How did I get interested in Venezuela? Why did I go? As some of you know, I’ve been writing a blog, also known as a web page, for over two years now, writing about the many crimes of the Bush administration and whatever else grabs my attention. Here’s what I wrote on April 12, 2002:

Venezuela: Does this one smell like a CIA job or what? After a swift coup ousted democratically elected president Hugo Chavez, the US State Department immediately releases a statement basically supporting the coup. The coup was supposedly started by employees of the national oil company. Amazingly enough, oil prices are dropping again, recovering from the shock of Iraq's embargo. Here's an excerpt from what Secretary of State Colin Powell told Sen. Jesse Helms two months ago:

Briefly, we have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chavez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about. And we have not been happy with some of the comments he has made with respect to the campaign against terrorism. He hasn't been as supportive as he might have been. And he drops in some of the strangest countries to visit. And I'm not sure what inspiration he thinks he gets or what benefit he gives to the Venezuelan people from dropping in and visiting some of these despotic regimes. We've expressed our disagreement on some of his policies directly to him, and he understands that it is a serious irritant... (from

Last year Venezuela accounted for 13 percent of U.S. petroleum imports.

In case anyone has any doubt, US foreign policy has very little to do with democracy or justice, and a whole lot to do with oil.

The next day, after Chavez came back into power, I wrote this:


A Washington Post editorial yesterday (before Chavez's return to power in Venezuela) claimed that no one was saying that the US was involved in the coup that caused Hugo Chavez to be arrested. Apparently they aren't reading my rants (below), nor have they talked to my brother or his friend at work or seen the World Socialist Web Site. Of course, one can understand the Bush administration's distaste for democratically-elected presidents.


So, ever since then I have been trying to follow events in Venezuela. When I saw that Global Exchange was planning a tour there for April, I signed up. And while I can’t say that all my questions were answered, I think that I can confidently say that I’m now confused on a much more informed level!


My Trip

I flew to Miami on April 7, and then on to Caracas on April 8. I was picked up at the airport by Antonio, Global Exchange’s main contact in Caracas, and we rode a cab into the city. The airport is right on the Caribbean coast, while Caracas is in a valley about 15 miles inland.


We met up with the other 16 people on the tour over the next few hours, and began our program the next day, April 9. The official program ended a week later, Friday April 16, and most of our group flew back to the US on the 17th. I stayed in Caracas one more day, and then flew to the town of Merida, in a valley in the Andes. I returned to Caracas and then Miami on the 20th, and to Ann Arbor on the 21st.


I highly recommend traveling with Global Exchange as a great way to learn about what’s going on in troubled parts of the world. They have trips planned for later this year to Cuba, Afghanistan, Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico (Chiapas), Ireland, South Africa, Jamaica, Israel/Palestine, Iran, India, Honduras, Vietnam, Tanzania, and Laos & Cambodia. Global Exchange’s web site is listed on the handout.


Venezuela 101

I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence, but I’ve been surprised by the lack of basic knowledge about Venezuela on the part of many very bright people. So, just in case that applies to one or two of you, I’m going to give a brief background.


Venezuela is a country in the northernmost part of South America, with a long coastline on the Caribbean. It is about twice the size of California (or Iraq) in land area, and its population is about 24 million (quite a bit less than California, about the same as Iraq). It has beautiful beaches in the north, Amazon jungles in the south, the Andes mountains in the east, and vast wildlife-filled plains along the Orinoco river in the middle. It borders Colombia, Brazil, and Guyana. It gained its independence from Spain on July 5, 1811 with the help of South American hero Simon Bolivar, for whom the currency, the official name of the country, and a square in every town are named.


The country was a military dictatorship for most of its history until 1958, when a constitutional democracy was installed. In practice, this democracy was dominated by two or three parties which didn’t differ much in their policies and were controlled by the wealthy elite, mostly of European heritage. (Sound familiar?)


Of course, there is one very important thing to know about Venezuela that I haven’t mentioned so far. It has oil. Lots of it. The percentages vary from year to year, but there are four nations which each supply the US with about 15 to 20% of our oil imports—Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela. Oil provides most of the wealth in Venezuela. Most of the consumer products are imported, including 70% of the food, even though the country has lots of arable land and a great climate with more than enough rain. How the oil revenues are spent and shared among the people in Venezuela is the main focus of Venezuelan politics. It is also why American politicians are always trying to meddle in Venezuelan affairs.


The Current Political Situation

Hugo Rafael Chavez Frias, or Hugo Chavez for short, first appeared on the national political scene in 1992 as part of a coup attempt.


