Report – 20 years since the coup against Hugo Chávez

By Tim Young, Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.

The Venezuela Solidarity Campaign hosted a discussion on 20 years since the US-backed coup against Hugo Chavez – with Tariq Ali; Camila Escalante, Kawsachun News; and Kate Hudson, CND. The meeting took place on Apil 28th, 2022 – you can watch it in full, or read the report back below:

WATCH: 20 years since the coup against Hugo Chávez

Chairing the meeting Kate Hudson, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s General Secretary, introduced the event by focused on discussing the significance of the defeat of the US-backed coup against Hugo Chávez 20 years ago, and looking at how Latin America’s mass movements today are working to end US domination and neo-liberalism in the region for good.

In her opening remarks, she noted that Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías, President of Venezuela, died on March 5th 2013, but his legacy lives on and that is partly what we are here to celebrate today, in addition to maximising our solidarity with Venezuela at this vital time, when US sanctions against the country have become a full blown blockade.

This month specifically marks 20 years since the Venezuelan people defeated the US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela, aimed at illegal ‘regime change.’

One of the most awe-inspiring displays of people-power in history not only saw the coup defeated, but saw Venezuela embark on a radical progress of real social change, sparking discussions regionally and around the world on what socialism means in the 21st century.

Before introducing the speakers, Kate added some very short reflections of her own. Why does Hugo Chavez matter so much and why must we defend his legacy as well as celebrating when the Venezuelan people defeated the coup?

Firstly, he led the progressive transformation of Venezuela by lifting millions of its citizens from poverty – standing against social exclusion, marginalisation and institutional repression – thereby restoring to them a long-overdue dignity.

In terms of today’s event and some of the other speakers we have, Chávez also played a leading role in the transformation of Latin America into a progressive continent, where in the 21st century, in different ways, many countries have been attempting to build a better world. If the coup had not been defeated in Venezuela in 2002, many of the progressive changes taking place in Latin America may well not be happening with the strength and unity they are currently experiencing.

And secondly, from her own point of view, he was a formidable voice for peace on the world stage.

Two speakers were unable to join the meeting: the Venezuelan Ambassador, who was unwell, and Jacobo Torres, a Venezuelan trade union & United Socialist Party militant and leader (pictured in the film ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, taking part in protests against the coup) who was unable to connect with the meeting from Cuba. 

The first speaker was Tariq Ali – a friend of Hugo Chávez, who featured alongside him in the film ‘South of the Border’, author of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope’ as well as many other vital books, and a long-term friend of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign.

Tariq began by drawing attention to way the coup against Chávez had been organised for a year by the Venezuelan elites, with support from the United States and Spain, preparing the ground with a narrative that consistently referred to Chávez as a ‘would-be dictator’, undermining his elected status.

On April 11, 2002, some members of the Armed Forces arrested Chávez and declared that he had resigned – which he had not. While he was held captive, the New York Times celebrated that Venezuelan democracy was no longer threatened by a would-be dictator and businessman Pedro Carmona, the coup plotters’ chosen replacement for Chávez, was flown to Madrid for a suit and sash, because his safety couldn’t be guaranteed in Caracas. Meanwhile Vice-Admiral Ramirez crowed, “we have got rid of Hugo Chávez – we had a deadly weapon: the media”, since the extensive private media in Venezuela had been in full support, both before and during the coup. coup.

But no-one believed that Chávez had resigned, and after he had got a message out that he indeed had not, this was a signal for a mass mobilisation of Chávista supporters, pouring down from the hillside barrios and surrounding the Miraflores Palace, demanding his release. It became clear to senior Armed Forces officers that their men were not prepared to support their choice of an unelected businessman over an elected President, and as troops joined the Chávez demonstrators, it became clear to them that the game was up.

This pattern of regime change long used in Latin America failed in Venezuela because of Chávez’s popularity, which had a material basis. His administration directed millions of dollars to supporting poor people, in health, education and other social programmes. Cuban doctors were welcomes to set up clinics all over poor areas. A second reason was Chávez’s decision not to bow before the US empire but to challenge it directly, as he did at the UN to near-universal applause.

