We Are All to Blame

The Fires at Dawn

After-effects of looting during Venezuela's abortive coup
La Yaguara, a suburb of Caracas, on April 15, 2002, after rioting and looting during Venezuela's 48-hour coup (Photo: AFP).

While the details are being resolved, Venezuela must make an effort to transform its mourning, or joy, depending on which side, into learning. Now that the fires are out, it remains to be seen if we can finally learn to use our heads.

What kind of country is this? This question obsessed millions of people when they awoke on Sunday, April 14. The happiness in the Chávez camp that morning echoed like a firecracker against the grief of the families of those who died in the looting and confrontations; the fear of those who, winners just one day before, were now waiting for their persecutors to knock on their doors; the hopelessness of the merchants ruined by the mobs; the frustration of the middle class, which had marched toward El Silencio only to end up facing gunfire and a junta that did everything wrong.

The priests in parishes on Caracas’ east side wept with their flocks, journalists and politicians sought refuge, and the international community must have been scratching its head in astonishment, faced with the latest events from a nation once known for its beauty contest winners and oil wells.

As the nation ate breakfast on Sunday, its emotions ran the gamut from vengeful anger to violent jubilation, from one extreme to the other of the fanaticized political spectrum. Some people lamented that the president had not been shot in the head, that Freddy Bernal [the mayor of Caracas’ Libertador district and a fanatical Chávez supporter] had not been dragged through the streets, and that Diosdado Cabello [Chávez’s vice president before the coup] had not been beaten to death. Others, acting in the name of the revolution, and in spite of what their leaders asked, sacked and burned entire blocks of stores—stores run by folks who, like them, were members of that nebulous entity, “the people.”

So long as both extremes survive, so long as those representing an array of beliefs and ambitions across the political spectrum are ready to take up arms, this nation will not sleep through the night. Venezuela has not suffered a civil war since the end of the 19th century. But now it confronts a situation of open violence.

We must be honest and face the facts: On April 11 our oldest demons were unleashed. In an Urdaneta Avenue blocked by snipers, in the seemingly brutal measures imposed by the interim government in the poor, pro-Chávez 23 de Enero district, in the crowds ripping the security gates off storefronts, we were reminded of the lancers of José Tomás Boves, who impaled pregnant women during our War of Independence; of the rural militia members who kept dictator José Tadeo Monagas in power in the 19th century; and of the police who spread terror during the long dictatorship of Juan Vicente Gómez earlier this century.

The worst things about this country have emerged—a country that all of us believed, up until February 1989, was on its way to providing a reasonable per-capita income, with a vacation once a year to Epcot Center, and a new car every other year.

But things have gotten out of hand, and it is our own fault. We are all to blame. We have allowed ourselves to be led, through our ignorance and impatience, into the worst mess that we have seen since the Caracazo [riots in February 1989 that left 300 dead in Caracas]. Today, no one knows anything, no one is sure of anything—not how many are against Chávez, not what he wants, not what those people want who will probably try to overthrow him again.

As this edition of Primicia goes to press, it seems to be time (the shooting outside has stopped; we can open the windows again) to cure ourselves of this overdose of reality. It’s time to get out the brooms and the first-aid kit, and above all, to greet our neighbor. Civil society, crushed by the frustration of its day of glory (because a march like the one [on April 11] is not something you see every day), runs the risk of letting itself fall victim to the chimeras of disappointment and of losing the ground it gained in its necessary progress toward a critical mass, one able to force the government to obey the collective interest. This, more than economic prosperity, is the true sign of the nations we call developed, and this is what we must concentrate our efforts on achieving.

The top business leadership will have to look after its bases of support, having betrayed the political class and union leaders by supporting a junta that scarcely could have done worse when in power. It will be a long time before any businessman will be able to exercise leadership outside the corporate world.

Fedecámaras [the chamber of commerce] signed that fantastic decree that sought to dismantle the country and reassemble it with the help of the most conservative Christian Democrats and military officers allied with politicians who had been legitimately removed from office. For now, there is nothing for them to do but say their mea culpas, keep their mouths shut, and get busy trying to generate prosperity.

The political class is being put through a filter, and the only ones who will survive are those who keep calm. Those who supported the interim regime (whose few acts enjoyed little popular support and met international hostility) have lost their integrity and credibility. This is the case for Primero Justicia [a center-right party] and for leaders such as Manuel Rosales, the governor of Zulia, one of those who signed the [Pedro] Carmona Estanga decree [Carmona was installed as Venezuela’s interim president during the coup]. Others, including Enrique Mendoza, supported the defense of legitimate rule and emerged unharmed. Then there are the old foxes of Acción Democrática [a populist party that has been a traditional enemy of Chávez], as adaptable as cockroaches, who were betrayed by Carmona and ended up looking like fools who were working for him.

But the armed forces will never be the same. As in the other areas where there is a struggle for power and influence, it is clear, more or less, who is who. The fact that the barracks are divided can no longer be hidden, no matter how many officers disloyal to Chávez leave now. There could always be more of them, and the possibility that we may awake any morning to another mutiny means the country will have to take sleeping pills every night.

A topic just as complex is that of the news media, especially the TV stations, which should tell us—beyond the pretext of risks to their reporters—why they did not inform us about what was happening over the weekend. They should review their relations with the re-established Chávez administration, their actions during the critical hours last Thursday and Friday, and the pertinence of the decisions they made when everyone wanted to know, needed to know, what was going on.

But none of these tasks will succeed if the Hugo Chávez government—and we do not know if it was restored by the countercoup or has been permanently crippled—does not make a greater effort toward learning how to govern. In order for his conciliatory speech to be believed, Chávez will have to change the way he has behaved for the last three years. He must learn to negotiate, once he has partners for negotiations again. He should rethink his foreign policy and work to see that there is prosperity, that citizens enjoy safety under laws and a climate in which they can develop their talents. He should abandon his warrior rhetoric and sacrifice a large part of his everyday style, which has distorted his relations with those he governs.

In practice, he needs to become a different person and realize that his people are different now, too. The international community is watching very closely: Colombia and the United States, the priorities of Venezuelan diplomacy, have made it known they do not want him around. And local divisions will undoubtedly provoke another crisis if things do not improve. It would be a shame. All the deaths and the horror would have been in vain. The economic damage and, worse, what is within our collective conscience would be a sterile tragedy. The disaster would be complete.