25 years ago today, Venezuela changed decisively. A coup attempt led by mid-ranking army officers of unclear ideology sent society spiralling off kilter.

Personally, I’ve always been more curious about February 3rd than February 4th, though. About the political scene the coup-attempt destabilized for good. Was there a sense of crisis? Of inevitability? Of foreboding?

Our researcher Dora Guerrero went off to the Hemeroteca Nacional in Caracas to see what the newspapers in the days leading up to the coup felt like.

I can’t say it looks to me like a country on the brink. The two big stories of the week had to do with the government’s harsh reaction to Student Protests at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, which had been the site of a roiling, low-level riot pulled off by masked molotov-cocktail throwing kids for years at that point.

 

The big debating point:

When is it acceptable for the government to set aside the long tradition of “university autonomy” and send state security bodies to arrest rioting kids?

In favor of the crackdown? Old-time AD stalwart Gonzalo Barrios:

Against?

A whole lot of professors:

And this guy…

The full page ads were coming thick and fast

But Barrios wasn’t entirely alone:

Plan Turpial

The second big thing exercising the papers that week was the Plan Turpial — a now completely forgotten corruption scandal involving the procurement of communications equipment by Casa Militar, the president’s personal security detail.

Here’s then-defense minister Fernando Ochoa Antich running away from the scandal (instead of worrying about the coup about to send Venezuelan democracy into a death spiral…)

Maybe if the Head of the President’s security detail had been worrying less about Plan Turpial, he’d have had his head on the ball:

The thing keeping CAP up at night

…was a threatened Teachers’ Strike.

And of course plenty of people hated President Pérez’s guts

…for reasons that they couldn’t articulate in anything like a convincing argument:

Henrique Salas Römer was writing deathly boring OpEds… 

Some facts we “forgot to remember”

Like, the economy was growing strongly:

Some familiar faces pop-up back then

…and don’t exactly cover themselves in glory, in the foresight department…

Congressman Miguel Henrique Otero was aghast

…at a recent Cholera outbreak:

And some problems that we think of as brand new

…turn out to be golden oldies:



While other stories seem lifted straight out of the

“Eramos Felices y no lo Sabíamos” file

 

People were horrified Tocorón held 1,170 inmates…

…when it had only been designed for 700. (Today, it houses 6,472, and no, it’s never been formally expanded.)

Of course, CAP was in Davos

…playing World Statesman.

While Caldera sniped at home…

…trying to get the hashtag #Convergencia to stick years before there was any such thing as a hashtag.

 

The Takeaway

On the eve of 4 de Febrero, Venezuela was a normal country. It had its problems, for sure — the pathetic editorial standards of its newspapers among them. It was dealing with them, though.

Debate in the public sphere was open, people who got up to hanky-panky in procurement contracts found themselves in hot water. Attempts to challenge democratic norms (like “university autonomy”) created a furious backlash and the government was forced to tread carefully.

Inflation seemed high at the time — but now we know better. Prison conditions seemed bad at the time — but now we know better. The government seemed corrupt at the time — but now we know better. Rafael Caldera seemed like a way out of the crisis at the time — but now we know better.

The scale of the democratic, social and economic involution in these last 25 years is, well, almost impossible to overstate.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Every country is imperfect, corrupt, with incompetent, bureaucratic governments, with crime, diseases, traffic, failed beauty queens, and so forth. But some are much better than others.

    Countries also get worse or better, as their people and governments change. You have a place like Peru, that even with a coca-chewing dumb Indian as president, is doing much better, for multiple reasons. Or you have countries with honest, well-prepared presidents going down the tubes. Then again, you have countries that only build things and get better through the unfortunate, terrible rule of a dictator, as Chile did, or even Venezuela, under MPJ. Or South Africa, etc.

    Of course Venezuela, as every other Latin-America country was imperfect under CAP, Lusinchi or Luis Herrera or Caldera.. Betancourt and Leoni were probably the best we’ve had, still, the country had many problems, as always, as every country does. Now, of course, it’s much much worse.

