Tulio, a guide from Venezuela’s foreign ministry, called over to us and waved excitedly. A woman from the neighborhood had approached him to ask why twenty US citizens were here in Venezuela, standing in the rain at the very top of the barrio named “23 de Enero,” where Chavez’ tomb sits. This barrio has been at the forefront of the Bolivarian revolution, and various political struggles under other Venezuelan presidents.
The twenty of us, some lawyers, all activists, had traveled to Venezuela in July, several months after the Obama administration issued sanctions in March to seven Venezuelan officials, “accusing them of human rights violations and declaring their government a threat to US National Security.” The action was unprecedented and we sought to find the reality on the ground in Venezuela, to separate truth from fiction. Leopoldo Lopez, now the de-facto leader of the Venezuelan opposition, was deemed by the United States a political prisoner, though he had been charged with arson and public incitement.
The question was “Why Venezuela?” when the US has cozy relationships with governments that engage in human rights violations, consistently, including Saudi Arabia and China. Was this just another attempt by the US to destabilize a government that it disagrees with politically? The US abhorred the anti-imperialist government of Chavez, and with the Venezuelan economy now in recession, it seemed our own US government was choosing this moment to stir up the pot of radical revolution. As we found in Caracas, the Venezuelan opposition, painted by the US government as victims in the February, 2014 protests, were actually perpetrators of the violence and these tactics, embraced by the opposition are the same maneuvers brought forth against Chavez in April, 2002, a coup d’état the United States supported almost immediately.
In fact, sixteen democrats realizing the mistake Obama made in issuing sanctions wrote a long letter citing the error, and asking for Obama to remove the sanctions because it could essentially harm human rights rather than prevent it.
After welcoming us to her country, the woman who approached our group spoke in Spanish about her barrio and about life in Venezuela, both the recent challenges and the joys. Some of it I caught, some of it I did not, Tulio quickly translating. What I do remember her saying very clearly, was that since the death of Hugo Chavez, two years ago “I have visited his grave, religiously, every Saturday and Sunday.” She paused. “To pay my respects to our beloved Chavez.” I found her last statement incredible and contemplated it for hours afterwards.
Our guide said that in some barrios, people view Chavez not only as a political leader, but also as a freedom fighter against the powerful west, from which he freed his people, acquiring near religious status in parts of Venezuela; what he did for the poor and those long invisible in Venezuelan society. Finally included in the long struggle for inclusion and visibility, many of the poor see Chavez as their liberator, in a political struggle that long fed the West.
The Rise of Hugo Chavez
Chavez’ political life has lessons for the current political climate in the country today, nearly identical to the strategies used to oust Chavez in a coup d’état in April, 2002. Chavez was first elected in 1998, but his rise to power began in 1992; after founding the Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement, he led his own coup against the neo liberal government stranglehold of Carlos Andres Perez, and he was imprisoned for two years.
Once freed, Chavez toured the country, promoting his cause of Bolivarian Revolution, eventually founding a political party of his own (The Fifth Republican Movement) and running for President in the 1998 election. Chavez, along with his meteoric rise to prominence, now viewed the electoral process as the holy grail of politics, believing in the Venezuelan people and the power of the vote. He was right to do so, as his victory was won in the barrios and by the disaffected middle class; he won with nearly 56 percent of the vote. Chavez’ victory was seen as a defeat of the forty years of neo-liberal policy. The system had only worked for the rich and powerful and the poverty rate in Venezuela soared to eighty percent. Chavez took a hammer to the two political parties that consisted of the neo-liberal democracy and in one swift swoop, he was president.
What stands out when one views the history of Chavez’ Venezuela is its democracy. His first goal was to establish a new Constitution, but desired the will of the people, and asked for a referendum. 86 percent of the Venezuelan electorate supported the idea. After the Constitution was written, it was held to a vote, and 72 percent of the electorate voted in favor of the new Constitution. The Constitution is a hallmark for progressive governments and people around the world.
