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Venezuela No Time for Colonels

5 minute read
Bruce W. Nelan

In the darkness just before midnight, columns of tanks and troop carriers rumbled into the streets of four Venezuelan cities last week, intent on overthrowing the civilian government. Paratroops and armored units in Caracas, the capital, converged on a nearby air base, the Miraflores presidential palace and La Casona, the official residence of President Carlos Andres Perez.

But the target of the coup had already left his house and slipped through a secret tunnel into the white, hilltop Miraflores palace in the center of the city. Miraflores offered him no security, however, for tanks lined the surrounding streets and the rebels opened fire with mortars and machine guns. Perez and an aide dashed back through the tunnel and drove to a private television station, where the President made several tapes denouncing the rebellion. As they were being broadcast to the nation, he telephoned his Defense Minister. “No negotiations,” he ordered. “Give them lead.”

Perez was able to return to his office a few hours later. Most of the armed forces had remained loyal, and air force F-16 jets strafed rebel positions, blocking their movements and disrupting their communications. The coup leader, Lieut. Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias, 37, dressed in combat gear and a red paratrooper’s beret, turned himself in 12 hours after the shooting began, but warned that the military might find “another occasion.” More than 1,200 rebel soldiers surrendered, including 136 officers. Officials said as many as 7,000 of the 73,000 troops in the armed forces may have taken part in the uprising, in which 80 soldiers and civilians died.

Coups fail more often than they succeed, and this one barely got rolling before it was halted. It was organized by a tightly knit group of middle-level officers — lieutenant colonels, majors and captains — and it gained no significant support from the generals or civilian power brokers. The big surprise was that it took place in Venezuela, where multiparty democracy has been the rule for more than 30 years. The last serious coup attempt was in 1962, and most observers thought the country had overcome the old habit of military intervention.

President Perez thought so himself. “There will not be a coup here,” he said when rumors of rebellion swirled last December. “It is an offense to Venezuelan society to mention such a thing.” But danger warnings had been increasingly visible since Perez introduced an austerity program two years ago to bring the overheated economy under control.

Living standards have been steadily declining since the oil-rich days of the 1970s, when government largesse fueled a decade-long boom. By February 1989, protests against reduced subsidies and higher prices had turned into rioting and looting that left 300 dead. Discontent has simmered ever since, with occasional regional strikes and violent student demonstrations.

The oil-based economy took a leap forward during the gulf war, which boosted GNP 9.2% last year, the highest growth rate in Latin America. But the gap & between rich and poor only widened: there is little trickle-down to the nearly 40% of the population living below the poverty line. The pinch is hurting the armed forces as well. Though they asked Congress in December for $216 million in health and housing benefits over the next four years, along with a 50% pay raise, the legislature has not responded.

The plotters apparently believed that popular discontent was sufficient to swing the citizenry to their side. Over the years, the officers had made little secret of their intentions or their motives, though no one paid much attention. Calling themselves the Bolivarian Military Movement, they pledged allegiance to the country’s liberator, Simon Bolivar, and accused the government of being a corrupt “oligarchy” out of touch with the people.

For the coup makers, the shock was that their move generated so little support. The military high command stood with the government; and the Venezuelan people showed that despite their unhappiness with the economy, they were not ready to give up on democracy. Still, some Venezuelans were concerned that the people did not turn out to demonstrate their support for the government or at least their rejection of military coups. In a straw poll taken after the coup, the opposition paper El Nacional found that most citizens rejected the idea of a dictatorship — but thought the country’s democratic system has lost some of its fundamental values. “What worries me most,” says former President Rafael Caldera, who is now a Senator, “is that I don’t find the same fervor for the defense of democratic institutions among the people.”

Those who know Perez well say he will continue with his austerity program to show he is not intimidated. He might encourage Congress to raise army pay, but to counter fears that the coup attempt left him entirely too beholden to loyalist officers, he will not concede the military a role in politics. If the threat of a coup has ended, Perez’s real test will probably come in next year’s presidential elections. After showing their passive commitment to democracy, Venezuelans will be entitled to register their active discontent with their government at the ballot box.

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