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imperialism & war

venezuala: marta harnecker

in conversation with judy rebick
Last April, a failed military coup took place in Venezuela. The news coverage was confusing. First there was a coup, and, then, Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chávez, was back in power. To find out what really happened rabble's publisher, Judy Rebick, interviewed Chilean writer Marta Harnecker in Montreal at the end of August. Harnecker had just returned from interviewing Chavez for a book.

Judy Rebick: Why did you go to Venezuela?

Harnecker: I wanted to do an interview with Hugo Chávez to speak to the doubts the left has about him. I interviewed him for fifteen hours, the longest interview he has given since 1997, before he was elected president.

Rebick: So what happened during the coup, according to Chávez?

Harnecker: It is important to understand that this coup was overturned by a popular uprising. First we need a little context. The traditional rightwing parties had been marginalized in the political process during Chávez's presidency. So the interests of these parties were represented directly by big business, and it was the interests of these corporations that were represented by the generals who lead the coup.

Also, it's important to understand that there is a popular army in Venezuela. You can go from being a peasant to being a general. This is not the case in many other Latin American countries. Chávez himself rose from a poor background. Of course, unlike Chávez, a great number of generals who come poor backgrounds get co-opted by the ruling class.

Although the grassroots of the army and the junior officers are Chávez supporters, many generals are against him. When the leaders of the coup went to the U.S. to discuss the situation and told the U.S. government that they wanted Chávez out, they were very well received. This encouraged them. We could see from the U.S. reaction after the coup that they supported it.

Chávez had a plan in place in case of a coup, which they were expecting. The problem was that the plan involved one of the generals who Chávez mistakenly thought was loyal. So when Chávez decided to activate the plan, he couldn't. The original plan was to defend the Miraflores Palace [the government] against attack. If they couldn't defend it, Chávez and his government would move to a region where they had the support of the troops. The generals knew of these plans so they cut off all communication — no radio, no television, no telephone, no cellular.

One interesting story is that the couriers who ride motorcycles got organized after the coup to run messages between the palace and the poor neighbourhoods. They became quite politicized and are still active. If they hear a rumour that the right is mobilizing, they organize en masse on their bikes and loudly ride to the palace. They are a fearsome sight.

Anyway, the generals threatened Chávez that if he refused to resign there would be a lot of bloodshed. Chávez is very sensitive about loss of life.

Rebick: But what we were told in our media was that troops loyal to Chávez were shooting people.

Harnecker: That is not true. The Mayor of the Metropolitana, the area around the Palace, is against Chávez. This mayor controls the police in that area so when the right organized a demonstration against Chávez, these police were protecting the demonstrators. Chávez forces were protecting the Palace and these anti-Chávez police attacked people that were surrounding the Palace to protect it. Some of them reacted and shot back. There were also snipers, which you may have heard about. Chávez says these snipers were infiltrators and were shooting rightwing demonstrators to turn the people against Chávez.

The courts have now investigated all this and found that most of the bullets came from the anti-Chávez forces.

Rebick: So did Chávez resign or not?

Harnecker: Well, the generals told Chávez to resign or there would be a civil war. Chávez discussed this with his staff and decided to resign with the idea of returning to power as soon as possible. However, he would only resign under certain conditions: that he be able to communicate with the people and protect the life of all people, and that he and his staff be able to go wherever they chose.

At first the generals accepted his conditions, so he told his minister of defense, General Ricón, that he could announce his resignation. Ricón appeared on TV saying that Chávez had resigned. However, the generals changed their minds and did not accept the conditions so Chávez did not resign, but all the media reported that he had.

It was a terrible moment for the people. There was a climate of depression. It was a terrible night. Chávez himself was sent to prison. He told me he was not killed because some of the soldiers in the prisons he was taken to protected him.

Rebick: So how did the people know he had not resigned?

Harnecker: During his imprisonment, army lawyers came to see him to make sure he was being treated fairly. When he was answering the questions he explained that he had not resigned. This was in the report handed over to the Chief Justice. During a TV interview, the Chief Justice revealed that Chávez had not resigned after all. This was one day after the coup.

As soon as people heard this, they poured out of the barrios [slums]. More than 100,000 people marched from the poor neighbourhoods over to the military barracks to call on the soldiers to join them. The poor people and the soldiers, more than 200,000 strong, marched to the Miraflores Palace demanding Chávez return to the government. Not a shot was fired. Finally, Chávez forces inside the army recovered some strategic areas and began to control the situation. They sent a helicopter to get Chávez and bring him back to the Palace and the coup was over.

