Another Coup Foiled in Venezuela
“I was fooled when they told me that they sought a democratic solution and what had really been intended was a secret pact between (union boss) Carlos Ortega and (ex-General) Medina Gómez that a general strike… would try to generate disorder, violence and death so that the Armed Forces could take political control of the country. For that, they have accumulated weapons below Plaza Altamira and the Four Seasons Hotel…”
– Army Captain Pedro Sánchez Bolívar, minutes ago, breaking from the “dissident” ex-military commanders in Caracas
Listen to the audio recording
of the press conference
Alfredo Peña's Little Army
The "Take-Over" of Caracas Police HQ Was Necessary
By Alex Main - reporting from Caracas, Venezuela
November 20, 2002
Publisher’s Note: Over the past few days, AP, Reuters and other simulators of international public opinion have produced a number of articles that comment on the Venezuelan National Guard’s “takeover” of the Caracas Metropolitan police stations. What’s missing in most of these articles is context. The following article, by Alex Main, provides a little background information on the PM that helps understand why the Venezuelan government decided to have it de-clawed.
I met Alex Main last June, while I reported from the Venezuelan capital. A clean-cut young man from the United States (he was wearing a suit when I met him), he had recently arrived in Caracas to see, with his own eyes, what was happening. We went, together, to the popular barrio of San Juan and spoke directly with many of the people there that the U.S. commercial media correspondents never allow to be heard. Main has subsequently become an important organizer of international solidarity efforts with Venezuelan democracy, and an honest set of eyes and ears for the rest of us. – Al Giordano
A BRIEF HISTORY OF
ALFREDO PEÑA’S LITTLE ARMY
By Alex Main – reporting from Caracas
In the poorer districts of Caracas, the Policia Metropolitana (PM) has never been looked upon with very high regard. Judging by what I’ve heard and seen, and on many occasions I’ve had the opportunity to see the PM at work in the city center, this police force is probably about as brutal and corrupt as Mexico’s Federales. In fact, there’s a local saying here that goes something like this: better to fall into the hands of muggers than into the hands of the PM.
As if this wasn’t enough, since the beginning of this year the PM has acquired another appealing feature: it has become an instrument of brutal repression of pro-governmental demonstrations. Under the authority of the greater Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña, one of Chavez’ most notorious opponents, the “Metropolitana” has grown increasingly effective at breaking up “Chavista” demonstrations through the systematic use of massive doses of highly potent tear gas and, more and more frequently, through the use of firearms loaded with real bullets.
The PM played their first major political role on April 11th of this year when they accompanied an illegal opposition march on Miraflores presidential palace that produced a cloud-cover of chaos allowing a media-driven coup d’etat to take place. That afternoon, Venezuelan commercial television showed images of a few pro-government demonstrators who, for several minutes, fired automatic pistols over the railing of the Puente Llaguno bridge which overlooks the Avenida Baraldt, a main artery that leads towards Miraflores. Private Venezuelan television channels showed these images over and over while a commentator explained that the shooters were assassins who were deliberately killing “peaceful” demonstrators in the opposition march. What these TV channels failed to show their viewers was the wider-angle camera shots that allowed one to observe that other individuals on the bridge were ducking for cover and were quite obviously being shot at by an unseen aggressor.
The unseen aggressor, as the pictures and videos of Venezuelan independent media were to reveal, was none other than the Policia Metropolitana.
The independent media images, as well as many eyewitness accounts, filled the gaps in the story: the metropolitan police was using firearms, including long-range sniper rifles, to clear the Avenida Baraldt of the government supporters who were attempting to block the path of the insurrectionary opposition march. The images also revealed that the opposition march was a good distance behind the PM shock troops and out of the firing range of the Puente Llaguno shooters. Despite these images, the numerous eyewitness accounts, and the fact that there were many more “Chavistas” killed (14 out of 18) and injured on April 11th than opposition demonstrators, the opposition leaders and their media watchdogs have stuck to their version of events.
And so, those unfortunate middle-class Venezuelans who continue to believe nearly everything that the Venezuelan corporate media tells them, are still convinced that because Chavez, “el asesino”, ordered his hit men to murder peaceful marchers, the coup (that many in the opposition insist wasn’t really a coup) was justified. Moreover, they remain ignorant of the fact that on April 11th the PM carried out a violent assault on the pro government demonstrators that were blocking the Avenida Baraldt and that, over the next two days, Peña’s little army went into the barrios and killed at least 40 more government supporters who had taken to the streets to protest the coup.
What the blissfully ignorant middle-class consumer of Venezuelan commercial television, radio and press has been taught to believe is that PM officers are inherently good and, as such, were destined to become the heroic defenders of the “civil society” movement (the name given by the Venezuelan media to the middle-class members of the opposition).
This is partly the result of an expensive PR campaign that took place over the summer and that featured primetime TV ads “explaining” to Venezuelans the mission of the PM. In these ads, you could see very white (although most of the PM are dark-skinned), clean-cut, PM officers striking heroic poses, carrying young children away from danger, comforting frail, old grannies, and so on. But this paid publicity probably wasn’t really necessary since most of the police force’s PR came for free, courtesy of Venezuelan’s private media. Special news segments were devoted to the PM in which the police officers were shown doing their rounds and – surprise! – they would turn out to be decent, god-fearing, normal guys.
