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2002 coup: the people’s victory

ESP – ENG

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The democratically elected Hugo Chávez was ousted in a coup d’Etat 20 years ago. It looked like yet another popular government overthrown by US-backed elites. However, this time it would be different. The fiery Venezuelan masses took to the streets and restored democracy in less than 48 hours.

The destabilizing plot was launched on April 11, 2002, with a large-scale opposition march that had «not one step back» as its slogan. This crowd would go all the way to Miraflores Palace to clash with the people who were the defending the Bolivarian Revolution. The stage was set.

The coup had been in motion for a while. It was orchestrated by leading businessman, bourgeois sectors, high-ranking Church members and military officers, as well as other civiliain authorities. It certainly had Washington’s blessing. The media likewise assumed an openly pro-coup stanc, laying down the groundwork for violence with headlines such as «the final battle will be in Miraflores.»

The April 11 violence was orchestrated by the opposition to justify Chávez’s ouster. Snipers around Puente Llaguno fired on both pro- and anti-government crowds, leaving 19 dead and 118 wounded. With a blatant manipulation of the footage, private TV station sold the idea that Chavista groups had fire against the opposition, thus laying the blame for the violence on the president’s doorstep.

Tensions grew alongside calls for Chávez to resign. The military elites had the presidential palace surrounded and threatened to bomb it. That night, the Venezuelan leader was taken away by the treasonous officers and sent to Orchilla island north of Caracas. The whole country was unaware of his whereabouts.

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On April 12, General Lucas Rincón spoke to the country to announce a supposed Chávez resignation to avoid further bloodshed. But in fact Chávez had adamantly refused to sign the letter given to him by the coup plotters.

A «national unity transition government» was installed in Miraflores, with Fedecámaras (business guild) president Pedro Carmona Estanga crowned dictator. With a decree, he dissolved all public powers and did away with the democratically-approved 1999 Constitution and 49 special laws implemented by Chávez. These included a Land Law protecting campesino rights and a Hydrocarbon Law that raised corporate royalties from 1 to 33% and demanded the state hold a majority stake in joint ventures.

The coup government had instant recognition from the United States government. But the imperialist backing would be no match for a sovereign, revolutionary people. Venezuelan elites, equal measures decadent and mediocre, were jubilant. But the story was far from over.

Chavista ministers and high-ranking figures had to go underground, but little by little the message spread: Chávez had not resigned. On the evening of April 12, the people of Caracas, especially from popular neighborhoods, started to go out to the streets to protest and call for their president’s return.

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Brutal repression could not hold back the masses, and one million people surrounded Miraflores Palace on April 13. They demanded the coup leaders leave and Chávez return. The fresh, self-proclaimed authorities were stunned, this was not in the script. In the meantime, the media replaced news with music and cartoons so the audience would not be aware of the Chavista reaction.

In parallel, military factions loyal to Chávez sprung into action. In the afternoon hours, the presidential guard retook the presidential palace. The coup was unraveling. With ministers arriving in Miraflores and public television back on the air, the country began to catch up to reality.

Defeated and in shock, right-wing leaders scattered. The coup generals, rejected by the lower ranks in the armed forces, had no choice but to let Chávez go. In the early hours of April 14, the revolutionary leader returned to the government headquarters where a jubilant crowd waited for him. In three days, the Venezuelan people defeated fascism and the Bolivarian Revolution was alive and kicking.

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