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Venezuela: Rise and fall of Hugo Chávez

By Roberto Giusti, El Universal

On February 2, 1992, Hugo Chávez connected himself to a source of power that has been feeding him ever since. After his failed coup attempt, half Venezuela fell in love with him. Yare, the prison where he was convicted after his failed coup, became a national sanctuary where tens of hurried pilgrims showed him their adoration.

President Rafael Caldera dismissed the case, and the "furious fool of February 4," as the Spanish magazine Cambio 16 then called Chávez, went out of prison as a national hero. The road from jail to the Presidential Palace of Miraflores was straight and paved. Except for his initial call to abstention, a problem quickly solved by Luis Miquilena, he took the electoral route to ascend to power - at least to the government.

On December 6, 1998, Chávez became one of the most voted presidents in the history of Venezuela. Just nine months later, he reaffirmed his popular power with the installation of the National Constituent Assembly, which one year later, after six popular votes, would approve his political project and his constitution, in December 1999. Additionally, these votes gained Chávez dominion on the Legislative Power and the regional governments.

The legislative body created for the transition between the two constitutions, dubbed Congresillo (little Congress), gave him a grip on the rest of the public powers. Based on an immense support, which at a certain moment hit 80 percent of the population, Chávez obtained some concessions from the old established powers, including a sentence of the defunct Supreme Court of Justice that allowed him to initiate the constituent process.

As the new institutions, at least theoretically, were being created, the old ones were being destroyed. The first objective of this institutional demolition was to eradicate the old leading class and political parties, including those that had supported him in winning the elections.

With a dissolvent language that, yet, was attractive to vast portions of the population, Chávez slowly started to create all kind of divisions, particularly regarding class and race. As time passed by, he geared up in this language, with the country dividing into two separate groups: Chavez supporters and Chávez opponents, or their equivalents: Patriots and traitors.

But division soon reached his personal entourage. The first people to abandon him were his fellow officers of the February 4, 1992 coup attempt. Jesús Urdaneta Hernández resigned as director of the intelligence police Disip after Chávez ignored 40 files of administrative corruption involving active government officials. Francisco Arias Cárdenas, another of his coup companions, decided to run against him in the 2000 election.

After that, Alfredo Peńa, a known journalist who had been elected mayor of Caracas with the votes of Chávez' sympathizers, put a distance between the two, becoming the first clear figure of the opposition.

However, in 2001, Chávez was determined to take the irreversible step toward total control with a group of laws conceived under his exercise of special powers. Conditions had been converging for this, with the proliferation of invasion of idle lots of grounds in the whole country, the boundless intensification of violence and crime and the emergence of subversive activity by local and foreign groups, promoted by the government itself. These groups included FARC, ENL, FBL, Tupamaros, Carapaicas, and others. Whenever the president spoke, he demolished moral barriers, inverted values, justified crime and turned owners into criminals.

The key year

In July 2001, the leading business association Fedecámaras chose Pedro Carmona Estanga as new leader. After a short time proposing the government an institutional dialogue, Carmona jumped to the opposition and became the voice of many who opposed Chávez' new laws, including one concerning the distribution of the land, which violated the right of property.

At that moment, Chávez' inclination for the regimes of Fidel Castro, Moammar Gaddhafi and Saddam Hussein was already indisputable. He was the only head of state in the world to visit Baghdad after the Gulf War.

Thus, the fragmentation and weakness of an almost dying opposition transformed into a powerful social and political movement. The change was stimulated by the perspective of losing to authoritarianism what in the past was as good as the air.

On December 10, the first national strike took place with a sounding success. It was also the first day when the people unanimously banged their pans against a president dressed in a military suit, full of anger and unable to do anything against the irresistible noise during a speech in the military base of La Carlota.

But the president counter-attacked. He opened 2002 by replacing the members of the state oil firm Pdvsa's board of directors with others who had nothing to do with the business but were totally faithful to his desires. The industry's response was blunt. After fruitless talks, the workers and managers declared a strike. On April 7, in a high-volume media show, Chávez fired the leaders of the strike movement. The next day, the leaders of Fedecámaras and the country's major trade union, CTV, formed a suggestive and powerful alliance and called a general strike. On April 10, the strike became indefinite. And on April 11, the largest street demonstration ever seen in Venezuela walked to the Miraflores Palace.

