October 23, 2002

Sensitive New Age Coup

It wasn't hard to guess that sooner or later General Enrique Medina Gomez would eventually try to piece together some kind of antigovernment action, but who could've guessed it would be this? The man called a press conference yesterday with a who's who of the April coup leaders standing behind him in two neat rows in full uniform. He recited the usual litany of grievances but then stunned everyone: just when you thought he was about to order the troops to storm the palace, he stopped, and instead asked other army officers to join him in protest by going to Plaza Altamira, in the foofie east-side, and hold a vigil until Chavez resigns or calls fresh elections.

So that's exactly what they did. 30 hours ago. They're still there. Looks like a particularly excitable core of about 5 or 10,000 people are willing to really tough it out down there. More and more officers have trickled to the scene, giving the typical little speeches, waving, etc. It's quite an extraordinary demonstration, really. These big tough army guys have basically settled for a line saying "damn you Chavez! We're so angry at you that if you don't resign, we're gonna, we're gonna...make speeches! Yeah, and keep making them until you give up! There!" Very odd.

The nice thing is that their attitude, once again, pulls the rug from under the government's line. Of course, predictably, the government went into conniptions of rage over this new outbreak of "golpismo" - coupsterism - their favorite all purpose political slur. But if one thing is obvious is that a coup, at least a normal, traditional coup, is about as far from these guys intentions as could be. One does not stage a coup with flags, pots and pans from Plaza Altamira...that's just absurd. If anything, this is a sort of anticoup, a specific rejection of traditional heavy-handed military intervention, an impassioned demonstration that even the most radical antichavistas in the military reject a violent outcome.

(Cynics will of course point out that since these guys loyalty to chavez had been under a cloud for months, they'd been relieved from direct command posts months ago and couldn't have led a coup even if they wanted to. That's probably true. Still, their very visible rejection of the use of force strikes me as significant and vaguely inspiring.)

Of course, from the government's point of view, the protest is also a strange kind of godsend...they don't even have to purge these guys from the ranks, they've purged themselves. And the longer the protest goes on, the longer the incredible self-purging army has time to do its thing.

But in the short term, the Coordinadora Democratica has played this whole thing beautifully, nailing down the protest as a pristinely pure, democratic affair, again isolating the extremists, and using it to further undermine the government's position. One is inclined to say that the Coordinadora is learning how to do its thing, and learning fast. It's exciting.