The Gang That Couldn't Find the Right Videotape VENEZUELA COUPS

January 10, 1993|By BEN BARBER

CAARACAS, VENEZUELA — Caracas, Venezuela. -- When Venezuelan air force planes bombed the presidential palace in Caracas Nov. 27, during the year's second failed coup attempt, wealthy residents of the fortress-like condominiums atop the eastern hills raised

champagne glasses and cheered. Also cheering were impoverished residents of the 23rd of January barrio slums.

It was a rare moment that united the rich and the poor in what had been one of Latin America's most stable democracies until last year. What brought people together were two major factors: an economy spiraling rapidly downwards with the falling value of its oil exports and universal disgust at corruption and the inability or refusal of the government to deal with it.

Indeed, polls in October showed that President Carlos Andres Perez had an approval rating of less than 10 percent while the most popular person in the country was Lt. Colonel Hugo Chavez Frias, who tried to kill the president in the first coup, Feb. 4.

So when the second coup attempt began with the seizure of television stations by leftists aligned with rebel troops, and air force planes bombed the capital, initially people were quite happy, even if a bit terrified by the violence.

But through a foolish mistake, a double cross or perhaps a lucky government bullet during the takeover of the television station, the country never got to see the videotape the rebels wanted them to see: a dignified and articulate rebel general calling for a mass insurrection.

Instead, the nation saw and heard three semi-literate thugs waving assault rifles and warning President Perez they were coming to get him. The broadcasting of that image apparently stopped the coup dead in its tracks.

"You can't use the image of Pancho Villa as if it was 100 years ago," said Luis Planchart Garcia, a specialist in public opinion at the School of Politics at the Central University of Venezuela. "You need superior people such as high officials who must be well dressed. You cannot use the kind of slang that was used. In a certain way they helped destroy the coup."

Ironically, the earlier coup attempt on Feb. 4 was also spooked by a video mix-up. A cassette of the charismatic coup leader turned out to be incompatible with the tape players in the television station seized by the rebels.

At least 250 people were killed in the Nov. 27 coup attempt, including at least 63 prisoners in a riot and mass escape at Catia Prison near the city center. The government arrested 500 rebel officers and 700 soldiers. And 93 officers -- including some of the coup leaders -- fled to Peru where they were granted asylum.

The week after the coup, while workers swept up the bomb debris from the streets around the white Miraflores presidential palace, local and state elections took place peacefully, with an enormous defeat for Mr. Perez' Democratic Action Party.

While some say the vote has taken off pressure for radical change, and that Mr. Perez is likely to serve out the remaining year of his term until the next presidential elections in December 1993, other say that if nothing changes, the pressure will still be there and another coup is likely.

The ambassador of a prominent Western nation said in an interview that "the next coup will likely be a coffee coup in which the defense minister, the foreign minster and some generals have coffee with the president and then drive him to the airport into exile."

But the U.S. Embassy, which is extremely influential, has been fighting to avert just such a coup, reportedly warning restive generals that U.S. economic sanctions would be applied if the 34-year-old democracy is overthrown.

Oil-rich Venezuela has been spared the torment of drug wars and guerrillas that afflict its neighbors Colombia and Peru. "This nation floats on oil," said one Venezuelan. "We used to call ourselves Saudi Venezuela in the middle '70s when oil prices were high."

Back then, the exports of more than 2 million barrels per day to the United States brought in more than $2,000 per person each year -- enough to feed the deeply entrenched official corruption and to also pay for hospitals, schools, a spanking new subway for the capital and the rows of glass and concrete banks and office towers that make Caracas far from the average Third World capital.

But oil prices dropped in 1986 -- from $40 to $8 a barrel -- just as a huge foreign debt became unbearable and the population grew. Oil profits could no longer feed the nation while also padding the pockets of the corrupt. Tension grew until 1989 when as many as 1,000 people were killed during food riots.

Since then, the government of Carlo Andres Perez has been hoping that democracy -- even a badly corrupted one -- will survive and Venezuela won't slide back into Latin America's past pattern for military dictatorship.

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