiamo, later on to the presidential retreat at La Orchila where he’s filmed discussing possibly going off to Cuba, and blaming Generals Rosendo and Vásquez Velasco for failing to implement Plan Ávila.

As the sun rose over Caracas on April 12th, the best organized of the conspiratorial cliques managed to wrest control of the situation. Financed by a shadowy arms dealer, by the name of Isaac Pérez Recao, the group included Brewer Carias but also Daniel Romero (the far-right wing “solicitor-general-for-a-day” who drafted Carmona’s executive decree), Carmona, the top brass of the Navy.

Due largely to their long standing contacts with the late Cardinal Ignacio Velazco – then the influential head of the Catholic Church in Venezuela – they persuaded Vásquez Velasco to accept Pedro Carmona – the head of Fedecamaras – as an interim president. Vásquez Velasco, eager to put the country back in civilian hands as soon as possible, accepted.

In the weeks following those events, this takeover by the rightwing conspirators came to be known as the – coup-within-a-coup – and to my mind this remains the best way to describe what actually took place.

The decision, taken late into night after a roller-coaster of a day, proved disastrous, destroying any pretense of constitutional continuity, and sidelining the dozens of chavistas in the National Assembly and the Supreme Tribunal ready to officialize the change in regime.

April 12th: The Carmonada

The day after the coup most people woke up to hear that Pedro Carmona would be the new president and he would make a statement later on his course of action. Carmona had been one of the most prominent leaders in the anti-Chávez movement, so his appointment seemed almost natural. That morning, few dared to ask the obvious questions in public: who had chosen Carmona? By what authority?

That same morning, the White House Press Secretary made a shocking pronouncement that has been used again and again to paint the Bush administration as co-conspirators of Pérez Recao, Carmona and company.
As reported by CNN:

“Chávez supporters, on orders, fired on unarmed, peaceful demonstrators,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said, referring to Thursday’s violence that killed 12 people and wounded dozens more. “Venezuelan military and police refused to fire … and refused to support the government’s role in human rights violations.”

Two things to notice. First off, Fleischer’s statement does leave out half the story. It wasn’t only chavistas firing, but at that point in time, there was no way to find out who else had been firing in the mayhem. Nor could Fleischer be sure that the chavistas were firing on those they appeared to be firing on.

The second part of the statement is perfectly factually correct, though, and of course always conveniently left out of Bushwhacking accounts of the coup.
The second thing to notice is that Fleischer’s real blunder was to speak prematurely. The White House statement was made several hours before Carmona’s provisional government decree had been made public. At this time, U.S. officials were still pleading with the Carmona team to go through the elected National Assembly to give the events of the previous night at least a veneer of constitutional legitimacy. In any case, Fleischer’s statement did not explicitly recognize the new government, because the new government had not yet been established.

Verbena en Miraflores

Back in Miraflores, the scene remained chaotic. On the one hand, dozens of job-hunting opposition politicians and public figures had turned up for a chance at the spoils. At the same time intense efforts were taking place behind the scenes to get Carmona to reconsider.

While chavista propagandists have associated the coupsters with far right wing figures associated to hyper-conservative catholic groups like Opus Dei, the truth is somewhat slipperier.

For instance, Gustavo Linares Benzo, a well-known conservative lawyer, certainly was in Miraflores on the morning and afternoon of the 12th. But he wasn’t in the conspiratorial clique, he was lobbying against Carmona’s plans. Instead, he came to support the State Department’s plan to ask the National Assembly to convene and, with Miquilenista votes, certify the “permanent absence” of the president from his post, paving the way to a constitutional transition. Linares Benzo’s proposals garnered some support from the assembled, but Carmona doesn’t seem to have seriously considered it.

Other political figures showed their mettle that day. Cecilia Sosa, the head of the adeca encopetada faction and former Chief Magistrate of the old pre-Chávez Supreme Court, is often seen as a bit of a right-wing extremist. That day, however, she had the law firmly in mind. Sosa faced Carmona down personally just minutes before he read out his decree, explaining to him bluntly that there was no imaginable legal basis for handing him the presidency. “That has already been decided, Dr. Sosa, that has already been decided,” is the only response she got from him.

Carmona, in swearing himself in to a post nobody had elected him to, significantly pledged not to obey the constitution but to re-establish the rule of law – which is not quite the same thing.

The decree eventually drafted and read by our solicitor-general-for-24-hours, Daniel Romero, dripped with excesses. At one pen-stroke, on authority granted to them by God only knows who, the decree suspended all the constitutional institutions: the Supreme Tribunal, the National Assembly, all of them. It suspended 49 Chávez-imposed laws and even changed the official name of the country back to the pre-Chávez “Republica de Venezuela.”

On the other hand, the decree pledged elections that Carmona said he would not participate in within one year. In the interim there would be a kind of legal void, with no elected institutions operating at the national level and nearly limitless power put in the hands of the interim president and an appointed “consultative board.”

The antichavistas assembled in Miraflores that day cheered the decree wildly, intoxicated with the sense of victory. But the roster of signators who sought to legitimize the decree was worrying. Many were hard-right, business-class types: precisely the constituency chavismo was sure was conspiring against them. When the announcer called for “the representative of the Workers’ Federation to come forward,” no one turned up…and for good reason.

