The Silence and the Scorpion

The Coup Against Chavez and the Making of Modern Venezuela


By Brian A. Nelson

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On April 11, 2002, nearly a million Venezuelans marched on the presidential palace to demand the resignation of President Hugo Chavez. Led by Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega, the opposition represented a cross-section of society furious with Chavez’s economic policies, specifically his mishandling of the Venezuelan oil industry. But as the day progressed the march turned violent, sparking a military revolt that led to the temporary ousting of Chavez. Over the ensuing, turbulent seventy-two hours, Venezuelans would confront the deep divisions within their society and ultimately decide the best course for their country — and its oil — in the new century.

An exemplary piece of narrative journalism, The Silence and the Scorpion provides rich insight into the complexities of modern Venezuela.


Praise for Brian Nelson's
"[A] superbly researched account . . . scrupulously unbiased."—The Economist
"A must read for anyone seeking to get an unbiased and comprehensive account of the two most controversial days of the Chávez presidency. . . . Nelson treats the April 11th events with hard-earned restraint, fairness, and an absence of the kind of confrontation and anger that has come to characterize the political debate in Venezuela."—Huffington Post
"An enthralling read . . . shot through with vivid details and strewn with telling and yet all-but-forgotten pieces of the April Puzzle."—Caracas Chronicles
"A mesmerizing narrative. . . . The three days in 2002 that Brian Nelson masterfully dissects in these pages shaped Venezuela's contemporary history. The Silence and the Scorpion will become an indispensable reference for Hugo Chávez's apologists and critics alike."—Moisés Naím, Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy
"[A] refreshingly impartial and objective account. . . . This book is a welcome contribution to the burgeoning literature on Venezuela under the controversial rule of Hugo Chávez. The 2002 coup gives the author a good handle to employ his impressive investigative and storytelling talents, and he succeeds in shedding new light on the complex questions facing Latin America's most polarized society." —America Magazine
"The events of the April 2002 Venezuelan coup to oust President Hugo Chavez are brought to light here in unparalleled investigative reporting by Nelson. . . . His fascinating and harrowing account is part documentary, part eyewitness to history, yet always riveting. . . . Highly recommended."—Library Journal
"Nelson takes readers from the streets to the halls of the presidential palace, from frightened journalists smuggling tapes of riots back to their stations to be put on the air to a terrified Chávez. . . . [H]is status as a foreigner familiar with the culture of Caracas and an experienced journalist and academic gives him a unique vantage point from which to tell the very personal stories of those three days of chaos." —Publishers Weekly

For Natalia
and for the Rubio family

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

This is the story of the three-day coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002.
The information in this book comes from every available source, but principally from the more than forty protagonists I interviewed, including many victims of the street violence, the leaders of the military uprising, Interim President Pedro Carmona, U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro, and President Chávez's closest advisers. Most sources were interviewed multiple times. Almost all of them permitted me to tape-record our interviews which helped me tremendously in capturing the narrative flow of each individual's story in their exact words.
It was my goal to re-create the experience of these three turbulent days through the eyes of those who were involved. The thoughts, feelings, and dialogue that I attribute to the participants come either from the persons themselves, colleagues, or witnesses, or—in the case of many public officials—from the TV and print media. All dialogue has been confirmed with the original speaker, or when this was not possible, it was heard by more than one witness or appears in the written record.
The men and women I interviewed were exceedingly generous with their time and forthright about their experiences. Of course, people's recollections, particularly in times of intense stress, are not perfect and on several occasions I found that two people standing side by side remembered events very differently. To deal with these discrepancies, I have looked for alternative sources, but at times it has been necessary to simply rely on the best memory of those involved. To address the intense polarization that grips Venezuela, I have attempted to balance the chapters so that the reader can see the coup from multiple perspectives simultaneously.


The Opposition Marchers

Malvina Pesate—A forty-six-year-old architect and member of the Primero Justicia (Justice First) political party. She would be one of the first gunshot victims on Baralt Avenue.
Mohamad "Mike" Merhi—An immigrant from Lebanon. He would lose track of his son, Jesús, in the chaos of the battle.
Carlos Ciordia—The mild-mannered attorney who thought that bringing his sister and parents to the march would make a fun family outing.
Andrés Trujillo—A twenty-eight-year-old graphic designer who was shot on Baralt Avenue and taken to the overwhelmed Vargas Hospital.

The Chávez Loyalists

Douglas Romero—A thirty-eight-year-old grade school teacher and marathon runner who would help the Bolivarian Circles repel the marchers and police.
Dr. Alberto Espidel, MD—A doctor who, with his son, would give first aid to the Chávez supporters wounded in the fighting.
Antonio Navás—A former secret police officer who was shot through the jaw near the palace of Miraflores.

