February 4, 1992: The Day Venezuelans Learned the Name ‘Hugo Chávez’

On February 4, 1992, Venezuelans saw Hugo Chávez on TV for the first time. The skinny young Lieutenant Colonel took responsibility for his failed attempt to overthrow by force of arms a government that, however flawed, had been elected by the people.

4-F 1992. Tropas institucionalistas toman el control, y desalojan a civiles, del Centro Comercial Ciudad Tamanaco (CCCT) el 4 de febrero de 1992, donde se habían donde se habían refugiado partes de las tropas golpistas que fracasaron en el intento de tomar al base aérea de LA carlota. FOTO/Harold Escalona
Photo: El Estímulo, retrieved.

On the night of February 3, when President Carlos Andrés Pérez was returning from Davos, Switzerland, the conspirators launched their military insurrection. Commanded by lieutenant colonels, and involving majors, captains, lieutenants and troops, they rose in garrisons from Maracay, Maracaibo and Valencia. Lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez, in charge of taking Miraflores Palace after taking La Planicie garrison, failed.

In the morning of February 4, he appeared on television urging his co-conspirators to hand over their weapons, saying that their goals hadn’t been fulfilled “for now.” Francisco Arias Cárdenas, Jesús Urdaneta Hernández, Joel Acosta Chirinos and Jesús Miguel Ortiz, all involved in the plan, turned themselves in. The coup failed, but the astonished country witnessed a man taking responsibility for his failure, quite infrequent in Venezuelan public life back then.

With the rebellion quelled, the National Congress held a session that very day to discuss the events and Senator Rafael Caldera took the podium, condemning the attempt to take power through violence, yet justifying the motives to do so. With a keen political intuition, he measured how people felt; they rejected the coup but a change of pace was needed. Caldera meant to embody it.

Lieutenant colonel Hugo Chávez, in charge of taking Miraflores Palace after taking La Planicie garrison, failed.

In an interview with professor Agustín Blanco Muñoz, published in 1998 (The commander speaks) Hugo Chávez says they started to conspire for real when they took their oaths before the Samán de Güere, on December 17, 1982. It took them ten years to rise within the Armed Forces, command troops and carry out an armed offensive. The Military Intelligence Directorate (DIM) had warned President Pérez many times about the existence of conspirators, but he disregarded the warnings. After the suspicions, they were stripped from troop command, but general Fernando Ochoa Antich, Defense Minister at the time, didn’t find any indication of a rebellion, reinstating the troop command. Therefore, we can’t say that the attack took them by surprise.

If Pérez’s administration had problems before, now it was positively embattled, to the point that the President chose to moderate the policy of reforms based on the discussion in the National Congress, and the popular support shown to the conspirators. A Consultative Council was created, made up of illustrious Venezuelans, with many of its proposals contradicting the government’s course. Pérez changed his cabinet to appease complaints and get a more solid political footing for his weakened government.

Yet at the same time, other group of military conspirators organized its revolt, on November 27, 1992. It was the Aviation this time, so Caracas citizens had the sad spectacle of a bombardment on strategic points in the capital and, again, the failure of the attempt. This operation was commanded by general Francisco Visconti Osorio and rear admiral Hernán Grüber Odremán. Five days later, gubernatorial, mayoral and legislative council elections were held. AD votes dropped (37.81%), COPEI rose (34.35%), MAS dropped (12.48%) and Causa R doubled its votes (4.73%), even winning the Caracas Mayor’s Office with Aristóbulo Istúriz, who beat Claudio Fermín.

Paradoxically, in 1992, the Venezuelan economy grew by almost 10%, although benefits never fully reached the most vulnerable areas of society.