He and other military officers attempted to overthrow the government. For his part, Chavez was supposed to move on a particular part of Caracas, but he appeared on TV and told the nation that the coup had failed, and that he was going to stop to avoid bloodshed. He was arrested and went to prison for a couple of years before being released. I didn’t hear too many details about the ’92 coup—it certainly seems to knock Chavez off the moral high ground a bit, but apparently his little televised speech about avoiding bloodshed appealed to many. When he got out of jail, he started building a populist movement, culminating in his election as president by a huge majority in 1998. His rise was aided by tumbling world oil prices, which got as low as $7 a barrel and threw Venezuela’s economy into a shambles. He also succeeded because of his enormous personal charisma and his appeal to darker-skinned Venezuelans—that is those of more African or indigenous American heritage, rather than European.


 He ran on a populist/socialist platform, promising free health care, new education programs, including very substantial adult literacy programs, and land reform. His programs and charisma inspired immense loyalty among the poorer segments of society. He constantly attempts to make these people feel that they have a say in how the country is run and that there is hope for the future.

One of his first acts as president was to call a constitutional assembly. The constitution of 1999 which resulted is one of the most progressive in the world, with many human rights spelled out far exceeding those in our bill of rights. Chavez supporters, aka Chavistas, love that constitution, and many carry small paperback copies of it with them to rallies and speeches. Like Senator Robert Byrd, Chavez himself will pull out his copy of the constitution during speeches.


An aside: During our tour, we heard from various professors, politicians, journalists, human rights activists, and others, some of them Chavistas, some members of the opposition, one or two fence-sitters. Based on what I heard from these people and have read in various articles, my opinions and conclusions here are tentative; obviously I don’t know either the country or the language well enough to be really definitive about any of this. So take my observations here with a bit of skepticism, if you aren’t already!


With the ratification of the constitution, Chavez started getting into political trouble. He used the new constitution as a reason for calling new elections, which basically got many opposition politicians out of the national assembly. The elections also gave Chavez a new six-year term starting in 2000. Many politicians who had been tentatively supporting him, or at least not actively opposing him, started to organize in opposition. The old political parties which used to battle with each other for power started to work together to try to wrest power from Chavez.


Protests, work stoppages and strikes, and other actions were organized by the opposition, aided greatly by their control of most of the media in the country. In Caracas, the two biggest newspapers are both opposition-controlled, as are all of the TV stations except for the government-run Channel 8. In early 2002, these efforts intensified, culminating in the brief coup (“el golpe”) of April 11-13. I’ll talk more about the coup a little later, after I tell you a bit about what I saw in person.


What I saw--some personal observations

I arrived in Caracas during the Semana Santa, the holy week. My first full day there was good Friday, and the city was practically shut down. Most stores were closed, and there wasn’t much traffic. We were told that many Caraquenos were vacationing in the mountains or at the beach. We stayed in this hotel, which was quite nice for about $22 a night.


Late Saturday afternoon, we went to the studios of Channel 8, the Chavista TV station. After a brief tour, arrangements were made for three of our best Spanish speakers to be interviewed on live TV. They sat down in a talk-show format and were interviewed for about half an hour.

 That was one of the recurring themes of our trip—the Chavistas were thrilled that we were there and wanted to talk with us any chance they got.


Easter Sunday wasn’t exactly what I was expecting in a country that is supposedly 99% Catholic. I didn’t hear church bells or see lots of people dressed up. More shops seemed to be open than on the previous two days. Of course, it wasn’t just Easter Sunday; it was the two-year anniversary of the so-called Llaguno Bridge Massacre and the start of the 2002 coup. We started our day by going to the gathering point for an opposition car rally. An Easter tradition in Caracas is burning “Judases,” which apparently morphed into burning political opponents in effigy many years ago. For the opposition, of course, the primary Judas is Chavez himself. Here you see a few of the effigies; they burned them later in the day.


 Here’s a tiny video clip to give you a feel for the excitement at the rally.


We then went down to the Llaguno Bridge, site of the April 11, 2002 shooting.

 The Chavistas were holding a memorial service there.


Each side blames the other for the shootings—the opposition says that National Guardsmen loyal to Chavez were responsible for the 19 deaths. The Chavistas claim that it was police sharpshooters under the control of the anti-Chavez mayor of Caracas. I’ve got a DVD which presents the Chavista case, which hopefully some of you will want to see on another night.


