It happened on TV
What was remarkable about the events of 11-13 April in Caracas was not so much the downfall of the President as his precipitate reinstatement – a reversal of fortune that took everybody, not least Chávez himself, completely by surprise. Though he has always claimed that when he assumed power in 1998 he was initiating a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, nobody was less prepared than its prime beneficiary when something like a revolution finally happened.
The coup itself by contrast could not have been more clearly signalled: it took place in the media and with the media themselves the apparent object of both sides’ main attention. South America’s longest-standing democracy (unbroken since 1958) was brought down in the full, if confused, glare of the cameras. In the days leading up to 11 April, everyone in Caracas had been watching television: every restaurant, shop and business had the news on all the time. Far from attempting to disguise their hostility to Chávez all the networks – with the exception of the one state-owned channel – gave plenty of airtime to the coalition aiming to topple him. The owners of the commercial networks are formidable enemies. Gustavo Cisneros, for example, heads a group that not only owns the Venevisión station but has many other business interests throughout the Americas. He is moreover Latin America’s second-richest man and a personal friend of Bush père. Initially he supported Chávez, but is now said by some to have bankrolled the coup against him.
For several months, support for Chávez’s regime had been in steady decline, in part as a result of this relentless assault on the part of both the press and the television networks. In response, Chávez took to decreeing cadenas (‘chains’), obliging each network in turn to broadcast his own – often long and rambling – addresses to the nation. These had once been a cornerstone of his appeal, but now the media subverted the broadcasts by superimposing text protesting against this ‘abuse’ of press freedom, or by splitting the screen, showing Chávez’s speech on one side and images of anti-Government demonstrations on the other. With every day that passed more calls were broadcast for the President’s resignation or, failing that, for the intervention of the military.
Though complaints against Chávez have been many and diffuse, the trigger for the most recent convulsions was (predictably) a battle for control of Venezuela’s oil. The country is the world’s fourth largest oil exporter, and one of the leading suppliers of foreign oil to the US; but the state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, is crucial to the economy as a whole, and Chávez had been attempting to run it according to national political priorities rather than simply acceding to market demand. At the end of February, he sacked PDVSA’s president and a majority of the directors, replacing them with his own men. The management immediately cried foul, initiating a production slowdown, and taking up a position at the vocal centre of anti-Government protest. At the beginning of April, managers went on strike, and Chávez fired or forcibly retired 19 of them on the 6th. The Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV) and the national Chamber of Commerce, Fedecámaras, joined with the oil industry’s management to call a general strike for Tuesday, 9 April. On Tuesday night, Chávez decreed another ‘chain’, and declared the strike a failure; the coalition in turn claimed the strike had been 100 per cent successful (neither claim was true, but many managers effectively locked their workers out) and announced, first, another day’s general strike and then, the following day, that the strike would be indefinite.