‘Venezuelan people save democracy’: 22 years since the anti-Chávez coup
President Hugo Chavez holds up a copy of the Venezuelan constitution at a rally with supporters in Caracas shortly after the 2002 coup attempt. | Andres Leighton / AP

This article is part of the People’s World 100th Anniversary Series.

On April 11, 2002, the capitalist class in Venezuela launched a coup against the democratically-elected President Hugo Chávez. Fearing the loss of their economic power, business elites united with right-wing military officers in an attempt to overthrow the government.

Elected in 1999, Chávez launched what he called the “Bolivarian Revolution,” a sweeping set of programs aimed at empowering workers, raising Venezuelans out of poverty, expanding literacy, instituting mass health and education services, democratizing politics, and putting national wealth back in the hands of the people. He would come to call his campaign for change “socialism for the 21st century.”

His move in 2002 to replace some of the bosses who controlled the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, provided the capitalists with the excuse they needed to launch their long-planned coup. Under the cover of protests linked to the PDVSA firings, business leaders and dissident military officers—with the help of the right-wing controlled television stations—seized the Miraflores presidential palace and arrested Chavez.

Violence on the part of coup-linked thugs took the life of 18 people, but the media attempted to blame Chavez supporters. In the chaos, the leader of the Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, was declared president and the constitution was suspended.

The coup-plotters’ success proved to be short-lived, however. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans—eager to protect the gains of the Bolivarian Revolution and determined not to go back to the old ways—poured into the streets of Caracas to demand the reinstatement of Chávez.

Thanks to people power, the coup fell apart in less than 48 hours. Later, details emerged that the George W. Bush administration in the U.S. knew in advance of the coup and that the CIA likely provided direction for the scheme. In the decades that followed, U.S. imperialism never let up in its attempts to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution, even after Chavez’s death in 2013.

The article below, written by veteran People’s World journalist Fred Gaboury, provided details of what was known in the earliest days after the coup, including the secret meetings between U.S. officials and Venezuelan coup plotters. It was published in People’s Weekly World on April 20, 2002.

Venezuelan people save democracy

By Fred Gaboury

People’s Weekly World

April 20, 2002

A coup by high-ranking military officers and business leaders on April 12 forcibly removed Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez from office and installed Pedro Carmona, head of the nation’s business association, as “president.”

People’s Weekly World / April 20, 2002

Forty-eight hours later, Chávez was back in residence at the presidential palace, put there by protests in the sprawling working-class neighborhoods of Caracas and a demonstration of 100,000 that surrounded the presidential palace and forced Carmona to resign.

The Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) blamed Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña for shootings that left 11 dead during clashes between pro- and anti-Chávez demonstrators on April 11. The statement says nine of the 11 victims were known supporters of Chávez, as were four of the five who had been shot in the forehead—thus assassinated at close range.

The PCV’s statement said the purpose of the coup was to hand over Venezuela’s oil and other natural resources to transnational corporations.

As one of his first acts, Carmona stopped shipments of oil to Cuba. He also threw out the Venezuelan Constitution by abolishing the National Assembly and Supreme Court.

The Bush administration faced sharp questions on its role in the coup and its failure to join the unanimous condemnation by Latin American countries at the forced removal of a democratically-elected leader.

On April 16, the White House admitted that Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, phoned Carmona on April 12. The disclosure raised questions about whether Reich was stage-managing the takeover by Carmona.

Reich has lots of experience undermining democracy in Latin America. From 1983 through 1986, Reich headed the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, in which he collaborated with Lt. Col. Oliver North in delivering arms secretly to the Contra mercenaries in Central America.

Soldiers of the presidential guard, loyal to ousted president Hugo Chavez, take positions at their headquarters, right across the street from Miraflores presidential palace, in Caracas, Venezuela, in this April 13, 2002 photo. | Dario Lopez Mills / AP

Under Reich, the U.S. State Department reportedly contracted with a dummy corporation, International Business Communications, which funneled arms to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels, violating a Congressional ban.

Reich was a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin and is supported by the far-right anti-Cuba mafia.

Carmona was but one of many Chávez opponents who had visited Washington for talks with White House, State Department, and Pentagon officials in recent weeks, secretly scheming to oust Chávez from office.

Others—including Carlos Ortega, head of the million-member Venezuelan Confederation of Labor, and Gen. Lucas Rincón Romero, chief of the Venezuelan military high command—met with Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, a former Nicaraguan Contra, now the Pentagon’s official responsible for Latin America. Ortega was hosted at AFL-CIO headquarters in December.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chair of the Senate Sub-Committee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, said, “While all the details of the attempted coup in Venezuela are not yet known, what is clear is that the vast majority of governments in the hemisphere lived up to their responsibilities under the Inter-American Democratic Charter and denounced the unconstitutional efforts to take power from a government which had been freely elected.”

A 68-year-old woman in Caracas wears a shirt in 2005 that reads: “I feel content because I can now read and write thanks to President Chavez.” After a lifetime in poverty, she became literate thanks to the Bolivarian Revolution’s social missions. | C.J. Atkins / People’s World

The OAS met on April 14 and adopted a resolution expressing concern at “the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela.”

That same day, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice arrogantly warned Chávez “to right his own ship,” which she said “has been moving in the wrong direction for quite a long time.” (Chávez won his six-year presidential term with 59% of the popular vote; Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and was installed by the Supreme Court.)

Venezuela cast the only vote against the Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement and has close relations with socialist Cuba, reflecting Chávez’s political independence. Venezuela’s state-owned oil company ships 1.6 million barrels of oil daily to the United States. Chávez has brought Venezuela into close harmony with OPEC in charging the U.S. a fair market price for oil, enraging the Bush administration.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries