In Venezuela, Waiting for the Coup

There is an ominous scent to the air in Caracas, writes Marco Teruggi in Anfibia. Although Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the right-wing opposition seem to have for the moment headed off efforts to resurrect a referendum to remove leftist Nicolas Maduro from power, Teruggi finds violent sentiment everywhere: Crowds of middle-class conservatives jeer their own leaders for being too conciliatory, while the Chavista left girds for street warfare, while in the shadows, industrialists and the regime joust with economic sabotage and counterinsurgency.

“They don’t have much time left in office, very little. They’ll see.”

We are driving in a taxi along Cota Mil, the avenue that borders Caracas on the uphill side. To the right is Warairarepano — a hill known as El Avila — which separates the valley from the Caribbean Sea. To the left, the city is calm, that pre-storm calm that has occupied it since the National Assembly announced its intention to dissolve the three branches of the government, including that of the president— carry out in coup d’etat, in short.

“Pinochet went down. Hitler went down. Now they’re going down too. On Thursday we’re taking Miraflores.”

It is a Sunday and over are the day’s talks between the government and the right-wing opposition, with mediation from the Vatican. Part of the opposition was absent, in particular the Voluntad Popular party, headed by Leopoldo Lopez, and Maria Corina Machado’s Vente Venezuela, two of the most violent dissenting voices. They allege conditions for talks do not exist. The other (parties) attended, in particular Primero Justicia and Accion Democratica, two central forces of the Mesa de Unidad (MUD), the opposition alliance. The parties have been divided on the issue (of talks) since the beginning. They did not foresee the appearance of Pope Francis on the stage, a historic request they themselves had made.

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“We’re going to tell this son of a bitch to leave the presidency and call for general elections right away.”

There is an air of the spirit of 2002 when, for 48 hours, there was a coup against Hugo Chavez’s government. That was in April. There were many people in the streets and the middle class had risen up with support from parts of the national guard and Caracas’ police. They were going to devour any Chavez supporters who crossed their path. Today seems the similar. The want it all, now. They make public threats. It is common to hear people say during protests that they are going to kill (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro. Unlike the leaders, the social base is not divided on talks: They do not want them. Under any circumstances. They are convinced that the time has come to take power, to remove the regime, the dictatorship, the government of “Maburro”, of the “chabestias”, to finally get them out after this 18-year nightmare called Chavism.

“There is no talking to you guys. See you in Miraflores,” (the taxi driver) says as a way of saying goodbye.

To go to the presidential palace in Miraflores in Venezuela is to seek out open street confrontation. The right wing has been forbidden entrance to downtown since February 12, 2014, when they marched and three people were killed and several institutions were burned— this was the beginning of the guarimbas (violent street protests) that ended with 43 dead and Leopoldo Lopez in prison for masterminding the violence. The police will not let them through on November 3, and Chavez supporters announced several days ago that they will mobilize from all over the country to defend the presidential palace. The opposition is determined. The hatred and resentment gallop forward blindly. Their leaders promised the moon, but now they are asking themselves how they will get it. Some who were at the talks want to keep slugging. Others think the end is here. Their hand is not strong enough.

Are they relying on a bluff or do they have an ace up their sleeve?

The First Round

Sunday, October 23. The National Assembly, ruled by the opposition since the January 5 elections, announces it will carry out a coup d’etat. It happens on live TV: Those who carry out coups, since the overthrow of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo, have become exhibitionists. They like the world to watch them on the screen. We eat lunch watching the announcement, which is made with the puffed chest of a gorilla. All of the sudden, the Chavez supporters gathered outside the parliament building enter the facility. They are not going cross their arms and watch as the situation destabilizes, they explain. The scene lasts around 20 minutes: There are older women, young people, people who walked here, poor people. The opposition calls them Chavez’s hordes.

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The special parliamentary session called to debate the “reinstatement of the Venezuelan constitution, constitutional order and democracy” continues. They are going after the Supreme Court, the National Electoral Board, and Pres. Nicolas Maduro.

When it ends, a deafening rainstorm hammers down. After the rain, the certainty remains that starting at that moment a fast, violent political battle is underway. The players are well-known: The president for the National Assembly, Henry Ramos Allup, was one of the leaders that headed the 2002 coup. Videos show him running from the Miraflores presidential palace before Hugo Chavez’s return. Now he talks about freedom, democracy, and human rights.

