In the early days of April, the coming coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was an open secret. On the night of April 9, near the offices of the state-run oil company where thousands of Venezuelans had gathered to demand Chavez's resignation, a man approached me. "The table is set," he said mysteriously.
He introduced himself as retired Gen. Manuel Andara Clavier. He'd served as inspector general of the armed forces until 1994, when he stepped down. He said he headed a group of retired military officials who opposed Chavez.
"Everything is set for the military to let the president know he can't push this country to spill blood," he said. He then handed me a Venezuelan flag and recommended I call him after his predictions came true.
Two days later, Chavez was arrested, and Pedro Carmona, head of Fedecamaras, the nation's largest business group, declared himself interim president, promptly suspending the constitution, disbanding the National Assembly and removing the Supreme Court.
Early the next morning, my telephone rang. "See, I told you the table was set. You should have called me, and I could have given you more details," Andara Clavier said.
But he hadn't anticipated the next course. Fewer than 48 hours after he was deposed, Chavez returned to power on a wave of support from the nation's poorest citizens, confirming Venezuela's place as one of the hemisphere's most polarized countries.
That the coup and counter-coup happened so rapidly is a reflection of the deep divisions and resentments most Venezuelans feel these days. In a country where more than half of the citizens are impoverished, where the economy is in shambles and where huge protests have become daily occurrences, it is no surprise that people harbor deep ambivalence about their leaders--especially Chavez.
Himself the leader of a failed coup in 1992, Chavez was elected president in 1998 by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans, particularly the poor, who felt betrayed by a two-party system that turned a deaf ear to their complaints. The fiery populist vowed to lift his followers out of poverty. He railed against the United States, criticizing Washington's "savage neoliberalism," and maintained close friendships with Libyan and Cuban leaders. But in recent months, his popularity had plummeted to below 40%, as many Venezuelans lost faith in his ability to solve the problems he railed against. And so, Venezuela's business and political elite seized the moment.
In the days leading up to the first coup, my interviews with political, business and military leaders were frequently interrupted by urgent telephone calls about "transitional governments" or the actions of military police. The day before Chavez's arrest, my interview with the former president of the state-run oil company, Gen. Guaicaipuro Lameda, was interrupted by his aide. "It's a family member, you have to talk to him," the assistant said nervously, handing Lameda a cell phone.
At first, the general refused, but the aide insisted. "I see. Thank you," Lameda said into the phone after a pause. After hanging up, he told me the call was from an officer who was present when an order was issued to send the military intelligence police after him.
Lameda knew the inside workings of the presidential administration, having resigned last February to protest Chavez's autocratic management style. He assumed Chavez was sending the police to prevent him from appearing on television later in the day, when he planned to appeal to the military to choose sides in the growing tensions between Chavez's supporters and his opponents. The general insisted he was not advocating a coup, but acknowledged that Chavez's opponents were hoping to attract ever-greater numbers of protesters to their demonstrations. Then the president might have to crack down, and the military would be forced to decide whether or not to enforce Chavez's orders.
Sure enough, Carmona called for a large protest march in Caracas the next day. In a speech to an estimated 200,000 protesters, he urged the demonstrators to march to Miraflores, the presidential palace where Chavez supporters had turned out to express their loyalty. "There is no going back," Carmona said.
The protesters I talked to that day hadn't turned out to force a coup. To a person--engineers, housewives and laborers alike--they said the country's economic situation was unbearable. Some bystanders were skeptical, though, that protests can solve anything. "How do I know what comes next will be any better?" asked a dishwasher. "I'm not happy with Chavez, but I don't trust them [the marchers], either."
Violence erupted soon after the marchers arrived at Miraflores. In an address from inside the palace, Chavez called for calm. All the nation's privately owned television stations broadcast his speech, as required by law, but they split the screen with images of marchers being pummeled by troops outside the palace. Then Chavez announced he was shutting down TV stations opposed to his government because they had failed to comply with broadcasting guidelines. Suddenly, television screens went blank.
The next 24 hours were chaos. The streets were vacant; sporadic shooting could be heard. On cable television and radio stations, 46 military leaders denounced the violence and the president, whom they blamed for the deaths of at least 15 protesters that day. They said they no longer would recognize Chavez's authority.
It was at this point that the United States behaved shamelessly. Make no mistake about it: Chavez is a tough guy to admire. His foot is forever finding its way to his mouth. His are the politics of anger, of capitalizing on Venezuela's deep social divisions to pit rich against poor, while offering few solutions. Still, he was the democratically elected president of Venezuela, and the U.S. should have condemned his illegal overthrow.
Not only did the U.S. officials shed no tears over Chavez's ouster, even suggesting that he had brought it on himself, but when Chavez returned to power, U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice lectured him on the need to "respect constitutional processes." She said this after Carmona, whom the U.S. applauded, had virtually suspended the constitution.
In Venezuela, there is widespread belief among Chavez supporters that the U.S. was involved in the coup. It is a belief some Chavez opponents are eager to promote.
A few days before the first coup, three men approached me at an anti-Chavez protest. Learning that I was a journalist, they told me they were part of a conspiracy to oust Chavez. "We can't give you our names," said one of them, who wore his baseball cap backward. They then told me that, over the next three days, a high-ranking official from each of the branches of the armed forces would come out against the president. I asked them if they thought the United States would support a coup. The man with the baseball cap took it off and turned it around so I could read the words on its front: "President George W. Bush." He smiled and walked away.
While Chavez may or may not win the next time he runs for office, he still retains a strong base of support, particularly among the nation's poor, a reality the U.S. cannot ignore without risk. Sitting outside a makeshift bar in the western hills of Catia, a Chavez stronghold, Luis Manzano, 42, denounced the violence but insisted that both Chavez and his political party will go on. "I still support my president and commander-in-chief Hugo Chavez," said Manzano.
His words were repeated by dozens of "Chavistas" in Caracas' barrios. Chavez was the first president who spoke to the poor, they told me: He said he was one of them. He was not ashamed to be a part of the "pueblo" in a country where European-sounding names and light skin are often coveted.
If Chavez was naive in believing that his support among the poor could protect him from plots to oust him, his opponents were equally naive to believe that those supporters were powerless to stop his overthrow. Now both sides will be more wary. But it's unlikely that the recent upheaval will have any long-term effect other than to widen the divide between the classes.