It happened on TV

Jon Beasley-Murray

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.

The atmosphere in the city became palpably more tense. Opposition supporters, mainly from the middle and upper classes, drove through the streets, the national flag and the black flag of opposition waving from the electric windows of their four-wheel drives. Other protesters banged pots and pans from their windows and exchanged insults with Government supporters, either when Chávez appeared on television or, on the days when he was off-screen, at pre-arranged times in the evening. Encouraged by this show of support, opposition forces called for a march through the opulent East Side for the morning of Thursday the 11th. On the day of the march, 200,000 demonstrators continued beyond their stated destination, heading for the more working-class city centre and the President’s power base. Confrontation was by now inevitable.

Chávez’s regime began to totter that afternoon, as he tried to take over the television networks literally as well as symbolically. At around 1.30 p.m. he appeared on air. His message, delivered from his office, was that his Government continued in control and would have no trouble dealing with the demands for his resignation. As the broadcast started, I was finishing lunch with friends at a restaurant; there was a sudden silence, everyone recognising that something crucial was about to happen. Over the next hour or so, as the President continued talking (sometimes chiding, sometimes patronising), the terrestrial commercial channels were taken off the air one by one, leaving only the Government station available to those who didn’t have cable. The cable channels split their screens. Half the screen showed silent images of rioting outside the Palace with subtitles commenting on these events. On the other half Chávez spoke calmly from behind his desk while aides passed him notes keeping him up to date about what was happening on the other side of the screen.

Then the ‘chain’ broke and the game was up. The commercial networks abandoned Chávez and dedicated themselves to the pictures (often repeated, often out of synch) of what had been happening in the city centre while the President dominated the airwaves. Disorganised images of stone-throwing youths, the injured being carried away on stretchers, Chávez loyalists apparently opening fire, dead bodies, troops and tanks mobilising, and military officials making statements were shown as evidence that a coup was in progress.

I was driven back to another friend’s house, and we ran every red light on the way. As the night wore on, state television screened old nature documentaries, and then went off the air completely while the private channels flaunted their freedom to show what they wanted. Eventually, the entire military High Command declared themselves against the President. Rumours circulated that he might have fled, but at 1.30 a.m., the sound of pots and pans and fireworks greeted the news that he was now in custody. Pedro Carmona, a leading businessman, appeared on television flanked by the heads of the various Armed Forces to be declared the new President. But nobody went out into the street. We turned the television off.

By the following night, the city seemed to be returning to normal. In the traditional middle-class nightspots, such as the nearby village of El Hatillo, the many restaurants were full, the patrons animated. Those who had protested and marched to bring down Chávez seemed to be relieved that the affair had been resolved so quickly. ‘A Step in the Right Direction’ was the banner headline on the front page of one major newspaper on the Saturday. President Carmona had been sworn in and was beginning to name the members of his ‘transitional’ Government. PDVSA’s head of production announced, to much applause, that ‘not one barrel of oil’ would now be sent to Cuba. The television showed scenes of mourning for the 13 who had died in Thursday’s violence, but the stations also covered live the police raids (breathless reporters in tow) hunting down the Chávez supporters allegedly responsible for these deaths.

Elsewhere, another story was being spread by word of mouth or mobile phone. Early on Saturday afternoon, I received three phone calls in quick succession: somebody due to come round rang from his car to say he was turning back as he had heard there were barricades in the streets and an uprising at a military base; a journalist cancelled an appointment with the news that a parachute regiment and a section of the Air Force had rebelled; a friend warned that there were fire-fights in the city centre, and that a state of siege might soon be imposed. She added that none of this would appear on television. I turned it on: not a sign. Other friends came by, full of similar rumours. It seemed that people were gathering outside the Presidential Palace. Given the continued lack of news coverage, we decided to go out and take a look for ourselves.

As we got nearer, we saw that crowds were indeed converging on the city centre, but there were no soldiers or policemen on the streets. In the centre itself, barricades had been improvised using piles of rubbish or burning tyres, to mark out the territory around the Presidential Palace. The demonstration was not large, but it was growing. We then headed towards the East Side, and came across a procession chanting pro-Chávez slogans, and carrying portraits of the deposed President. These people were poorer and more racially mixed than the East Side’s usual inhabitants, and were clearly moving towards the city centre, as were a stream of buses apparently commandeered by other chavistas. Neighbourhood police were eyeing them carefully, but letting them pass. If this many demonstrators were coming in from the eastern suburbs, then many more must be making for the Palace from the working-class west. We doubled back and tracked the march from parallel streets, watching the numbers grow.

The radio reported the crowds on the streets, but mainly it was given over to official pronouncements. First, the Army chief said the Army would continue to support the interim President Carmona only if he reinstated Congress as well as the democratically elected regional governors favourable to the Chávez regime who had been (unconstitutionally) deposed the previous day. Carmona himself was then interviewed by CNN. He said that he had the situation in the city under control, downplayed any insubordination among the Armed Forces, and announced that his next step might be to fire some of the High Command. Finally, the head of the National Guard declared that respect and recognition needed to be shown to those who had supported – and continued to support – Chávez. The pact between the military and big business was unravelling. We decided to head home.