The formal pretext to start the first round of the coup is that courts in several states suspended petitioning efforts for a referendum to put the president up for reelection. According to the judges, the legal reason that motivated that decision was that more than 600,000 of the signatures gathered were false. Dead people and prisoners signed, identities were stolen, according to the ruling. Because of this, the justice department stopped the process which everyone knew was not going to take place this year anyway. This last bit of information is fundamental: If the referendum happened in 2016 and Nicolas Maduro lost, there would be a new presidential election. However, if it happens next year and he loses, the vice president will take over until 2018. For the right wing it is therefore essential that it take place before the end of the year. But why did they wait until April to start the process, knowing that they needed to start in January to have enough time? Maybe it was because they were considering getting rid of the president by other means — they had announced he would be gone in six months — or because they wanted to create this current situation to generate open conflict. But the opposition is not homogenous: Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez always wanted direct confrontation. Henry Ramos Allup and Capriles Radonsky — who changes his mind — aim to wear them out economically and later win in the elections. All of them fall prey to the temptation of a coup.

The Venezuelan opposition is not your typical right wing. It is profoundly anti-democratic and violent. It showed this with the 2002 coup, the oil strike, the accusations of fraud at each election defeat, the killings of chavista activists, representatives and journalists — Robert Serra and Ricardo Duran, for example —, the 11 fatalities the night after Maduro won the presidential elections, and the list goes on. It is difficult to deny it, independent of whether one is a supporter of Chavismo, of the government, of the Bolivarian revolution. One can disagree with the course initiated by Hugo Chavez, but it is indefensible to claim that his adversary has democratic policies. The right wing has always held up the other party as an enemy that needs to be eliminated.

The taxi driver is a display of that collective subjectivity that has come roaring back, uncontrollable. During the last protest on October 26, the (opposition) leaders were booed for not marching on the Miraflores presidential palace that day. A crowd of 300,000 jeered, demanding confrontation. More than three quarters of them were from the upper classes, the invisible country of the rich, the “squalid” social foundation, as Chavez called the opposition. It was difficult to tell who was going to play golf and who was going to the protest: They wore elegant name brand clothes, 100 percent Miami.

“Where do all these people live? I never see them on the streets of Caracas.”

“You will only see them here and on soap operas.”

We talked with the protesters. We went to observe, to understand that spirit, that terror that has been turned into violence by years of propaganda that has heightened class and racial hatred, that has taken it to irrational limits. They are the nucleus of the protests, the opposition’s active base that attracts the middle class, different from the hypothetical voting base. They live in exclusive communities, do not go downtown out of fear, scorn all chavistas, and when they get worked up in during protests to remove the government they ‘sweat Chanel Number No. 3’, as the song says.

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The Gameboard

It is one thing to announce a coup d’etat and another thing completely different to carry one out. There is the desire, a desire that permeates the people who support the movement, but there also has to be, above all, sufficient force to carry it out. The plan, in this respect, comes up a bit short. The right win rose up publicly with three fairly solid elements and one that is uncertain:

1. The National Assembly: One of the five powers of the Venezuelan government, it has dragged along the problem of being held in contempt by the Supreme Court for having included suspended representatives. From this position they proposed to start legal action against the president. The issue is that, according to the constitution, the legislative branch does not have this power. It is being thought of as a battle horse to place the overthrow within a democratic framework, following the pattern set by the coup against (former Brazilian president) Dilma Rousseff.

2. The protests: They have some multitudinous marches, but the turnout has always been profoundly classist, marred by suspicions of their own leadership. (The leaders) promised they would take Miraflores and never followed through. The base has not changed substantially in 18 years: They never achieved real popular support. How can people identify with an elite pedigree like that of Maria Corina Machado, or the bourgeoisie represented by Leopoldo Lopez?

3. International support: The affront happened at a bad time, with the presidential elections in the United States. US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon arrived Monday in Caracas to publicly announce the importance of talks. The opposition counted on the unconditional support of the Secretary General of the Organization of American States, and the Argentina/Brasil/Paraguay alliance. It did not add up to much. The declarations from Russia and, in particular, the intervention of the Vatican to facilitate talks, stripped (regional support) of its power and caused an implosion within the ranks of the right wing.

4. Big business: The main weapon in the economic attack, (big business) did not take to the front lines in the first battle. The Federation of Chambers and the Association of Commerce and Production, leaders in the 2002 coup, did not show up for the strike planned for Friday October 28. They left the decision up to each business, a tepid approach for a plan with these characteristics.

That was all they had to overthrow Chavismo. They did not have the people on their side, the neighborhoods, the peasant farmers, the workers, a force capable of turning a city upside down with their sheer numbers. Neither did they have the Armed Forces, which continued displaying rifts: The Defense Minister read an official statement declaring loyalty to Maduro and adherence to constitutional order. Governments are not overthrown in Venezuela without the support of the popular masses and the army. Complicating this situation are the divisions within the right wing expressed by the absence of some parties during the talks. (Divisions that are also) visible at each protest with squabbles over who is going to take the microphone and on social media where harsh words are exchanged. It seems that the conditions have not materialized for those looking for a coup. Did they not consider the correlation of forces?