Alfredo Ramos, the only CTV member in the room, later explained that he refused, on principle, to sign any document he hasn’t read carefully beforehand.

Trouble

As Carmona signed his decree, Carlos Ortega, the head of the Venezuelan Workers’ Federation, was 300 kilometers west in his home state of Falcón. Though Ortega and Carmona had acted as a team in leading the protest movement until April 11th, Carmona had distanced himself in the final 48 hours. By leaving, Ortega wanted to make it perfectly clear that he had no part in putting together the transitional government.

This breakdown in the CTV-Fedecamaras alliance, at the most sensitive moment, may have been enough to doom the coup. So long as the anti-Chávez unions could claim to speak for both employers and workers, it could plausibly claim to represent the whole nation. With labor out of the equation, the movement was reduced to a right-wing power play.

Nor was the situation much better in the barracks. When General Vásquez Velasco agreed to make Carmona president, he had naturally expected to earn the Defense Ministry in return. Instead, Carmona stunned the military by naming a navy man as defense minister. Vice-admiral Hector Ramírez Pérez was close to Carmona, Molina Tamayo and Pérez Recao, but it was doubtful whether a Navy officer could really establish control of the Army and the other components at such a delicate time.

Perhaps because he was a navy man, Ramírez Pérez neglected some of the most basic elements of effective coupsterism. Inexplicably, he made no effort to ensure loyal anti-Chávez troops took control of the presidential palace. The pro-Chávez Presidential Honor Guard regiment was left in place and in military control of Miraflores even as Carmona and his people moved in.

Moreover, the new regime had not shown itself overly concerned with calming the calls for revenge coming from some in the opposition side. The entire leadership of the Chavista government went underground, and a kind of witch-hunt broke down to find them, along with the shooters seen in the previous night’s endlessly repeated video.

At some point, a rumor started making the rounds that Chávez’s vicepresident, Diosdado Cabello, had sought asylum at the Cuban embassy in Chuao. An angry mob was soon on the scene demanding his scalp. The rumor was not true, but the crowd was belligerent, so Ambassador German Sanchez Otero called the opposition mayor of the area, Henrique Capriles Radonsky, to come and save his skin.

This Capriles did, as best he could, in a highly emotionally charged atmosphere. At the time, Sanchez Otero thanked him. Eventually, Capriles was jailed for leading the mob outside the Cuban embassy that day.

Earlier, a then remarkably young, then Primero Justicia mayor of Chacao, Leopoldo López, alongside his then fellow mayor Henrique Capriles, had showed up to oversee the arrest Chávez interior minister Ramon Rodriguez Chacin, who was arrested at his east side apartment.

An angry mob, shouting “¡asesino! ¡asesino!” had gathered to witness the event: many tried to get punches in to Rodriguez Chacin as he was escorted into police vehicles. The footage was shown repeatedly on opposition news stations that day.

Other chavistas, like then self-described Human Rights activist Tarek William Saab, were also arrested that day. In a show of democratic fortitude, a selected few anti-Chávez activists spent the day pleading with the Carmona authorities to release them. Teodoro Petkoff, Milagros Socorro and Ruth Capriles in particular need to be singled out for praise. It would have been far easier and more comfortable for them to look the other way that day.

By the evening of April 12th, the coup was just starting to unravel. General Vásquez Velasco, stunned by the sweeping illegality of Carmona’s regime, started to say out loud that in refusing Chávez’s order the day before, he had intended to protect the constitution, not to establish a de facto regime. The CTV continued to stay well away from Miraflores and rumors started to circulate more and more insistently that Chávez had not, in fact, resigned, and that no signed resignation letter existed.

By that evening, the US embassy was fully aware of what a blunder Fleischer’s statement had been that morning. US Ambassador Charles Shapiro reportedly called Carmona to urge him to think again, particularly on the very sensitive matter of dissolving the elected National Assembly. Carmona rejected Shapiro’s call, saying he could not be seen to backtrack on his first major decision.

The following day, with his regime in tatters, Carmona would belatedly see the wisdom of Shapiro and Linares Benzo’s call. He tried to convene the National Assembly, but it was too late.

Carmona’s biggest problem, though, was that he failed to obtain the one thing he needed to give his rule any semblance of legitimacy: a signed resignation letter. As the hours passed, and especially in pro-Chávez circles, rumors grew that Chávez had never resigned. That he had, in effect, been kidnapped. It was the international media that carried this story first, in particular CNN, which even had an interview from someone claiming to be Marisabel, Chávez’s wife, denying her husband had resigned.

Had the Carmona clique worked to gain a broader base of support, had it not alienated so many potential allies so quickly, it might well have weathered this “bump in the road.” But by the time Carmona realized he had to give way, it was already too late.

April 13th: The Incredible Shrinking Coup

I awoke on the morning of April 13th to a puzzling anomaly. My clock radio woke me up to a nice spot about the history of the Arepa. Since I was looking for news, I fiddled with the dial a bit – This Week in Baseball, dubbed, was on one station, a catholic mass on another, and so on.

I turned on the TV and found I had a choice between animaniacs, a Major League Baseball game on channel 10, or canned day-old news on Globo. Hmmm.

