Bolivarian myths and legends

Phil Gunson
1 December 2006

In the early 1990s, when I first visited Cuba and the Cuban exile community in Miami, their rival versions of history had long since congealed and the two communities were physically, as well as politically, separated by the 145-kilometre-wide Florida strait.

Just off Miami's Calle Ocho, an eternal flame burned to the memory of the 120 or so anti-Castro combatants who died in a battle the exiles call the "Bay of Pigs" while, near the site of that battle, a government museum displayed relics and mementoes belonging to pro-Castro militia members, killed at what Cuban official history refers to as Playa Girón.

Different heroes, different villains. One country, two histories. "A politically ‘neutral' version of the past forty years", I wrote at the time, "exists only in academia; on the streets, history is outlined in the stark black-and-white of ideological extremes."

In Venezuela, whose leftist President Hugo Chávez - about to face his people in the election on 3 December 2006 - is now Cuba's closest ally, a disturbingly similar process is now taking place.

There is the same kind of disagreement over the events of the past few years, in which political polarisation has become widespread. The rival versions of the nature of the pre-Chávez era (the four decades of two-party democracy from 1958-99) are equally incompatible, and the regime has undertaken an extensive rewriting of history from the independence era onwards.

But there is more. It is as if the two sides - supporters and opponents of Chávez - had come to a fork in the road, several years ago. Each is proceeding along a different, but almost parallel, route, and even as they diverge they are still close enough to see and to shout at each other, albeit from an ever-growing distance.

Media and politicians on both sides of the ideological divide - and especially Chávez himself, with his message of division and class conflict - bear a heavy responsibility for this state of affairs. The act of naming is not innocent. "Words", said Venezuelan social psychologist Luisana Gómez recently, "require things to become what we call them."

Phil Gunson is a journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela

Also by Phil Gunson on openDemocracy:

"Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity"
(14 June 2006)

"Venezuela's media in a Bolivarian storm"
(7 August 2006)

"Venezuela: a seat at the top table"
(16 October 2006)

A question of evidence

But equally disturbing is the way certain myths about the country and its recent history have become so firmly embedded in what passes for the international "debate" on the subject that they are no longer questioned, merely reiterated, by people with no direct stake in the outcome.

I am not speaking here of opinions but of matters of verifiable fact: statements which, if not demonstrably false, are at the very least unsupported by the available evidence, and whose repetition divides us by convincing each side of the bad faith of the other.

Some of these myths are spread by the right. "Chávez gives aid to the Colombian guerrillas", for instance; or "Venezuela is supplying uranium for Iran's nuclear programme".

But much of the responsibility lies with those foreign writers and journalists who have openly sided with the government of Hugo Chávez, whilst regularly blasting his critics for their alleged bias, or worse.

They argue that Chávez must be given credit - and even imitated - for his "revolutionary" programme on behalf of the poor. Yet their unwillingness to analyse the evidence with intellectual honesty is of little service to the masses they claim to sympathise with.

Those who dissent are deemed to do so because they favour inequality, despise the poor and sympathise with United States foreign policy. The possibility that one might hold none of these positions, and yet still disagree with Chávez's methods, is ruled out.

For the most part, the process begins with an uncritical acceptance of the "facts" provided by the side with which one is inclined to sympathise. There can hardly be a journalist in the world who has not fallen into this particular trap more than once. Some stories are, as the shamefaced journalistic adage has it, "too good to check".

But there is a difference between this kind of professional lapse and the construction of an entire edifice built of half-truths and outright falsehoods, followed by the dismissal of anyone who argues otherwise as a pawn of "the imperialist media" (or, if the boot is on the other foot, of "Castro-communism"), and an assumption of unassailable moral superiority.

The claims of the pro-Chávez camp are often unaccompanied by even the thinnest veneer of supporting evidence. Take this opener from William Blum, a onetime minor state-department official turned scourge of United States foreign policy:

"How do we know that the CIA was behind the coup that overthrew Hugo Chávez [for two days, in April 2002]? Same way we know that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. That's what it's always done, and there's no reason to think that tomorrow morning will be any different."

If this is the case, of course, then we can forget all about research. The truth is self-evident. Anyone who says otherwise can only be either a dupe or an agent of Washington. And that certainly seems to be the underlying assumption of many pro-Chávez journalists (although few are quite so frank as Blum in admitting it).

Those who find this kind of "argument" convincing may as well stop reading at this point.

