Critical Introduction: Historical Context

Hugo Chávez died on March 5, 2013 after a long battle with cancer. Details on his illness were kept very quiet by his government, so much so that although he flew to Cuba for treatment on multiple occasions, the type of cancer from which he suffered was never disclosed (“Venezuela After Chávez: Now for the reckoning”). Chávez claimed to be cured during his bid for reelection in 2012, and although his health did not permit him to campaign as extensively as he had in previous years, he easily won the October election that would have extended his presidential reign from 1999 to 2018 (“Venezuela’s presidential election: Stuck with him”). A few weeks later, after another trip to Cuba, Chávez announced the return of his cancer (“Venezuelan Politics: Next in line”). His comments on the need to prepare for any circumstances that might impede him from fulfilling his presidential duties were indicative of the seriousness of his illness, as were his remarks with regards to his chosen successor: “My firm, full—like the moon is full—absolute and total opinion…is that you should elect Nicolás Maduro as president of the republic” (trnsltn qtd in “Venezuela: Preparing to pass the torch”). He travelled to Cuba on December 10 for his fourth surgery, and his ongoing hospitalization there left him unable to attend his constitutionally-mandated swearing in on January 10. Chávez’s government indicated that the inauguration was a formality that could wait until the president was healthy. In the meantime, Maduro also continued in his capacity as Vice President, his term ending on January 10 apparently also a technicality (“Venezuela: In limbo”).[1] Chávez’s February 18 return to Caracas occurred without the usual fanfare. No photos or footage was taken, and he was not met by the throngs of his supporters. Instead, he was quietly transported to a military hospital, where he passed away (“Venezuela: The homecoming”).

Chávez first entered the public spotlight nineteen years earlier on February 4, 1992. His coup attempt against President Carlos Andrés Pérez had failed, and in a short statement, Chávez called upon his fellow soldiers to surrender to government forces. His statement was just over a minute, yet its promise of change to come caught the attention of a population dissatisfied with the status quo. Two words in particular stood out to them: por ahora, for now…

Primero que nada, quiero dar los buenos días a todo el pueblo de Venezuela, y este mensaje bolivariano va dirigido a los valientes soldados que se encuentran en el regimiento de paracaidistas de Aragua y en la Brigada de Valencia. Compañeros, lamentablemente, por ahora, los objetivos que nos planteamos no fueron logrados en la ciudad capital. Quiere decir, nosotros, acá en Caracas, no logramos controlar el poder. Ustedes lo hicieron muy bien por allá, pero ya es tiempo de evitar más derramamiento de sangre. Ya es tiempo de reflexionar y vendrán nuevas situaciones y el país tiene que enrumbarse definitivamente hacia un destino mejor. Así que oigan mi palabra. Oigan al comandante Chávez, quien les lanza este mensaje para que, por favor, reflexionen y depongan las armas porque ya, en verdad, los objetivos que nos hemos trazado a nivel nacional es imposible que los logremos. Compañeros, oigan este mensaje solidario. Les agradezco su lealtad. Les agradezco su valentía, su desprendimiento, y yo, ante el país y ante ustedes, asumo la responsabilidad de este movimiento militar bolivariano. Muchas gracias. (Valencia 4:33-5:42)

Hugo Chávez’s Por ahora speech after his unsuccessful coup

First and foremost, I’d like to wish the people of Venezuela a good morning, and this Bolivarian message is directed to those valiant soldiers of the paratrooper regiment in Aragua and those in the brigade in Valencia. Comrades, unfortunately, for now, the objectives we established were not achieved in the capital city. That is to say, we, here in Caracas, have not taken control of power. You all did very well out there, but now is the time to avoid more bloodshed. Now is the time to reflect, and new situations will come and the country must definitively head toward a better destiny. So listen to what I’m saying. Listen to Comandante Chávez, who is sending this message for you to please reflect and put down your arms because, truly, the objectives we set for ourselves at a national level are impossible to meet. Comrades, listen to this solidary message. I thank you for your loyalty. I thank you for your valor, your generosity, and I, before the country and before you all, assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement. Thank you very much.

Translation of Hugo Chávez’s For now speech by Alaina Brandt

In the book Venezuela, Elizabeth Gackstetter Nichols and Kimberly J. Morse note that although his coup attempt failed, it was among the final blows to a system of government that had reigned in Venezuela since 1959 (84). That system was known as puntofijismo, a term derived from the Punto Fijo Pact, entered into by the major Venezuelan political parties in October of 1959. Although leaders from unions, representatives of the church and other political parties all met at Punto Fijo, Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) won the greatest share of power from the pact. For the next thirty years, adecos and copeyanos shared governance, and during that period the middle and upper classes enjoyed a period of great prosperity. That prosperity was attributed to the political stability said to have resulted from puntofijismo, buoyed early on by a period of great oil profits (Nichols and Morse 58-62). Indeed, the first two decades of puntofijismo led many to celebrate Venezuelan exceptionalism. However,the global recession of the 1980s led to a decreased demand for oil, and as a result, President Luis Herrera Campins devalued Venezuela’s currency, the bolívar, on February 28, 1983. That day came to be known as “Viernes negro” or “Black Friday,” the official end to the prosperity of the previous decades (Nichols and Morse 83). The economic crisis of the 1980s only exacerbated the class and racial divisions in the country as wages fell, austerity measures led to an increased cost of living, and government corruption became more and more rampant. Although former president Carlos Andres Pérez publicly denounced the IMF before being re-elected in 1988, he agreed to the austerity program required to secure additional international loans after his election. These austerity measures came to be known as “the package” and included cuts to the number of government employees, cuts to price controls and subsidies, and the end of wage regulations that had benefited workers. Pérez then increased domestic gas prices by thirty percent in February 1989, which in turn led to increased bus fares, the last straw for the many who relied on public transportation to travel to work (Nichols and Morse 79-80). So began the five days of riots known as the Caracazo.