Rebick: This seems a little too simple. Why didn't the right fight back against the demonstrators?

Harnecker: Because the army was then with Chávez, the generals that participated in the coup were isolated, and a clear majority of the people were chavistes. Also the opposition began to split when they saw what Pedro Carmona, the self-proclaimed new president, was proposing to do. In fact, the right was and is divided. The opposition is now divided into three groups: the fascists who want a new coup d'etat; the conservatives who want to remove Chávez by constitutional measures without bloodshed; and people who were in the opposition but have now decided that Chávez is better than his opponents.

Rebick: So were the leaders of the coup prosecuted?

Harnecker: No. Chávez told me that when he was in prison, he thought only about how to re-unify the country. For the generals to be judged, the High Court has to agree to allow it according to the constitution. The High Court is anti-Chávez and didn't allow the generals to be prosecuted. The court said that there was no coup d'etat and that the military only acted because there was a vacuum of power. So those involved in the coup are still in the army, but they have no responsibility.

But the parliament denounced this attitude of the High Court internationally and are discussing what happened with the people of Venezuela. They conducted a public inquiry into the events and all the generals have had to testify and explain themselves.

The people and some of the army are more radical and want the generals prosecuted no matter what the constitution says. But Chávez understands the balance of forces and says they can't have a civil war or the United States would step in. Everybody must know that Chávez is the only one that can avoid a civil war.

The situation is still precarious. Both Chávez and the people are prepared this time for another coup. Most important is that it was the people who returned Chávez to power, so they feel very strong and powerful. The people feel like they are actors in the political situation and as you know this is a very revolutionary situation.

Rebick: So what is happening now?

Harnecker: Chávez is telling the people to organize in every way possible — Bolivarian circles, co-ops, women's groups, popular radio, etc. The generals returned to the army, but everyone knows who was involved. Chávez is organizing a referendum to reform the constitution so that they can prosecute the generals and appoint new judges.

Rebick: And what is the right doing now?

Harnecker: The most important of the opposition generals realize they can't go for another coup d'etat, so they are trying to use the Tribunals [courts], who are against Chávez. They are accusing Chávez of being responsible for instability in the country. They are accusing Chávez of giving oil at a discounted rate to Cuba without parliamentary permission.

Chávez is trying to persuade the U.S. not to intervene against him. He says, "With me, in power the oil supply to the U.S. is assured. If you support efforts to push me out of power there will be a civil war and oil will be interrupted."

Rebick: One of the most interesting things about Chávez is that he is trying to implement participatory democracy. Did you discuss this with him?

Harnecker: Chávez says that representative democracy is a system that does not permit the people to make decisions. This liberal democracy, he says, permits corruption. He wants to build a participatory democracy. In my opinion the new constitution is the most advanced in the world in integrating participatory democracy into government. He has been influenced by the participatory budget in Porte Allegre [Brazil] and other experiments like that.

Rebick: And what about the doubts of the left?

Harnecker: The left didn't see Chávez's election as a revolutionary process. People were suspect of him because he was involved in an earlier coup and has lots of military in his government. Chávez explained to me that when he came to power by election in 1998, the opposition controlled parliament. He needed efficient cadres in many places as a counter force and the military were more efficient as cadres and ministers than any civilians he could find.

Rebick: And do you think Chávez is a revolutionary?

Harnecker: Yes I do. He told me is neither a Marxist nor an anti-Marxist; neither a Communist nor an anti-Communist. "I am a Bolivarian," he explained. Bolivar wanted to create a regional force in Latin America to deal with the United States. Chávez wants to create a new ideology specific to Latin America and its reality. He thinks Marxism is too European. For example, he says, a working class, as Marx described it, does not exist in Venezuela.

I asked him if capitalism could be humanized. He answered that capitalism is inherently exploitative and cannot be humanized. But he recognizes that they are in a capitalist regime. Chávez wants a revolution, but he realizes that to achieve that he needs a different relationship of forces. He wants to build that new relationship of forces in alliance with others in the third world. With such a strong alliance in the future, he believes it will be possible to negotiate with the United States.

Chávez told me: "Our process is a transition from a neo-liberal model to a humanist, self-government — a more democratic model that would resolve the basic needs of the people."

Marta Harnecker is the director of MEPLA (Memoria Popular Latinoamericana). She is Chilean but currently lives in Cuba. Judy Rebick is the publisher of www.rabble.ca where this piece first appeared.