We will come back to the question of the April 2002 coup. But first, here are some other examples from among my favourite chavista myths and legends.

How many landless?

Let's take land reform, for instance, a key element in the pro-Chávez case mounted by his foreign apologists. The seizure, and subsequent distribution, of large rural properties has been one of the government's most visible - and controversial - programmes. That is because, Greg Palast informs us, "Venezuela has landless citizens by the millions." This is true enough, but irrelevant: the vast majority have not the slightest interest in tilling the soil.

Perhaps Palast is thinking of neighbouring Brazil. Of Venezuela's 26 million people, well over 80% live in towns and cities, following a rapid process of urbanisation in the 20th century, closely associated with successive oil booms.

Agriculture accounts for only 4% of GDP, and under 7% of the labour force. The United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) puts the total number of agricultural workers in 2003 at 779,000.

Incredible as it may seem, not a single government agency can tell you how many landless peasants there are. Six years after Chávez decreed his land law, the Instituto Nacional de Tierras (National Land Institute / Inti), which is in charge of the reform, is still planning a census of landless peasants.

Indeed, if you talk to the beneficiaries of Venezuela's recent land reform you will find that many of them are not peasants at all, but taxi-drivers and mechanics from the big cities.

So how many landless peasants really exist in Venezuela. Hundreds of thousands? Tens of thousands? "No", says Olivier Delahaye, a Marxist agrarian economist and professor at the Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) who worked on land reform in Salvador Allende's Chile. "I would say only thousands."

It could be, of course, that giving land to urban slum-dwellers is a magnificent idea. And it is certainly true that rural poverty is a blight which must be addressed, and that a solution may involve some elements of land reform.

But if we are not honest about basic facts, we cannot even begin to have this debate.

The revolution's pre-history

Nor, indeed, many others. Many of Chávez's foreign supporters, for instance, sincerely believe that Venezuela was a dictatorship before Chávez came to power. And that's not surprising, when you read claims like this, from Richard Gott:

"Since the late 1950s, Venezuela had had all the attributes of a one-party state, not unlike those that once existed in Communist Eastern Europe" (see Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution [Verso, 2006], page 21).

All the attributes? Venezuela was certainly a flawed democracy, in which human rights were regularly violated and the electoral system was rigged against minority parties.

But there was considerable freedom of the press (the current vice-president, José Vicente Rangel, for instance, was able to denounce corruption in print and on TV without once being sent to jail) and the opposition was largely free to organise.

When almost the whole continent was run by military dictators, in the 1970s and early 1980s, Venezuela's governments - social democrats or Christian democrats - took in tens of thousands of exiles.

It is interesting to reflect on what might have happened to Hugo Chávez after his failed military coup of February 1992, had Venezuela really been a Soviet-bloc-style dictatorship.

It seems unlikely that he would have spent just two years in jail before being allowed not only to stand for the presidency but actually to take office - despite his explicit promise to dismantle the existing system and his refusal to repudiate violence.

There is no doubt that by the late 1990s Venezuela was ripe for fundamental reform. The economy, the political system, the armed forces, the judiciary, the trade unions and most other institutions were dysfunctional and corrupt.

Indeed, the so-called Caracazo of 1989 (when hundreds, if not thousands, were killed when the army was ordered to repress riots sparked by a clumsy attempt at structural reform) showed that the social consensus underpinning the two-party system had broken down irreparably.

But it is important to note that the consensus had existed. Indeed, Cuban-backed guerrillas who fought the system in the 1960s and 1970s were forced to give up because of an almost total lack of popular support.

This is hard to understand if you buy the standard left argument that - as Tariq Ali puts it - "No previous regime had even noticed the plight of the poor." Such a claim has to be put down to wilful ignorance, since even a cursory glance at some of the (admittedly sparse) literature in English on recent Venezuelan history suggests precisely the opposite.

From 1958 (when the military dictatorship of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez was overthrown) until 1999, Venezuela was governed not by an "oligarchy" (as chavista propaganda suggests) but by a mass-based social-democratic party (Acción Democrática) and a rather smaller Christian democrat party (Copei).

A 1985 study concluded that, between them, the membership of these two parties amounted to a remarkable 30% of the population. The reason was that party membership was a means of securing access to welfare and patronage - a system strikingly similar to that which operates under Chávez.

"A highly interventionist role was designated [sic] to the state, which assumed responsibility for a host of welfare provisions elaborated in the 1961 Constitution", writes Julia Buxton (a fierce critic of the foreign media's coverage of Chávez) in her The Failure of Political Reform in Venezuela (Ashgate, 2001).

"The oil boom did pay for social improvements", writes James Ferguson (Venezuela in Focus, Latin American Bureau, 1994). "The first [Carlos Andrés] Pérez government [1974-78] invested in public health and education. Thousands of young Venezuelans were able to study overseas through state scholarships (...) The boom also kept the social peace by enabling government to subsidise basic foods and medicines, fund a range of social programmes and contain political unrest."

Up to 40% of the budget was spent on social welfare, Ferguson adds, which was the highest per capita in Latin America. "The aim of universal access to education was almost achieved."

It was the collapse of this system, from the late 1970s onwards, due to declining per capita oil revenues, mismanagement, corruption and a failure to carry out the necessary reforms, that led to social and political unrest and the advent of Chávez.

But the claim that his is the first government to address the needs of the poor is quite simply a falsification of history. As indeed is the oft-repeated claim that when Chávez came to power, "in Venezuela over 80% lived below the poverty level".

This statistic, taken from a controversial, 1997 survey by the human-rights group Provea, is sharply at odds with official statistics, and makes any subsequent comparison invalid. The official poverty level when Chávez took office was 43%.

It is undoubtedly true that the pre-1999 political and social system was deeply flawed. Many of its least attractive aspects, however, have worsened under Chávez: in particular, the concentration of power and the corrupt and politically-biased administration of justice.

A state of freedom?

This assertion, not surprisingly, is roundly rejected by the government and its allies: "The State Powers that make up the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are autonomous, and have structural, organizational and functional independence within the framework established in the Bolivarian Constitution of Venezuela", says the country's embassy in Washington, responding to criticism by Human Rights Watch.

It is indeed true that the constitution provides for the separation of powers, even creating two additional branches of government - the electoral branch (Consejo Nacional Electoral [national electoral authority] / CNE) and the "citizens'" or "moral" branch, comprising the chief prosecutor, the ombudsman ("people's defender") and the comptroller-general's office.

In practice, however, the executive exercises almost total control over all branches of government, undermining its claim that Venezuela's "participatory democracy" is superior to the merely representative kind.

How does this manifest itself? The evidence is in the results, since the levers of true power are mostly hidden from view. These are some examples of the way it works:

  • a protagonist in a long-running civil trial happens to know someone in the president's inner circle, who has a word in his ear; the president calls the supreme court and the trial is suspended indefinitely
  • a prosecutor assigned to a high-profile case, involving accusations against a middle-ranking member of the government, receives the file - along with instructions to request the dismissal of the case, even though there are clear grounds for serious charges
  • the head of an international election observation mission wants the election authority to eliminate finger-printing machines from the process, to encourage the opposition to take part; he does not call the chairman of the CNE but the vice-president of the republic, who instructs the "autonomous" authority to implement the suggestion.

All these examples are real: the sources in each case must remain anonymous, for obvious reasons. They can, of course, be dismissed as inventions. But here is a public statement by José Vicente Rangel which gives a sense of how seriously the government takes the separation of powers and the rule of law (the vice-president was reacting to the shooting of a pro-Chávez legislator and peasant leader by unidentified gunmen, said by the government to have been hired by landowners):

"For every peasant leader of ours that they kill, we will expropriate thousands of hectares."

In theory, of course, expropriations must be based on the needs of the community and the law of the land. They must be ratified by the courts, and fair compensation must be paid. The practice, however, has as much to do with the settling of political scores as with social justice.

The concentration of power and the politicisation of institutions that are nominally at the service of the community as a whole have been amply documented by local and foreign human-rights organisations. But it is invisible to the "solidarity journalist".

He or she is too busy denouncing the foreign press for allegedly distorting the truth. The Britain-based website Hands Off Venezuela, for instance, features a list of "lies" purveyed by the imperialist media. "Lie Two" is that "Chávez uses repression against the opposition":

"In Venezuela there have been hundreds of peaceful opposition demonstrations and never has there been political repression of any kind."

This blanket denial is not even supported by the official ombudsman, Germán Mundaraín, who in almost every other respect is a slavish adherent to the government line.

In early 2004, the opposition took to the streets in large numbers to protest the electoral authority's refusal to convene a recall referendum against President Chávez, despite the fact that it had handed in more than the requisite number of signatures. The demonstrations were put down with what Mundaraín called a "disproportionate use of force".

He cited not only an excessive use of rubber bullets, but seven cases of torture and seventeen of "cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment". 200 were injured and at least fourteen were killed - and although the ombudsman denied that government troops were responsible for the deaths, many independent human-rights organisations disagreed.

Solidarity and speculation

In the same vein, John Pilger (in a piece riddled with inaccuracies, in which he accuses Channel 4's Jonathan Rugman of "crude propaganda") declares that Venezuela "has not a single political prisoner".

On his next visit, Pilger should drop in on General Francisco Usón, one of at least a dozen political prisoners in Venezuela. Usón, who served briefly as Chávez's finance minister but later joined the opposition, is serving five years in the military prison of Ramo Verde.

He was convicted of "bringing the armed forces into disrepute" after giving his professional opinion, as a combat engineer, on whether a flame-thrower could have been used to inflict serious burns on five soldiers in a punishment cell, two of whom later died.

The authorities have so far failed to convict anyone of the murders, and have accused the soldiers of setting fire to themselves.

Of course, maybe a little repression is in order, since after all, according to Pilger, "This is a country threatened day and night by the United States." But again, it could be that Pilger has Venezuela confused with another country.

His "evidence" for this assertion is what he (rather comically) refers to as "Plan Bilbao (sic) ... which is about overthrowing the elected government of Venezuela".

Plan Balboa is not a plan by the United States to intervene in Venezuela. Moreover, there is no proof (and very little evidence) that the United States is planning to invade Venezuela or overthrow its government.

Plan Balboa was a military exercise carried out at a Spanish military academy, which - as is quite normal in such exercises - used a combination of genuine and imaginary geographical, political and military elements to create a wargame.

The fact that those elements included a country (codenamed "Brown" in the exercise) which is clearly Venezuela, and a scenario involving foreign intervention, has been used by the Venezuelan government (from which these facts were never concealed) to invent a US invasion plan.

"They know it isn't", said a Spanish embassy spokesman in Caracas. "We told them."

The United States has, in the past century, intervened in, invaded or helped overthrow the governments of many Latin American countries. Its last significant unilateral intervention (in Panama, 1989) coincided with the end of the cold war.

Washington makes no secret of its distaste for the Chávez government (which is enthusiastically reciprocated), and was quick to celebrate the coup that briefly ousted him in 2002.

But it is a fair bet that, if it ever does decide to invade Venezuela, the first we know of it will not be a military exercise at a Spanish war college.

According to followers of Chávez, the United States wants to get rid of him because of the bad example he sets by redistributing wealth and power from the rich to the poor.

The government's main tools for improving the life of the poor are the so-called misiones (missions) - conceived as emergency programmes designed to tackle problems like illiteracy and lack of access to health care, but increasingly seen as an alternative to traditional welfare services.

The first of these was Misión Robinson, a Cuban-designed literacy campaign which the government says has taught more than 1.5 million people to read and write. The lack of supporting evidence leads some observers to cast doubt on the claim, however.

A recent study of official figures, by a group of academics at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut - including former adviser to the national assembly (and onetime Chávez supporter) Francisco Rodríguez - suggests there may be almost as many illiterates now as there were before the campaign began, and that any gains from Misión Robinson are statistically virtually indistinguishable from the existing downward trend in illiteracy.

Rodríguez, whose study concludes that the programme was anywhere from ten to twenty times more expensive per pupil than similar efforts elsewhere, says he is "astonished how easily the Venezuelan government has been able to sell exaggerated versions of its supposed successes in the social field that have no basis in reality".

None of this has stopped the regime and its supporters claiming repeatedly that Unesco has declared Venezuela to be free of illiteracy.

Whilst Unesco has praised the Venezuelan government for its efforts at eradicating illiteracy, it has never endorsed the government's claim to have done so. Indeed, it has traditionally been very cautious in interpreting government literacy statistics, from whatever country. You would not know this from reading the solidarity press, however.

Here is Socialist Voice on the subject, in May 2006: "It was pointed to as the most outstanding achievement of the period when, this past October 28, Unesco declared Venezuela to be Illiteracy-Free Territory (sic), something accomplished in less than two years of hard-fought struggle against that disgrace". (The quote is lifted from the Cuban government's publication Granma International, which accounts for the poor English.)

