Venezuela, 1992: The rise of Hugo Chavez

World Today

Part of the CGTN special series Rediscovering the New World

Venezuela holds Presidential elections on Sunday, and we are looking at some of the key events in the country’s history. CGTN’s Stephen Gibbs reports on the moment when Hugo Chavez, a leftist paratroop commander who went on to rule the nation for 14 years, first came to the public’s attention.

Scenes from the 1992 coup attempt in Venezuela.

Scenes from the 1992 coup attempt in Venezuela.

February 4th 1992, and normal programming on Venezuelan TV was interrupted by an unfolding story: An attempted coup was unfolding on the streets of Caracas.

Men in the red berets – rebel parachute commandos. Tanks driving up the stairs of the Presidential Palace. It was an attempt to remove from office – and possibly kill – the President, Carlos Andres Pérez.

Pérez’s popularity had sunk after his decision to impose neo-liberal reforms had led to mass popular protests, which had been brutally supressed. As tanks tried to breach the palace, Pérez was inside with his Minister of Defense, General Fernando Ochoa.

Twenty-six years later, the now retired general says that night remains as vivid as ever.

“A tank battalion had arrived here, this was a very difficult situation,” Ochoa said. “So I spoke to President Perez. I asked him to make a statement, because the situation was very serious.”

No one quite knew it at the time, but what happened in the hours that followed, was pivotal in Venezuela history. And it had more to do with the power of television than the power of the bullet.

First, Ochoa told the President he must address the nation. That involved him sneaking out of the palace and travelling several miles across Caracas.

“He said ‘I can’t leave’. I said ‘if you don’t do this, you won’t stop it. I you don’t speak to the country, the situation will not change’. He said ‘Ochoa, I really think I could lose my life here. But this is my duty and I will do it’.”

The President said the situation was being “addressed,” and that the coup plotters were traitors.

Former Venezuela President, Carlos Andres Pérez addresses nation after an attempted coup in 1992.

Outside, the assault – in which three of the president’s bodyguards were amongst at least 14 killed – was turning to failure, with communication problems and betrayals. But a message needed to be sent to those participating in the rebellion elsewhere in the country to stand down.

It was then that the defence minister made a fateful decision. He allowed the leader of the coup, to appear on television.

“The president said to me ‘make sure it’s recorded. That it is pre-recorded. Don’t play it out live. It should be recorded.’”

But he was told that was not possible, the situation was too urgent,

“So I took the decision, maybe I was wrong, under my responsibility, to let him speak live.”

Chávez speaking to media outlets following his arrest in the 1992 coup attempt.

Chávez speaking to media outlets following his arrest in the 1992 coup attempt.

And who was that man that was given an opportunity to speak to the nation on live television? A little-known parachute commander, about to become the most famous man in Venezuela.

Hugo Chávez.

“Comrades: Unfortunately, for the moment, the objectives that we had set for ourselves have not been achieved in the capital,” Chavez stated on television. “That’s to say that those of us here in Caracas have not been able to seize power.”

“For the moment,” were the key words. He would be back.

Chávez was then sent to a military prison. A year later Perez was impeached.

Venezuelan newly-inaugurated PresidentCHAVEZ

Venezuelan newly-inaugurated President Hugo Chavez(L) and his wife Maria Isabel Rodriguez(R) wave to cheering supporters as they walk to the presidential palace in downtown Caracas after his inauguration ceremony at the Congress. (Photo: BERTRAND PARRES/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1999, the now civilian Hugo Chávez was elected Venezuelan President in a landslide election. For 14 years he led the country on a radical socialist path.

A “popular revolution,” he called it. “Dangerous populism,” said his enemies.

February 4th, 1992, has been commemorated every year since as the day his rise to power began.

Amongst a grieving crowd, current President Maduro with the funeral casket of Hugo Chavez. (Photo: Associated Press Miraflores Presidential Press Office)

When he died, of cancer, in 2013, Chavez’s body was returned to the headquarters of the uprising, where it remains.

As for General Ochoa, now nearly 80, he admits that not a day goes past when he doesn’t reflect on that decision to give the oxygen of publicity to a man that changed this nation.

Former Venezuelan Minister of Defense, General Fernando Ochoa.

Former Venezuelan Minister of Defense, General Fernando Ochoa.

More from this series: