Chris Harman


When is a coup not a coup?

(September 2002)

From Socialist Review, No.266, September 2002.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘There Was No Rebellion’ screamed the banner headline of Venezuela’s biggest newspaper after the country’s supreme court threw out charges against the generals who briefly overthrew president Hugo Chavez on 11 and 12 April

The verdict was the clearest evidence yet of the hold which those who staged the coup still have on important sections of the state machine. It came alongside relentless hysteria against the government in every one of the country’s newspapers and all but one of its TV channels.

The real worry of the two or three companies that control the media is that Chavez has taken minor steps which have damaged the interests of the country’s ruling class and the country’s traditional, highly corrupt political establishment. He pushed through a law which enabled the landless to take over some uncultivated land last year. He also upset the US by selling oil to Cuba and encouraging other Opec countries to take measures aimed at forcing up international oil prices (Venezuela is the third biggest supplier of oil to the US). Other than that, however, he has done very little indeed to damage capitalist interests. He has even overseen the privatisation of the national telephone network, and his government’s recent economic policies have been very ‘orthodox’, despite Chavez’s public diatribes against neo-liberalism. Venezuela is suffering from the backlash right across South America from the Argentinian crisis. Unemployment is up by over half a million, overall consumption down 10 percent on last year, and food consumption down 6 percent.

The opposition are trying to exploit the bitterness for their own ends. They have followed a strategy of using the media to mobilise a large section of the middle class on the streets in order to try to ‘turn’ units of the armed forces against Chavez. They have been helped by their control, through the mayor of Caracas, of the heavily armed Caracas Metropolitan Police. Clashes – and even shootouts – between the police and Chavez supporters have become almost a weekly feature of the streets round the presidential palace and the congress building.

Chavez’s initial base was among a thin layer of middle ranking officers in the army and air force who aspired to reform Venezuelan society from the top down.

The government’s mass support is concentrated among the poorest sections of the population – those who live in the vast slums that reach right down towards the centre of Caracas from the surrounding hillsides, and whose livelihood comes from precarious casual work or self employment in the ‘informal’ sector of the economy (on which half the population of Caracas depends). It was the swarming of hundreds of thousands of them into the city that ended the coup in April. Army officers who had accepted the coup were not prepared to risk civil war by mowing down the poor by the thousands, and brought back Chavez as an alternative.

He has much less backing among those workers enjoying stable employment in the factories, offices and public sector. The unions have long been dominated by a corrupt bureaucracy, put in place with US backing at the height of the Cold War and associated with one of the old ruling parties, the Acción Democratica. Its leadership has long followed a strategy of collaboration with private capital while leading limited mobilisations to demand a share of its oil revenues from the state.

Chavez attempted to overthrow this bureaucracy through a national referendum 18 months ago. The tactic backfired completely. The old bureaucrats swept the board in union elections last year by putting the blame on Chavez for the government cuts which were affecting their members.

The reformist left is split. Groups like the union-based Causa R and the former guerrillas of the Venezuelan MAS, who climbed on Chavez’s bandwagon more or less uncritically during his first couple of years, are now just as uncritically and just as enthusiastically part of the opposition, as is the armed, once pro-Albanian group Red Flag.

The Communist Party still does give him uncritical support, as does a group called Tupamaro. They have played a role in the mobilisation backing Chavez alongside the Bolivar Circles, groups formed by his supporters – and which the opposition claim are armed. What is completely lacking is any substantial organisation which tries to organise the workers and the poor in their own interests, independently of Chavez and critical of his policies, while taking part in the mobilisations against the right.

Through much of Latin America and among the Latino diaspora in Europe, Chavez is still seen as representing a way forward. In fact, however, his government is in an impasse. It could not see off the coup in April without the backing of the commanders of key military units, particularly of Raul Baduel of the base at Maracay, about 100 kilometres from Caracas.

But this makes commanders like Baduel increasingly the arbiters of national politics. In late July the Venezuelan press was full of rumours that he was pressurising Chavez to take into the government another former military figure, Arias, who was the opposition candidate for president two years ago. Such a development would certainly suit the US, which after giving a nod and a wink to the abortive coup in April, now seems worried about the opposition provoking civil war and cutting off its supply of oil just as it prepares to attack Iraq.

Once a regime becomes dependent on the generals, it only requires quite small shifts in the military chain of command for its political stance to shift from centre left to hard right. Much of the opposition still want a bloody coup. But they may get their way without it.

Last updated on 27 December 2009