Jeremy Dear, the pro-Chávez president of Britain's National Union of Journalists, made the same claim in June ("We have Unesco declaring Venezuela free of illiteracy"), and repeated it at the Trades Union Congress, without apparently bothering to check it.

But for a really tortured argument in support of the literacy claim, there is nothing quite like this, from the website vheadline.com:

A proper debate on this subject would require consideration of many other factors: the inadequacy of the formal educational system, for instance, which continues to produce illiterate drop-outs; or the huge cost per pupil of an adult literacy campaign in comparison with teaching a child to read.

But that is not going to happen while one side is insisting the government has already resolved the problem.

(Incidentally, Unesco did report, in July 2005, that Venezuela came top of another international ranking - but you're not likely to find this one on the Hands Off Venezuela website. Of fifty-seven countries analysed, including many embroiled in wars, Venezuela had the highest rate of gun murders.)

A portrait of the enemy

Criticism of the government, of whatever kind, provokes furious and often insulting responses, sometimes coordinated by its agents overseas (such as the Venezuela Information Office in Washington). These often include the suggestion that the writer (or broadcaster) is racist - that his or her critique reflects what Richard Gott calls the "racist rage of the Caracas elite" (with which foreign correspondents are assumed to spend most of their free time).

Chávez himself is - like most Venezuelans - of mixed race, and the bulk of his support comes from the poorer, and browner-skinned, section of society. When his apologists in the foreign "solidarity" press look at the opposition, they often do so through a curious filter, which impedes them from seeing any but its whiter members.

Thus, Greg Palast finds opposition demonstrators to be, "not just any white. A creamy rich white."

Mind you, he was looking at a photograph of a march. He probably never attended any of the extraordinarily gigantic, diverse and largely good-natured opposition marches that took place in the 2001-04 period. But anyone who knows Venezuela can tell you that a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people here, whatever their political position, is rainbow-hued. Who, one might ask, is the racist?

This is another argument which appears to need no justification: Chávez is "black", therefore any criticism of him is, by definition, racist.

If that's not good enough, then the writer can always just make facts up, as Tariq Ali does:

"The opposition is light-skinned and some of its more disgusting supporters denounce Chavez as a black monkey. A puppet show to this effect with a monkey playing Chávez was even organised at the US embassy in Caracas."

(There was an incident involving a puppet-show at the US embassy, but it did not involve portraying Chávez as a monkey.)

There is racism in Venezuela, of course, as there is in almost every society, and particularly one blighted by the legacy of slavery. And there is a minority in the opposition whose dislike of Chávez has a strong racist element.

But to slur the Venezuelan opposition as a whole in this way is absurd and dishonest. In 1999, his first year in power, Chávez had approval ratings close to 90%. Did the 30%-40% of the electorate who later turned against him do so because they suddenly discovered he was black?

It is hard to disprove the racist argument of course. But its proponents might care to consult the experts. Berta E Pérez, of the government-run scientific research institute Instituto Venezolano de Investigaciones Científicas (Venezuelan Institute of Scientific Investigation / Ivic) , is one of the foremost specialists in the subject. Professor Pérez's view:

"The political conflict here has nothing to do with racism - that's a fallacy. If it were true, Chávez wouldn't have won in 1998. Whites, blacks and Indians voted for him. He had incredible support from the economic elite."

The coup: an inside story

But most of the mythology about Chávez and the Bolivarian revolution relates to the short-lived coup against him in April 2002, thanks in part to the remarkable Irish propaganda film Chávez - Inside the Coup (also shown under the title The Revolution will not be Televised), about which I have written extensively elsewhere (see Columbia Journalism Review [May-June 2004]) and Vertigo [Autumn-Winter 2004]).

For many, it is an article of faith (as in the example from William Blum, quoted above) that the United States planned and financed the coup, and that it manipulated media coverage of it in order to ensure international support for its plan. At the very least, it is said, Washington knew about the coup plan beforehand, gave the go-ahead for it, and concealed what it knew from the Venezuelan government.

This is a crucial issue for supporters of the international solidarity movement: if the United States did not plan the coup, and has no plans to invade Venezuela, then they are interfering in domestic politics by backing the Venezuelan government against its internal opposition. So it bears considering in detail.

On 11 April 2002, hundreds of thousands of people marched on the presidential palace to demand Chávez's resignation. In the midst of a political crisis, the president had fired the top management of the state oil company, PdVSA, and brought in a new, "revolutionary" board of directors.

