Frontline World

VENEZUELA, A Critical Turning Point, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Venezuela: A Critical Turning Point
My Country's Rise and Fall
Hugo Chavez Comes to Power
The President's Foes Strike Back
Tapping a Nationalist Vein
Chavez's Remarkable Staying Power
A Clash Between Rich and Poor
Venzuela's Next Chapter
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The President's Foes Strike Back

The Economy Shrinks: Managers of the National Oil Company Take On the New Boss

The shadow of opposition demonstrators is cast during their march through Maracaibo in western Venezuela.

The shadow of opposition demonstrators is cast during their march through Maracaibo in western Venezuela, Friday, December 13, 2002, on the 12th day of the general strike that sought to oust Chavez from the Venezuelan presidency. (AP/Wide World Photos).
In the first few years of Chavez's presidency, deteriorating economic conditions set the backdrop for repeated efforts by anti-Chavez forces to drive Chavez out of office before the middle of his term. First came the conflict between the president and the independently-minded management of Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil company, which he called a "state within a state." The president appointed loyal military commanders to key posts, igniting resentment within the executive ranks. The confrontation between these executives and the young president was further inflamed by media coverage. Chavez attacked his opponents during his frequent televised speeches. He also fired executives live on television.

The privately owned media, controlled by elite families, sided mostly with the opposition. Talk show hosts and newspaper editorials openly advocated a coup d'état against Chavez. As the FRONTLINE/World segment "A Nation On Edge," which aired on June 12, 2003, recounts, the morning of April 11, 2002, brought some 600,000 people into the streets, marching toward the presidential palace to demand the president be ousted. On the route, demonstrators clashed with Chavez supporters, and in sudden bursts of gunfire, 19 people died. The military intervened and Chavez was ousted -- only to be returned to office two days later riding on a wave of massive demonstrations on his behalf. There were intimations of Chavez's own history as an unsuccessful coup plotter and similar uncertainty about the longer-term effects of the attempted putsch.

The Coup Fails: Chavez's Temporary Fall -- And His Swift Recovery of Power

Hugo Chavez waves as he arrives at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas.

Hugo Chavez waves as he arrives at Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas after being freed by his military captors early Sunday, April 14, 2002, two days after the military said he had resigned. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Watching the coup attempt on television in California -- having postponed my own dream of returning to Venezuela until the political crisis was over -- I was surprised by the president's seemingly miraculous return to power. A chastened Hugo Chavez celebrated his resumption of the presidency with a few conciliatory comments. He made it clear, though, that he was determined to stay in office.

In the summer of 2002, in the aftermath of Chavez's restoration, theories proliferated about how Chavez had managed to survive. One of the most interesting came from newspaper editor Teodoro Petkoff, who occupies a kind of middle ground in Venezuelan politics; he's a leader of the opposition to Chavez, but he had opposed the coup against the president. "What happened here stems from magical realism," Petkoff told me in an interview last year. "The military had accepted Chavez's departure as a solution to the political crisis. But when they saw what was coming afterward, they decided to put him back in power."

Of course, except in Latin American literature, reality always trumps magical realism. But Petkoff may have his finger on something significant. It's clear that the persistence of Chavez's appeal springs from something larger than just class identity or ethnic pride or left-wing polemics. Interviews with analysts, activists and political observers of all stripes made it clear that Chavez's brinkmanship, which drew its strength from the threat of the deluge that might follow his ousting, gave some of his enemies pause.

On both trips home, I also learned something about how the president's invocation of the spirit of Simón Bolívar, combined with his blistering attacks on the rich and anti-U.S. rhetoric, had immunized him to an extent from the multiple efforts to remove him from office. Chavez's claim to the mantle of Simón Bolívar enabled him, in part, to tap into a long-dormant, but nonetheless powerful reservoir of nationalist sentiment.

NEXT: Tapping a Nationalist Vein