    But what happened in Venezuela was dramatic. Radical change for the worst, only comparable to Cuba or Syria or Somalia or Iraq. Chavismo took over, when money and oil were everywhere, and they capitalized on the alienation feelings of the poor, less educated pueblo-people. No more burguesitos pelucones sifrinitos capitalistas, bread (and opium) for the people.. regalitos, free this and that, promises, populism, and everyone loves Chavez.. Even when the country was headed into hell itself, clearly.

    Why? because “el pueblo” are not very wise at all, not really educated, clueless indeed. That’s why. Viva Chavez!, still today, huh?!.. In the end, countries get better as their people, “el pueblo” gets wiser and better educated. Obviously, Venezuela has a loooong way to go.

    • “Why?”

      Actually it was because the agents of castrismo spent about 30 years brainwashing people across the country and infiltrated the government to lay the structure that would end supporting every atrocity chavismo made in its first years of power.

      When the indiscriminate slaughter fo venezuelans didn’t serve castro to seize power in Venezuela, he turned to his plan B, all to steal and plunder the country.

  2. Excellent to see this evidence of the actual state of affairs on 3F. It throws light on Chavez’ criminal audacity in thinking he was entitled to replace elected leaders with a military junta.

    The only word I’d change is “involution”. It’s been more like a death spiral, hasn’t it?

  3. Thanks for digging up this history. It really provokes a lot of questions.

    Could it be that there was something wrong that the elites – the universities, the press- just didn’t register? Or did a bunch of opportunists just see an opportunity to create a crisis that would upend a democratic and economic system that functioned, but that nobody could love or passionately defend?

    • The seeds of the problem were sowed in those years of democracy. Because the myth of the Rich Venezuela was sold to the masses during those times. Instead of selling a different one, a tale of a poor country having the great luck of getting an enormous input in money that SHOULD have been put to work in bootstrapping a modern working society where people moved from poverty to decent jobs, all parties were interested in purchasing as much of the trappings of modernity as possible with the oil money and selling a simple idea to the people. The country is rich, so you deserve your share. And of course, in principle that is 100% right. But the way it was sold is just by transforming politics from the discussion of how best to invest the shares into a sustainable and productive economy into “vote for me because I will make sure you get your share now in stuff you need or want. Here, have some stuff to build a rancho and some milk”.

      When the 80s and the 90s came and the shock of a failed economy hit the people hard, it was just a matter of time somebody capitalized on the resentment of people that were told that for decades AND were used to see corruption in the political leadership as routine, thus making the simple assumption that yes, the country is rich, but I’m starving, so it is because somebody is stealing all the money. And from that to the search of “a strongman” that “bring order” and deliver on the promise of giving out the shares.

      The tragedy of the IV Republic was that it was, in the end, the mother of the V Republic, one that doesnt deviate much on the most basic assumptions of it. Is just that it jettisoned every hope we had of actually moving toward a better one. But the mindset of the V is the mindset of the IV after trauma and disappointment reached the critical point of a mass of people that felt betrayed because the deal for them, as sold by everybody, was not about institutions, freedoms, or laws. It was about getting out of poverty now, of cashing in right now their share of the lottery ticket the country won. And they learned that on AD and Copei knees.

  4. It’s always nice to put this stuff in the regional context as well, 18% inflation in Latin America was child’s play when compared to Peru, Brazil, México, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc at the time, the same can be said when about violent protests, corruption scandals, and institutional chaos.

    By the 1990s the illusion of Venezuela being somewhat different from the rest of the continent was beginning to collapse, in a sense we were being “latinamericanized” but still decently above average.

  5. The thread of fate is very fragile , a one minute speech , one man , deep dissapointment by all (not just the less fortunate) with a corrupt inept political system , the resistance of eveyone that they would have to lose most of their oil funded hand outs to start building an economy with their own efforts and the stage was set for Venezuela becoming the banquet for all torments and misfortunes !!

    We didnt know it them , but history was being made , silently , slowly , lethally ……, we trusted democracy to give us the best government and it gave itself to those what would destroy her, our freedoms and whatever social capital had been accumulated for her acount.

    Can we ever trust her again ?? can we now see her limits and the delusions that feed her cult , can we overcome the weaknesses that make her so potentially disastrous !!

