Soft coups and a new civil rights movement in Venezuela by Brunilde Sansò.
Like it or not, the Venezuelan society wanted real change when they elected Hugo Chávez in 1998. The idea was not to elect a putchist military man. What people wanted was more justice, including social justice, more security, less corruption and a better goverment.
They wanted to get rid of the traditional parties that were blamed for the pitiful state of the country and wanted a country that is incredibly rich in natural resources and human talent to be able to finally reach its full potential.
They were fooled.
On the other hand, those, like myself, that opposed Chávez from day one, knew that a military putchist is a military putchist. We knew from the begining that his was a quest for absolute and indefinite power, like all the other caudillos we had before in our history.
Unfortunately, we were right.
Under the pretense of carrying out a Revolution, Chávez has been dismantling the few institutions that Venezuela had left. He was not just responsible for the coup of 1992, he systematically took over every major institution. In fact, one could say, that Venezuela has indeed been under a constant coup d’ état since 1998.
How was that possible? It was possible, of course, because Venezuelan institutions were weak to start with. They were institutions dominated by partisan rethoric and personal interests. As a matter of fact, the weaker the institution, the easiest it was for Chávez to take over.
It was also possible because of the extreme poverty and injustice that existed in Venezuela. When one does not have the bare essentials to be able to live decently, notions such as institutionality or independence of powers and even democracy become totally irrelevant. So Chávez worked on two fronts: he attacked and took over the Venezuelan institutions while given the poor the idea that he was doing it for them. On the other hand, he started an unprecedented campaign of hate and divisionism in the Venezuelan society. Elements such as social position and race, that in a permeable and mixed society like ours were practically irrelevant, were put upfront in the political agenda and were dangerously equated with political ideology.
After almost nine years of Chavismo, the only independent institutions that remain in the country are the Universities.
Venezuelan Universities have traditionally been free, strong and autonomous. They are a social and ideological melting pot and, like in most countries,they are the origin of free thinking and individual freedoms.
It is not by chance, then, that this new civil rights movement starts as a University movement. And it is not by chance either that the next putchist attack of Hugo Chávez will be against the Universities.
Now, how is this movement different from the protests that took place in 2002 and 2003 and that, eventually, led to the 2004 Referendum?
It is different because, at that time, the reaction of the people was “anything but Chávez”. People were aware that they had made a mistake electing Hugo Chávez and their inmediate objective was to get rid of him. They almost succeeded. In fact, if it had not been for the mistakes of those that led the opposition at the time, Hugo Chávez would not be in power today. Instead, and thanks to the absence of an organized and intelligent opposition, Hugo Chávez consolidated his power.
A few weeks ago, however, with the closing of a popular Television station, Chávez went one step too far.To understand why one has to know the history of the Venezuelan people. One must remember that the idea of independence against the mighty Spanish Empire started in Venezuela. Venezuelans are not submissive people that accept easily authoritarian rules. In fact, our history is full of caudillos precisely because nobody wanted to accept the rule of another.
With the closing of RCTV Chávez, for the first time, was confronted with the will of the large majority of the people, including those that liked him. Thus, he sent the signal that he might take away other things from them.
That is why the barrios did not go down “to defend the Revolution” when the protest against the closing started.Quite the opposite, pot banging could be heard even in the poorest neighborhoods and some declared chavistas were seen participating in marches against the closing of RCTV. The protests against the measure led the goverment to his usual twisting of civil rights but, this time, Chavista divisive rethoric of rich versus poor, oligarchs and the empire did not ring any bells in the Venezuelan spirit. On the contrary, that twisting woke up a formidable adversary: university students.
So what started as a protest against a very unpopular measure ended up being a student revolt for civil rights. Now, the difference with the classical opposition movement is that the students are not fighting to remove Chávez from power, they are fighting to be able to live in Venezuela as free citizens. They are fighting for fundamental human rights that yes, exist in the Constitution, but have long been forgotten by the regime.
The students’ fight is for equality in front of the law, non-discrimination, freedom of speech, freedom of choice, freedom of circulation, freedom of protest, freedom of ideology. Basic human rights that the citizens of democratic countries around the world take for granted, but that are restricted in Chavista Venezuela.
Chávez has been taken aback by the protests and, in his numerous “cadenas” he has accused the students to prepare a “soft coup” organized by “the Empire” .
I personally do not think that “the Empire” is behind what went on in Venezuela these last weeks but I do not totally disagree with Chávez that this is leading to a “soft coup”. Except that I do not think of one, but many “soft coups” and that my definition of a “soft coup” is different than his. In fact, in the same way he gave coup after coup after coup to all the democratic institutions, the civil society wants to recuperate its rights and freedoms and for that, it is necessary to rebuild independent institutions and create a state with check and balances and separation of powers. A “soft coup” then would not be to remove him from power, but to make him respect the Constitutional rights and freedoms of all the Venezuelan people, regardless of their ideology. In a sense, everytime we gain back institutionality, we make the goverment respect the state of law and we regain civil rights for all the Venezuelan people, there will be a reversal of the coups that Hugo Chávez has been giving since 1998. Those are the real “soft coups” of the civil rights movement initiated by the students.
Using mathematical terminology, Chávez should not be talking about “soft coups”, but about “inverse coups”.
An inverse coup is already about to happen: after this week, it will not be that easy for Chávez to carry out the tailor made Constitutional changes that would lead to a socialist state and eternal reelection, which was indeed his last coup d’ état. So he can very well say that the students are perpetrating a “soft coup” against his inmediate plans for absolute power.
To me, in the last weeks we have witnessed the dawn of a civil rights movement that can bring two things: a hardening of Chávez’s posture and a more repressive goverment to impose the changes he wants, or the softening of his current autocratic grip and a progressive regain of civil rights and democratic awareness.
In both cases, this will eventually lead to his dismissal and to a more democratically mature Venezuelan society.
It will not happen overnight. But it will happen.