Chávez’s distinctive approach was to implement a form of left Social Democracy backed by popular mobilisation, creating a very democratic government which Tariq characterised as one of the most democratic in the world. Chávez promoted national sovereignty and constitutional sovereignty against the US empire and US intervention, with mass support for these concepts, as Tariq witnessed for himself over many visits to Venezuela.

Chávez was adamant that the goal was not create a one-party state – democracy was important. The state would intervene to achieve economic and social progress but it would nationalise everything.

Tariq reflected on the reasons why Chávez had come to power, citing the significance of the Caracazo protests against IMF measures resulting in increases in the price of gasoline and transportation, and creating widespread dissatisfaction and political instability. His election victory in 1998 had created a wave of hope across the continent and led to him becoming a global leader, offering two things: a radical economic programme challenging neoliberalism and a radical foreign policy defying the United States.

Whether it was 200,000 peasants in West Bengal turning out to hear him or a packed meeting In Camden Town Hall in 2006, his draw as a popular leader was obvious, and he must be added to the list of great Latin American and Caribbean leaders.

Today, popular movements are working to end US domination and neo-liberalism in the region for good. The election of Boric in Chile, the defeat of the coup in Bolivia, the upcoming election in Colombia where the left candidate Gustavo Petro has a Black female running mate, Francia Marquez, with the polls showing the twinning: these are all positives. They show how you can defeat coups and reaction, not by wishing that others will intervene but by mobilising your own masses.

Before the next speaker, a message from Chris Hazzard, Sinn Fein MP was read out to the meeting:

“May I please extend my apologies to the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign for my absence this evening. We are currently fighting a momentous election in the north of Ireland – and demands of the campaign have meant that I am unable to join you. 

At this time, I am of course mindful of the legacy of Hugo Chávez. Chávez taught us that while our individual struggles for emancipation are primarily fought at the local and national level – they are bound to fail if we do not forge bonds of fraternal solidarity and internationalism. We need to work collectively to strengthen, renew, and build international movements against imperialism and capitalism. And Sinn Féin will not be found wanting in this regard.

To comrades around the world tuning in to tonight’s discussion – we appeal to you to look to the north of Ireland in the coming weeks – as we seek to secure a historic advance. We are entering a time of real change. As Chávez summarised: “Let the dogs of Empire bark, that’s their job; ours is to battle to achieve the true liberation of our people.” Solidarity now and always.”

Camila Escalante, Kawsachun News journalist in Bolivia, contributed from a conference of Nicaragua of La Via Campesina, now entering the fourth decade of its collective struggles for food sovereignty, popular agrarian reform, democratic control of land and dignity, where participants are constantly making references to the Bolivarian Revolution.

Under Chávez, Venezuela donated resources to build schools for La Via Campesina, but Chávez’s legacy for the organisation runs much wider and deeper. Chávez developed a strong relationship with Manuel Zelaya, President of Honduras until the military coup in 2009 deposed him. But now, 13 years later, democracy is restored and the Minister of Agrarian Reform in Honduras in Xiomara Castro’s new government was previously a student at a La Via Campesina school.

Chávez, together with Fidel Castro, also pursued a vision of economic integration of Latin American and Caribbean countries, founding in 2004 the intergovernmental organisation known as ALBA–TCP, or the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America.

Under ALBA-TCP, Chávez also set up Petrocaribe in 2005, an energy initiative to supply Venezuelan crude oil at discounted prices to countries in the Caribbean region, including Honduras until the ousting of President Zelaya. Honduras was also given tractors and other farm equipment to increase agricultural production on small farms.

Other regional integration initiatives under ALBA were TeleSUR, a media conglomerate launched in 2005 to provides news and current affairs broadcasts throughout the ALBA bloc, and PETROSUR, an inter-governmental energy alliance between the nationalised oil companies of Venezuelan, Argentina and Brazil, to provide funding for social welfare programme across ALBA countries, including medical co-operation.