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Chavismo, on the other hand, has been facing the issues with internal debates. It could not have happened any other way for a heterogenous movement of the masses that is facing a fourth generation war with their historic leader absent. This year was the most difficult because of the scarcity of goods in the first semester, the capacity to take basic necessities from the poorest people. Because the rich — who decry hunger at protests — have hardly been touched by the crisis. The lion’s share of the weight has fallen squarely on the workers, the social base of Chavismo. For a revolutionary process, this is a big problem.

But this escapade of insurrection did not come during the peak of the economic storm. It came after certain economic equilibrium had been reached, the result of an agreement with the business sector that put reasonably priced products on the shelves. It was a deal criticized by many, but it has superficially calmed the anxiety caused by scarcity. Did the conditions exist for a different solution at the time? They were negotiating against the ropes, with low oil prices, and with tension in their ranks: The class struggle showed itself within Chavismo. Some officials had interests in this kind of a resolution.

It is also true that these economic agreements — on top of declarations by union leaders to take over factories that were not operating — could have been part of the reason many of the businesses did not take part in the so-called coup d’etat.

Not everything was an internal debate for Chavismo this year. They developed popular action plans to deal with the situation. Without them, the relief that started to become apparent toward the end of July would not have happened. Amongst the most important plans was the development of the Local Committees on Stock and Production — organizational facilities to take on problem of scarcity of goods — that were added to the framework of 1,600 communities around the country. While certain parts of the leadership looked to build bridges with the enemy, others pointed to the historical plan for resolution laid out by Hugo Chavez: Put the people in charge of constructing the project, which has direct and participatory democracy built into it as a primordial condition, to resist situations like the current one.

And amongst so many internal challenges, the opposition’s attack generated what was expected: a unified Chavismo. They all got together: the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, the main populist movements like the Bolivar and Zamora Revolutionary Current, the armed forces, the critics — expect for a few who switched sides —, the intellectuals. The leaders called for permanent action — ten mobilizations in eight days in the main cities — and the epic narrative again took front and center on the political stage. In Venezuela, it was again clear that they are not defending a government, but a historical project called the Bolivarian revolution. And for the opposition, refined people educated in universities with their North American longings, it has always represented an aberration. They could never understand how, over these four years, thousands and thousands have never backed down from so many attacks and continued to take the streets time and time again. Maybe it is simple: It is a class issue. Muddy like all processes, but clear in the end. Since last Sunday there are more and more Chavez t-shirts in the streets.

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What is about to come

Tuesday evening: Televisions, computers with their social media, and radios come on and the declarations come rolling in. The opposition announces that it will postpone the National Assembly session to start the illegal political trial and that it will suspend Thursday’s march on the Miraflores presidential palace. They abandon the plan. They cannot do it. They do not have enough. The open negotiations stopped Thursday’s conflict, which was approaching like a storm with air sucked out of it. They have dissidents in the ranks. Leopoldo Lopez’s Voluntad Popular party is opposed to the decision. The opposition is coming undone from the inside out.

It is a victory for Chavism, which wanted these talks. They avoided a civil confrontation that the opposition tried to instigate time and time again. The water level is dropping. It is difficult to know what agreement they made so this truce would obligate the confrontation to return to the confines of constitutional order. We know of five opposition political prisoners who were released on Monday night — jailed for carrying assault rifles, for example. It does not seem like sufficient motive to defuse the plan. Or is it that they stretched too far and could not do what they wanted to do? Now they will have to respond to a social base feels let down again, that is already accusing them online of betrayal, that still wants confrontation, wants the presidential palace, wants revenge. They will have to go back to their golf courses, their trips to Miami, their cars with tinted windows, their fear of others, their hatred toward everyone who looks chavista, everyone who is poor, the majority of the country.

It looks like the year will come to an end without the worst of political situations. The coup was real. It is the truth that we were planning a massive defense of Miraflores. Now the economic attack is emerging again: In these days of ducking jabs and left hooks, the attacks on currency have returned, and the parallel dollar has gone from 1,000 Bolivars to 1,400.
This means prices will rise again, because this change is used for speculation. More than anything the economy functions as a tentacle of a political objective. It does not respond to laws or academic theories. There is a war, although everyone denies it. The attack is over. Another one begins.

As far as the debate on Venezuela democracy is concerned, we can add two elements. The first is that there have been 19 elections in 18 years. What other country can display these kinds of figures? The second is that there will be primary elections in February, regional elections at the end of the first semester, mayoral elections at the end of the year, and presidential elections in 2018. There will be chances to exercise the right to vote three times in two years. If the majority wants to remove Chavismo from power, they will do it.
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No one can claim victory before the results are in. These days Chavismo has shown that it has not lost popular support, that it has recovered its narrative, its conscience as a party, and it has stood up without divisions. It is a mass movement founded in deepest core of the country, that knows how to resist because it has been doing it for centuries. Problems ahead? Thousands of them. External and internal. They can overcome them. It is a people that still dances. The right wing, they will never understand.

Marco Teruggi Translated from Spanish by Brian Hagenbuch for International Boulevard.