It was enough to send me into a tailspin of Venezuelan PTSD.
I know only too well what it’s like to be on the streets protesting a narcissistic authoritarian populist who fetishizes military power. I was near the head of the protest on April 11, 2002, when hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets of Caracas to protest Hugo Chávez’s slide toward dictatorship. As a massive protest march headed to the presidential palace, Chávez made a decision that broke the back of Venezuelan democracy: He ordered regular army tanks to confront the demonstrators.
The order, picked up and recorded by amateurs who had been monitoring military radio frequencies that day, placed Venezuela’s generals in an impossible position. They knew full well that their troops had neither the equipment nor the training to face thousands of angry demonstrators on the street. They knew the president’s order would most likely result in a massacre, one that would forever taint the army’s image and fundamentally change its relationship with the people. They also knew that following the orders issued by duly elected leaders was the most basic of a general’s duties in a democratic country.
What to do? Any way you respond to it can produce irreparable damage to democratic normality. It’s a dilemma without a solution.
In Venezuela, the generals first dithered, then balked. In the afternoon, having heard the radioed orders, the general in charge of implementing them simply refused to pick up the president’s phone calls. The resulting power vacuum created an unprecedented breakdown in the military chain of command, with no one quite sure who was in charge or which orders should be considered legitimate and which could not. Within 12 hours, the commander of the army had summoned Chávez to the main military fort in Caracas to demand his resignation. The army stumbled into staging a coup, but not one anyone had calculated ahead of time.
Right now you might be thinking, “But that could never happen in the United States.” Think again. Facing a narcissist with authoritarian tendencies, “that could never happen here” is the most dangerous delusion of all.
In Venezuela, Chávez’s resignation set off 48 hours of chaos. A unelected and unrepresentative civilian government tried to wrest control of the situation but alienated nearly everyone. Soon, military units understandably aghast at the breakdown of civilian control over the military rebelled against the rebellion, staging a daring operation to bring Chávez back into power. The coup collapsed, and the duly elected autocrat was reinstalled in the presidential palace.
Order was restored then? Think again. Having established his right to order soldiers to treat citizens as the enemy, Chávez embarked on a process of authoritarian consolidation that, over the ensuing nearly two decades, turned Venezuela into an outright dictatorship.
Was it a mistake, then, for the generals to refuse the original order to confront civilians? Hardly. The message here is that just by issuing the order, the president created a situation that democracy could not survive. And it was in the president’s sole gift to issue that order. No one could prevent him issuing it, and no response to it could have safeguarded democracy once it was given.
The United States is facing a situation with terrifying parallels to Venezuela’s in 2002. A president who visibly has no grasp of the correct relationship between the military and civilian worlds faces a protest movement he cannot control. He has already made it clear he intends to militarize his response.
His next move could end American democracy. Take it from one who’s seen it happen.