TOPICS > Politics

Divided Nation

May 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth reports on the aftermath of the coup in the South American nation of Venezuela.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Venezuelans are obsessed with their President, Hugo Chavez.

A coup supported by an unlikely coalition of military officers, oil workers and industrialists toppled President Chavez last month; but after only about 48 hours, he was back in power.

Whether they like him or not, people here can’t stop talking about him.

ROBERTO BOTTOME: He loves the strappings of power, and so on and so forth, and he is a committed communist, and he wants… he wants to emulate Fidel Castro.

JULIO BORGES: He’s like a kid that arrives to a very high position, and with some truths within his mind that are not real.

NORA NEGRIN (Translated): I adore him.

TEODORO PETKOFF: He has created a very powerful emotional link with the most humble of our citizens.

CARLOS BLAUMANN: This guy is difficult to explain in a brief sentence.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Chavez first entered the nation’s psyche in 1992 when, as a young colonel, he tried and failed to overthrow a president he blamed for corruption, human rights violations and ignoring the poor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In a now- legendary TV appearance after the coup had failed, Chavez explained why he’d led the revolt and took full responsibility for what he’d done, which impressed many Venezuelans.

He spent two years in prison, and in a democratic vote six years later was elected president.

He quickly alienated the United States with an aggressively leftist foreign policy. He was the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Gulf War. He embraced Fidel Castro in a series of meetings, including one when they played baseball, and sold Cuba Venezuelan oil at bargain basement prices.

After September 11, Chavez also condemned the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. The United States has long depended on Venezuela for between about 15 percent and 25 percent of US oil imports, and has historically had close relations with the country. But the foreign policy of Chavez angered US leaders.

Many Venezuelans were angered, too.

Teodoro Petkoff, a former leftist guerrilla, is a successful newspaper publisher.

TEODORO PETKOFF, Publisher, TalCual Newspaper: He has managed the foreign policy of this country in a very childish way. He has created some unnecessary conflicts.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Petkoff said Chavez has also created unnecessary domestic conflicts.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The president governs from this 19th century palace in the capital city of Caracas, where people of great wealth and great poverty live within spitting distance of each other.

From the beginning, Chavez said he was governing for the poor, who make up more than half of Venezuela’s 24 million people.

But Petkoff said Chavez alienated a broad range of potential middle class supporters with rhetoric and policies that scared investors, wrecked the economy, and promoted class conflict.

TEODORO PETKOFF: I saw the same mistakes that were made in Chile or in Nicaragua.

The problem is that he has created a deep trench between Venezuelans today. What we have today is a very strong sense of animosity between the two big sectors — rich and poor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In speeches and press conferences, Chavez called those who disagreed with him — especially those with money — “esqualidos,” squalid, and “oligarchic.”

Last month’s brief coup just widened the breech. It was apparently hijacked midway by a group of businessmen who proceeded to shut down Congress and other democratic organs of government.

Widespread anger in the population and the military brought Chavez back.

Now, the wealthy and the more numerous middle class people who live in neighborhoods like this one are terrified of what’s going to happen next.

Carlos Blaumann has built a communications business that is shrinking rapidly because of the weakening economy. He and his family live in a luxurious apartment, but he said that doesn’t make him or other middle class people like him oligarchs.

CARLOS BLAUMANN: Oligarchs means… for the poor people it means the rich people. And well, we are not rich. We achieve something in life. Okay, we have some better conditions to start, but we worked hard in order to get those things.

And when [Chavez] starts to speak like that, all the poor people start looking at us like, “Oh, you are the one who he was speaking about.”


CARLOS BLAUMANN: Yeah, identifying us. And this is a very nice society. I am not against Chavez himself.

I am against violence because it… it… I don’t like it. I feel that it’s going to… to bring us into civil war. And every day more I’m convinced it will turn into that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Carlos Blaumann said what he fears is the class hatred of Chavez supporters. Tens of thousands took to the streets to celebrate after pro-Chavez military officials brought the president back last month.

Looting and rioting followed, and dozens of people were killed. Government police and the National Guard did nothing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Blaumann said he particularly fears these people– armed members of pro-Chavez groups called “Bolivarian Circles” — who fired on anti-Chavez demonstrators just before the coup. The demonstrators were part of an anti-Chavez march April 11 that brought as many as half a million people to the streets. Members of the Bolivarian Circles were videotaped shooting at marchers.

Seventeen people were killed and more than 100 were injured. The shooters claimed they fired in self-defense at snipers who shot first, and there is some evidence to back their claim.

Hearings are under way now in the legislature to determine just what happened.