The move, which was announced on live TV, with heavy sarcasm and a referee's whistle, had sparked a combined business/labour stoppage, mass protests and a serious split in the armed forces.

To protect himself against the protesters on 11 April, Chávez surrounded the palace with civilian supporters, many of them armed. By the end of the day, ninetten people - from both sides - were dead, and over 200 more had gunshot wounds.

Chávez had tried to mobilise the armed forces, but several hitherto loyal generals refused to obey orders. By the end of the day, they had joined with others who had been plotting to oust him, and in the pre-dawn hours of 12 April, he gave himself up and was taken into custody.

Key facts about the events of 11-12 April are still shrouded in mystery, in part because the government refused to convene an independent commission of inquiry. Testimony given to parliament threw up as many questions as it resolved.

Reasonable doubt, however, is not a characteristic of the solidarity journalist. Take the issue of whether or not Chávez resigned. The absence of a signed resignation ultimately proved crucial, helping to provoke the collapse of the de facto government of business leader Pedro Carmona on 13 April.

Reports in the media that he had resigned were, according to Greg Palast, "a complete fabrication, lie, garbage, nonsense [stemming from] a false press release from the US State Department. Pure propaganda."

Palast claims there was "no evidence of such a resignation", citing as proof his own telephone conversations with Chávez government sources.

In fact, the reason why the state department - along with most other mortals - thought Chávez had resigned was because his most senior general - the loyalist Lucas Rincón, who would later hold two posts in the Chávez cabinet - told the whole world he had, in a live TV and radio broadcast.

In the light of the day's events, said Rincón (surrounded by most of the military high command), "the president has been asked for his resignation, and has accepted." No truly coherent explanation has ever been offered, either by the general or the government, for this statement. But it was made, witnesses say, after Chávez had verbally agreed to resign, and before he retracted, having been refused permission to leave the country.

Since Lucas Rincón and other senior generals also then resigned, no correction was ever issued. Not surprisingly, most people believed it, at least for the first twenty-four hours. It later turned out to be inaccurate. But "lie, garbage, nonsense" seems a better description of Palast's "no evidence of such a resignation" than of the original state-department comment.

This brings us to the issue of whether or not Washington was behind the coup. All sorts of evidence is arrayed in support of this argument, from the presence of US military officers among the rebel generals on the night of 11-12 April to prior US financial support for opposition groups and the alleged violation of Venezuelan air and sea space by the US armed forces.

None of this is conclusive, but one of the most well-worn claims is that (to quote Richard Gott again): "All the evidence indicates that the plot in Caracas was known to the US government, yet no effort was made to inform the Venezuelan government...".

Gott goes on to assert, without presenting any of this "evidence", that the coup-plotters had contacted the US government with their plan, and that, "Washington gave its go-ahead".

The absence of support for this assertion is significant, because this is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the whole episode, from an international point of view, and one that has never been entirely resolved.

So the minimum one might expect is a well-argued, substantive case, especially from an author who has consistently argued (especially in relation to the Chilean coup of 1973) that Latin American armies are quite capable of mounting coup plots without the help of Washington.

I personally spent six weeks in mid-2002, attempting - unsuccessfully - to find the evidence for US involvement which I firmly believed must exist. At around the same time, the state department's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) was carrying out a much more rigorous investigation of the issue, at the request of Senator Christopher Dodd.

The OIG found no evidence that the US government had supported the coup. What they did find was that opposition to a coup may not have been expressed with sufficient vigour, and may not have been believed by opposition leaders.

The anti-coup warnings were too formulaic. Or, as one senior US diplomat put it to me: "They read our body-language". This could, of course, merely be a self-serving "imperialist" argument to conceal the truth. But consider the following:

The plotters had originally intended to move against the government on 27 February. But the plan was aborted after General Enrique Medina Gómez - then Venezuela's military attaché to Washington - visited Caracas a week or so earlier and determined that the conditions were not right.

On 27 February, certain reporters in Washington, DC were (according to an Associated Press report) briefed by a senior state-department official that "American diplomats have been approached by Venezuelan officers about whether the United States would support a coup. The answer, the official said, has been a firm ‘no'."

This was, of course, several weeks before the coup finally took place. In case the Venezuelan government was not reading the newspapers, the message was conveyed directly to President Chávez by the then-ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro

This version - and not the one preferred by Gott and others - fits "all the evidence" we have available. Not only did Chávez know all about the coup plans - making Washington's warning superfluous - but he had done everything in his power to encourage them.