At the memorial, it was actually almost a carnival atmosphere. The street was closed off, and there were several displays of photos from the day of the shootings. There were street vendors selling food and drinks, as well as souvenir flags, hats, pictures of Chavez, Che t-shirts, and of course copies of the Bolivarian constitution of 1999. When we were discovered to be norteamericanos, we attracted lots of attention. Some of the people recognized the three from our group who were on TV the night before. One guy put his arm around my shoulder and dragged me from display to display, trying to explain to me the significance of the photos.


Monday evening, we went to the Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas. On one side of the square some Chavistas had set up what they call La Esquina Calliente, or the Hot Corner.



This was a booth like you’d see at the art fair with all sorts of signs and pictures supporting Chavez, and lots of little leaflets that they were distributing. Our fame was already growing, and many of the gathered Chavistas recognized us either from the TV or from the day before. Again, the people were thrilled to have us there and wanted to talk to us. A couple of people who spoke almost no English patiently explained to me in Spanish about Chavez and the Cuban doctors. My Spanish is very weak, but they were willing to talk slowly and repeat things until I understood.


The next day was probably the high point of the trip. We were given a very nice guided tour of the National Assembly building, and they gave us each beautiful bound copies of the 1999 constitution. After the tour, we sat in the balcony of the Assembly chamber while several leading Chavez-supporting politicians came by and talked with us. Chavez himself was supposed to give a speech commemorating the two-year anniversary of his “restoration” at 4 PM, but a cloudburst at 3:30 caused that to be postponed until 7. We were on the street where he was going to speak by 6:30, and it was already jammed. Once again, we were treated like celebrities and ushered to way up near the front. Four people from our group were given press passes and allowed to go up onto the scaffolding alongside the stage to take pictures. I stayed down in the crowd, cheering and waving a flag when it seemed appropriate.


 Chavez’ speech was preceded by several bands and other speeches, and he finally appeared at about 7:10, shaking hands with all of the pols on the stage.



 He led the crowd in singing the national anthem, which has to be the longest one in the world. Chavez sings very nicely. His speech was very dynamic, and I could even understand quite a bit, especially when he’d say “Jayorge Doobleyou Boooosh.” Chavez is typically rather rude towards the opposition, calling them “los escualidos,” or the “squalid ones.” But the Chavistas absolutely adore the man. Being there for his speech seemed to be one of those rare times for me where I happened to be in the best place in the world to be at that particular moment.


On Thursday, we toured the largest barrio in Caracas, known as 23 de enero, or January 23.

 The barrios are where most of the poorer people in Caracas live, and where Chavez gets most of his local support. From a distance, the barrios look horribly jumbled and crowded. Viewing them from the highways and from in the valley, I anticipated that I would see third-world squalor at its worst when I got there. On the contrary, the barrio was one of the most pleasant places in Caracas. Roads, walkways and other open spaces that are invisible from the valley appear as you enter the barrio. Being on the hills, the air was cleaner and pleasantly cooler than the heat of the valley. And the buildings are much more substantial than they appear from a distance, mostly made from hollow red bricks reinforced with steel rebar.

 This photo captures both impressions fairly well—the upper half shows what the barrio looks like in the distance, while the lower half is what it looks like up close.





In the barrio, we saw evidence of the educational programs instituted by Chavez. A nice library, complete with new internet-connected computers, was being used by many students.


 Elsewhere, adults were participating in the various equivalency programs which can take them from first grade to a college degree in about six years.

Many political activities were going on in the barrio, including a “trial” of the CIA for their long history of crimes in Latin America. “Witnesses” from Chile, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere helped to make the case. We also visited one of the clinics run by Cuban doctors, part of a Chavez program which gets lots of criticism from his detractors, both in Caracas and in Washington—and of course in Miami.



On the last official day of the tour, we rode in vans for about two hours to an area near the Caribbean coast known as Barlovento. The region has a large African population, descendents of slaves brought in by the Spanish to pick bananas and other tropical fruits which grow there.

We were treated to an excellent drum show by the locals, and then made our only visit to the beach, where we stayed about an hour.


Some general observations. Obviously, I didn’t go everywhere or see everything, so don’t take these as gospel truth about Venezuela. But, for what they’re worth, here are some eyewitness observations:

  • I didn’t see a lot of abject poverty. There were some people sleeping in doorways and some beggars on the streets, but fewer than you’d encounter in many US cities. There were some shack-like houses in various places around Caracas, but most seemed to have working plumbing and satellite dishes. While the city as a whole seems slightly shabby, a little dirty and with a lot of half-finished buildings that no one is working on, there were no large areas that I would call slums. No open sewers, no children trying to find lunch by picking through a burning garbage dump. I’ve seen areas in Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico and Detroit that looked much poorer than any area I saw in Venezuela.
  • The people are wonderful. They are nice and friendly. They are passionate about their politics, and both the Chavistas and the opposition enjoy getting out in the streets either to protest or to celebrate as the occasion warrants. Of course, they are miserable living under Chavez, as you can see in these pictures:






  • Caracas is kind of like LA turned inside out. The rich people live in the valley and the poor people live on the hills.
  • Caracas is sort of a museum of 20th-century architecture. To my eye, most of it was pretty ugly, but there were many gems as well. Buildings in the 10 to 30 story range are spread out all over the city.



