The Coup in Caracas
How I reported on days of anarchy in Venezuela as a foreign correspondent.
Wednesday, April 10, 2002
The general, the breast of his uniform jacket striped with ribbons and medals, stood ramrod stiff on the TV screen as he declared he was withdrawing his allegiance to the commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan Armed Forces, President Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías.
A chill pattered down my spine. I dashed to my laptop and punched out a quick email to the foreign editor at the Miami Herald. Given the growing political instability in Venezuela, including a recent string of high ranking military officers denouncing the controversial leftist president, the long-rumored coup d’état against Chávez had to be under way.
Based in Caracas, I was a freelance foreign correspondent, reporting from around Latin America for Time, Business Week, The New York Times, Financial Times, Houston Chronicle and many other media outlets.
Venezuela was a sleepy country when I arrived in 1995, ruled by a doddering octogenarian president, Rafael Caldera. Then Chávez exploded onto the national scene. As an Army lieutenant colonel, he’d led a failed coup attempt in 1992 and had been imprisoned for treason. After Caldera pardoned him, Chávez had spent several years crisscrossing the country, spreading his message of social justice for the 58 percent of the population that was poor in one of the world’s biggest oil-producing nations.
Elected by a landslide, Chávez took over as president in 1996 and embarked on a radical project to stamp out corruption and transform the country into a workers’ paradise. Venezuelans either adored him or despised him. The poor masses saw him as a savior, while the middle class and the elite, who held the reins to the country’s money and power, viewed him as a threat to their privileged lives.
While talk of a coup had been circulating for months, with business leaders even holding a press conference to declare their plan for a transition government, Chávez had pooh-poohed the prospect of it actually happening. “Who plans a coup drop by drop?” he said.
But the opposition had grown increasingly emboldened.
Whenever Chávez appeared on television to give a speech, often interrupting the primetime telenovelas that Venezuelans were addicted to, people would lean out of their windows and balconies in the tall apartment buildings in east Caracas, the city’s affluent side, and bang pots and pans. It was called a cacerolazo, a form of popular protest.
As the clanging cacophony bounced off the concrete, I would hang out of my window and watch, fascinated and moved by this show of profound political discontent.
The day before the general’s televised defection, the opposition had called a general strike to protest Chávez’s firing two days earlier of top executives at the state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., known as PDVSA. Business owners, who were largely against Chávez, refused to open their stores, offices, schools and factories. Oil workers slowed down oil production, the nation’s lifeblood. Their aim was to paralyze and destabilize the country to the point where the masses, unable to withstand the loss of their paychecks, turned against Chávez, forcing him to resign. It had worked before in 1958, forcing dictator Gen. Marcos Pérez Jiménez to step down and flee the country.
I made sure to stock up on food and water at my local supermarket, Excelsior Gama in Los Palos Grandes, before the strike. No one knew how long it would last. It would depend on how much of a loss business owners could stomach before reopening.
On the first day of the strike, I walked the streets to get a feel for how it was going.
The normally clogged artery of Avenida Francisco de Miranda was deserted. The bustling commercial district of Chacao was sleepier than a Sunday. Bakeries, usually chockfull of people getting their morning negritos or marrones (espresso coffee without or with milk) and cachitos (croissants), were shuttered with their iron grilles padlocked to the ground. A TV helicopter showed a growing number of tankers like dots in the sea off the coast, unable to load their cargoes of oil as refinery and dock workers honored the strike.
But in the city’s center and west side, a Chávez stronghold of blue-collar neighborhoods and slums, it was much like a normal day. Street vendors hawked their ware and buses roared along the streets, snorting great plumes of black exhaust and riders hanging out the doors.
The opposition declared the strike a success and ordered it to continue. Riding the crest of swelling anti-Chávez sentiment, the opposition scheduled a massive protest march through Caracas that Thursday, the third day of the strike, and the day after the general announced denounced his defection.
That bright, sunny morning of April 11, hundreds of thousands of people turned out to march against Chávez, forming a human river stretching at least a mile. It was an incredible sight of popular dissent. Again I felt moved by the show of solidarity in dissent, of people fighting for their country. I went to the march to report on it and walked with it for a while.
In true fun-loving Venezuelan style, it was a protest-cum-party. The air was full of jubilation, a celebration of unity in opposition to Chávez with everyone decked out in red, yellow and blue, the colors of the flag. After I’d gathered enough quotes, I went home to file my story for the Miami Herald and followed the march on TV.
