The National Post has a big feature on Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, who’s much in the news as a result of a fatwa on him by Pat Robertson. This post has nothing to do with climate. I happened to be in Caracas during the Chavez coup attempt in 1992 and this is just a personal reminiscence.
The National Post mentioned in passing that Chavez led a failed coup attempt in 1992. As it happens, I was in Venezuela during the coup attempt and one of the battles of the coup actually took place at the CCT Tamanaco hotel where I was staying.
On that trip (I think), I’d travelled to El Callao, an old gold mining town near the Guyana border. The trip back was via Puerto Ordaz. On the day before my return, a platoon of armed men attacked and robbed a gold shipment going through the airport, killing about 9 people. They escaped to waiting motorboats in the Orinoco delta and disappeared. It was executed in military style. Two days later, the Chavez coup attempt took place. Was it coincidence that the two events were juxtaposed? Who knows.
Puerto Ordaz was quiet when I passed through on (I think) Thursday. My plane out was on Sunday, so I had a couple of days in Caracas with a quiet schedule. I had another odd coincidence when I checked into the CCT Tamanaco hotel. I was checked into a rather grander room than I’m used to staying in and a fruit tray had been delivered on behalf of the Canadian government. It turned out that there were two Stephen G. McIntyre’s from Canada staying at the CCT Tamanaco hotel — me and a fellow from Ottawa. I’m pretty sure that I’d crossed paths with him once before in 1976. I worked in Ottawa for the Anti-Inflation Board on a contract depositing my contract cheques into a new account. One day, I tried to withdraw money (and I was doing pretty well on this contract) and there was nothing in the account. It turned out that there were two Stephen G. McIntyre’s at this branch and I’d been depositing money into his account (asking the teller for the account #, rather than remembering the passbook naturally. This was pre-bank machines.) Fortunately, the money was still there; the bank figured out what had happened and I got the money back.
Anyway, on Friday morning, when I turned on the television, there was pandemonium. Someone looking like Che Guevara (Chavez) had commandeered the air waves and was announcing that he was in control. Every so often, the government would get control of the air waves and Che would disappear from the monitor, only to return a little later. The CCT Tamanaco hotel overlooked an air force base (which turned out to be one of the centers of the coup attempt.) I could hear a ping-ping of shots but didn’t think much of it.
The reason for the involvement of the hotel (and I didn’t learn this until later) was that the government had put heavy guns on the roof of the hotel and was firing on the air force base. The air force base in turn was firing quite heavy artillery at the hotel. Afterwards, you could see the trajectory of the shells right through the hotel — through the window; the internal retaining walls in the hotel for rooms on both sides, and then out the other side. About a third of the windows were shot out by the next day.
Soon after, there was a knock on the door. A porter had come and was lying flat on the floor; he told me to hit the floor, which I did. We then had a short conversation, both lying on the floor, the gist of which was that the hotel was under attack and that I was to evacuate the room immediately. I was not even supposed to stand up to get my wallet and passport. I disregarded that advice.
The hotel guests were all re-located in a basement restaurant. Sometimes we were told to lie under the tables, sometimes we could sit up. The restaurant was adjacent to the underground parking garage. You could hear machine gun battles taking place in the underground garage. I was at a table with the famous marathon runner, Bill Rodgers of Boston, who had come to Caracas to be grand marshal of the Caracas Marathon scheduled for Saturday.
The coup attempt lasted about 8-12 hours. By evening, we were allowed to go back to our rooms. The city was under curfew that night. I suspect that fewer people were killed in Caracas that day than in an ordinary Friday in Caracas — the murder rate there is very high.
I’m not sure what most people would do on a Saturday after their hotel was attacked in a coup attempt. But I’m not (shall we say) easily intimidated and I decided to go sightseeing. I surreptiously took some pictures of the hotel, showing the extensive damage (the soldiers didn’t allow pictures to be taken). I’ve never seen anything in Venezuela fixed so fast. They were determined that the damage would be repaired overnight.
The subway was running and I went downtown. However, the incident was not entirely over and as I was traveling downtown, there were a lot of announcements, the gist of which was probably to do with re-imposing a curfew, but I couldn’t follow the announcements. As I was walking down to the cathedral area, I heard more ping of shots. The pedestrians near me all ran into a nearby alley so I followed. More shots came and it was pretty clear that we were pinned in this alley by a sniper. After about 20 minutes, some government troops came by, told us to clear out, so I ran about 200 yards to a safe haven. When I got there, a young guy about 6 inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter than me grabbed my camera. He was also probably about 6 times tougher than me, so atypically wisdom took the place of valour and my pictures of the hotel were gone.
The airport re-opened on Sunday. It was an absolute madhouse. The coup did not stop the requirement to pay airport tax, but the clerks who received airport tax mostly did not show up. I arrived about 6 hours before my flight and made my flight by about 5 minutes. When it left, it was about 20% full, despite thousands of people at the airport clamouring to leave.
Just another day at the office. When I got home, hardly anyone even knew that there’s been a coup attempt.
After the coup, a new caretaker President was appointed — a very old man. One day, he was signing the mountains of paperwork that presidents have to sign. Included in the pile of paperwork was a pardon for a narcotraficante. Within minutes of the signing, a helicopter arrived at the prison and the narcotraficante was whisked out of the country. The elderly president later explained that he didn’t know what he was signing. I never found out the end of the story, whether they bothered trying to figure out which secretary had inserted the papers to be signed. For all I know, they could have decided to let the whole thing go.