    • Me parece muy acertado y me ha gustado eso de “We didnt know it then, but history was being made, silently, slowly, lethally “. Lo mismo está ocurriendo ahora aunque me temo que tan solo sea para después, una vez más, volver al mismo lugar. Por lo demás y hablando con el señor Toro si está por ahí, la idea de recoger estos artículos me ha parecido excelente y se agradece de veras. Es sin duda significativo que cuando ustedes empezaron con CC, enumeraron en su primer post los mismos problemas que el país tiene ahora pero diez o doce años antes de ese primer día en internet, las cosas no eran tampoco muy diferentes.

    • Democracy is not at fault, when we failed it. The whole tiresome line about the ignorance and “parasitism” of the lower classes? Democratic leaders were supposed to fix that, and they didnt. Because it was more advanteous for them not to do so.

      All in all, Chavismo is just the end result of taking the same mistakes of the same people that let us to the crisis of the 80’s and the idiotic quest for “real solutions” in the 90s – they are exactly the same mentality, just turned to 11. Who raised the people on a mental diet of “the country is rich, so if I dont have anything is because somebody is stealing my share”, thus priming the masses to vote for the first asshole that promised a reckoning? What is fundamentally different from the old political campaigns of gifting powder milk and the ideology of Chavismo? Why instead of targeted subsidies to the poorest, have we always done the whole “free X for everybody” stuff, if not because it was good for the parties?

      Democracy had a chance in Venezuela, and yes, the past was a better place and a place that had some hopes of becoming better. But lets not kid ourselves, the seeds of what came were planted in the years of democracy, when most of our so-called leaders decided that instead of a real progressive agenda of investing public resources in buliding a modern society, it was just much better to take the oil boom for granted as a great way to have the “people” as clients. Chávez and company just promised to do for real what the AD and Copei of the past stopped doing when the money ran out (the first of many times)

  6. “It had its problems, for sure — the pathetic editorial standards of its newspapers among them.”

    Well, good to know that something hasn’t changed one bit.

    Happy 4F.

  7. Toro, I am a bit older than Juan but not so much. I do remember talking in December of 1991 with a friend – of the politician Mendoza family – about when the coup would arrive. We got the date more or less right. In the previous months there were actually a couple of coup attempts that were caught right early on, so there were a couple of detentions and that was it. I was following what the pseudo students at the UCV were doing, people similar to Jaua…perhaps he was there as well and for me it was clear there was a weird connection between them and some milicos since before 89.
    Look a bit earlier than 3 Feb and you will see some interesting signs on the wall

  8. what was going on with the student “protests”? Bunch of communist vandalizing and throwing rocks or what?

    Was that somewhat normal after 89?

    • For most of my youth, the news every other week or so it seemed was that some group of “encapuchados” (masked protestors) hijacked a bus in the roads next to the Universidad Central de Venezuela, forced everybody out, then set it on fire. The protestors would then move inside the UCV because academic inviolability and all that.

      Most of those doing that kind of stuff now are now authorized violent repression to every student everywhere that happens to want to peacefully protest that the country is a shithole due to said “revolutionaries” running the show.

      • During the time I spent at university, the masked car-burners were widely known as a bunch of pro-castro-communist-chavista parasites who had been sucking from “mamá comedor” during at least 8 years (studying a career that took 3 years to finish), there were even people in that group that had been in the university during more than a full decade.

        So yeah, most of the commies in Venezuela have always been dirty parasites living from the state.

      • Thanks. What were they ‘protesting’?

        people hijacking buses should have been dealt with severely and directly, academic inviolability or not. Seems really bizarre to me that there is a society where it would not be.

        • That’s precisely the problem, Citoyen, in the 4th, the commies would hide behind the university autonomy after burning buses and trucks, now in the 5th that they’re in charge, they wipe their asses with the autonomy, shooting as much as they like inside the campuses and arresting anybody they can catch.

  9. These are the type of articles I come to CC for. Thanks for this, truly fascinating to have a window to the realities of Venezuela at a particular point in time when it was a flawed but still relatively normal democracy.

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