In a time when foreign leaders viewed as anti-us are being dragged out of holes or forced to kowtow to international pressure, one target of us-led “regime change” is standing firm and has, so far, overcome all attempts to oust him.
He is not a despotic tyrant. He isn’t even a dictator. But he is on the Bush administration’s hit list. He is Hugo Chavez, the twice-elected president of Venezuela and, for the last five years, the eye of a political hurricane swirling over the economic future of Venezuela.
A founding member of opec and, as recently as the second quarter of 2002, the fourth largest exporter of oil in the world, Venezuela has oil at the heart of its economy. Sales of oil account for one third of the country’s gdp, one half of government revenues, and 80 percent of exports. Venezuela is an immensely important trading partner of the United States. In 2001, the last full year before a crippling strike dealt a blow to the Venezuelan oil industry from which, even now, it is struggling to recover, Venezuela was the third-largest exporter of oil to the us, accounting for almost 1.6 million barrels per day.
Normally, Washington would not openly remove anyone at the helm of a country with as much as 200 billion barrels of recoverable heavy crude oil, but Venezuela sticks out because of who Chavez is rather than what power he holds. Born in 1958, Chavez graduated from the military academy in 1975. One year later his battalion was sent to crush a guerrilla outbreak of ultra-leftists. This experience, according to accounts by Chavez himself, left him sympathetic to the guerrilla movement. At the same time, he became acutely aware of the infiltration of political corruption into the military.
Dreaming of revolution, Chavez aspired to create a movement within the army, and by 1982 he had organized the clandestine Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement with fellow officers. Uttering the same words of revered Venezuelan revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar, when he vowed to break the chains of Spanish control, the group swore, “I will not allow my arm to relax, nor my soul to rest, until I have broken the chains that oppress us.” They planned to one day revolt against what they saw as an oppressive and corrupt government.
In 1989, President Carlos Andrés Pérez was re-elected. Pérez had been president from 1974 to 1979, during which time he appealed to left-wing nationalists by nationalizing the foreign oil companies and developing industry. He was brought back to power to revive these good old days of state control. No sooner was he in office than he changed direction and immediately began to restructure the economy along what Chavez refers to as “savage” neo-liberalism: a 10-point program advocated by Washington that included reductions in spending for military and public administration, deregulation of the economy, promotion of foreign direct investment, privatization of state business, trade liberalization, and the abolition of import licensing and reduction in tariffs. In return, Pérez secured a loan from the imf for $4.5 billion.
Shortly after his election, Pérez announced a 100 percent increase in oil prices. Ten days later, people traveling to work found that bus fares had doubled. With the country already straining under severe economic pressures, this seemingly minor event sent the population over the edge. An unpremeditated rebellion—the Caracazo, as it became known—erupted in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas. Televised reports of angry commuters overturning buses and setting them on fire spread fierce rebellion across the country. It was met by a savage military response that saw hundreds of bodies buried in unmarked graves. Chavez was sick in bed when the revolt broke out and he and his fellow conspirators were caught totally unprepared. By the end of the year, many of them were questioned and accused of plotting to assassinate the president and senior officers. Despite the fact that no proof of a conspiracy could be found, the officers were separated and reassigned to different posts around the country.
By February 1992, the 38-year-old Chavez found himself in a position to attempt to seize power. Promising to overthrow corrupt politicians, to improve the conditions of the poor, and to move the country onto a fresh course, Chavez lead a group of rebel Venezuelan Army lieutenant colonels in a coup. Although successful in other parts of the country, they were unable to seize the presidential palace in Caracas and the coup failed.
Chavez’s true coup came when he surrendered and asked to appear on tv to tell fellow rebels to put down their arms. “Comrades,” he is reported to have said in his one-minute appearance, “unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set out for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital…. You have performed well, but now is the time to rethink; new possibilities will arise again.” (Later, in November of 1992, a second military coup attempted by others also failed).