Who Loves Ya, Hugo?
President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Otto Reich, Ari Fleischer, and
the editors of The New York Times soiled themselves thoroughly and
publicly over the recent Venezuelan putsch. Thus we are unlikely to hear any
more from them about the coup that wasnt.
Too bad, because an intriguing question has been left hanging: What sent the
Venezuelan people out into the streets to undo the coup that toppled
their unpopular president?
Every story agreed that President Hugo Chavezs eighty percent electoral
majority in 1998 had dwindled to an approval rating of about thirty-five
percent by the time the oil-and-army crowd made its hapless move on him.
And yet that small minority of supporters was somehow able to sweep him back
into power. What was the other sixty-five percent doing?
After all, they formed a two-to-one majority that included the generals, the
mayor of Caracas, the professional and business classes, the
countrys largest labor union, the managers of the national oil company,
the editors of the newspapers, and the owners of the television stations.
And George W. Bush sat right behind them, thumping his tail on
the floor and panting with ecstasy.
So why couldnt the Venezuelan establishment keep its handpicked
president, oilman Pedro Carmona Estranga, in office for more than two days?
Part of it was the astonishing stupidity of Mr. Bushs newest ally, a
freedom-lover who in just 48 hours dissolved the National Assembly, fired the
Supreme Court, and then went on to alienate both the army and the countrys
largest labor unions.
But Mr. Carmona still might have survived, if the people of Venezuela
hadnt taken to the streets all over the country to demand the return of
And yet according to those polls, remember, two out of three Venezuelans were
fed up with Chavez. What were those huge crowds so angry about, then, and
where did they come from?
A few clues appeared in the Times and elsewhere during the media
coverage of the coup and the counter-coup. But these hints tended to be
buried in plain sight, a few words tucked away here and there in gray columns
The capacity of Venezuelas oil fields to produce more fell during
the Chavez years, when the government took a greater share of the profits
to finance social programs. . . reported the Times on April
And, the same day: The interim government repealed 49 economic laws
passed by the Chavez-controlled National Assembly last year, legislation
that business leaders feared would damage the economy.
From the Times of the following day: Mr. Chavez won office
promising to overturn the old social order. People loved it. He held
referendums to win backing for what he has called a peaceful revolution,
redrafted the constitution and embarked on a series of social programs
that he pledged would ease life for Venezuelans who live below the
What were these unspecified laws and programs? The Times didnt go
into this except for passing on a few details from a pro-Chavez demonstrator:
Ms. Avila cited new programs to combat malnutrition and illiteracy in
Catia. She said that she was able to start her small business -- selling
womens underwear -- because of a micro-loan program that had been started
under Mr. Chavezs presidency.
No doubt there was more to it -- certainly those huge crowds in the street
werent all lingerie merchants -- but you couldnt tell by the news
coverage that followed the coup.
The best I was able to come up with was a December 28, 2001, column in the
San Francisco Examiner by Conn Hallinan. Its headline, some four
months before the event, was U.S. Cooking up a Coup in Venezuela.
The columnist wrote, The staggering gap between a tiny slice of
haves and the sea of have-nots is little talked about in
the American media, which tend to focus on President Chavezs long-winded
speeches and unrest among the urban wealthy and middle class.
U.S. newspapers covered the December 10 strike by business
leaders and a section of the union movement protesting a series of economic
laws and land reform proposals, but not the fact that the Chavez government has
reduced inflation from 40 per cent to 12 per cent, generated economic growth
of four per cent, and increased primary school enrollment by one million
Rumblings from Washington, strikes by business leaders, and pot-banging
demonstrations by middle-class housewives are the fare most Americans get
about Venezuela these days.
For any balance, one has to go to local journalists John Marshall and
Christian Parenti. In a December 10 article in the Chicago bi-weekly In
These Times, the two reporters give the other side that the
U.S. media always go on about but never present:
The attempts by the Venezuelan government to diversify its economy, turn
over idle land to landless peasants, encourage the growth of co-ops based on
the highly successful Hungarian model, increase health spending fourfold, and
provide drugs for 30 to 40 per cent below cost.
Still, none of this explains how a president with such dismal poll numbers
could be reinstated by popular demand. For that we are left to speculate.
Who paid for those polls? Mrs. Avila from the proceeds of her underwear business?
Or someone like Venezuelan TV mogul Gustavo Cisneros, a fishing buddy of
George W. Bushs who recently moved his headquarters from Caracas to
Coral Gables, Florida?
Mr. Cisneros doesnt pay much attention to the little people like Mrs.
Avila. While they were making all that ungodly racket in the streets, his
station was running Hollywood films non-stop. Among them were Nell, Pretty
Woman and Lorenzos Oil.
Addressing himself to his opponents after the counter-coup, President Chavez
said, Once again, sadly, you have demonstrated that there are two
countries -- one that is virtual, one that is real.