THE POOR of Venezuela defeated an attempted coup against the country's president, Hugo Chavez, last weekend. The attempt to remove Chavez was the work of the head of the employers' organisation, with the connivance of army generals, the head of the Catholic church, and even a corrupt trade union leader.
They were defeated by a popular uprising in Venezuela's capital, Caracas. From the shanty towns on the hills that surround the city, thousands of people risked their lives to take to the streets and defy the coup. Some were rioting and looting, others besieged the presidential palace and main military camp, and others seized control of the country's main TV station. The New York Times reported that those rising up in defence of Chavez were 'the vendors and factory workers, the maids and truckers'.
Their heroism split the army, broke the coup attempt, and saw Chavez restored to office. The coup's failure is also a serious setback for the gang around George W Bush in the US White House. The South American country is one the world's biggest oil producers, and it also supplies 15 percent of all US oil imports.
At least some of those around Bush's White House seem to have encouraged the coup plotters. The coup attempt was prepared by Venezuela's employers, who seized on Chavez's appointment of new directors to the state oil company as a pretext to organise a shutdown of industry. The corrupt leader of Venezuela's main union federation claimed the shutdown was a 'strike' since it had the support of middle and upper management, and called on workers to support it.
Disgracefully, the International Federation of Free Trade Unions, to which Britain's TUC is affiliated, supported him in this. On the second day of the shutdown last week there was a mass anti-Chavez demonstration of the middle classes in Caracas. The protest clashed with a smaller demonstration of Chavez supporters, and shooting took place.
Supporters of the coup within the armed forces then intervened, claiming they were 'preventing bloodshed', and declared that Chavez had resigned. Carmona, head of the employers' organisation, declared himself president, closed down the country's congress, and began mass arrests of those believed to be Chavez supporters.
What upset his plans and saw him removed from office was the reaction among the poor. The popular uprising saw sudden panic overtake many ruling class figures who had backed the coup only hours before. They feared civil war between different sections of the armed forces. They also feared a repetition of the great riots of 1989, the 'Caracazo'.
On that occasion a spontaneous revolt of the country's poor against a government and International Monetary Fund cuts package was only put down after more than 1,000 deaths. The mere threat of a repetition of such turmoil was enough for the heads of the armed forces to force Carmona to resign and announce Chavez's reinstatement.
Struggle from below is key
BY SUNDAY the forces that had plotted to overthrow Hugo Chavez were terrified by the sight of the poor protesting on the streets. They brought Chavez back in the hope they could persuade him to bring the poor under control again.
Armed forces commanders who switched from supporting the coup to opposing it will now be putting pressure on Chavez. They are telling him the only way he can remain secure is by following policies of 'moderation'. In his first statement on restoration to office Chavez seemed to endorse that message himself.
He announced he was convoking a 'round table of national unity' involving 'the Catholic and evangelical churches, the employers, the political parties and their leaders, the unions and the mass media'. To those who had risked their lives going on the streets on his behalf he said, 'I hear there has been rioting and looting. Let's return home and reflect upon events.'
It is a message that many who took to the streets will not want to accept. They saw how little concern the bosses' have for democracy or human rights. They are bitter at the newspapers and TV proprietors for conniving in the coup attempt.
They want to be rid of those military commanders who did not immediately move against the coup. It is up to ordinary people to take action to challenge the power of those at the top of society while their structures of control are in disarray. This cannot be done by relying, as much of the left has done for three years, on Chavez to do things using the top-down method.
It means direct struggle from below, run by workers and the poor themselves, not middle class military officers who can so easily switch sides. It also means being absolutely clear that attacking the wages and conditions of employed workers is no way to help the unemployed, the semi-employed and the rural poor.
That only plays into the hands of the rich, the multinationals and the Bush gang in the White House.
Who is Hugo Chavez?
HUGO CHAVEZ has upset the United States in his three years in office. He has campaigned to strengthen the OPEC organisation of oil producing countries, cultivated a friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro, and refused to support the US- backed war against left wing guerrilla groups in neighbouring Colombia.
Chavez has also upset Venezuela's rulers by promising to reduce the huge gap between rich and poor. His talk of thoroughgoing reform had led to an unexpected electoral victory for him in 1998, and massive popularity during his first year in office. His poll ratings have fallen in the last year. This is because his political method prevented him turning talk of reform into real improvements for the mass of people.
Chavez is a career military officer who tried unsuccessfully to seize power in the early 1990s. His aim was to introduce a series of top-down reforms while leaving Venezuelan capitalism intact. After a spell in prison Chavez turned to the electoral road in order to introduce the same kind of changes. After his electoral victory he insisted he was in favour of the 'mixed economy', not an onslaught on capitalism.
When his reforms faced resistance he relied on the command structure of the armed forces to push them through, not a mobilisation of the mass of people. His measures antagonised the ruling class and the US government but did not produce the great social changes Chavez had promised.
His top-down approach has also led him to attack the wages and conditions of employed workers, even while talking about help to the unemployed, the semi-employed and the rural poor. It was this that enabled union leader Alfredo Ramos to back the employers' shutdown of industry. In this way, Chavez's own policies played into the hands of those who wanted to overthrow him.
A defeat for the Bush gang
THE ATTEMPTED coup came after a long series of denunciations of Chavez by the US government. In February the US State Department and the CIA expressed their 'worry' over his activities. A US State Department official told the Washington Post, 'Venezuela is in a very dangerous position. If Chavez does not arrange things quickly he will not complete his term in office.'
This suggests that at least a section of the US government encouraged the coup plotters. The New York Times spelled out Chavez's crimes in US eyes: 'Visions of a united South America unshackled from the dominance of Washington's power,' 'Selling oil to Castro,' 'His not so tacit support for the Colombian rebels,' and, 'The potential threat he posed to thousands of American gas stations.'
'Above all,' the paper argued, 'the US wants stability in its backyard. Mr Chavez did not fit in with President Bush's vision of the century of the Americas.'
This is in line with the approach of the core group in the Bush administration, who hold that the US can do whatever it wants anywhere in the world. The Bush gang suffered a significant setback when the poor took to the streets of Caracas on Saturday. That should be good news for everyone opposed to US power.