Sunday, April 15, 2007
The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.
Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.
Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.
Wilpert omits another important aspect of the failed coup: it rendered the movement in South America away from the US and towards regional economic integration irreversible. The mass movement that returned Chavez to power showed the rest of the continent that it was possible to chart a left, integrationist course without the approval of the US. It repudiated the clash of fundamentalisms upon which the Bush Doctrine is based, and demonstrated that another way is possible, neither capitalist nor religious fundamentalist extremism, but inclusive, communitarian and humanistic. Accordingly, the failed coup may ultimately be considered more historically significant than the violent pyrotechnics of 9/11.
Finally, Wilpert's forensic work is exceptional in regard to providing a detailed social chronology of the events surrounding the coup and the successful resistance to it. At such moments, history truly does hang in the balance, determined by the courageous, spontaneous actions of individuals in the face of great adversity. Decades from now, we may recall, the collapse of the American Empire improbably commenced on the streets of Caracas on April 11 through April 13, 2002.