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The military coup, which the U.S. has already declared is not really a coup, had been looming for months. Related Gully Coverage

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Venezuelan military leaders announce the "resignation" of President Hugo Chavez at the army base of Fuerte Tiuna in Caracas, Venezuela, April 12, 2002. Fernando Llano

Venezuela's Coup

by Juan Pérez Cabral

APRIL 12, 2002. Venezuela's poor, a whooping 80 percent of a population of 23 million, this morning abandoned any lingering hopes that President Hugo Chávez might make good on his promise to lift them from their squalor.

The democratically-elected Chávez, who won by a landslide in 1998, and again in 2000, on a populist platform, is now detained at a Caracas army base, after the military ousted him. His term would have ended in 2006.

The military coup, which the U.S., pleased to see Chávez out of the picture, has already declared is not really a coup, had been looming for months. It was triggered by a violent anti-Chávez street protest in which 15 people were killed and more than a hundred hurt as they approached the presidential palace. Chávez supporters are being blamed for the deaths.

The generals have installed a self-proclaimed "transitional government" headed by Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecámaras, Venezuela's powerful business association. His main ally in the anti-Chávez movement, Carlos Ortega, the famously corrupt president of Venezuela's largest union, is expected to play a role in the transition. The Chávez administration had refused to certify Ortega's re-election at the head of the Venezuelan Workers Confederation on the grounds that the balloting had been rigged (most neutral observers agree that it was.)

The transitional government's head, Carmona, promises elections in one year. He has dissolved Congress, fired the Supreme Court judges, the Attorney General, the human rights omsbudsman, and the national electoral council.

Chávez was brought down, to a great extent, by himself — by his inability to deliver on his promises, his big-mouth, authoritarian style of governing, and his egregious lack of political skills.

He was unable to retain the allegiance of the small, but influential middle class or survive a ruthless oppositional campaign against him orchestrated by Venezuela's traditional business and labor bosses, and overtly or covertly supported by the Catholic Church. Other foes were a hostile media that is often little more than a mouthpiece for the traditional ruling oligarchy Chávez had vowed to defeat, and the entire political establishment, left to right.

The odds against Chávez and his populist dreams were so bad, in fact, that even a smarter, subtler politician may have floundered.

Venezuela's opposition was united only in its hatred of Chávez. It has no political program and no visible moral compass. Putting Chávez on trial for yesterday's killings, as some in the military advocate, might be tempting. With 35 percent public support, more than any other politician, a free or exiled Chávez could still make a comeback.

In addition, a high profile trial might provide some fleeting distraction from Venezuela's endemic triad — poverty, violence, corruption. However, it could polarize society further, turn Chávez into a martyr, and enrage his hard-core supporters, the dwellers of the squalid slums that ring Venezuelan cities, particularly Caracas. Police loyal to the new regime are reportedly already raiding some of those Chávez strongholds.

Venezuela after Chávez could be in for a bumpy ride. The country may well become what Washington most dreads (and why it didn't push to bump off Chávez, or at least, it didn't try do so harder or earlier): ungovernable.

Related links:

For Venezuela's crippled economy, an intelligent analysis of the crisis from the BBC.

For the CIA World Factbook 2001 profile of Venezuela.

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