Chaos In Caracas

Until the last, Hugo Chavez and his closest supporters refused to acknowledge that anything might be amiss. Last Thursday afternoon, while more than 100,000 angry Venezuelans marched toward the presidential palace, Chavez's brother and land-reform chief, Adan Chavez, was calmly promising that Hugo's "revolutionary" vision would still be guiding the country for years to come. "So long as the people support the revolution, there's no need to worry," the smiling Adan declared. A few blocks from Miraflores Palace, security forces and armed pro-Chavez civilians attacked the procession with tear gas and rocks--and practically on cue, the president commandeered the nation's airwaves to deliver a two-hour speech of extraordinary banality. While he rambled on, gunfire began raining down onto the marchers from the rooftops around them. By the time it was over, at least 16 were dead and more than 300 were injured.

The ultimate casualty may have been Chavez himself. For months Venezuela's top military officers had been silently displeased with their president's increasingly arbitrary and thuggish rule, but last week's bloodshed in the heart of Caracas was more than they could stand. Within hours of the killings, the generals sent Air Force Gen. Regulo Anselmi and two other high-ranking military officers to the palace to negotiate Chavez's resignation. The president wanted their permission to fly to Cuba, where his old friend Fidel Castro had given him sanctuary once before, but the generals turned him down flat. Around 3 a.m. on Friday he left the palace, dressed in his trademark red beret and fatigues, and was spirited across town to the sprawling Fort Tiuna Army Base on Caracas's southwestern outskirts. "Mr. President, I was loyal to the end," said Army commander Gen. Efrain Vasquez Velasco at a press conference. "But today's deaths cannot be tolerated."

Chavez's closest associates insisted he had never really resigned. At the weekend the coup seemed in imminent danger of collapsing. At the presidential palace, where the elite presidential guards had retaken control, a group of top-ranking officials from the Chavez administration swore in their old president's deputy, Diosdado Cabello, to serve as interim president. Cabello promised the boss would soon be back on the job. Troops loyal to Chavez had already taken control of the country's main air base and at least two television stations in the capital. The return of Chavez might bring the country back under some kind of control. But there was no reason to imagine he would address the grievances that had brought the marchers out in the first place.

Even before last week's killings, many Venezuelans were fighting mad. Chavez never delivered on his promises to pull the economy out of its long slump and to lessen its almost total dependence on oil exports. More than half of all Venezuelans live below the poverty line. In many ways, Chavez left the place far worse than he found it. He came to office in 1999 amid the wreckage of a two-party system. His predecessors had overseen an unprecedented deterioration of the once proud nation's social and economic fabric. But Venezuela's institutions continued to erode under Chavez. The judiciary's supposed independence became an even sicker joke under his autocratic stewardship, and Chavez's cronies upheld the time-honored tradition of looting the national treasury. In the final weeks of the regime, no opposition leader was safe, and roving bands of pro-Chavez street toughs did all they could to intimidate the country's independent news organizations.

Last week the generals wasted no time appointing a civilian interim president. Slight of build and self-effacing in nature, the Belgian-educated economist Pedro Carmona Estanga, 60, had made a reputation as a consensus builder and a wise manager. He immediately set to work on a post-Chavez government, dissolving the National Assembly and appointing a 35-member "consultative council" packed with prominent Chavez opponents. He repealed dozens of decrees that Chavez had issued in his final months, and reportedly promised that the ousted president would soon be shipped off into exile. But on Saturday night, barely a day after he was sworn in, he submitted his resignation as the country slipped deeper into chaos. There were reports he was placed under arrest immediately afterward.

Other Latin American governments--and not only Cuba's--condemned Chavez's removal. Mexican President Vicente Fox said he would not recognize the interim government until new elections are held. The presidents of Argentina and Paraguay also branded the new government "illegitimate," an assessment echoed by leaders of the 19-nation Rio Group of Latin American countries, which denounced the Venezuelan military's "interruption of constitutional order."

U.S. officials vehemently denied any role in Chavez's ouster. Administration sources have confirmed to NEWSWEEK that in late February, dissident Venezuelan military officers informed U.S. Embassy officials in Caracas about plans for a coup against Chavez. The officers sought guidance on the U.S. government's position. They were told that "this was something that was not acceptable, that a coup was not the way to go," says one U.S. official.