The Journalists

Luis Alfonso Fernández—The only reporter to get his camera crew near the palace before the march arrived. His footage of the pro-Chávez gunmen would tip public opinion against the president.
Francisco Toro—A freelance reporter who was one of the few journalists to venture out during the news blackout on April 13.
Gabriel Osorio—A photographer for an anti-Chávez newspaper El Nacional who would break the blackout and try to sneak into Miraflores on April 13.

The Politicians

General Francisco Usón—Chávez's finance minister would feed the president vital information about the conspiring generals.
Dr. Pedro Carmona—The head of Venezuela's huge business guild, Fedecámaras, would become interim president of Venezuela.
Guillermo García Ponce—An old hard-line communist and veteran of the guerrilla wars of the 1960s. He would lead the civilian effort to restore Chávez.
Luis Miquilena—Another veteran communist who had engineered Chávez's election victory in 1998 but would denounce Chávez on national television for causing the bloodshed on April 11.

The Generals

General Lucas Rincón—Inspector general of the armed forces and close aide to Chávez. He would announce the president's resignation on national television.
General Manuel Rosendo—Supreme commander of Venezuela's armed forces. He would refuse the president's orders to use the army against the march.
General Jorge Carneiro—A Chávez loyalist who defied the other generals and tried to send tanks to the palace to help the president.
General Efraín Vásquez Velasco—Head of the Venezuelan army. When the dust cleared he would be the most powerful man in the country.
General Raúl Baduel—A devout Taoist and founding member of Chávez's revolutionary movement. He would lead the rescue mission to save Chávez.