Then came the massacre. Chávez ordered to activate the Ávila anti-riot plan to stop the crowd. He bet everything on the Armed Forces, and he happened to lose. Only a few military officers remained loyal, frustrating his auto-coup plot. Twelve hours later, the most powerful man in Venezuela submissively surrendered to those who until then were his subordinates.

From votes to boots

At his return after the events of April 2002, Chávez showed the signs of the hard defeat he had suffered. He recognized his mistakes, offered to create a dialogue table and, remarkably, stopped wearing his military uniform. It was a commitment made with the generals who brought him back to power.

But the most notorious conciliation gesture was the re-hiring of all the managers of Pdvsa. He also named Alí Rodríguez new chairman of the company and formed a less submissive board. That was all, though. He immediately started purging the Armed Forces, thanks to the newly-acquired knowledge of the active centers of conspiracy. Chávez placed unconditional officers in the key posts and undertook the conversion of an institutional army into a militia committed to the revolution and its chief.

Meanwhile, political personalities recovered the leadership of the opposition, creating the alliance Democratic Coordinator. The National Assembly debated, in a rather dramatic manner, the responsibilities about the April events. Carmona, who had briefly replaced Chávez in the presidency and was under house arrest, managed to escape and obtained asylum from the Colombian government. A proposed Commission of Truth that would clarify the April 2002 killing and the president's responsibility in the case still remains in a limbo.

Shortly after, the Armed Forces gave another sign. In October, a large group of disaffected officials concentrated in the Altamira square of Caracas, turning it into a stronghold of the most radical opposition. For months, the group oscillated from one contradiction to another as to how to get rid of the government: Coup d'etat, constituent assembly, consulting referendum, elections, a new strike, and so on.

After submitting signatures for a consulting recall amid violent scenes, the opposition chose the idea of a new strike as the spark for a civil-military rebellion. On December 2, the National Guard attacked a small demonstration in Chuao, which led the opposition to turn a short strike into an indefinite one. Four days later, a Chávez supporter shot against the people gathering at the Altamira square, killing three people. March after march, the opposition started to feel they were making useless efforts.

When the strike came to an end, the country was bankrupt. Hundreds of companies were about to close; the government had established a foreign currency exchange control, and 20,000 Pdvsa workers had lost their jobs. According to surveys, Chávez' image improved as he increased his control over the oil industry and the Armed Forces. The business community had been reduced in size and the opposition was exhausted.

The solution

After some time, César Gaviria, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), spent some months in Venezuela promoting a negotiated solution that seemed to be condemned to failure. Meanwhile, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also visited the country and took Chávez' word to accept a recall vote as a feasible option after August 2003.

Although frozen during the December 2002-January 2003 general strike, the negotiations finally attained an agreement in May last year. The agreement was simply to adopt a democratic, electoral, peaceful and constitutional solution, that is, to hold a presidential recall vote.

At that moment, the government implemented a strategy to place obstacles in the way chosen by the very president. The first battle field was the National Assembly, where months of discussions failed to come up with a new board of directors for the National Electoral Council (CNE).

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justices then assumed the responsibility to name the new members of the CNE's board. The honeymoon of the new CNE members was rather short. The opposition soon realized that the main difficulty to the recall was the clear identification of three of the directors with the government and its strategies to impede the vote.

Chávez, meanwhile, has put underway his "missions" (social and other campaigns) to justify the presence of Cuban activists, agents and political monitors in Venezuela. These persons are introduced in the country as doctors and sport trainers, but their mission is to support control mechanisms, intelligence tasks and ideology teaching to the poorest layers of the Venezuelan society. Castro designs each movement, and his disciple faithfully obeys him. The objective is to go from a democratically elected government to a regime based on domination.

Repression, torture and murder became clear on February 27 this year. Then came the fire in a cell of the Fuerte Mara military base in Maracaibo, Zulia, with eight soldiers burnt, two of them dead. As the precarious democratic image of the government faded day after day, the opposition decided to accept the disadvantageous conditions imposed by the CNE on the claim-filing process related to the presidential recall petition, as a means to keep the possibility of a referendum alive.

Internationally trapped, surprised by a recall that he thought aborted and facing an evident unease in the Armed Forces, Chávez now resorted to nationalism. He denounced an invasion plan against Venezuela that would be executed by unarmed paramilitary groups. But the man who spent the last five years dividing the country is now unable to reunite it.

Translated by Edgardo Malaver

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