Hugo Chavez has survived for now, but power lies with the army
FOR those who thought that coups in Latin America were a thing of the past, the events of April 11th-14th in Venezuela were a rude shock. As rival crowds alternated on the streets of Caracas, and the army swayed to and fro like a palm tree in a hurricane, in four days of chaotic confusion Hugo Chavez, the populist president, was swept out of office and then back in again. But while his restoration weakened his opponents, it also left a chastened president facing an uncertain future.
The overthrow of Mr Chavez by his own generals was backed by a heterogeneous coalition spanning business, labour, the Catholic church and the media. It was widely welcomed by Venezuela's middle class. At least 150,000 people had turned out to back a general strike against Mr Chavez last week. When violence broke out, the generals acted. The United States, increasingly irritated by Mr Chavez, all but applauded; it fought to stave off condemnation of his ouster at an emergency meeting of the Organisation of American States on April 13th.
But within hours, the coup began to unravel. The original plan for a broad civilian-military junta was jettisoned even before Mr Chavez surrendered to the army. In its place Pedro Carmona, the leader of the business lobby, was installed as president, with a cabinet of conservative fanatics which excluded labour. Mr Carmona was persuaded to decree the immediate closure of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, and tore up Mr Chavez's constitution, which had been approved by a large majority in a referendum in December 1999. Swaddled like a chrysalis within the original plot, this "coup within the coup" angered many who had worked to unseat Mr Chavez.
Even so, it was astonishing that Mr Chavez, who on April 12th seemingly lacked all military support, should be swept back to his palace by the armed forces two days later. But Mr Carmona, though backed by many generals and admirals, lacked support from middle-ranking officers who control troops. And the conservatives underestimated the fervour and anger of Mr Chavez's remaining supporters. Opinion polls show support for Mr Chavez having plunged to 30%. But his hardcore sympathisers in Caracas's numerous shantytowns poured onto the streets over the weekend, looting and rioting. In all, some 50 people were killed in the four days of mayhem. Lastly, the conservatives had failed to take elementary precautions to secure their hold on power. An uprising led by the paratroop division (of which Mr Chavez is a former commander) and the presidential guard was enough to overthrow Mr Carmona.
Mr Chavez may be back in office, but his country has changed since last week. The coup revealed that the opposition was right when it insisted that most military officers are institutionalists, who have not signed up for Mr Chavez's "Bolivarian revolution". Most of those who supported his restoration did so not because they share his ideology but because they believe in the rule of law. "We rose up against the government, not the constitution," said General Efrain Vasquez, when he withdrew his support for Mr Carmona on April 14th (though he was later detained for his role in the coup).
Mr Chavez's restoration may have come with strings attached. There are three points on which the army may try to hold the president to account. First, there is control of the oil industry, the issue which triggered the general strike. Secondly, the army wants him to disarm the "Bolivarian circles", an embryonic civilian militia, some of whose thuggish members fired on the opposition march. Then there is Mr Chavez's seemingly benevolent attitude towards Colombia's guerrillas. The army wants tighter border security.
Mr Chavez this week dropped his effort to install new management at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company. But that may be merely a temporary retreat. Without control of PDVSA, the government's main source of revenue, "there is no revolution," says Alberto Garrido, an author of several books on Mr Chavez. There is little evidence that the president is prepared to seek compromise rather than confrontation.
This puts him on a collision course not just with his opponents at home but also with the Bush administration. American officials were this week scrambling to deny reports that they knew about and even encouraged the coup plot, though they pointedly failed to condemn it. Otto Reich, the State Department's senior Latin American specialist and an adviser to Nicaragua's Contras in the 1980s, denied, too, that he had spoken to Mr Carmona, urging him not to dissolve the Assembly. This alleged contact had raised questions as to how involved Mr Reich was with Mr Carmona's coup.
The United States' embassy in Caracas is allowing non-essential staff and family members to leave; so are some American firms. The United States may now seek to restrict loans to Venezuela, according to Orlando Ochoa, an opposition economist. "The military-political tactic has failed. Now what remains is the slow economic battle."
Latin American governments feared that Mr Chavez's overthrow would set a dreadful precedent in the region. They were behind the OAS's decision to convene a special session of its general assembly to discuss Venezuela on April 18th, something which the United States opposed, fearing it would give a platform to Mr Chavez. Ironically, the OAS's democratic charter, which requires it to intervene when democracy is threatened, was approved last year at the behest of the United States and despite dissent from Venezuela. The lesson for Mr Chavez is that he was saved not by Cuba's Fidel Castro, his best friend in the region, but by democracy, points out Mr Garrido.
Nobody has emerged from these events with much credit. They have cast a familiar shadow of political instability over Latin America--and given the no less familiar impression that the United States backs democracy in the region only if it is run by its friends. And while Mr Chavez has bobbed back, some Venezuelans believe his "revolution" has been mortally wounded. After all, many successful coups are preceded by botched attempts.