  • Gasoline is extremely cheap, a benefit from the government to the people, at least those who can afford to buy a car. About 17 cents a gallon. All of the gas comes from the state oil company, PDVSA, although several companies including the usual US suspects are involved in distributing and selling it.


The 2002 Coup Attempt

With all of that as background, I’ll try now to bring the story up to date. To date, the defining moment of the 21st century in Venezuela was the coup attempt of April 2002. The Spanish word for coup is “el golpe,” and the coup leaders are referred to by the Chavistas as “golpistas.” We heard about the coup from both Chavistas and opposition leaders, and we also watched a documentary made by one of our guides called “Chronicle of a Coup,” which I have here on three DVD’s. Hopefully we’ll show it locally sometime soon, although I’ll be happy to share the DVD’s. The coup was also documented in the Irish film, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”


The coup was hardly unexpected. The opposition had been engaging in strikes and protests for months leading up to the April 11 crisis. They claim that they were legally exercising their democratic rights; some Chavistas claim that these were deliberate attempts to sabotage the economy and Chavez’ programs. Probably some truth on both sides.


Exactly what happened during the coup, especially the first day, April 11, is embroiled in extreme controversy. Here’s the gist of the Chavista’s story: An opposition rally strayed from its permitted course to come into contact with a rally supporting Chavez. As National Guard troops tried to keep the two rallies separated, police snipers under the command of the opposition mayor of Caracas fired on the Chavista rally, killing 19 and wounding 100. Police and military supporting the opposition then besieged the Miraflores palace and arrested Chavez.


The opposition claims that National Guardsmen under orders from Chavez killed the 19 people on the bridge, and that Chavez resigned that night and agreed to leave the country.


It’s all easy to sort out, really, just like the Kennedy assassination.


What happened the next day is less in doubt. Whether Chavez was arrested or resigned, the golpistas started setting up a new government. The second part of the film, “Chronicle of a Coup,” documents how they quickly tried to establish fascist policies in Venezuela. They restricted news reports, trying to keep word that Chavez hadn’t resigned from reaching his supporters. Eventually, Chavez got a letter out saying he hadn’t resigned. As the day wore on, people using the Internet and cell phones spread the word around the city and country. The next morning, huge crowds of people marched on the presidential palace and the fort where Chavez was reportedly being held. They were supported by large elements of the military loyal to Chavez. The golpistas saw that the tide had turned and snuck out the back. None have been prosecuted—the leader, Pedro Carmona, fled to Miami, while most of the others are still active in Venezuelan politics. Chavez and his cabinet were reinstated, returning the country to approximately where it is today—mostly peaceful, but with huge political rifts threatening to tear it apart.


The opposition leaders that we heard from did not dispute that the golpistas blundered badly, to put it mildly, especially in their attempts to put in fascist controls during their one day in power. Some see the coup attempt as a setback which discredited what they see as very legitimate complaints against Chavez.


Was, and Is, the US involved in the attempts to overthrow Chavez?

Short answer—yes. Bush, Powell and the rest have made no secret that they’d like to see someone else in charge in Venezuela—someone who supports the FTAA, someone who isn’t buddies with Castro, somebody who sees his highest mission to be helping multinational corporations to control all of the world’s resources and labor. But have the Bushies violated US or international law, or the UN or OAS charter, by secretly working for Chavez’ ouster? Probably. Their hasty recognition and expressions of support for the golpistas during their one-day reign was unseemly, to say the least. Here’s what Ari Fleischer told the White House press corps on April 12, 2002:


: Let me share with you the administration's thoughts about what's taking place in Venezuela. It remains a somewhat fluid situation. But yesterday's events in Venezuela resulted in a change in the government and the assumption of a transitional authority until new elections can be held.

The details still are unclear. We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. The Venezuelan military and the police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government's role in such human rights violations. The government also tried to prevent independent news media from reporting on these events.

The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed. This government has promised early elections.

