International Papers

The Venezuelan Insta-Coup

Hugo Chávez was pushed out of the Venezuelan presidency in the early hours of Friday, in what may be remembered as one of the most efficient—if undemocratic—regime changes in recent history. The general strike that began Tuesday (see this “International Papers” column) culminated in a 200,000-strong anti-government demonstration in downtown Caracas Thursday evening. After pro-Chávez forces opened fire on the crowd, killing at least 14 and injuring more than 100, a group of high-ranking military officers declared themselves appalled by the human rights violations and thus in open rebellion against the administration. By 1:30 a.m., it was announced that Chávez had accepted the military’s request that he resign.

As the Financial Times observed, “The undignified end to Mr Chávez’s three-year rule and autocratic style of government marked the climax of the effective rebellion of the entire armed forces in the space of around four hours.” The military refused Chávez’s request to leave the country for exile in Cuba. On Friday morning, Pedro Carmona, the president of Venezuela’s main business association and one of the instigators of this week’s general strike, was named as the head of a civilian junta that will rule Venezuela until elections can be held on Dec. 8.

One of President Carmona’s first pronouncements suggests that many of the reforms made during Chávez’s rule will soon be repealed. In 1999, 70 percent of voters approved Chávez’s plan to change the country’s name to “the Boliviarian Republic of Venezuela.” According to Spain’s El País, Carmona announced Friday that he would scrap “Boliviarian.” It is also unclear what, if anything, the strange bedfellows that organized the general strike—a coalition of business owners and trade unionists—have in common beyond a hatred of Hugo Chávez.

An Associated Press story published in Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that Chávez had “accused business leaders of conspiring with major labour groups, the news media and the Roman Catholic hierarchy to overthrow him.” Apparently, his paranoia was justified. The report added that the Venezuelan armed forces, “which have traditionally [maintained] strong ties to the U.S. military,” resented Chávez’s distancing of Venezuela from Washington, his friendship with Fidel Castro, and his alleged ties with left-wing Colombian guerrillas. Executives at Petróleos de Venezuela, the state oil monopoly, where production was virtually halted by this week’s work stoppage, pledged to return to full production as soon as possible. The Financial Times also noted that PDVSA planned to “immediately terminate” an agreement made by Chávez to supply oil to Cuba at reduced rates.

As to the effect of Chávez’s departure on oil prices, the outcome may be less positive than many expected. An analyst told the Financial Times:

Prior to the Chávez presidency Venezuela had been an Opec member in name only, generally one of the worst quota breakers in the producer group. It rarely paid any attention to production limits and appeared to have a policy of maximising production. … [H]istory would suggest that Venezuela could soon return to its cheating days.