Photo: AVN, retrieved
A year that started with the conundrum of the 49 laws proposed through the Enabling Law, showing the collective weariness of many sectors of society and concluded with the general strike which would give us the first temporary version of the chronic shortages that are now the rule. Marches, counter marches, Chávez’ virulent discourse, the induction of Bolivarian Circles, the first attempt to turn PDVSA into another piece for the Executive Branch, a coup d’état, a transitional government that only lasted 24 hours, a Dialogue and Negotiation Roundtable and even a Truth Committee, surpassed Venezuela’s exit from FTAA and the proposed creation of ALBA with Chávez as its leader.
An unexpected amount of people attended the opposition protest that day. Despite the ban on aerial recordings to avoid comparisons between that march and the one called by the government, the disruption of TV broadcasts with cadenas, the government’s march was short and brief, with several buses there to guarantee an audience. People were less afraid of Chávez, but a collision was always avoided, so Altamira rose as the opposition’s rallying point while Miraflores was the MVR axis. In order to counter the effect of the January 23 march, Chávez celebrated the 10th anniversary of his failed coup on February 4, 1992, declaring it a national holiday and later celebrated the 13th anniversary of El Caracazo, on February 27, which was criticized by human rights organizations such as Cofavic.
The civic strike of December 2001, would boost Fedecámaras’ chairman Pedro Carmona Estanga to the spotlight. Carlos Ortega, head of CTV (Venezuelan Federation of Workers) talked on the phone with former president Carlos Andrés Pérez about the role he’d play. An Air Force Colonel, Pedro Vicente Sojo, said that 75% of the Armed Forces opposed Chávez, while Guaicaipuro Lameda resigned his office in PDVSA due to differences with the economic cabinet. Chávez replaced him with Gastón Parra (BCV vice president until then), unleashing a rebellion in PDVSA’s high-ranking officials who felt the company was being politicized and meritocracy was ignored. CTV and Fedecámaras signed a Governability Agreement (sans political parties) amidst constant sector strikes and protests.
PDVSA was the spark
While the Executive Branch insisted that the country was calm, confrontation was escalating nationwide. The conflict in the oil industry reached the top after the shutdown and eventual takeover by the National Guard, when Chávez announced that 14 PDVSA top-ranking executives had been stripped from their offices by transfer, expulsion or retirement, turning the offices in Chuao into another spot for opposition protests. On April 8, CTV and Fedecámaras called for a 24-hour national strike that became indefinite. On April 11, a march was called from Parque del Este to Chuao, with an even higher attendance than the one on January 23.
Photo: RunRunes, retrieved
The massacre at El Silencio
In the heat of the march, the estimated 500 thousand people in attendance to the April 11 event, decided to detour from Chuao toward Miraflores. I was with my brother and thought, near Bellas Artes, of all our chavista friends gathering in Puente Llaguno. I went there and before they let me pass to greet them, they used a red lipstick to paint stripes on my cheeks. I gave them water and candy and we retraced our steps. Upon reaching the Metro, an old lady was crying miserably for the massacre at El Silencio. My brother and I denied what she was saying, because that’s where we were coming from, since we hadn’t heard a single gunshot. We had missed the whole thing by minutes, thanks to Caracas.
The resignation that wasn’t
Chávez imposed a mandatory broadcast to prevent TV channels from reporting the massacre taking place. The networks reacted by splitting the screen in two, showing the presidential speech to the left, isolated from the vortex that would leave 19 people dead and over 100 wounded, as well as the first political prisoners of the this regime: the officers and commissioners of the Metropolitan Police and Iván Simonovis, the Security Chief for Caracas’ Mayor’s Office back then. Generals and commanders urged Chávez to resign, and he was forced to leave Miraflores and taken from Fuerte Tiuna to Turiamo and from there to La Orchila. Carmona Estanga became the president. As if illegal raids and arbitrary detentions weren’t enough, the transitional government’s decree gave him all the powers, and he signed his own doom. Caracas experienced lootings and riots, anarchy didn’t stop even with the conciliatory version of Chávez who climbed down from the helicopter early on April 13 with a crucifix in his hand, thanks to the loyal soldiers who took control of Miraflores and rescued him.
Dialogue upon dialogue
Some of the PDVSA managers were reinstated and Chávez acknowledged the mistake of sacking them. He named Alí Rodríguez Araque head of the company; he convened the Federal Government Council to start negotiations with sectors, while the Truth Committee was mentioned but never crystallized. The military high command was replaced (or ratified) according to their loyalty to Chávez, and after a brief period of house arrest, Carmona was granted presidential safe passage to leave the country for Colombia. Accusing them of the conspiracy that ousted him from power, Chávez spoke for the first time of stripping some media outlets off their licenses to broadcast. The long hours of discussion at the National Assembly, where opposition and government supporters disagreed on everything, evidenced the stagnation of national negotiations headed by José Vicente Rangel. A tripartite committee was created with the support of OAS, UNDP and the Carter Center, including the visit of former U.S. president Jimmy Carter himself and OAS chief César Gaviria. The Democratic Coordinator demanded an international instance to verify compliance with the agreements reached during negotiations.
Institutional crisis, general strike and more deaths
The opposition submitted two million signatures for a consultative referendum. The CNE approved it and a notably split TSJ tried to prevent it. With a date set already, February 2, 2003, the administration withheld the funds to organize it. Chávez said that he wouldn’t resign “even if they get 90% of votes” and also ordered his people to disregard any TSJ ruling that opposed the revolution. Convened by the Democratic Coordinator for December 2, this strike turned indefinite each night. They held a briefing and extended it every night. It went on for over 40 days. Joao de Gouveia confessed to the gunfire at Altamira square that left three dead and 28 wounded. Ah! Control judge Norma Sandoval released Llaguno gunmen. Chávez named them heroes.
After Nelson Merentes acknowledged the (poor) use of Bs. 2.3 trillion from the FIEM (Investment Fund for Macroeconomic Stabilization) to pay for wages and salaries, Tobías Nóbrega stated the need for $4 billion to cover the fiscal deficit. Starting February 13, the broadbanding system was replaced by a free cushion system of the foreign exchange rate. The GDP dropped by 8.9%, the inflation rate was 31.2%, the unemployment rate was 16.2% and real wages declined by 17.3%. The dollar was, early in the year, at Bs. 765, and closed at Bs. 1,382.50. Minimum wages increased by 20%. International reserves dropped and Fedeindustria estimated that 2,000 companies shut down in 2002.