The legislature is also looking into charges the United States may have promoted or even had some involvement in the coup, which the Bush administration has denied. But, Hugo Chavez, not the US role, was the main concern here last week.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This General faces a court martial for his alleged role in the coup.

In last week’s hearings he read aloud a letter he wrote to the president late last year accusing him of fomenting class struggle. Testimony like this has galvanized the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: On a street corner near the National Assembly, Chavez supporters watched the hearings on monitors mounted on trucks and defended their president.

MAN ON STREET (Translated): He has been very sensitive to us. He’s a president who has always been with the poor. He helps us, and we like him. Understand?

And because he helps the poor and we like him, we’re with him. We’re with him for whatever he needs, God willing.

MAN (Translated): My daughter needed an operation, and I had been asking other administrations for eleven years for help with this operation. In eleven years they never had a budget for it.

But in only three months, the president gave me this help. He gave the money not to me, but to the hospital and said, “Go ahead and get your daughter’s operation.”

MAN (Translated): Listen to me. The president of the republic has awakened a love of politics among the poor here.

I live in a poor neighborhood, and in my house, we never used to talk about politics. We didn’t know anything, not even about the constitution.

Look, the biggest thing this president has done is to wake people up; the people have awakened!

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We found similar support for Chavez in a poor neighborhood called Catuche.

Activists Janet Calderon and Nora Negrin have been organizing with the help of the Catholic Church to build better housing, like these apartments, for themselves and their neighbors. This is a place where a terrible flood wiped out almost every home a few years ago.

Neither Calderon nor Negrin are members of any formal pro-Chavez group.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But Negrin said she “adores” the president because he gives her hope for the future; and Calderon said when she saw business leader Pedro Carmona, who was president during last month’s coup, on television, she took to the streets to call for Chavez’s return.

JANET CALDERON (Translated): Chavez brings together dreams we have contemplated for years, and Carmona did not represent that.

He was president of the industrial federation, which is “oligarchic,” as the government would put it. If we’re not doing so well with a government that is supposedly working for the poor, how much worse would we be with an oligarchic government?

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Negrin and Calderon are worried about the rising level of violence against people like them.

These are anti-Chavistas attacking Chavez’s supporters during dueling demonstrations last month. And leaders of Chavez’s political party, like Tarek-William Saab, shown here as he was arrested during the coup, said they got firsthand experience of what a Carmona government would do.

Saab is a member of the legislature.

TAREK WILLIAM SAAB, Member of Venezuela Congress (Translated): The world has to know that during 48 hours a government was in power here that claimed to be restoring democracy, but it trampled human rights, weakened the constitution, and did in 48 hours what fascists, and some of the most violent kinds of groups around would have taken months to do.

In only two days here, they dissolved the public institutions, including the legislature.

Even I, a member of the legislature, was arbitrarily detained by the Carmona government. I was detained for a day, violating my parliamentary immunity.

Governors and mayors were persecuted. Out of control mobs stoned our houses. And the world has to know that during 48 hours, we lived under terror, and it was carried out against a democratically-elected government.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For all the talk of violence, Caracas– one of Latin America’s most beautiful cities– was outwardly calm last week.

Pedro Carmona, the 48-hour president, is under house arrest, but other opposition leaders led a large May Day protest march without government interference.

President Chavez has softened his class struggle rhetoric and replaced some of his more controversial cabinet ministers.

PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ (Translated): We just barely stopped a potential disaster. There was a disaster, but what was coming would have been much worse.

Thank God it didn’t happen. I called on the country and said I would rectify, change my ways. But I’m not the only one who has to do this. Many sectors of Venezuela have to change, to lower the level of conflict.

I have called this the “deactivation of a minefield.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In Caracas last week, rumors swirled that another coup was in the works.

Chavez has placed loyal colonels in positions usually held by generals, which has created much resentment at high levels of the military.

Legislative Deputy Liliana Hernandez leads one of the opposition parties that have united to try to remove President Chavez without violence through a constitutional amendment that would permit a referendum or recall vote later this year.

LILIANA HERNANDEZ, Member of Venezuelan Congress (Translated): I hope we have the time to find a constitutional exit from this crisis.

I want a constitutional way out. I think military solutions are never good. They don’t last. People need to understand that.

But the problem is we don’t control the barracks, and I don’t know what’s happening there. I have some idea, but I don’t know how long they’ll put up with what’s being done to them now.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: With all the uncertainty, many middle class people are leaving Venezuela. The Blaumanns have made a down payment on a condominium in Miami, and they’re trying to decide whether and when to go.

In the poor neighborhood of Catuche, people don’t have the option of emigrating, but they’re worried, too, and say they’ll do whatever they can to prevent the fall of a president they still revere and trust.