“That’s that then,” I thought, “just 48 hours old and the coup’s already stopped making headlines…”

Politics, I reflected, would be commendably boring under Carmona. I was kind of naive back then.

 
The absence of news about the latest crises gave the situation a strange, other-worldly feel.

Soon, the phone rang. It was my colleague Juana. “Chamo, I don’t like the way this is going down. The witch-hunt is still going on and suddenly there are no news…who knows what’s happening behind the scenes?! No chamo, I don’t like it at all…”

Juana’s call was my first intimation that the coup was in trouble. I started flipping through the radio dial more aggressively. Absolutely no news on any station.

“What the hell?” I thought. I had no way to know then that the infamous April 13th news blackout was on.

By late on the 12th, insiders could tell what the rest of the country could not: the de facto regime was about to collapse. Word that Chávez had not, in fact, signed a resignation letter was spreading fast. Meanwhile, Carmona’s parallel pissing-off of the Labor unions and much of the Army hierarchy was making it increasingly difficult for him to control the situation.

Only the media, it seemed, remained solidly in the Carmonista camp.

Later it would be revealed that on the afternoon of the 12th, Carmona had gathered together the nation’s media barons and asked them, somewhat diplomatically, to help ensure his government’s stability. The owners understood this clearly enough, and complied.

Soon, all reporting of the collapsing coup was banned on the private media. During one of the most historically important dates in Venezuela’s contemporary history, the TV channels and radio stations simply white-washed the story – with the single, heroic exception of Radio Fe y Alegria, the only station in Caracas to have broken the blockade that day.

Media owners would later claim that conditions were simply not safe enough to send their reporters out that day. As an excuse, it’s not a very good one. Reporters are, by nature, aggressively curious people. Many were dying for permission to go out and report on the events of the day. Their bosses told them in no uncertain terms they could not.

Surely, the streets were dangerous that day, but it was hardly Beirut. There was localized rioting and looting in much of the city, especially in the far west, Petare and Chapellin. There were reports of Metropolitan Police excesses in trying to quell these disturbances, and I’ve heard stories of up to 50 looters shot dead, though – to repeat my mantra once again, it’s impossible to be sure because no serious investigation has ever been held.

The absence of news about the latest crises gave the situation a strange, other-worldly feel. To see your city burn is one thing. To see it burn and to see the media refuse to talk about it is quite another. The rumor mill went into unprecedented overdrive.

Me? I was lucky that day. Since I was working as a freelancer, there was no boss around to forbid me from going out and reporting. So I did. I’d heard rumors that Chavistas were congregating outside Fuerte Tiuna to demand the president’s return. At about 11:30 am, I headed with my camera crew out to see if we could talk to them. We somehow managed to find a taxi driver crazy enough to take us there, and we headed out.

First, we drove through downtown. The city was mostly deserted. Very few cars, almost no pedestrians, and little groups of 5-15 chavistas on some corners holding pro-Chávez signs. Our cab driver radioed her colleagues to find out the situation in 23 de Enero, and quickly refused to take us there.

“Too much shooting,” she said.

She agreed, however, to take us to Fuerte Tiuna.

As we crossed the tunnels on the way to the Fort, we got an up-close look at some of the west-side shantytowns. We saw the same thing we’d seen downtown. Small groups of people, in clumps of 5 or 10 or 15 at most, had come together on some corners to wave Venezuelan flags and hand made signs demanding Chávez’s return to power. Some cars honked at them in support.

Arriving at Fuerte Tiuna’s main entrance was a bizarre experience. A set of three armored personnel carriers blocked the entrance, and a line of military police was deployed just in front of them. Behind the soldiers, there was a small but exceedingly emotional pro-Chávez crowd covering the highway overpass into Fuerte Tiuna. The crowd did not quite fill the overpass – to my untrained eye it looked to be about 1000 people or so.

They were, however, about as angry as I’ve ever seen anyone be angry. They were enraged at the blackout, and grateful for the chance to explain what was happening to a camera.

“We’ve been coming since yesterday. Yesterday the Metropolitan Police came in to disperse us shooting. They left a whole bunch of people dead. But we’re back now because Chávez is our president and we know he’s being held hostage and we demand him back!” said one woman, tears rolling down her face.

We spent about an hour on that overpass, getting footage and talking to people. The atmosphere was tense and emotional – the soldiers really looked like they had no clue what they were doing there – but everyone was real nice to us. At about 1:30 we took a taxi back home. On the way, I scanned the radio for news again. Nothing.

Meltdown

By this time, the coup was crumbling fast. On the one hand, General Vásquez Velasco had decided to strike back against the Carmona faction. In mid-afternoon he went on the air to read the following communiqué:

On April 11th, the Army issued an institutional statement with relation to the casualties generated that day due to the unwillingness to dialogue on the part of the President of the Republic and his government. Civil society, rich and poor together, marched peacefully and were repressed by the forces of order and attacked by sharpshooters around Miraflores Palace.

The army was ordered to place tanks on the streets, without the consent of the Commander of the Army (i.e. Vásquez Velasco himself.) This could not be tolerated, because it would have caused thousands of deaths. Our statement on April 11th was institutional and geared against the actions of the government. It was loyal to constitutional norms and consistent with democratic institution. It was not a military coup perpetrated by the army.