In ¡Hugo! The Hugo Chávez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution, Bart Jones recounts the events of the Caracazo and the repercussions of the riots that began on February 27. He notes that students and other morning commuters faced hikes in fares up to 100 percent. They were the first to begin rioting, throwing stones at drivers, blocking traffic with empty vehicles and setting cars on fire. The riots spread to other cities, and by that afternoon, rioters began looting stores in Caracas, first for the basic necessities that had been unavailable or unaffordable in the months leading up to the Caracazo and later for bigger items like home appliances. Members of the police force even joined in on the looting, which lasted into the morning of February 28. President Pérez, who had been travelling outside of Caracas returned to the city on February 27. He didn’t address the public until the following night, but the delay in this response did not correspond to any lack in severity (Jones 116-121). Pérez declared martial law, imposed a strict curfew and suspended constitutional guarantees. Jones highlights the gravity of those measures: “In effect, it meant the military had the right to detain anyone on sight without any particular cause… [and] [t]hose detained had no right to see a lawyer” (121). The president also flew nine thousand troops into Caracas, to be added to the one thousand soldiers already in the city. As the troops moved into the neighborhoods of hillside shacks of Caracas, they fired indiscriminately on residents (Jones 121). By March 4, the violence had mostly come to a close. The government set the official death toll of the Caracazo at 277, although Jones points to human rights organizations and that have identified 399 victims by name (123).

Those civilian lives lost at the hands of the military left an indelible mark on Venezuelan society, and the riots and protests that sparked the Caracazo demonstrated the public’s dissatisfaction with their government. Chávez and his fellow soldiers had often discussed how a popular uprising like the Caracazo could be leveraged to stage a coup during meetings of their Movimiento Bolivariano Revolucionario. As Richard Gott notes in Hugo Chávez and the Bolivarian Revolution, Chávez and other like-minded military officers had formed the Bolivarian Revolutionary Movement (MBR) in 1982, based on Chávez’s “firm belief that his generation of military officers would at some future date be called upon to lead the country” (37). However, when the time came, they were unprepared for the spontaneity of the Caracazo. Chávez himself was ill in bed throughout, while some of his fellow soldiers were even forced to participate in the military’s repression of the public (Gott 46). Despite the missed opportunity, the MBR was poised to carry out its coup in 1992, as its members had been promoted to command positions the previous year. On February 3, MBR leaders initiated plans to take control of the military barracks of cities surrounding the capital, and on February 4, Chávez led five army units into Caracas. His objective was to detain the president and other high‑ranking military officials. However, the coup plot had been revealed to Pérez, and Chávez met resistance upon entering the capital. When it became apparent that the coup had failed, he surrendered and delivered his famous por ahora speech (Gott 63-67).

Por ahora, for now. Gotts notes that the public—still recovering from the blows of the Caracazo—took these two words to be a promise that while Chávez’s “revolutionary project of overthrowing the government had been thwarted,… it would be revived” (68). This sentiment was also identified by politicians of the time. Former President Rafael Caldera, for example, stopped just short of condoning the coup in a speech he delivered to Congress. He placed responsibility for the economic and political circumstances that led to the coup squarely on Pérez, who would face another attempted coup in December of 1992 and be forced to resign from office in 1993 (Gott 69). After being re-elected as president in 1994, Caldera delivered on campaign promises and fully pardoned Chávez and other coup plotters.[2] After his release from prison in 1994, Chávez began exploring the possibility of running in the 1998 presidential elections. He formed the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR), or Fifth Republic Movement, to meet that aim, and while the mission of the MVR was quite broad—“to secure the well-being of the national community, to satisfy the individual and collective aspirations of the Venezuelan people, and to guarantee a state of optimum prosperity for [Venezuela]”—the people responded to the hope and optimism he conveyed (transltd in Gott 136). On December 6, 1998, Chávez was elected in a landslide with fifty-six percent of the vote. While many circumstances contributed to his early success, including the failure of the status quo to effect meaningful change and the growing dissatisfaction of the public, significant to that initial political victory was Chávez’s ability to harness language to inspire and rally the support of Venezuelans.

[1] The office of the vice presidency is filled by presidential appointment per Article 236 of the 1999 constitution. One can assume that Chávez would have reappointed Maduro to that office after his swearing-in, and that is perhaps among the reasons why Maduro was allowed in continue in that role.

[2] Caldera left COPEI, a party he had helped found, in 1993. Thus, his 1994 reelection marked the first time since 1959 that the presidency was not held by an adeco or a copeyano. See Gott, 119.