In January 2004, in his annual address to parliament, Chávez had this to say about the events of 2002:

"Crises are often necessary, they even have to be generated sometimes. The PdVSA thing was necessary, even though we, well, it's not that we didn't generate it, we did generate it, because when I took that whistle ... and began to fire people, I was provoking the crisis."

What Chávez wanted was for the PdVSA management - which was almost unanimously hostile to his plans for the oil industry - to give him the excuse to get rid of them. (Eventually he fired almost 20,000 PdVSA employees.)

So determined was he to see this through that he refrained from announcing, on 11 April, that he already had in his pocket the resignations of the new PdVSA board, which were eventually accepted only after he was restored to power.

Simultaneously, he was consciously provoking the armed forces, and it was this that almost proved his undoing.

The president, of course, was not the only one outside the circle of coup plotters and the US government that knew a coup was coming. In fact, the coup was one of the worst-kept secrets in the history of a country whose inhabitants are notoriously bad at keeping secrets.

So it is not surprising that a few journalists also had an inside track. Here's one of them admitting as much, in a pre-coup interview of which extracts can be found on the internet:

"They [his producers] said, ‘OK, where's the next place?' ‘Venezuela,' I said, ‘February 27th,' because I had been given information on the date when a coup attempt would be made. But then the coup was delayed."

If the standard "solidarity" argument holds water, then this journalist was in a position to warn the Venezuelan government of a coup it did not know was coming. As it happens, though, there was no need for that, because it was almost certainly the government that told him.

The journalist in question was Greg Palast, who subsequently "revealed exclusively" to the world that the coup was devised by Washington because of fears that Venezuela would join an Arab-led oil boycott, and that Chávez had learned of the plot because of a warning phone-call "a coupla days before" from Opec secretary-general (and former Venezuelan oil minister) Alí Rodríguez.

This implausible story, which is at odds with Palast's previous admission that he himself knew a coup was coming, was broadcast on the BBC's Newsnight programme and published in The Guardian. This is what Chávez had to say when Palast put it to him:

"In all honesty, there was no direct relationship between that oil scenario and the possibility that production would be cut, and the imminence of the coup."

Also on Hugo Chávez, Venezuela, and the "Bolivarian revolution" in openDemocracy:

Ivan Briscoe, "The invisible majority: Venezuela after the revolution"
(25 August 2004)

Ivan Briscoe, "All change in Venezuela's revolution?"
(25 January 2005)

Jonah Gindin & William I Robinson, "The United States, Venezuela, and "democracy promotion"
(4 August 2005)

Ivan Briscoe, "Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(10 February 2006)

Ben Schiller, "The axis of oil: China and Venezuela"
(2 March 2006)

George Philip, "The politics of oil in Venezuela"
(24 May 2006)

From insult to argument

The standard pro-Chávez argument in the international "solidarity" community goes something like this:

▪ before Chávez came along, Venezuela was a dictatorship, run by a tiny minority of white, racist oligarchs for the benefit of themselves and the United States

▪ 80% of the population were poor and non-white. They had never seen any benefits from the country's oil wealth: education, health and welfare services were not available to them

▪ Chávez, the country's first truly democratic president, has distributed wealth to the poor and his government has been legitimised over and over again in free elections, within the framework of a functioning set of independent branches of government

▪ Chávez is merely trying to introduce a version of "European social democracy", and has never repressed the opposition; yet the opposition has repeatedly tried to overthrow him, with the financial and logistical backing of the US, which wants to recover control of Venezuela's oil industry.

This caricature - plausible enough if you are in an armchair thousands of miles away - is repeated over and over again by foreign propagandists, some of whom are merely ignorant (and often uninterested in an impartial consideration of the facts), while others know better but find it convenient to parrot the government line.

Anyone who dares to dissent is labelled a racist "neo-con" with a hidden agenda, allied to the Venezuelan "oligarchy" and probably paid by Washington.

This intolerant attitude has the effect of stifling the debate as to whether chavismo really is the best the left has to offer Latin America, and the world in general, in the face of the challenges of the 21st century.

That debate, which is an important one, will not be conducted by hurling insults - the weapon of those who have no arguments - but by coolly appraising the facts and exchanging ideas with others who, whilst they may hold different views, are equally willing to set aside prejudices and foster a civilised discussion.

It cannot start too soon.

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