As Commander of the Army, together with the high command and many other officers, we send a message of calm to the people of Venezuela and we inform them that the army is working hard to correct errors and omissions made in this transition. We therefore make the following demands

1. Establish a transition based on the 1999 constitution, the applicable laws, and respect for human rights.

2. Eliminate the Transitional Government decree of April 12th, 2002.

3. Reconvene the National Assembly.

4. Seek consensus with all the social forces in the nation to constitute a transition government that is representative and marked by pluralism.

We issue a call to peace and calm, and for every government action to be carried out with maximum respect for human rights.

We demand the construction of a society without exclusion, where any protest or disquiet can be manifested peacefully, without weapons, and with the full exercise of liberty within the rule of law.

We guarantee the security and the respectful treatment of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez and his family. We urge the authorities to comply with Lieutenant Colonel Chávez request to leave the country immediately and we demand live TV images of Lieutenant Colonel Chávez be broadcast immediately.
We the members of the armed Forces guarantee the security of all the people of Venezuela.

Mayor General Efraín Vásquez Velasco
Commander of the Venezuelan Army

Some fascist he is, huh?

Vásquez Velasco’s last statement strikes me as a key, forgotten aspect of the crisis. It makes a mockery out of any attempt to equate April 11th, 2002 with September 11th, 1973 in Santiago. One struggles to picture General Pinochet signing a declaration like this one. More clearly than any other document from that weekend, the statement makes it clear that, whatever April 11th-14th was, it was not a traditional Latin American coup d’etat.

The other thing to notice was that, in some ways, the statement is the public launch of the counter-coup. In many ways, General Vásquez Velasco made both the key decision in toppling Chávez and the key decision in reinstating him.

Hearing the statement, Carmona finally realized his decree was untenable. He went on National Television late in the afternoon to pledge to reverse course and, in particular, convene the National Assembly. By that point, it was way too late.The plan to bring Chávez back was already well underway.

The counter-coup

Sensing that the coup was faltering, two key pro-Chávez army officers stepped forward, General Jorge García Carneiro and General Raul Baduel. Together, they put together an “Operation Restore Dignity” – to return Chávez to Miraflores. No one dared to fight them on this.

García Carneiro was, at the time, head of the army division based in Fuerte Tiuna. He never acquiesced to the coup. Story has it that on the 13th, García Carneiro managed to get out of Fuerte Tiuna in a light tank which he drove through the west-side slums urging people to rise up and restore Chávez. García Carneiro was later given his “third sun” and rose to be Defense Minister.

Sin-título-47

The second and far more influential player was General Raúl Baduel, the head of the Paratroop Regiment based in Maracay, about 150 kilometers west of Caracas. Baduel, was later promoted to Vásquez Velasco’s old job as overall Commander of the Army, later defense minister, and now sits in a military prison, having crossed the man he returned to power. He was an old friend of Chávez. In April 2002, he was in command of the red-beret regiment Chávez once belonged to.

Baduel had been close to Chávez for many years. He participated in the infamous 1982 Samán de Güere conspiratorial oath, pledging to work together for a revolution. The general soon made it clear he would not cooperate with Carmona’s de facto regime.

That mattered because the 43rd Paratrooper Brigade is by far the best equipped and best trained fighting force in the Venezuelan army. By most accounts, the paratroopers were really the only well equipped and properly trained fighting force in the army at that point. Baduel set about coordinating the operation to first locate and then bring back Chávez to Miraflores.

Baduel’s move changed the military equation decisively. The rest of the army quickly understood that, to make the coup stand, they would have to shoot it out with the Paratrooper Brigade, something nobody wanted to do. As Carmona had already alienated most of his natural base of support by then, the rest of the army was loathe to fight and die for him. Baduel’s decision to back Chávez basically essentially closed the deal.

Carmona never really had a chance to react. By the time he realized that the Presidential Honor Guard, the Caracas Army Division and the Paras were all working to bring back Chávez, his support was too narrow to stage any kind of fight back. In the afternoon, a pro-Chávez crowd began to assemble outside Miraflores. Soon enough, Carmona caught on that the Honor Guard would not act to disperse them. In a frightful hurry, he and his people abandoned Miraflores, leaving behind stacks of agendas and documents that the chavistas deeply enjoyed reading over the following weeks.

 
Chávez did not return because the crowds came out, the crowds came out because they heard Chávez would return.

As the coup collapsed more and more visibly, more and more chavistas felt emboldened to come out onto the streets. By 10:00 p.m. a decent crowd had gathered in front of Miraflores Palace – about four blocks’ worth of Avenida Urdaneta, according to eye-witnesses. Certainly, it’s quite impressive to turn out 30 or 40,000 people with no official organization and in dangerous circumstances like this. The hardest of Caracas’ hardcore chavistas sure did turn out: they were not about to miss the momentous occassion of Chávez’s phoenix like return to power.

That was just not enough for the chavista myth-making machine, though. Instead of embracing the 40,000 brave people who came out to welcome Chávez back that night, the government jumped the shark, claiming that as many as eight million people had come out on the streets that day.

In official chavista lore, it was this massive people-power outburst of solidarity that brought Chávez back to power. Alarmingly, I’ve seen more than one foreign correspondent buy this line.