The Rise of Hugo Chávez
It was just before dawn on February 4, 1992, when a young thirty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez attempted to overthrow the Venezuelan government. He was the leader of one of five rogue army units that made simultaneous attacks throughout the country. Three of the units planned to capture key military bases in the cities of Maracaibo, Valencia, and Maracay, while another unit seized the military airport in the heart of Caracas. Hugo Chávez's mission was to capture President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez knew that Pérez was returning from a state visit abroad and hoped to capture him at the Maiquetía airport, an hour north of the capital, but when that portion of the plan failed—because Pérez had been tipped off to the conspiracy—it fell on Chávez to capture him at the presidential palace. However, heavy machine-gun fire soon stopped the assault in its tracks, and as Chávez's soldiers and tanks engaged in a bloody firefight with troops loyal to Pérez, the president slipped unnoticed out the back of the palace. Fleeing to a local TV station, Pérez quickly rallied the rest of the military. Chávez, pinned down and realizing that it was useless to keep fighting, surrendered.
Even though the coup had failed, the other rogue commanders still controlled the military bases and the airport they had assaulted. Some made it clear that they were ready to fight to the last man. In an attempt to avoid further loss of life, Chávez was permitted to make a nationally televised plea to his co-conspirators. He appeared before the nation in his green fatigues and his red paratrooper beret, exhausted but remarkably poised:
Comrades, regrettably, for now, the objectives that we had set were unobtainable in the capital. That is to say, we here in Caracas could not take power. You have done well where you are, but now it is time to avoid more bloodshed. . . . So listen to my words. Listen to Commander Chávez who is sending this message so that you may reflect and put down your arms because, now, in all honesty, the plans we had at the national level will be impossible to reach. . . . I thank you for your loyalty, I thank you for your valor, your self-sacrifice, and I, before the country and you, assume responsibility for this Bolivarian military movement. Thank you.
It became known as the "for now" speech. Por ahora. Chávez spoke for less than two minutes. His words were rushed, and he was not the confident orator he would later become, but in those few seconds the little-known lieutenant colonel was catapulted into the political spotlight. However, instead of his being widely ostracized, many Venezuelans stood up and cheered. By the time of the annual Mardi Gras festival, the masquerade costume of choice for little boys was the green fatigues and red beret of Hugo Chávez.
Why would people rally around a renegade army officer who had just trampled the constitution and tried to install himself as a dictator? To understand that, one must first understand the intense frustration that a vast majority of Venezuelans felt toward their elected leaders, and to appreciate that, one needs to be familiar with the lifeblood of Venezuela: oil.
Venezuela occupies a special place in Latin America because, unlike its neighbors, it once knew (or almost knew) great wealth and prosperity. What much of the world considered its oil "crisis" of the 1970s was a decade of unparalleled affluence and modernization in Venezuela—the world's fifth largest oil producer. This was the time of the Little Saudi Venezuela. GDP per capita was the highest in history and the exchange rate was four bolivares to the U.S. dollar (in 2001 it was over seven hundred). In fact, the government coffers were so bulging with oil revenue and the exchange rate was so favorable that workers down to taxi drivers could take the morning flight to Miami, spend the day shopping or playing on the beach, then grab the evening flight back to Caracas. In the shops of Florida they were known as the dáme-dos, or "give-me-twos." They would look at the price of an item and invariably cry, "Wow, it's cheap! Give me two." Their neighbors in Colombia often commented, "The Venezuelans fell out of the trees and into Cadillacs." And the gains of the 1970s were not limited to consumption: Literacy rose from 77 percent to 93 percent in the course of the decade, and fertility rates fell—an indicator of both better education and increasing gender equality.
But from the early 1980s, Venezuelans watched their country—which had seemed so close to first-world prosperity—sink deeper and deeper into recession. Poverty, inflation, and unemployment skyrocketed, while per capita income plummeted. The oil bonanza had been illusory and fleeting. Not only had the government spent lavishly on wasteful projects, but corruption and pilfering were rampant. Capital flight soared, the high oil prices didn't last, and the debts piled up. By the end of the 1970s, Venezuela had the highest per capita debt in Latin America and had fallen into the same debt trap that plagues so much of the developing world—exporting its natural resources to finance its debt instead of developing social programs. But perhaps the most revealing indicator of the collapse was the increase in violent crime. It seemed that everyone had at least one family member who had been mugged, carjacked, or killed.
Year after year the situation deteriorated, and year after year the collective sense of outrage at the government grew stronger. People knew that this was a nation of extreme wealth and promise—it still sat atop the largest oil deposits outside the Middle East—but those resources were being squandered by corrupt and incompetent politicians who neglected the 60 percent of Venezuelans who remained poor.
When Hugo Chávez exploded onto the scene in 1992, many people applauded. In Chávez they saw someone taking a stand against the corrupt system; someone brave enough to risk his life to change Venezuela. Viewed as an outsider, Chávez, with his coffee-and-cream skin and humble background, seemed more in tune with the needs of the poor and disenfranchised than the light-skinned leaders who dominated politics. And even though Chávez was put in jail after the coup attempt, his popularity grew, until, in March 1994, he was given a presidential pardon by newly elected President Rafael Caldera. Upon his release, Chávez immediately began building his political machine: the Movement of the Fifth Republic (MVR).
By the 1998 election, Venezuela's economic collapse had become so devastating that voters were ready for radical change. During the administration of outgoing President Caldera, two-thirds of the country's banks had collapsed and inflation had eroded the currency by 345 percent in just five years. So disenchanted was the electorate that neither of the two traditional parties could launch a successful campaign. The election came down to two outsiders: Henrique Salas Römer and Hugo Chávez.
Disgusted by politics, barely half the electorate bothered to vote—the lowest turnout in Venezuelan history and down from 81 percent a decade earlier. Hugo Chávez won with 56 percent of those votes. And while the details of the promised "Bolivarian Revolution" remained nebulous, people were ready to take a chance on a charismatic unknown in order to turn the country around. A brilliant orator, Chávez would flow effortlessly from Marx, to the Bible, to Pablo Neruda. He had run on a platform that called for an end to corruption and promised that the oil wealth would be enjoyed by everyone. For many Venezuelans, Chávez's promised Bolivarian Revolution eponymously tapped into a notion of renewal and rebirth. Once in office, Chávez set out to make sweeping changes, beginning with the constitution. In 1999, a very pro-Chávez Constitutional Assembly (his alliance had cleverly gained control of 122 of its 131 seats) created a new 350-article constitution. With some creative interpretation of the law, the assembly also dissolved the Supreme Court and appointed new judges (all loyal to Chávez) as well as many other public officials. In the "megaelections" required by the new constitution in 2000, Chávez was reelected to a six-year term. He also went from having only a third of the seats in the legislature to having a two-thirds majority. Only a year and a half in office and Chávez had already gained unprecedented control over the three branches of government.
