In an email, Carmona, who now lives in Colombia, said the administration’s “totalitarian” intentions were already clear before 2002, and that his attempt to establish a caretaker government was the nation’s last chance to hold free and fair elections.
From then on, Chávez viewed the opposition as something that “needs to be destroyed, not as a political adversary,” he wrote. “[Chávez] did not assume the role of a statesman who talks, negotiates and decides, but a revolutionary who imposes and crushes. He has taken the country down an unwanted and unsuspected path.”
A few months after the coup, the opposition protested again, this time organizing a paralyzing economic strike that was joined by state-oil company PDVSA. Chávez fired 19,000 oil workers and replaced them with government loyalists. Since then, PDVSA revenues have financed the social projects that have been the backbone of the administration’s popularity.
Relations between the Chávez administration and Washington were always tense, but the coup took them to a breaking point. Chávez always maintained that the “Yankee Empire” was behind his ouster.
Caracas has reasons for suspicion. The two nations had been at odds for years, and the U.S. has a long history of backing government antagonists. A secret diplomatic cable from 2006 published by WikiLeaks showed how the U.S. Agency for International Development pumped millions into Venezuelan nonprofit organizations and opposition parties from 2004-2006. Among the goals of the funding was to penetrate Chávez’s political base, divide his followers and isolate him internationally, according to the cable. During the coup, the White House blamed Chávez’s use of force against the protesters for sparking his ouster.
But the U.S. government has denied any involvement in the coup.
Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Venezuela at the time, said Chávez was convinced that radar tracks in the Caribbean during the crisis were evidence of U.S. involvement. Shapiro said the signals were actually coming from a helicopter taking off from a Dutch destroyer that was on an anti-drug patrol near Curacao with the U.S. Coast Guard.
“For Chávez, that was always proof of U.S. involvement,” Shapiro said, and there was no way to convince him otherwise. “If you say stuff long enough it starts to take on a life of its own … It fed the anti-Americanism.”
Fears of the U.S. are alive and well. On the stump, Maduro has said the U.S. government was financing his rival and may have given Chávez the cancer that killed him March 5. He also accused former U.S. diplomats of recruiting mercenaries to assassinate Capriles to provide cover for an invasion.
On Wednesday, Maduro and Capriles were both on the campaign trail. Maduro’s rally was being shown on four television stations, Capriles’ was being shown on one.
The media disparity is one of the most visible examples of the government’s campaign advantage. While a bevy of state-run media openly back Maduro, Capriles has to compete for time on cowed private media, said Carlos Correa, with the Espacio Publico media watchdog group. In many ways, the current media landscape was shaped by 2002, he said.
On April 11, as opposition protesters were receiving fire, local media showed pro-Chávez gunmen shooting from a bridge in the direction of the crowd. The official version is that the c havistas were defending themselves from pro-opposition sharpshooters and the metropolitan police. And some Chávez supporters were killed in the melee.