In any case, the Bush administration was certainly not sorry to think Chavez was gone. Along with his baseball pal Fidel Castro, who has called him "my political son," the Venezuelan leader's friends include the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Kaddafi and Iran's Mohammad Khatami. Chavez has even exchanged friendly letters with Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, a.k.a. Carlos the Jackal, not to mention giving a haven in Venezuela to the drug-financed leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. U.S. officials were definitely looking forward to working with a new leader. "Chavez sort of gave the impression he came from a different planet," says one U.S. military adviser.

Chavez's ouster also brought at least temporary joy to the jittery international oil markets. He slashed Venezuelan oil production during the first two years of his rule, a move that helped triple prices for OPEC crude in 1999 and 2000. A protracted standoff between Chavez and senior managers of the state-owned oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) in early April had threatened to paralyze the industry. But news of Chavez's downfall sent oil prices dropping by $1.52 to $23.47 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange last Friday, and PDVSA executives announced plans to restore full production levels within the coming days. The executives also said they would be reviewing Venezuela's role in the global oil cartel. "We recommend that we reassess our participation within OPEC," said PDVSA executive director Edgar Paredes. "We've always been the 'useful idiots' within OPEC."

That was before the coup began unraveling. The trouble in the streets started when Chavez attempted to fire 19 senior PDVSA executives and managers for publicly criticizing his efforts to dictate oil policy. The firings galvanized the opposition. With the possible exceptions of the military and the church, there is no more venerated and powerful institution in Venezuela than the state-run oil company. In the quarter century since its nationalization, the Venezuelan oil industry has remained relatively immune to the political infighting and cronyism that have devastated most of the country. And just as well: PDVSA effectively drives the entire national economy, delivering roughly 80 percent of export earnings and about half of all government revenues--not to mention a subsidy that gives Venezuelans some of the world's cheapest gasoline at about seven cents a liter. Chavez always resented the company's relative autonomy. For three years he had sought to place Latin America's largest corporation at the service of his revolution. It was his attack on PDVSA that brought together the company's management and labor, unifying the anti-Chavez movement as never before.

Early last week the opposition declared a general strike. By Thursday it had grown into a virtual "people power" revolt. By one estimate there were as many as half a million marchers in the human river that flowed through the streets of Caracas, many of them carrying banners and placards denouncing three years of misrule. Now there's reason to ask whether the independent-minded executives of PDVSA or anyone else will be able to challenge Chavez if he comes back and sets to work cleaning house. In that case the coup will have backfired disastrously, against not only the generals but Venezuela's beleaguered middle class as well.

In the end Chavez only made people hate all politicians, even self-described revolutionaries. The local version of people power never coalesced around any of the opposition leaders who have challenged Chavez in the past 12 months. Finally the generals saw no choice but to step in and send him packing themselves. "The government was becoming ever more authoritarian and repressive," says political scientist Elsa Cardozo of the Central University of Venezuela. "What we have seen is an impressive mobilization of the people to restore the rule of law in Venezuela."

Last week the rule of law seemed more distant than ever in Venezuela. When the turmoil finally subsides, whoever ends up in the presidential palace will have to find a way to satisfy the Venezuelan people's impossible expectations. Opinion surveys consistently show that they consider their country to be one of the world's richest, despite all evidence to the contrary. If Hugo Chavez couldn't give them what they wanted when oil prices were sky high, chances are the next president won't do it either.

Next to cats, no creature on earth has more lives than a Latin American demagogue. So it would be premature to draft a political obituary for Hugo Chavez Frias. He has returned from the dead once already, after he was imprisoned and then exiled to Cuba for leading a failed 1992 coup against the government of the then President Carlos Andres Perez. By the time Chavez came home and ran for president in 1998, voters were more than ready to forgive his youthful mistake.

Last week, as the 47-year-old Chavez weighed his options, he may have noticed a curious accident of history. His supreme idol, the independence hero Simon Bolivar, was 47 when he died penniless and dispirited in exile in the Colombian port city of Santa Marta, having failed to fulfill his dream of a united South American state. Three years ago Chavez took over a nation nearly united in its overwhelming support for his vision of a stronger, richer "Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela." Last week the nation was almost equally united in its repudiation of him and everything he stood for. One of Carmona's first official acts was to drop the word "Bolivarian" from Venezuela's official name. But unlike the Great Liberator, Chavez is still alive--and his spirit is not yet broken.

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