But Chávez soon ran into trouble. Acrimonious clashes with the church, the media, and business and labor groups drove down his approval ratings. He alienated the United States and many Venezuelans by forging close ties with Iraq, Iran, and Libya. Then he openly criticized the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The economy, meanwhile, was still in shambles. In 1999, his first year in office, the economy contracted by 10 percent while unemployment rose to 20 percent—its highest level in fifteen years. Investors, too, were pulling their money out of Venezuela at an alarming rate. Capital flight, $4 billion in 1999, would reach $9 billion by 2002. All this, it should be noted, occurred during a tripling of oil prices; the first time in Venezuelan history that the economy had contracted during an oil boom.
Yet most detrimental to Chávez's popularity was his relationship with Fidel Castro. The extent of the close friendship between Chávez and the Cuban dictator came to light in the fall of 1999 when the newly elected Chávez went to Havana on a state visit and was seen playing baseball and warmly embracing Castro. Trade agreements and more state visits quickly followed. Venezuela "is going in the same direction, toward the same sea where the Cuban nation is going, the sea of happiness," Chávez said famously, encapsulating his desire to remake Venezuela in Cuba's image. By 2000, Venezuela had become Cuba's biggest trading partner, selling oil to the island at rock-bottom prices in exchange for legions of Cuban physicians, health care workers, agricultural advisers, sports trainers, and—critics claimed—paramilitaries and intelligence officers. Following Castro's example, Chávez consolidated the bicameral legislature into one National Assembly and started local community groups of loyal party members, which some claimed were being trained as paramilitaries. Many Venezuelans were mortified; they felt they had been tricked and were afraid that Chávez, too, had dictatorial aims.
It was in response to this "cubanization" that the opposition movement against Chávez was born: A group of mothers realized that their children's new textbooks were really Cuban schoolbooks, heavily infused with revolutionary propaganda, with new covers. They organized in protest.
By the summer of 2001 a movement that had begun as a few concerned mothers had ballooned into a massive amalgamation of labor unions, business interests, church groups, and a hodgepodge of both right- and left-wing political parties with only one goal: getting rid of Chávez. What's more, the private TV stations and newspapers, many of which had initially supported Chávez, turned fiercely against him, accelerating the pendulum swing in his popularity.
But at the same time, Chávez's own supporters had coalesced into a well-organized and loyal group. Their passion for their president bordered on idolatry, especially among the poor because, even though the economy was still deteriorating, Chávez was giving them something that no president had given them before: hope. He started progressive social programs that provided health care and education to many who had long been neglected under the old two-party system. The president's program of participatory democracy—everything from popular referendums to town hall meetings to the building of community groups—also gave people a sense of self-worth; they felt that through Chávez they could make a difference.
Two important events set the stage for the inevitable showdown between Chávez and the opposition. The first was in November 2001, when Chávez exercised the Enabling Law (ley habilitante) and enacted forty-nine laws in one night without approval from the National Assembly. The new laws included dramatic changes to the government, the oil industry, and land usage and were enacted on the very last day that Chávez had the decree privilege. To the opposition, this was proof that Chávez was a dictator-in-training. In response, they organized the first nationwide strike that paralyzed the country. With the success of the strike the opposition movement gathered new strength and in January held another strike. By now, huge anti-Chávez marches, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, had become regular events.
The opposing factions were set on a collision course: On one side was the opposition, which had control of the business and labor sectors. On the other was President Chávez, who had control of the government and, albeit tenuously, the military. In the middle lay PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela)—the state-owned oil company. Although officially owned by the government, PDVSA operated much like a private company and was, without a doubt, the lifeblood of the economy, accounting for 70 percent of the nation's export revenue. It was the jewel in the crown: Whoever controlled PDVSA controlled Venezuela.
At the end of March came the second event that precipitated the coup. Alarmed by the opposition's ability to shut down the economy (and oil production with it), Chávez decided to take tighter control of PDVSA. First, he replaced the board of directors with his political allies; then he began moving down the chain of command and firing all who opposed him. If anything was going to rile up the electorate of this oil-dependent nation it was a change to PDVSA; the opposition took it as a declaration of war. They quickly called for a general strike, which was extended one day and then another. The country ground to a halt and Chávez's fall appeared imminent. Never before had the people put such incredible pressure on a Venezuelan head of state. His 80 percent approval rating had fallen to 30 percent. Sensing disaster, Chávez's allies in government, industry, and the military began abandoning him at an alarming rate. On the third day of the strike, April 11, 2002, a huge anti-Chávez rally, numbering close to a million people, marched on the presidential palace to demand his resignation. Yet, despite the incredible pressure, Chávez was not to go quietly.
This is the story of what came next, during the three days when South America's oldest democracy would be put to its greatest test. On the first day of the crisis alone, 19 people would be killed and over 150 wounded outside Chávez's palace in an afternoon of confusion and bloodshed. The violence would spark a military revolt and the ousting of President Chávez, which, in turn, would precipitate looting, political witch hunts, and more violence. In a crisis that lasted only seventy-two hours, Venezuela would go through three presidents. In the wake of the crisis, fingers would be pointed everywhere—at President Chávez, the military, the opposition leaders, the news media, and the United States. There would be so much political posturing that few knew the truth about what had happened. What's more, the changing of regimes would destroy any chance of an impartial investigation. In the wake of the coup both sides would fund TV specials, books, and documentary films to spin the event for political ends, depicting themselves as the true victims of what they claimed had been a conspiracy. As a result, the coup would become one of the most important, yet most misunderstood, events in recent history.

