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When unarmed people stopped a bloody coup

By Owei Lakemfa

I WAS invited by the Venezuelan Embassy in Abuja, along with some diplomats, civil society activists and journalists on Thursday, April 14, 2022, to watch a documentary on the aborted military coup 20 years ago. The documentary centred on the bloody coup and how the populace in their millions marched on the coup plotters holed up in the Miraflores Presidential Palace.

On hand to welcome guests was the Venezuelan Ambassador David Vasquez Caraballo who was part of the history and featured in the documentary. On April 11, 2002, when the coup was executed, he was the leader of the Communist youth and was one of the active mobilisers who organised the populace to storm the Presidential Palace which served as the base of the coup plotters.

Coup d’état, the sudden and forceful seizure of power by illegal means, is often bloody. When on July 17, 1936, the military led by General Francisco Franco seized power in Spain, thousands of people were killed. In the three-year period ending March 28, 1939, when there was active resistance to the coup, over 500,000 people were killed. In the September 11, 1973 coup in Chile organised by the American Central Intelligence Agency, CIA, thousands of civilians were murdered. However, when the CIA organised a similar coup in Venezuela on April 11, 2002, it met more than its match in the ordinary people who despite being shot in the streets by the police and military, marched on the Presidential Palace and military barracks.

In an executive briefing to the Bush administration on April 6, 2002, that is five days before the coup, the CIA reported that “disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers are stepping up efforts to organise a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month.” The brief also said that the coup plotters would “exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month” or from planned workers’ strikes.

The coup was executed by the National Federation of Trade Unions, CTV, the Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce, Fedecámaras, the military hierarchy, the private mass media and the church. Their grouse was that the democratically elected President Hugo Chávez and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV, were spreading the country’s oil and gas wealth across the populace by heavily engaging in social projects, including mass housing, education, health and mass access to food.

The late Hugo Chavez, former President of Venezuela

The coup followed the exact programme the CIA had reported to Washington. It began slowly on April 9, 2002, with a general strike. The Chavez government assumed this was a mere industrial action, unaware it was the agreed trigger for the coup. Then the employers and opposition backed the strike by calling a mass anti-government rally on April 11. The Chavez supporters called a counter rally at the Presidential Palace.

As both rallies gathered momentum, the anti-government rally marched on the head office of the state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA, PDVSA, in the east of Caracas; then its leaders on cue, re-directed the rally towards the Presidential Palace, to attack the pro-government rally. As both tidal waves got closer, the military moved in-between to separate them.

Then snipers emerged around the Llaguno Overpass and started taking down the pro-government demonstrators, while some of the latter, produced pistols shooting in the direction of the snipers and also the approaching anti-government demonstrators.

Nineteen demonstrators from both sides were killed and 100 injured. As planned, the private mass media without investigation or proof, announced that the Chavez administration was responsible for the deaths. Then the military High Command came on air to say with the killings, it would no longer take orders from the government.

Then, soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and ordered President Chavez to resign or have the palace bombed. Later, the military chiefs with their men entered the palace. Chavez agreed to surrender as ‘President Prisoner’ but refused to resign. He was then taken away and the Chambers of Commerce President Pedro Carmona was sworn in by the coup plotters as interim president.

Then Carmona and the military hierarchy led by Generals Lucas Rinco, Efraín Vásquez Velasco, Roman Fuemayor and Vice-Admiral Hector Ramirez Perez made a great blunder; they announced the dissolution of not only the executive but also the National Assembly, state governments, the Supreme Court as well as the abrogation of the 1999 Constitution.

While the opposition agreed that the Chavez government be toppled, they did not agree on the dissolution of other structures as the opposition-held lots of seats in the Assembly and controlled a number of states. This led to a split in their ranks. The attempt to roll back the Chavez social programmes further enraged the populace who poured into the streets.

Then word went out that while President Chavez had been seized and taken into detention, he had contrary to the claims of the military junta, not resigned.

So, he remained the legitimate President of the country. The populace then marched on the palace which housed the interim government, and various military formations. The military saw Venezuelans in their millions and decided they could not shoot their fellow citizens; the coup had begun to collapse as one commander after the other refused to give the order to shoot.

With this, the Presidential guards without firing a shot, retook the presidential palace, seized the leaders of the interim government and announced they were sending paratroopers to locate and bring back President Chavez.

Amidst the ensuing confusion, Ministers of the Chavez administration began to find their way into the palace to try to put together some government and restore order. Then the Assembly Speaker appeared which gave some legitimacy as constitutionally, in the absence of the President and Vice President, he could be the Acting President.

Then within hours, Vice President Diosdado Cabello who was rumoured to have taken refuge in the Cuban Embassy found his way into the palace and was immediately sworn in as the Acting President. With that, the order was restored and a functional government was put in place.

That early morning of April 13, 2002, the lights of an approaching helicopter illuminated the palace grounds and the crowds went into a frenzy. They were right, President Hugo Chavez had been found, rescued and returned to the Presidency. In 47 hours, the coup had collapsed and the usurpers, including the military chiefs, were on the run.

The next heard of some of them, they were asking for asylum in the United States. Today, 20 years later, the Chavez movement remains the popularly elected government of Venezuela. In the country, the people mark this victory with the Spanish slogan: “¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!” (The people, united, can never be defeated.)

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