The eight million figure is not even believable as a send up. Not only is the estimate at least two orders of magnitude too large, but it gets the causality backwards: Chávez did not return because the crowds came out, the crowds came out because they heard Chávez would return. The key decisions – both to remove Chávez and to reinstate them – were taken behind closed doors by high-ranking military men.

At about 8:00 pm, the situation turned nastier. Incensed at the absence of news coverage that day, pro-Chávez civilian groups – the then feared Circulos Bolivarianos – activated a plan to stick it to the private channels. Riding around in swarms of motorcycles, they started touring the studios of the main TV channels, throwing stones through the windows and shooting into the buildings sporadically.

The private media switched, within minutes, from showing shlocky American made-for-TV movies to covering what was happening directly outside their doors. For over two hours, they cowered in terror, using the airwaves to ask for someone, anyone to come and protect them. But with Carmona having already lost control of the situation, the military chain of command had collapsed all over again. There seemed to be no one around with the authority or the desire to order the National Guard to step in and stop the violence.

By 10:00 pm or so, word got around that although the Venezuelan channels had no real news, Colombia’s Radio Caracol and CNN en Español had coverage of the crisis. Since Caracol comes through the satellite dish system in Caracas, once again the city was split between the dish-owners, who had access to information, and everyone else.

By 11:00, Radio Caracol had made it clear that the coup had unravelled and Chávez was on his way back to Miraflores. The Venezuelan stations only announced this well past midnight.

In an interview I’ll never forget, a terrified Pedro Penzini Fleury interviewed Cilia Flores on UnionRadio, and I swear at one point he half-apologized to her for having overthrown her government. Surreal.

By 3:00 a.m. the following Morning, Chávez had returned to Miraflores to an ecstatic reception from his followers. Even the most recalcitrant anti-chavista journalists I know who were at Miraflores for the event own up that it was a moving, exciting experience.

“That day,” one of them told me, “it doesn’t matter how escualido you thought you were, when you saw the faces on the people outside Miraflores as Chávez got out of that helicopter, you could not help but be a chavista.”

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A chastised Chávez gave an early morning speech, thanking his supporters and pledging to change, to really change after this experience. Holding up a crucifix, he promised to govern inclusively, to bring critics on board.

Those good intentions did not last long. The mythmaking, obfuscating, and outright lying about the events of April began almost as soon as the dust settled. Fourteen years on, it has never really let up.

Writing from the vantage point of 2016, it strikes me that some of this blog’s younger collaborators were barely four years old when these events took place. To them, this is the stuff of history books – or rather, the stuff the history books lie to us about.

It falls to those of us who were there to keep telling and retelling this story. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Plenty of blame, and not enough truth.

53 COMMENTS

  1. Excelente idea la de rescatar este texto. Ustedes llevan ya muchos años por aquí y seguro que hay bastantes más posts que podrían publicarse de nuevo.

  2. wow, thank you for this, being from a younger generation some aspects of this were not very clear to me such as Velasco’s role in BOTH toppling + reinstating Chávez, he should be remembered in our history accounts more prominently as a key player in this coup of a coup (that coup of a coup description really seems to coin what happened).

    I think that the importance of media is also very apparent here and the power these outlets have over society. I am in awe and quite thankful for the reporters that went out and did their job on those days and also for the extensive subsequent investigative journalism that uncovered key aspects that were unknown while the events were happening (i.e. the non-spontaneous change of the march course and the fact that this was known by Chávez beforehand, his degree of, I would argue, CRIMINAL premeditation was really surprising to me).

    Is anyone else surprised by how blatant the manipulation of the emotions of the masses seems to have been? the oppo with the marches, the chavistas with the loyalists-truned murderers ??

    I liked the debunking bits and the extinguishing of rumors, something that has been made all the more difficult due to the lack of conclusive evidence concerning who shot who and when and why. I wish a thorough investigation would have been carried out instead of the exploitation of uncertainty that the govt. now uses when recounting these incidents in their favor.

    I was also interested in the presence of armed foreigners who were detained as I had no knowledge of them at all and would like to know if any court proceedings of their detention are available?

    cool article and quite thorough, I enjoyed reading this. thanks

  3. Es de lamentar unicamente que en este texto se mezcle el historiador que intenta aquilatar lo ocurrido del mejor modo posible con el periodista que quiere contar una historia y el señor Francisco Toro que estuvo viviendo todo aquello en primera persona. Cuando tres personas hablan a la vez difícilmente puede salir algo fluido y uno va leyendo a trompicones. En cualquier caso, no es fácil encontrar información detallada sobre esto en internet y se agradece una vez más que lo hayan publicado aquí. En aquella época Venezuela era para mí un país sudamericano más y ese golpe fue por tanto un golpe más. Ha sido un placer poder ahora conocer mejor esa parte de la historia venezolana.

  4. The april slaughter showed Venezuela that Chávez was actually much worse than just an instigator, he went into full butcher-dictator mode when he armed malandros to gleefully murder scores of people, and then people kept claiming that “oppos fired too, because it couldn’t have been logical that chavistas killed other chavistas too”

    Truly disgusting, that son of a bitch got away with the murders and susequent destruction of Venezuela.

  5. Note: Using the term “semi-automatic rifles” is usually a telltale sign of a liberal(US definition) who has an agenda and no knowledge of weapons. The correct term in this case would be “selective-fire rifles”, though “assault rifles” or “military rifles” would be more appropriate.

    • Nice catch there. When referring to rifles used by the armed forces, it should almost always be one of those options listed (“selective-fire rifles”,“assault rifles”, “military rifles”).

      A “semi-automatic rifle” is ONLY capable of semi-automatic fire (one trigger pull, one bullet). The kind of rifle commonly available to civilians in many countries (especially the US). Military rifles are generally (in most countries) not available to the civilian population, and are “selectively” capable of BOTH semi-automatic fire and some kind of automatic or burst fire.

      Many gringos are becoming increasingly touchy on these definitions, following a very deliberate and ongoing media campaign to rebrand and erase all distinctions between civilian and military rifles in order to garner more support for gun control measures in the US. Calling an automatic/burst fire rifle “semi-automatic” serves that purpose, as does calling a semi-automatic rifle a “military rifle” and then telling el puelo that we need to pass new laws to keep assault rifles out of civilian hands (they never were in civilian hands, just changed the name of it).

  6. It’s interesting how we get to know more and more details about the events that took place in those days; and I wonder how much more information remains untold/undisvered. A year ago I read “El acertijo de abril”, and your unique POV brought me a bit more of clarity. Thanks Quico.

  7. To the english speaking out there looking for more (beyond this great article) understanding of this dramatic, confusing, and incredibly important event…

    Brian Nelson’s “The Silence and the Scorpion” is the best book on this topic by far. He has his own website with additional information, photographs, etc . http://www.brianandrewnelson.com/Silence_home.htm

  8. It would be nice to include here the very first post you wrote about the date, or create some sor of post with all the related material published over the time. Reading not only the actual notes but the timeline as unfolded is an history practice worth the effort.

  9. Excellent article. Balanced, well researched and with a clear line of perception. Clearly shows that (almost) everyone was caught off guard and unprepared and where improvisation was the order of the day, something “criollos” seem to do all the time. The Folly of History.

  10. I was there, and really great account kiko.
    , Now a bunch of people could believe me , I had friends sitting in El Calvario and they had to run they were shot…then the day of Carmona , anyone could enter Miraflores, a crazy friend of my dad, a MD , not a politician nothing just enter out of curiosity, no one asked who he was. it happened to other people I know , and were casually invited, like hey let’s go…I was how in hell after yesterday are you going to Miraflores and enter as if it were a street party…
    Not declaring a CURFEW, was a huge mistake, Vazquez Velasco did not want to seem as a gorilla , however in a time of commotion that is a policial measure, not a political one,
    the fifth floor of Fuerte tiUna, really all sound like a some cartoons stories, only the coyote and the road runner missing.
    there are so much stuff, 14 years and still …

  11. As someone who doesn’t remember anything that happened back then (I was 7-8 at the time), and who often hears just one sided info about it, this post is really what I needed to read. Thanks for writing it.

  12. Weapons specialist: you are picking a false nit. “Semi-automatic rifle” is a well-defined term, unlike “assault weapons”. A “semi-automatic rifle” fires one round per trigger pull, without the shooter having to operate a bolt or other reloading mechanism. It is not a “selective-fire” weapon or an “assault rifle”, both of which must be capable of automatic fire. (“Selective-fire” refers to a weapon capable of semi-automatic fire, fixed short bursts, and full automatic fire; most “assault rifles” are selective-fire.)

  13. As one of those who were children when this all took place, I have to say this is masterful job at making 4/11 make sense. I wasn’t even aware of Miquilena’s position on Chávez following the events of the march, nor that he had so much influence over the Asamblea of the moment. Honestly, it’s baffling and depressing to see how close we actually could have been from saving ourselves all this misery. Inconceivable that all these educated elites actually believed they could get away with implanting a regime with no legitimate institutional bases, especially taking into account they wanted it to last from April to DECEMBER(!!!), when elections would be held. Carmona certainly deserves all the hate he receives for being so narrow and not seizing the glorious opportunity that would have been getting the once MVRista Asamblea’s institutional blessing.

    The one doubt that I am left with after reading this however, is what exactly was Chávez expecting to gain by provoking such a head-on confrontation? By choosing to allow the march to get so close to The Palace he was well aware that he would have to implement Plan Ávila or a similar repression strategy, as is confirmed by the fact that Rozendo was attending contingency meetings. Considering that one of his favorite rhetoric points was bashing CAP for the deaths in handling el Caracazo, I’m not really able to grasp why he would have been so willing to implement such a plan himself.

    • One part of his intention was that he wanted to have an excuse to implement all his dictatorial communist policies, so he had to consolidate the “internal enemy” theory, which would be his excuse tobecome a full fledged dictator, likely suggested by Castro himself, who also suggested him to use the criminals (pranes all the way down to muggers) as an instrument to extert control over the population, which meant giving them guns and impunity, resulting in the quarter million of murders we have so far in Venezuela.

      The other part, was for the rest of the country:

      He didn’t manage to get the military to slaughter people.

      But he managed to get paramilitary colectivos to slaughter people.