In the meantime, Chavez’ populist policies were not well received in the halls of power within the United States, and the business community in Venezuela, creating a dividing line between who supported Chavez; the poor, the disaffected middle class, the indigenous communities, and the barrios in Caracas. Many of the power structures within the country were still controlled by the elite, including over 94 percent of the media.
Chavez was elected again in 2000, by sixty percent of the vote, an even larger margin than his first election. Chavez continued to push his reforms, passing nearly 50 social and economic decrees. Venezuela jumped from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy, one where many of the so-called invisible poor were given hope; the lower strata of society finally felt included in the nation of Venezuela. Misiones were created for the elderly, the poor, and women, children, for health, the environment, and animals. A communal economy was eventually created, with stand-alone participatory regional community organizations, advising the government on the needs of the community. Chavez brought forth a new, living Venezuela, one of social change and social inclusion, linking independence from Spain to independence from the West.
What upset the opposition, however were two things that truly reverberated. First, after his second election Chavez continued a close relationship with Fidel Castro in Cuba, and sold oil to the Cubans at discounted rates, in exchange for medical expertise, in the form of doctors and educators. Further angering the US, Chavez re-nationalized the Venezuelan oil reserves, choosing to keep its oil, rather than have foreign investors reap profits, a move that angered the US and foreign investors.
The 2002 Coup
On April 11, 2002, among mass protests by opposition to the Venezuelan government, in response to Chavez removing and re-organizing the PDVSA (the state oil company) Board of Managers, protests broke out by the opposition to Chavez’ Bolivarian government. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets, including pro-government supporters, when shooting began, killing 19 people and injuring hundreds. What is now known, but was not at the time, was that the United States assisted in organizing the coup. Through documents obtained by Eva Golinger via the Freedom of Information Act these shocking details show our own government assisting and even in some cases plotting to inflame protesters into overthrowing Chavez. What is also now known; snipers were placed on roofs and the shooting of the protesters was actually carried out by anti-government forces, and then blamed those shot and killed on pro-Chavez demonstrators and government actors, orchestrating a political situation that would justify the removal of Chavez. High-ranking officials from the military took Chavez into custody, and Pedro Carmona supplanted Chavez as president, and he quickly dissolved all of the democratic institutions under the new Constitution.
Venezuela woke up on the morning of April 12, 2002, to a new president and word leaked that Chavez resigned. Chavez was taken to an island off the coast of Venezuela, and possibly would be taken to Cuba. A young military idealist asked Chavez, when he took him to the bathroom, if indeed he had resigned. Chavez, told him no, and he wrote it out on a piece of paper, with his famous signature, and it was faxed quickly, and distributed widely. Protesters asking for Chavez’ reinstatement grew to the millions, and within forty-eight hours Chavez was restored to power.
After the coup Chavez was elected several more times, a 2004 recall election was organized after the coup, and 58 percent of the people said no; they wanted Chavez as their President. In 2006 he won with over sixty percent of the vote, and in 2012 he won with 55 percent of the vote. Before Chavez took office in 2013, however he succumbed to cancer and died before he assumed office. Another election was coordinated, and in 2013, Nicolas Maduro, acting President, was elected, by a small edge of 50.6 to 49.1 percent, a margin of just over two hundred thousand votes.
After Maduro was democratically elected, elections the Carter Center calls “the best in the world,” the Venezuelan opposition commenced organizing. Though Henry Capriles, the opposition candidate lost to Chavez, in 2012 and again to Maduro in 2013 (the NLG called these elections fair, transparent, participatory and well organized), the opposition viewed an opportunity and took to the streets, in what was eerily, and strikingly similar to the protests surrounding the 2002 coup. The political destabilization of the country was on, through undemocratic means, and the killing of innocent protesters, blamed again on the pro-Chavez government of Maduro. These tactics did not work in 2002, and they did not work in 2014, but was achingly close to a constitutional crisis, and that crisis remains. This is the environment that now exists in Venezuela, and Leopoldo Lopez, whom the United States calls a political prisoner, claims that he is unjustly detained.