April 11, 2002
A Confrontation between Brothers.
—Government title given to the events of April 11
The Massacre of the Silence.
—Opposition title given to the events of April 11

1 The Call to Miraflores
10:00 A.M.
Emocionada. Malvina Pesate was very excited. How could she not be? If there was a place to be in Venezuela today—in all of Latin America, for that matter—then it was here. Right here. In this march. Never had she seen so many people, and scarcely could she have imagined so many if she'd tried. There had been big marches before, plenty in the past year, but nothing like this. An awesome river of people, filling both directions of a four-lane highway and stretching for kilometers. People with portable radios were saying that it was more than a million people—almost a third of the population of Metro Caracas. She believed it. And this was no somber procession, it was a huge rolling party, Venezuelan style. People were blowing whistles, playing guitars, beating drums, chanting political songs, and, of course, doing cacerolazos . Cacerolazos, or casserole strikes, were the popular form of protest where people banged their biggest ladle against their noisiest pot like a drum. In recent months, at a predetermined time—usually in the evening—everyone opposed to Chávez would come out of their homes and do a cacerolazo, and the sound could be heard all over the city, echoing into the hills. As the march moved through the street, people in the high-rise apartments were cheering them on with cacerolazos, making an incessant, unremitting clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang-clang . Malvina looked up and saw one apartment where the residents had dispensed with the laborious task of actually hitting their pots and pans together, had placed loudspeakers on their patio, and were blasting the cacerolazo CD at airport decibels. Malvina loved it. All that noise. It reminded her of being a kid again. Here you were supposed to make as much noise as you could. It was allowed.
Around her people were chanting:
Esta es la ruta,
esta es la ruta,


  • Named one of the "Books of the Year" 2009 by The Economist

    “…superbly researched…”
    “…a compelling narrative…”
    “…scrupulously unbiased…”
    “It should be read by all those who continue to believe that Mr. Chávez is a worthy champion of democracy and the oppressed.” The Economist

    “…refreshingly impartial and objective…”
    “The 2002 coup gives the author a good handle to employ his impressive investigative and storytelling talents, and he succeeds in shedding new light on the complex questions facing Latin America’s most polarize society.”
    “…a welcome contribution to the burgeoning literature on Venezuela under the controversial rule of Hugo Chavez.” America Magazine

    “The events of the April 2002 Venezuelan coup to oust President Hugo Chavez are brought to light here in unparalleled investigative reporting by Nelson…”
    “His fascinating and harrowing account is part documentary, part eyewitness to history, yet always riveting.”
    “At times reading like fiction, his enjoyable text is the definitive account of Chavez's ouster and return, devoid of loyal or opposition rhetoric.”
    “Highly recommended.”
  • Library Journal

    “fast-paced” & “engaging”Kirkus

    “Nelson takes readers from the streets to the halls of the presidential palace, from frightened journalists smuggling tapes of riots back to their stations to be put on the air to a terrified Chávez. …[H]is status as a foreigner familiar with the culture of Caracas and an experienced journalist and academic gives him a unique vantage point from which to tell the very personal stories of those three days of chaos.” Publishers Weekly

    “…a must read for anyone seeking to get an unbiased and comprehensive account of the two most controversial days of the Chávez presidency.”
    “Nelson treats the April 11th events with hard-earned restraint, fairness, and an absence of the kind of confrontation and anger that has come to characterize the political debate in Venezuela.”Huffington Post

    “…very readable, providing wonderfully detailed firsthand accounts of the coup.”
    NACLA Report on the Americas

    “…an enthralling read…shot through with vivid details and strewn with telling and yet all-but-forgotten pieces of the April Puzzle.” Caracas Chronicles

On Sale
May 5, 2009
Page Count
384 pages
Bold Type Books

Brian A. Nelson

About the Author

Brian A. Nelson writes for Virginia Quarterly Review and Christian Science Monitor, among others. He teaches at Johns Hopkins University and lives in Baltimore.

Learn more about this author