Troops loyal to the government arrested the leaders of a coup who intended to assassinate the president and impose a “bloody dictatorship” in one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, President Carlos Andres Perez said Tuesday.
“This was an act of vandalism by a group of military members (who) tried to carry out a coup to assassinate me, ignoring their constitutional duties and disobeying intelligent reasoning,” Perez said in one of several television addresses Tuesday from an undisclosed location in the capital.
Defense Minister Francisco Ochoa said loyal troops put down insurrections in Caracas, the central cities of Maracay and Valencia and in western Zulia state, the home of much of Venezuela’s vast petroleum wealth.
“At this moment almost all bases find themselves absolutely loyal to the legitimately constituted government,” he told reporters in Caracas, adding, “The only base that still has some problems is in Valencia, where there are just a few units with difficulties.”
He said he did not know how many people had been killed in the coup attempt, which began late Monday. But radio reports from Caracas said that casualties were high, especially around the La Carlota airport in central Caracas. There were other reports that more than 100 officers and 900 soldiers had been arrested for participating in the coup, which early estimates said had resulted in at least 19 deaths and 51 injuries among government troops.
Perez on Tuesday imposed a state of martial law, suspending constitutional guarantees nationwide until the situation returns to normal.
Although the precise motives of the coup instigators remained unclear, newspapers have speculated for months about a possible revolt against the government as a result of Venezuela’s plummeting economy, charges of official corruption and military discontent over the country’s border negotiations with Colombia.
Perez said the coup attempt was led by paratroopers from the “Jose Leonardo Chirinos” regiment based in Maracay, a city some 95 miles south of the capital. He called the plotters “ambitious delinquents” and said that most of the armed forces and Venezuelan people had stood by him.
He noted that Ochoa and the rest of the military’s high command rejected the coup from its beginning. Ochoa said the uprising had been ordered by disgruntled mid-level officers, including a lieutenant colonel, a major and a captain. He declined to name the officers but said they are in custody.
One detained officer, identified only as Hugo Chavez, appeared on television, seeming resigned to defeat. He said the attempt to install a military “junta of national reconstruction” had been called off “to prevent more bloodshed.”
In Washington, President Bush, referring to Perez as “one of the great democratic leaders in our hemisphere,” condemned the coup attempt and pledged U.S. support for democracy in Venezuela and neighboring Colombia. “This outrageous, illegal military coup certainly should be condemned by all countries, not just in our hemisphere,” the President said.
Bush said he conferred by telephone early Tuesday morning with Perez and Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. “I assured them, both of them, that the United States supports democracy in Venezuela and elsewhere in this hemisphere and that this military coup attempt against President Carlos Andres Perez is firmly condemned by the United States,” he said.
Later, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said that Perez did not request U.S. aid in quashing the coup except to ask for a strong statement of American support.
In Venezuela, speculation about why the military officials attempted their uprising focused, in part, on the efforts to resolve a long dispute between Caracas and Bogota over territory and a Caribbean gulf shared by both nations. Most in the Venezuelan military believe that the “Gulf of Venezuela” belongs solely to their nation and that any negotiations with Colombia are a sign of weakness by Perez.
During the coup attempt, Ochoa said, rebels had attacked the president’s residence, La Casona, shortly after Perez returned late Monday from participating with other international leaders in a Swiss meeting of the World Economic Forum. Perez was forced to flee to the downtown Miraflores Presidential Palace, which also was attacked. Although the rebels reportedly came within several rooms of the president, loyal troops whisked him to a secure site, where he broadcast addresses to Venezuelans.
Insurrection leaders were also heard on the air. Speaking from Maracay, a man calling himself Francisco Javier Arias said the coup attempt was a response to “social unrest” and “military discontent.” He called his group the Bolivarist Revolutionary Movement, named after Simon Bolivar, the leader of Latin America’s colonial rebellion against Spain.
A democratic form of government has been in place in Venezuela since Jan. 23, 1958, when military dictator Gen. Marcos Perez Jimenez was deposed by a junta made up of civilian and military members. Carlos Andres Perez served as president from 1974 to 1979, using Venezuela’s vast oil wealth to help build a welfare state of public subsidy.
Elected for another five-year term beginning in 1989, Perez imposed an economic austerity program to address the country’s worsening economic conditions, brought on by falling oil prices. Those measures touched off riots in February, 1989, in which 300 people died.
Though Venezuela achieved one of Latin America’s highest growth rates (9.2%) in 1990, the recent fall in oil prices has thrown its finances into a new crisis. Venezuela’s 60 billion barrel oil reserves make it the most petroleum rich country outside the Middle East. But its $14 billion budget is based on earnings expected from crude exports of 2.1 million barrels a day at a price of $19 a barrel. With the current price of a barrel of crude down to as low as $13.50, the country stands to lose $1 billion.
Coup Rooted in Economic Turmoil
Venezuela has long been one of the most stable democracies in Latin America, having enjoyed democratic rule since 1958. But the past decade has seen a sharp and steady deterioration in the living standards of most Venezuelans.
Nation at a Glance
Population: 19.7 million 1990 estimate, two-thirds of mixed race, the rest of European, African and Indian descent.
Religion: Predominantly Roman Catholic.
Literacy rate: 88%.
Capital: Caracas, population 4 million.
Government: A republic with 20 states governed by a president who serves a five-year term and may be reelected only after sitting out two terms. The two-house Legislature is made up of a 200-seat Chamber of Deputies and a 40-seat Senate. Congressmen serve the same five-year term as the president.
Armed Forces: 73,000 personnel.
The Troubled Economy
The government has admitted that just 57% of Venezuelans are able to afford more than one meal a day. Economic reforms were introduced in February, 1989. They included sharp increases in gasoline and transportation prices. This sparked a week of violent, nationwide rioting that destroyed thousands of shops and killed nearly 300 people, according to official figures, although unofficial estimates put the number closer to 1,000.
Unemployment: 10.4% (1990).
The gross domestic product: Fell 8.3% in 1989, grew 4.4% in 1990 and 9.2% in 1991, due mostly to increased oil exports resulting from the Gulf War.
Trade: 50.7% of its exports go to the United States, 13.7% to Europe and 4% to Japan.
A Dependence on Oil
The money crunch has become even tighter with the recent drop in oil prices. More than 80% of the federal budget comes from taxes on oil, leading some to predict a budget shortfall of $3 billion for 1992. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere, and oil has become the country’s main export, overtaking coffee and cocoa.
Venezuela helped found OPEC in 1960 and its oil industry was nationalized in 1976.
Its energy minister said the coup attempt would not interrupt oil production or its daily exports of 1.9 million barrels.
A Debt Crisis
The country enjoyed an economic boom in the 1970s after the oil embargo sent prices soaring, but it has been hit by the Latin American debt crisis since 1983.
Venezuela’s $32-billion foreign debt was the fourth largest in Latin America.
The Perez government signed an agreement in December, 1990, with about 400 creditor banks to slash the debt service on the $20.5-billion bank debt by half, using 30-year bonds.
President Carlos Andres Perez first ruled between 1974 and 1979 at a time of burgeoning oil revenues buoyed by skyrocketing oil prices. He was reelected in December, 1988, and took office in February, 1989.
Sources: World Factbook, 1991, International Energy Statistical Review, Reuters