1992 Venezuelan coup d'etat attempts
The Venezuelan coup attempts of 1992 were an abortive coup d'etat led by Hugo Chavez in February 1992, and a second attempted coup in November 1992, directed by others. The coups were directed against the Carlos Andres Perez government. Despite its failure, the February coup attempt left a controversy that lasts to the present day, and rocketed Chavez to the national spotlight.
Through Chavez's early life, Venezuela had enjoyed a period of economic and democratic stability that was remarkable in South America at the time, although torture, ill-treatment, extrajudicial killings, political disappearances and corruption were widespread; the stability was based on the massive foreign exchange earnings from oil sales. However, when Saudi Arabia and other oil producers significantly raised their production output, a glut ensued. Oil prices collapsed to historic lows, and Venezuelan oil earnings, and economic and social stability in general, were suddenly imperiled as per capita income fell to a fraction of its previous levels.
Responding to this, in 1989 the Carlos Andres Perez administration enacted widely unpopular IMF-inspired structural adjustment programs. The programs' backers sought to restore fiscal stability to Venezuela's ailing economy by way of neoliberal policies, such as curtailing social spending and releasing longstanding price controls on many goods. These policies resulted in many hardships for Venezuela's poor majority, and their resultant discontent erupted in the violent 27 February 1989 Caracazo riots—the most violent and destructive in Venezuelan history.
Many conspirators were members in the 1970s of the Partido de la Revolucion Venezolana created by former guerrilla fighter Douglas Bravo who conceived the strategy of infiltrating the Venezuelan Armed Forces to reach power. Thus, plotting started more than ten years before Carlos Andres Perez was elected in 1988.
The Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario 200 (MBR-200) was founded by lieutenant colonels Hugo Chavez Frias, who was later joined by Francisco Arias Cardenas. They used the Venezuelan revolutionary hero Simon Bolivar as their group's symbol. Their main complaint was the corruption of Carlos Andres Perez as well as Venezuela's ongoing economic difficulties and social turmoil. In the view of these two men, the entire political system had to be changed in order for social change to occur.
After an extended period of popular dissatisfaction and economic decline under the neoliberal administration of Carlos Andres Perez, Chavez made extensive preparations for a military-civilian coup d'etat. Initially planned for December, Chavez delayed the MBR-200 coup until the early twilight hours of 4 February 1992. On that date, five army units under Chavez's command barreled into urban Caracas with the mission of assaulting and overwhelming key military and communications installations throughout the city, including the Miraflores presidential palace, the defense ministry, La Carlota military airport, and the Military Museum. Chavez's ultimate goal was to intercept and take custody of Perez before he returned to Miraflores from an overseas trip.
Chavez held the loyalty of some 10% of Venezuela's military forces; still, numerous betrayals, defections, errors, and other unforeseen circumstances soon left Chavez and a small group of other rebels completely cut off in the Historical Museum, without any means of conveying orders to their network of spies and collaborators spread throughout Venezuela. Worse, Chavez's allies were unable to broadcast their prerecorded tapes on the national airwaves in which Chavez planned to issue a general call for a mass civilian uprising against Perez. As the coup unfolded, Perez eluded capture, and fourteen soldiers were killed, and 50 soldiers and some 80 civilians injured, in the ensuing violence. Nevertheless, rebel forces in other parts of Venezuela made swift advances and were ultimately able to take control of such large cities as Valencia, Maracaibo, and Maracay with the help of spontaneous civilian aid. Chavez's forces, however, had failed to take Caracas as he remained inside the Military Museum.
Chavez soon gave himself up to the government. He was then allowed to appear on national television to call for all remaining rebel detachments in Venezuela to cease hostilities. When he did so, Chavez famously quipped on national television that he had only failed "por ahora"—"for now".
Chavez was immediately catapulted into the national spotlight, with many poor Venezuelans seeing him as a figure who had stood up against government corruption and kleptocracy. Afterwards, Chavez was sent to Yare prison; meanwhile, Perez, the coup's intended target, was impeached a year later.
A second coup attempt led by a few units of the Venezuelan Air Force also failed on 27 November 1992, while Chavez was still in prison.
In the process of resisting the coup attempts, government agents were reported to have killed forty people, both civilians and surrendered rebels, either as extrajudicial executions, or through the use of disproportionate force. Arbitrary detentions numbered in the hundreds, and continued for some time after the events, and involved student leaders and other civic leaders not connected with the coup attempts. In addition, freedom of expression was suspended for two months in the February case, and three weeks in the November case, and involved censorship of the media. A series of demonstrations in March/April calling for the resignation of President Carlos Andres Perez and the restoration of constitutional guarantees were met with state violence including indiscriminate police firing into crowds, with a total of 13 deaths. A number of members of the press covering the protests were severely injured by police.
Although participants in the February coup attempt were tried under the regular military justice system, in response to the November coup attempt the government created ad hoc courts based on the 1938 legal code of Eleazar Lopez Contreras, drawn up twenty years before the transition to democracy. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled the courts unconstitutional, but not on the due process grounds for which they were criticised, but on the grounds that the President had neglected to suspend the relevant constitutional rights .
With Perez's public image discredited by the unsuccessful neoliberal reforms and shattered by the coup attempts, other politicians began to challenge his authority, endangering the decades-old two-party puntofijismo system. The turmoil and failed coups were utilized by former president Rafael Caldera to comment on the gradual deterioration of Venezuelan democracy and the explosive conflation of poverty and corruption in the nation. Subsequent actions by intellectuals associated with Caldera resulted in Perez's ousting from the presidency on 20 May 1993, on charges of corruption. Swift political maneuvering allowed Caldera to gain the presidency in 1993 with a heterogeneous and non-traditional group of small independent political parties.
Coppedge, Michael. "Prospects for Democratic Governability in Venezuela". Journal of Latin American Studies and World Affairs. 36:2 (1994). 39-64.
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