      The message he wanted to send was this: “OBEY ME, KNEEL AND SHUT UP, OR I WILL ORDER MY HORDES TO SHOOT YOU IN THE HEAD”

      The message was loud, clear, and bathed in blood, leaving a festering scar in all Venezuela, who got used to the idea that “Protesting was a stupid thing to do, because the chavistas will come and kill us! You want to protest? Then go and get yourself killed alone!”

  14. So many watching this from afar, and I clearly remember the shooter from the bridge being played on the evening news before Venezuela registered as anything more than a place that produced coffee and baseball players, so many of us misinterpreted events as they were unfolding, and many persisted in placing them in the classic ur narrative of American interventionism without investigating the facts. Quico has done a great service providing this corrective, and putting his curiosity before his safety. And any who have not read Brian Nelsons book, it is well worth the read.

  15. Great article — thanks for the updates. Two details I’ll always remember: 1) Reading a gossip email forwarded by a relative in early March of ’02 (perhaps earlier) that said that Chavez would be toppled and that Pedro Carmona would assume the presidency. I remember thinking “Nah, that can’t happen…” 2) Someone — JV Rangel, perhaps — said that one of the people holding court in a Fuerte Tiuna meeting room was actor and celebrity Orlando Urdaneta. What a mess that whole thing was.

  16. Quico, really a well-written account of the events, particularly the post-Chavez leaving Carmona f-up. I seriously doubt Chavez’s bravado claims of his “provoking” the events beforehand–typical of his swaggering blowhard incompetent machismo. He certainly more than well-deserved to be deposed, having placed sniper teams on rooftops of buildings fronting Miraflores, and having security officials handing handguns/ammo to all comers on streets nearby Miraflores, early AM on April 11, not later in the day “as the shooting started”, as you state. He was more than willing to slaughter innocent unarmed civilians, many with headshots, and was confident this would keep them at bay. As for that true revolutionary gem General Rincon (the resignation “…lo cual acepto”), I’m sure that he still has that signed resignation safely stored in third-party hands, which has been his insurance policy all these years for Govt. fat-cat posts/ambassadorships.

    • “He was more than willing to slaughter innocent unarmed civilians…”

      And even to kill several of his own followers, just to blame the opposition for that to consolidate his own base, which made such a good result, that even non-chavista people like Mr. Toro himself assures in the article that “…It wasn’t only chavistas firing…”

      Chavismo has always been sustained by mindless hatred, which in this case got stoked to stratospheric levels just for political reasons, it’s been demonstrated time and again that chavismo is willing to kill every venezuelan if they need to in order to maintain power.

  17. Just READING this was absolutely riveting. Nevermind the moments when I was transported back to my mother telling us in a tone of voice I have never heard before or since: “if I say the word, get down. Put your heads down and dont come back up until I say so”

    • “Get away from the windows, the government suspended the guarantees.”

      In 1989.

      Communists sure did a good job to destroy Venezuela from within.

      • Yes. (“Communists sure did a good job to destroy Venezuela from within.”) That’s how communists work, smiles on their faces, and guns in their hands. Not plowshares. Guns. Not construction. Destruction on a massive scale.

  18. Fine story and recounting of events with in-depth insights. What happened to the 800,000 anti-chavez marchers? There must have been some basis for that protest. For everyone taking their time to march, there must have been three or four, maybe even ten, who supported them, but chose to stay at home. The recounting of events and highlighting of the people involved is engrossing. All the emotion involved, and the suspense, captivates. But it was a coup that changed nothing. Things have only gotten worse since then.

    It seems logical to me that if someone, or some people, or many, many people want to change things politically, the underlying fundamentals of what led to all the very visible fanfare must be addressed. That’s so obvious I guess it seems stupid to say.

    I do not see how you can pretend to have an economy without free markets and private capital.

    • “I do not see how you can pretend to have an economy without free markets and private capital…”

      Because in the minds of chavistas, the only things that mattered were two:

      1) Plundering as much as they can.

      2) Ensuring no one could have the chance to stop them from plundering.

  19. This was the first post I read on this blog, and it struck me as a rare attempt at being balanced and honest about chavismo and Venezuela.

    I’ve long had an interest on Venezuela, particularly on its mis-managed economy, those things they were trying to do there and that you would only come across in economy history books: permanent capital, price and exchange controls, “exprópiese” galore and the loomping menace of hyperinflation. This intensified around the time of Chávez’s final “recovery” from cancer just in time for the October 2012 elections -elections being another big interest of mine, at what I would call geeky levels- and death.

    But -and I believe Quico himself has made this point somewhere- it’s exceedingly hard to find honest analysis of Venezuela and the Bolivarian Revolution. No matter whetther chavista or antichavista, oficialista or opositor, domestic or foreign; the amount of BS and unsubstantiated analysis you can find on the internet is overwhelming and it makes you wonder if it is possible for so many people to be dishonest, blind or both, or if it’s you the one who is losing his senses.

    This post was exactly the kind of thing I was missing about Venezuela, even if obviously written by an antichavista, and what made me stay and become a subscriber. So, thanks for reposting it!

