Just after Bush's inauguration in 2001, Chavez' congress voted in a new "Law of Hydrocarbons." Henceforth, Exxon, British Petroleum, Shell Oil and Chevron would get to keep 70% of the sales revenues from the crude they sucked out of Venezuela. Not bad, considering the price of oil was rising toward $100 a barrel.
But to the oil companies, which had b*tch-slapped Venezeula's prior government into giving them 84% of the sales price, a cut to 70% was "no bueno." Worse, Venezuela had been charging a joke of a royalty -- just one percent -- on "heavy" crude from the Orinoco Basin. Chavez told Exxon and friends they'd now have to pay 16.6%.
Clearly, Chavez had to be taught a lesson about the etiquette of dealings with Big Oil.
On April 11, 2002, President Chavez was kidnapped at gunpoint and flown to an island prison in the Caribbean Sea. On April 12, Pedro Carmona, a business partner of the US oil companies and president of the nation's Chamber of Commerce, declared himself President of Venezuela -- giving a whole new meaning to the term, "corporate takeover."
U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro immediately rushed down from his hilltop embassy to have his picture taken grinning with the self-proclaimed "President" and the leaders of the coup d'e'tat.
Bush's White House spokesman admitted that Chavez was, "democratically elected," but, he added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not by just the majority of voters." I see.
With an armed and angry citizenry marching on the Presidential Palace in Caracas ready to string up the coup plotters, Carmona, the Pretend President from Exxon returned his captive Chavez back to his desk within 48 hours. (How? Get The Assassination of Hugo Chavez, the film, expanding on my reports for BBC Television. You can download it for free for the next few days.)
Chavez had provoked the coup not just by clawing back some of the bloated royalties of the oil companies. It's what he did with that oil money that drove Venezuela's One Percent to violence.
In Caracas, I ran into the reporter for a TV station whose owner is generally credited with plotting the coup against the president. While doing a publicity photo shoot, leaning back against a tree, showing her wide-open legs nearly up to where they met, the reporter pointed down the hill to the "ranchos," the slums above Caracas, where shacks, once made of cardboard and tin, where quickly transforming into homes of cinder blocks and cement.
"He [Chavez] gives them bread and bricks, so they vote for him, of course." She was disgusted by "them," the 80% of Venezuelans who are negro e indio (Black and Indian)--and poor. Chavez, himself negro e indio, had, for the first time in Venezuela's history, shifted the oil wealth from the privileged class that called themselves "Spanish," to the dark-skinned masses.
While trolling around the poor housing blocks of Caracas, I ran into a local, Arturo Quiran, a merchant seaman and no big fan of Chavez. But over a beer at his kitchen table, he told me,
"Fifteen years ago under [then-President] Carlos Andre's Pe'rez, there was a lot of oil money in Venezuela. The "oil boom' we called it. Here in Venezuela there was a lot of money, but we didn't see it."
But then came Hugo Chavez, and now the poor in his neighborhood, he said, "get medical attention, free operations, x-rays, medicines; education also. People who never knew how to write now know how to sign their own papers."
Chavez' Robin Hood thing, shifting oil money from the rich to the poor, would have been grudgingly tolerated by the US. But Chavez, who told me, "We are no longer an oil colony," went further"too much further, in the eyes of the American corporate elite.
Venezuela had landless citizens by the millions -- and unused land by the millions of acres tied up, untilled, on which a tiny elite of plantation owners squatted. Chavez' congress passed in a law in 2001 requiring untilled land to be sold to the landless. It was a program long promised by Venezuela's politicians at the urging of John F. Kennedy as part of his "Alliance for Progress."
Plantation owner Heinz Corporation didn't like that one bit. In retaliation, Heinz closed its ketchup plant in the state of Maturin and fired all the workers. Chavez seized Heinz' plant and put the workers back on the job. Chavez didn't realize that he'd just squeezed the tomatoes of America's powerful Heinz family and Mrs. Heinz' husband, Senator John Kerry (now, Obama's nominee for U.S. Secretary of State).