The United States will continue to monitor events. That is what took place, and the Venezuelan people expressed their right to peaceful protest. It was a very large protest that turned out. And the protest was met with violence.

Later in the same briefing, Fleischer was asked:

Q Ari, I understand there was a concern of the U.S. in regards to the policy of Mr. Hugo Chavez towards Iraq and Cuba. Is there any relief maybe because finally he's out of power and the Venezuelan people is electing a new democratic president?

MR. FLEISCHER: At all times, these are issues that are the rights of the people of Venezuela to decide who will represent them. As I mentioned, this was a peaceful protest and the peaceful protestors were attacked and many of them were killed or injured as a result of the actions of the Chavez government, which also sought to repress coverage of the issue. The United States is, at all times, committed to democracy around the world and particularly, of course, in our hemisphere. That's why the President traveled to El Salvador and Peru just last month to highlight to the importance of democracy.


I’ll stop channeling for Ari the Liar now, since it might cause me permanent brain damage, but I’ve included all of the Venezuela-related questions and answers from his April 12 and April 16 briefings in the handouts. I don’t think you’ll be terribly surprised to find a lot of hypocrisy, even flip-flopping, by comparing Ari’s answers from those two days.


The Chavistas certainly see the hand of Bush interfering in their affairs.


And speaking of flip-flopping, don’t look for any improvement in US policy towards Venezuela from a Kerry administration. He says the same stupid stuff that Bush does; at times he seems to be trying to outstupid him, a seemingly impossible task. Basically, if you want your voice heard by either Bush or Kerry, you’d better become a Cuban and move to Miami.


The Recall Effort

Chavez’ own Bolivarian constitution provided for a way to recall the president. After the coup failed, the opposition has been working towards a recall referendum. With help from the Organization of American States and the Carter Center, a national election commission was set up to be the referee in the recall attempt. A few months ago, the opposition submitted 3.4 million signatures, more than the 2.8 million needed to force a recall vote. The commission declared about 800,000 to be invalid, saying many of the petitions appeared to have been filled out by one person. The opposition says that that’s true, but nothing is wrong with that. They had people at tables soliciting signatures from voters. The person at the table would ask for the voter’s name, address, and ID number, and write them on the form. The voter would then sign the form and put his or her thumbprint on it.


The commission has now set up validation dates, where people whose names are on the disputed petitions and verify that they did or didn’t sign. The general consensus now is that there will be enough valid signatures to force the recall vote, but that Chavez will survive the vote handily. Unlike California’s procedure, Venezuela’s recall requires that there be more people voting against the president than voted for him originally for him to be removed. Since Chavez won in a landslide in 2000, it is very unlikely that the opposition will get more votes than that in the recall (a number much bigger than the number of signatures required to force the recall vote). The opposition leaders we heard from said that they would accept the result if their recall failed.


My Observations and Conclusions

Global Exchange and the guides that they arranged for us in Venezuela clearly support Chavez, and I went on the trip inclined to look on him favorably. But I was well aware that what little I knew about the situation had arrived through enormous filters, and tried to keep a somewhat opened mind.


Is Hugo Chavez the great hope for Venezuela and South America, champion of the poor and disenfranchised? Or is he, as the Bushies allege (although usual less directly), a Communist drug-running terrorist dictator? My tentative conclusion: He is neither. He is a skilled politician, and his policies are a mixture of deeply-held beliefs and opportunistic posturing. He has given hope and a feeling of importance to millions of Venezuelans who had previously felt completely without a voice in the country. And while he has almost certainly done some things which bend or break the rules in the very constitution that he inspired, he is far from being a dictator. Most of the media in Venezuela opposes him mercilessly. One of the two big opposition newspapers had as its main headline on Good Friday: “Manipulating the Poor is Re-crucifying Jesus,” referring to Chavez’ use of the poor to achieve his own political ends. None of the leaders of the 2002 coup are in prison. The opposition regularly holds huge rallies in the streets of Caracas, and I didn’t see evidence that anyone in the country is reticent about expressing a political opinion in public; quite the contrary, actually.


Personally, I hope he survives the recall and finishes his term of office. But my real hope is that Venezuelans are allowed to settle the issue on their own without interference from Washington. My guess is that without interference the political conflicts will be settled peacefully, but that all sorts of bad things might happen if the Bushies (or the Kerrys) continue to insist that US goals trump Venezuela goals.


This talk was meant to be mostly informative and not a call to action, but I hope that some of you may decide to e-mail Congress or the Kerry campaign and tell them to let Venezuela resolve its own issues without interference. And maybe some of you will decide to visit Venezuela as well—I highly recommend it!