More importantly, before each “civil society” march, the commercial media, as part of their campaign to rally middle-class support for the upcoming demonstration, would insist on the fact that thousands of PM would be accompanying the marchers, thereby protecting them from Chavez’ hit men. The day before an opposition march, the front page of the “Nacional”, the Venezuelan version of the New York Times, has typically featured maps showing the march’s itinerary with little symbols indicating the reassuring presence of PM divisions.
As a result of this big image makeover, it has not been uncommon to see middle-class opposition demonstrators with signs saying “PM, we’re with you!” and, in recent days, some of the more radical members of “civil society” have been wearing “PM” emblazoned baseball caps. Yesterday and the day before, following the national guard’s occupation of the PM’s headquarters on November 17th, private TV channels have been treating their viewers to extensive coverage of a number of small “civil society” demonstrations in front of police stations in which the demonstrators are seen expressing their heartfelt solidarity with the PM (one heart-rending picture on the front page of yesterday’s Universal shows a sobbing middle-aged woman with a lovely Hermes silk scarf face to face with a young national guardsmen, apparently begging the soldier to please leave the poor PM alone). One can only wonder what Caracas’ poorer inhabitants, and in particular those who reside in the city’s “centro”, must think of such touching scenes.
Since late this summer, the “centro”, a lower-class historical section of Caracas that is both a bastion of the PM and a place where government supporters frequently congregate, has been regularly rocked by extreme cases of police violence. Dozens of government supporters and bystanders have been seriously injured (one favorite PM game is to cripple the “Chavista” by shooting him in the foot and then crushing the wound with a hard blow using the butt of the rifle). Four individuals have been killed by PM-inflicted bullet wounds during the breaking up of demonstrations.
Not unexpectedly, the police brutality has radicalized the demonstrators and prompted some of them to respond with bottle-throwing and street barricades. It has also resulted in a growing feeling among government supporters and the poor inhabitants of Caracas in general that they are being abandoned by a government that is more concerned with pacifying an uncompromising opposition than in protecting lower-class government supporters.
This feeling of being abandoned has been enhanced by the fact that in Plaza Altamira, in the wealthy, eastern section of Caracas, “civil society”, alongside dissident military officers that are calling for a civil-military rebellion, has been staging a prolonged anti-governmental demonstration since October 22nd. The police hasn’t disturbed this group of demonstrators in any way. It has even been allowed, on a number of occasions, to overflow into the street, blocking a major avenue and provoking huge traffic jams. These middle and upper-class demonstrators have been depicted as a group of courageous, freedom fighters by the Venezuelan media and, in a gesture of solidarity, wealthy donors have provided the rebellious military officers with two floors of rooms in a neighboring luxury hotel.
Meanwhile, the lower-class demonstrators in Plaza Bolivar are regularly subjected to vicious PM attacks and are invariably depicted as being “violent, terrorist Bolivarian Circles” by the media. The striking contrast between the way in which each of these groups of demonstrators has been treated and depicted has, quite understandably, led some Bolivarians to wonder whether there really is a people’s government in Venezuela.
A few days ago, however, the government took a measure that is more likely to please Caracas’ poorer inhabitants than the city’s wealthier citizens (many of whom are, in any case, unhappy with any initiative that doesn’t involve the hasty departure of President Chavez).
At the beginning of last week the police violence reached its peak (April 11th, 12th and 13th excepted) with two people killed and a dozen injured in Plaza Bolivar (including one or two Metropolititan police officers who, unbeknownst to many TV viewers, had been striking for several weeks, protesting both unpaid dues and the deployment of their corps for political ends). Rather than apologizing to the victims, Peña, once again, complained about the violent behaviour of the “terrorist circles” and praised the good work being carried out by his police force.
However, during the days that followed, strong internal divisions emerged within the PM, largely as a result of unpaid back salaries, and the government decided to use this internal unrest, and the fact that the police could hardly be considered to be fulfilling their mission of promoting tranquility in the streets of Caracas, as a pretext to intervene. First, the Minister of the Interior named a new commissioner to head the force (normally a prerogative of the mayor, but the minister dug up a law that allowed him to intervene). Unfortunately, a few hours later, in a tearful scene in which the newly named commissioner hugged Peña and repented, the government’s man resigned (no one yet knows why). A few hours later, another commissioner was named and the Venezuelan National Guard set up camp in the PM’s headquarters in order to ensure that the force in its entirety would comply with the government’s decision.
The psychological effect of this move has been immense. Although the wealthier neighborhoods are expressing their disgust with loud pot-banging, there is a deep and palpable sense of relief that can be felt in the poorer districts of Caracas.
I’ve overheard individuals in the Centro saying that now they can sleep at night or that now they really feel there is a government in Venezuela that is taking care of the people. For months, the feeling in the barrios had been that much of Caracas was a “state within a state”, controlled by Peña, commander of a brutal army called the Policia Metropolitana.
Consequently, the government was perceived as weak, incapable of doing anything in the face of the relentless, and vicious opposition campaign to bring down the Chavez government. Now, some people are predicting that the tide is beginning to change and that the government will soon be able to go about the business of governing. But most agree that there are probably still some rough times ahead for the Chavez government.
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