In Bolivia where Camila’s radio station Kawsachun News is based, there are murals across the country celebrating Venezuela’s assistance to its revolutionary process in many ways – Kawsachun News’s building was actually a donation from Venezuela.

But Chávez’s was wider than just funding radical economic change. Many in the popular classes heard his speeches about a range of issues, such as what was happening in Palestine, NATO expansion in Latin America and his warning against the growth of militarism and the use of mercenaries. Chávez’s emphasis on the need to be self-sustaining through defending national sovereignty and promoting economic sovereignty helped to strengthen the Bolivian revolution.

Finally, his insistence on the need for Latin American integration and South-south cooperation is still an essential message today.

Kate Hudson then asked the two speakers to give, firstly their reflections on Chávez’s leadership and its strengths, and secondly, their views on the growth of constitutional coups and ‘lawfare’ as a reaction to the rejection of military coups.

Tariq Ali submitted that the main lesson was that one way of fighting back is to create democracy at every level, something that Venezuela, Bolivia and Honduras are trying to do. But in Venezuela the effects of US sanctions and constant attempts to topple President Maduro, with coup attempts initiated by self-proclaimed ‘president’ Guaído, are limiting the space to do this.

While he would not deny there are weaknesses in post- Chávez Venezuela, the country is faced with the implacable aim of the United States to remove Maduro, involving illegal coercive sanctions that not just the US are implementing but other countries as well, including Britain. The Bank of England’s refusal to release Venezuela’s gold deposits is in his view a joke, and any country with deposits in the same bank should be thinking of withdrawing them.

There is a level of absurdity in the US’s sanctions. The US’s current energy crisis is now forcing it to make overtures to Venezuela and engage in discussions about relaxing some sanctions to ensure more oil flows to the US. Tariq’s hope was that the Maduro government was saying that it was prepared to have those discussions but that the blockade must be lifted, since its impact falls heavily on ordinary people.

Clearly the US’s sanctions policy is not working: there has been no popular uprising against the Venezuelan government and in fact the opposite is happening, with opposition to the US strengthening.

Tariq noted that in Bolivia, in the early period after Evo Morales had won the presidency, the drive to create more democracy at every level had been tried but with less success, although the use of a Constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution had been successful, as it had been in Chile, leading to Boric’s election. Mélenchon had demanded such an elected Assembly in France and one is needed in Britain too. Although it would not be allowed, nevertheless it should still be demanded.

Constitutional change is tied in with the use of state funding for political parties, as in Brazil, which can create institutional corruption. On the positive side, the latest polls show Lula on 70%, which if sustained would be a huge defeat for the Right and far Right.

Kate echoes this, noting a Lula victory in the forthcoming election would have a huge impact in Brazil and internationally.

Answering the questions, Camilla noted how Evo and other progressive leaders were greatly inspired by the civic-military alliance forged in Venezuela, while the far right in Bolivia always attacked the idea. She recalled how in Nicaragua the Sandinista army was demobilised at the end of the Contra war, but the FSLN asked members to be part of a new police force and army dedicated to Sandinista principles.

One lesson Camila drew from Chávez’s approach overall, reflecting on how in the 2002 coup the plotters shut down the state media, as also happened in Bolivia in 2019, was the setting up of TeleSUR to challenge CNN and the mainstream media and to combat the spread of false information.

La Via Campesina’s goal is to take state power and implement social and economic policies designed by the grassroots to meet developmental needs and achieve lasting change. Chávez’s strength was to lead the Bolivarian Revolution showing the pathway to doing this.

Kate thanked both speakers and noted that the best way to honour Chávez’s legacy was to build solidarity with Venezuela, to oppose any external intervention in the country and to expose the Right’s attempts to undermine the democratic will of the people.

Viva Chávez! Viva Venezuela!