It is well documented (though Lopez and his lawyers deny it) that the then mayor of a “rich Caracas municipality” during the 2002 coup, was leading a cause against anti-Chavistas, and even surrounded a home where a Chavez minister was laying low, grabbed a megaphone and charged him with murder. He and the mob beat the minister in the street and then kidnapped him. Lopez was arrested for carrying out a legal detention, but he was released after Chavez granted amnesty to those who tried to overthrow his government.
The 2014 Protests
Lopez is 44 years old and is a direct descendant of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of six countries in Latin America, including Venezuela, where Bolivar was born. Lopez was born to the rich and elite in Venezuela, and was schooled in the US, including Harvard. Lopez was considered the leader of the student opposition movements in Venezuela before the protests began, but largely remained in the shadow of Capriles. When Capriles lost two elections in two years, one to Chavez, and another to Maduro, Lopez emerged as the leader of the opposition and urged his supporters to upend the government.
In February, 2014, he and his allies took to the streets calling for Maduro’s departure, and calling for “Democracia! and Libertad!” These cries erupted in weeks of rallies, “blockades and waves of violence that left 43 anti-government, pro-government supporters and national guardsmen dead.” The protests led directly to the forty deaths and over 800 wounded, and the Venezuelan government charged Lopez with inciting the violence.
We met with several people who were victims of the protests, or Guarimbas, which in translation means essentially, the tactics used by the opposition to overthrow democratic elections with which they disagreed, including the blocking of roads, and throwing of rocks. We met with a national guardswoman whose husband was murdered in the streets, a mother of a child in a daycare, in which her daughter’s day care was bombed by anti-government supporters (they screamed they had to kill Chavistas!), a truck driver whose truck was bombed, he was shot at and maimed. Another victim spoke of his son, who was celebrating the election of Maduro. Shots were fired at the celebrants, and his son was shot and killed in the midst of the anti-violent protests, where nine other people were murdered, including two children. These are just a few of the stories of the “Guarimbas.”
These stories were poignant and haunting, and they still live with this pain. They hold Lopez responsible as the one who incited the violence, and anti-government protesters, who actually violated human rights. They told us: “we are not asking for vengeance, but justice.” They asked us to bring their stories to the US media, to anyone who would listen. They highlighted with sincerity that the true story of the Venezuelan violence was not being heard.
Lopez has been charged with arson, public incitement and conspiracy. He has become a cause célèbre in the states, and celebrities such as Kevin Spacey and Cher tweeted his name as a “political prisoner.” Lopez so far has refused to sit for trial, and recently remained on a hunger strike, but has since ended that strike. Venezuela would be right to put him up for trial, once and for all. Lopez took part in the 2002 coup and was charged with inciting violence. Because of the grace and chivalry of the Chavez government, he was freed, as were many of the opposition. Lopez brought out the same playbook against Maduro as he and Pedro Carmona did against Chavez in 2002. Lopez’ only goal is to destabilize the government and overthrow Maduro, and return to the days of neo-liberalism and the cozy relationship with the West, which only leaves the majority of Venezuelans left out of the political system. His goal is not democracy, or these ridiculous claims of defending human rights; his goal is the Venezuela he grew up in, where the anti-imperialist measures of Chavistas are a thing of the past, and the majority of Venezuelans are left to fend for themselves.
The elite in Venezuela will not give up this fight; the United States owes the Venezuelan people our support of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, of fair elections, and inclusion. Our foreign policy should not be what US corporations benefit from, it should be about the self-determination of the Venezuelan people. Since Chavez was elected, the Venezuelan people have elected this Bolivarian government six times, most by a huge majority of voters. That should be the stated goal of American foreign policy, to see that governments democratically elected, fairly and securely are not overthrown, and see it through to the next election. The United States says it respects the rule of law. Why doesn’t that apply in Venezuela?