Truce and Truth in Venezuela

President Hugo Chávez was forced from power not because of opposition protests but because of his own mistakes. He returned to power two days later because of his opponents' mistakes.

Understanding the positions of the actors is a necessary step if today's impasse is to be bridged. By 2001's end, a growing but dispersed opposition believed that President Chávez should go but disagreed how this should happen. Their complaints were many: the government's land reform law, its oil policy, poor record on corruption, politicization and militarization of the public sector, disrespect for unions and other institutions, support for guerrillas in Colombia and for Fidel Castro, illegal arming of militants, hostility to the US, and threats to free speech. Even though the charges were serious, the opposition lacked a smoking gun to clearly disqualify President Chávez, especially in the eyes of foreign governments.

President Chávez scorned the opposition's litany. His legitimacy rested on free elections and his project for economic and social justice. He predicted resistance from those whose privileges would disappear. They would seek to block him, especially through their control of the media. He would respect their right to say as they pleased but would pull no punches in countering their "lies." He used his appearances on television to denounce his enemies and mobilize citizens, particularly poor ones, to support his revolution. He sowed conflict.

The tide of events shifted to favor the opposition and facilitate coordination among its disparate parts, including politicians, business leaders, civil society organizations, active and retired military officials, intellectuals, labor unions and even members of religious groups. A successful national strike last December convinced many that the president no longer commanded a majority among voters. Chávez responded with intransigence, seeming to think that his hold on power depended on whether he could still turn out a big crowd.