A couple hours later, the marchers reached the presidential palace, and snipers fired shots into the crowd and people dropped to the ground. I watched in amazement as pandemonium broke out. Protesters ran for cover. Then Chávez supporters, who were stationed on an overpass above the march, started firing on the crowd, thinking that the demonstrators were attacking them.
I was transfixed to the disaster unfolding on live TV.
I tore myself away to hurriedly file an update to my earlier story. National Guard troops arrived on scene, clashing with the protesters and clouds of tear gas soon enveloped the street. The TV screen suddenly split — one half showed Chávez, who was giving one of his longwinded speeches about a totally unrelated subject, while the other showed the chaos right outside the wall of Miraflores, the presidential palace. The contrast effectively created the picture of an oblivious, out-of-touch president.
Several hours later, after Chávez had finally been informed what was going on and called for calm, the fighting tapered off as dusk fell. Nineteen people were dead and hundreds injured. Then small tanks rumbled out of an Army base just south of Caracas and surrounded the palace.
TV cameras showed a cohort of generals entering, and then the nation waited to see what was going to happen. I planted myself in front of the TV and dozed on and off, waiting for developments as the night wore on.
About two a.m., a general loyal to Chávez announced that the president had resigned and a civilian-military junta was taking over the government.
There wasn’t much to do at that hour, so I got a few hours sleep then in the early morning I ventured out onto the street. It was surreally still. The collective shock over the previous day’s tragic events hung palpably in the air, like an eerie, ghostly pall.
As the nation awoke, we became aware of several key facts via TV: Chávez had been arrested. No one knew where he was or even if he was still alive. Borders were sealed. Airports closed. A very ugly side of human nature reared up as anarchy too over in the absence of rule of law. Lynch mobs formed and hauled members of the Chávez government out of their homes. Stores were looted. Cars were set on fire. Streets were blocked with piles of tires set ablaze by hooligans wearing T-shirts over their heads to disguise their identities.
My phone was ringing nonstop from media wanting on the ground reporting so I had to get out on the volatile streets. I found an enraged mob surrounding the Cuban Embassy. Chávez opponents hated Chávez’s affinity for Castro and all things Cuban. People were climbing trees to get over the embassy’s high wall and removing manhole covers in the sidewalk to cut off electricity and water to the building. They wanted to force out the Cuban diplomats but their ultimate goal was unclear — to arrest them, beat them? It was simply vengeance of the winners.
Political events were moving with stunning fluidity. A civilian government was set up, comprising largely wealthy business leaders, and a new president, Pedro Carmona, the head of the business federation, swore himself in. Carmona’s first act was to dissolve congress and the Supreme Court. We now had, in effect, a dictatorship, and I had another front-page story to write. That night I stayed up late writing stories and filing updates. I finally fell asleep on the couch in front of the TV.
The next day, Sunday, however, the tide turned. Chávez supporters stormed the streets, demanding to see his resignation letter. The new government, recognized by the United States, had to admit it didn’t exist. The head of Congress noted that without that letter, the opposition had simply staged a coup and called for constitutional order to be followed: if the president was absent, the vice president was legally bound to take over the presidency. In the absence of the vice president, the head of Congress was next in line as president. Other Latin American nations backed that stance.
Chávez supporters retook control of the government-owned TV station and urged more people to flood the streets demanding to know where Chávez was. By the end of that day, as domestic and international opposition to the illegal power grab, the new government had crumbled and the de facto president Carmona had escaped to Colombia. The vice president came out of hiding and was sworn in as president.
Thanks to some loyalist troops, Chávez was discovered being held prisoner on a small island off the coast. By the wee hours of the Sunday morning, Chávez returned by helicopter to the presidential palace where thousands of his supporters had gathered.
He emerged victorious onto a balcony to resounding cheers.
I was drained. It had been five days of functioning on sheer adrenalin, filing updates upon updates to keep up with events. I had slept just a few hours every night. I lost a couple pounds because I simply hadn’t had time to eat.
Things calmed down over the next few weeks as order was restored then the truth of the overthrow attempt filters out. A group of hardline right-wing military officers placed snipers on the rooftops to massacre the anti-Chávez marchers.
They knew that the president would be blamed for the deaths and that would push the military high command, sensitive to any allegation of human rights violations, to force Chávez out. It was pursuit of power at its most cold-blooded.
Today, as we confront the global scourge of COVID-19, the events in Venezuela serve as a powerful reminder of what can happen in a society that becomes deeply divided by political ideology, where blame is sought over unity, and where sacrificing lives takes precedence over preserving lives. It is a reminder that governments must serve all people.