    • Part of the problem for outsiders analyzing Venezuela is that much of the information in circulation today is propaganda produced by the regime and its supporters and then disseminated to the world by various means: Official government reports, statistics that are provided to the UN and other international institutions, and reporting produced by other international socialist/communist organizations.

      This massive amount of propaganda and disinformation competes with other more objective versions of news and information. The dissonance between the two radically different versions of the “truth” make rational analysis by outsiders (and even insiders) very difficult.

      • The opposition politicians and the opposition-leaning media have had their fair share of wrongdoings there. Not comparable on its gravity to using the state as your propaganda machine (let alone using it to slowly, but surely, repress and silence opposition media!), but still. Some of that is described in Quico’s article.

        And then you have the vast majority of Western mass media, all around the world, reporting about Venezuela with an obvious bias against the government. You may be against the current Venezuelan government -I for sure am, and I believe that anyone not out of his mind should be-, but you are not entitled to your own set of facts.

        In my view, this blog sticks to an honest set of facts like 90% of the time, and given how polarizing Venezuela is and how much against the government they are, that’s remarkable.

        • We are in general agreement, but I would note that up until about four years ago, when Chavez became too sick to manage the political spin, the Western media actually supported Chavismo in disseminating their official propaganda with little critical analysis, in touting the “successes” of the “revolution”. The few journalists that did dig deeper and questioned the official story were largely ignored. It was just too much fun for the press to report on Chavez’s antics. It was not until Chavismo started abusing respected journalists that the media started becoming critical.

          • How can any self-respecting objective non-compromised journalist not be critical of virtually everything Chavismo is doing/stands for? This abomination of a Government even has the balls to say that, if they fall, so falls their movement throughout L.A. The non-Venezuelan journalists have only a small clue of the real atrocities of this Regime….

          • NET: Without a doubt, the journalists of the world were asleep at the switch up until recently. Even today, it is standard to hear the mainstream press refer to the Opposition as “the hard liners” or “the extreme right-wing”. They were seduced by Chavez early on and are loathe to admit their complicity to this day.

        • “The opposition politicians and the opposition-leaning media have had their fair share of wrongdoings there.”

          “Wrongdoing”? Is that how they are calling “telling the truth” these days?

          Man, there was no need to lie AT ALL to discredit chavismo, all you needed to do is to say the PLAIN TRUTH, because chavismo is a festering cancer of a political movement, controlled by drug dealers that use criminals to slaughter the population to stay in power.

          Saying the truth is not to be biased, saying that chavismo’s policies destroyed Venezuela’s economy and reduced the people to a state of completely economical powerlessness is as true as to say that the sun rises every morning.

  20. Great post Quico, thanks for updating and reposting for a newer generation. I for one wasn’t around 14 years ago, and appreciate the history.

  21. Had two personal friends in the march to Miraflores, and they told me that when the shooting started (one of then had someone next to him fall with a bullet from an unseen shooter) they dropped to the pavement and members of the local police on motorcycles (who were protecting the marchers) came forward , two per bike, one driving and the other in the back seat carrying a rifle, and that they saw as the latter positioned themselves and starting shooting back!! There was shooting from both sides , but it was the Chavistas that started the shooting …..!!. One of my friends now lives and works in Houston.

    • Obviously the police had to return the gunfire to protect the people from the chavista assassins.

      The lie that chavismo has trying to shove down the world’s throat is that “cops and oppos were killing protesters because they were shooting specifically at them”

      “There was shooting from both sides…” is interpreted and understood as “chavistas killed civilians, but the oppos did TOO, so they are s**t, and thus deserve every atrocity committed against them by our glorious revolution”

  22. April 11: The story of how a handful of corrupt milicos decided to throw a tantrum and doom the country rather than to return to the barracks and stop meddling on political positions because they felt entilted to grab a piece of the oil pinata and thus decided th support again a butcher that ordered the slaughter of dozens of people because he was a megalomaniacal psychopath.

  23. I think that in the Silence and the Scorpion Brian Nelson talks about his theory that the TV transmisson of Chavez in the afternoon of 11 April was really videotaped hours before,and that he was watching the events from other place. I remember his many references to the time of the day. The officer handing him notes could have been just a distraction.

  24. “The government was fully entitled to move to protect itself from what was, without exaggeration, an insurrectional march”

    A march can’t be “insurrectional” unless they were hiding guns and were going to break down the barriers of the palace. A march is a protest and unless it was meant to be violent there is no insurrection in the march itself.

  25. “In testimony after the fact, they claimed they were merely returning fire against the Metropolitan Police units in the Avenue below shooting north towards them.”

    I have never understood how that can be a justification of any kind. So they were not shooting at unarmed protesters, they were shooting at the police, it still seems like a terrible crime to me.

  26. One important piece missing from this article, was this realization from Brian Nelson that the National Guard had been deployed with the specific purpose of funneling the opposition march towards the Av. Baralt and towards Puente Llaguno. The only possible reason for such a “maneuver” was to provoke a bloody confrontation between the two sides, one of which had been instigated and partially armed since early that day. The Puente Llaguno constituted a vantage point from where to attack the opposition march. This is what in military terms is known as a “kill zone”.
    To me this could only have come from the mind of Hugo Chavez.

    http://www.brianandrewnelson.com/Venezuela/Complicity%20of%20the%20National%20Guard.html

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