All the commercial TV channels were showing their normal programmes (the state-owned channel had been off the air since Thursday’s coup). However, from BBC World and Spanish-language CNN we started to receive reports of disturbances that morning in Caracas’s working-class neighbourhoods, as well as details of the parachute regiment’s refusal to surrender its arms to the new regime. More mobile phone calls assured us that the crowd outside the Palace was still growing, and still peaceful. The BBC spoke of thousands of people gathered there. Darkness fell, but still no word from any of the national networks. At one point the CNN anchor pointedly asked its Caracas correspondent whether or not local television was covering this tense situation: no, he replied, despite these same channels’ allegations of censorship under the previous regime. Now self-censorship in the form of soap operas stopped them showing what was slowly emerging as a pro-Chávez multitude.

Then one channel suddenly switched to the scene in the street outside its own headquarters. A group of young demonstrators, on motorcycles and scooters, was agitating outside the plate-glass windows. Rocks were thrown, windows were smashed and graffiti sprayed, and a new ‘chain’ was formed as all the networks turned to the same image of demonstrators apparently ‘attacking’ the building. But the group moved on and the soap operas resumed. Until a similar group turned up at another channel’s headquarters, then another, and another, glimpsed, in fragments, in a series of fuzzy images snatched through cracked windows and over balconies. A local pro-Chávez mayor who had been in hiding was briefly visible, apparently calling for people to remain calm. But no camera teams ventured outside, and we still had little idea what was happening at the Presidential Palace.

The international channels were showing footage, shot during the course of the day, of police suppressing protests in the poorer neighbourhoods – the footage was available, but had not been screened locally. At around 10.30 p.m., sweeping through the channels, we saw that a station that had been dark had now come back to life. A friend phoned almost immediately: ‘Are you watching Channel 8?’ Yes, we were. State television had, amazingly, returned to the airwaves. The people who had taken it over were improvising desperately. The colour balance and contrast were all wrong, the cameras were held by amateurs and only one microphone seemed to be working. The men and women sitting behind the presenters’ desk were nervous, shaking as they held the microphone, but there they were: a couple of journalists, a liberation theology priest, and a minister and a congressman from the previous regime. The minister spoke first, and fast. She gave a very different version of the violent end to Thursday’s march: the majority of the dead had been Chávez supporters, she said, and the snipers firing on the crowds were members of police forces not under the regime’s control. Moreover, the former President had not resigned; he was being forcibly detained at a naval base on an island to the north. Carmona was the illegitimate head of a de facto regime, the product of a military coup. Thousands of people were on the streets outside the Presidential Palace demanding Chávez’s return.

Over the next few hours, Channel 8 would go on and off the air several times. Each time the immediate fear was that it had been closed down; each time, it turned out that technical problems were to blame. Several times the channel attempted to show images from inside the Presidential Palace, but CNN was the first to show the ‘guard of honour’ defending the Palace as it declared its loyalty to Chávez. Later, around 1 a.m., amid the confusion, we saw pictures of the Vice-President, Diosdado Cabello, inside the Palace, being sworn in as President. Venezuela now had three Presidents simultaneously and the BBC suggested that two of the three, Carmona and Chávez, were currently being detained by different sectors of the Armed Forces. But the balance of power seemed to have shifted to supporters of the previous regime.

And so the apparently unthinkable happened. Shortly before 3 a.m., Chávez returned to the Presidential Palace, almost lost in the multitude as soon as he left his helicopter. All the television stations were now running the images provided by Channel 8 – a new ‘chain’ had formed, as commercial television lapsed into stunned silence. The President returned to the office from which he had been broadcasting on Thursday afternoon as the coup unfolded. This time, however, he was no longer alone behind his desk, but flanked by most of his ministers in a room crowded with people. He started on one of his speeches. We turned the television off.

The coup itself was practically formulaic: the Armed Forces withdrew their support from an embattled President who had alienated the middle classes and faced uniformly hostile media; the situation became critical when a popular demonstration was dispersed with violence and several deaths. Exit the President, to the polite applause of the United States, which in all likelihood contributed more than its applause: several of the plotters met with senior Pentagon and Bush Administration officials in the weeks and months leading up to the coup, while the US Government is now being particularly coy about the role of Otto Reich, the State Department’s top official for Latin American affairs, who was in regular contact with the coup leaders as events unfolded.

The fate of Chávez’s Government, and of Chávez himself, remains uncertain. The regime has so far failed to transform what, for all its oil resources, is still a country with considerable poverty; and, despite having agreed to reverse the interventions in PDVSA that triggered the convulsion, Chávez still has a large proportion of the middle classes set against him. He must now negotiate with them without at the same time betraying the hopes of the multitude that reinstated him. The Government is in a stronger position than at any time since its promising beginnings, whereas the commercial media that schemed for its downfall are in disgrace. Yet it could easily blow this opportunity, especially if it continues to depend so much on the President himself, at best a maverick, at worst a demagogue (and probably in truth quite incompetent), whose charisma is lost on the middle classes. Chávez’s cult of himself allows for no competition and leaves no alternative for those who believe in the generally progressive causes advanced (if intermittently) by his Government. Though Chávez (and chavismo) claims to represent the multitude, the 13 April insurrection should be the signal that the regime is in the end dependent on it. Chavismo without Chávez has a power all of its own.