After the Counter-Coup

The past four days' coup and counter-coup in Venezuela leave Hugo Chavez in power, but the country on the brink of civil war. The chasm between Venezuela's poor masses and its oligarchs -- in particular, the rich, the generals and the oil companies -- is not going away any time soon.

That said, once again the version of events being fed the American public is suspiciously at odds with what the rest of the world knows. On the one hand, you have, even in the brief hours when Hugo Chavez was held prisoner in a basement and businessman Pedro Carmona assumed the presidency and suspended constitutional government, several Latin American countries -- led by Mexico and Argentina -- saying that they would not recognize the new, illegitimate Venezuelan government.

And then you had the White House, smugly asserting that Mr. Chavez had what was coming to him after the heinous crime of firing on unarmed demonstrators, and welcoming Venezuela's "return to democracy."

While Chavez had proven himself no friend of the multi-party state, to call a military coup against a fairly elected president and the dissolution of a constitution a "return to democracy" is more than a bit Orwellian. And if firing on an unarmed crowd is grounds for overthrowing a government, how do we explain U.S. support of Israel, which of late has been firing into Palestinian crowds more or less hourly?

But beyond that, things were not as they seemed in Caracas. To be sure, in the original anti-Chavez rally on Thursday, Chavez supporters were firing guns; but an eyewitness account by Gregory Wilpert, posted on ZNet, claims that there were three parties doing the shooting: Chavez supporters, the city police, and snipers on nearby rooftops who belonged to an extreme right group called Bandera Roja (Red Flag). Wilpert writes that the fatal shots came from the snipers, and that most of the dead on Thursday were actually Chavez supporters.

That would suggest the whole incident was staged to justify a coup. That's impossible, at this point, to verify. But regardless, it was pretty obvious that this was no spontaneous coup by Venezuelan military that just up and decided a president who fired on a crowd was unacceptable. For months, Chavez had been earning the increasing enmity of the oligarchs who have traditionally ruled Venezuela -- and their patrons in Washington.

Among Chavez' worst "sins" of late were instituting land reform and messing with the management of Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA. He had already pissed off Washington not just by his cozying up to various people on the U.S. shit list (Castro, Qaddafi, Saddam, Colombia's FARC rebels), or by opposing free trade, but by managing to get all of OPEC to agree to uniform pricing for the first time in years, and then getting almost all of OPEC's members (save dependable U.S. ally Saudi Arabia) to hold to it. In the words of Sunday's UK Independent, "Rather than a spontaneous popular uprising to get rid of a despot, this was a carefully orchestrated effort, co-ordinating military dissidents with oil strikers and the leading business and labour organisations." And while the plotters may or may not have had help from the United States, they certainly knew Washington would not frown on any effort to depose the "problematic" Chavez.

Chavez, for the time being, is still in power. He has the opportunity to embrace either a free, democratic political system, or to plunge Venezuela into a populist authoritarian regime with every bit as much capacity for atrocities as the oligarchs have. Whatever happens, the significance of the crowds that refused to accept a business-backed military coup cannot be overstated.

What was potentially in store for Venezuela was the sort of U.S.-backed terror that plagued the continent through the Cold War; huge crowds of people would have none of it. They also explicitly rejected imperialism in its 21st Century guise, a form that exercises control as often through corporations as through generals, by returning to power a man who is (outside of the isolated Castro) the hemisphere's fiercest critic of FTAA and neoliberal trade policies.

In the last two years, there have now been three enormous popular uprisings with the IMF, World Bank, privatization, and "free trade" very much on their minds: the restoration of Chavez in Venezuela, the toppling of two successive governments last December in Argentina, and the water wars that drove Bechtel out of Bolivia in 2000. It is these crowds, and their brethren in Africa and Asia -- not the privileged protesters in Seattle or Quebec or Genoa -- who are leading the global charge against corporate globalization, and who are explicitly linking their issues to democracy and self-determination. As goes Venezuela, so goes much of the world.

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