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Like old days
U.S. role in Venezuela coup under scrutiny


Guatemala in 1954. Chile in 1973. Nicaragua in the 1980s. The list is long of efforts by the United States to overthrow democratically elected governments in Latin America or destabilize governments it disliked.

Now, as new details emerge of the April 12 coup d’état that ousted President Hugo Chávez of oil-rich Venezuela for 48 hours, critics are asking whether the United States or its Central Intelligence Agency played a role.

“In the post-World War II era, of the 30 or so major coups in Latin America, there hasn’t been one in which the CIA has not been involved,” said Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a liberal think-tank in Washington. “Why should this one be different?”

U.S. officials emphatically deny they played any part in Chávez’s temporary removal from power and say they fully support democracy in Latin America. Still, Venezuelan and U.S. authorities have launched investigations into a possible U.S. role in the upheaval.

Chávez asserts that the failed coup included plans to assassinate him. He also suggests that a foreign hand, perhaps that of the United States, may have been involved in his ouster.

If that turns out to be true, it would mark a sharp reversal of recent U.S. policy toward the region. Throughout the 20th century, the United States backed dozens of coups and movements aimed at destroying left-wing governments, even those elected in free and fair votes.

A CIA-backed coup in 1954 overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz, ushering in a 30-year civil war that left 200,000 people dead. Another CIA-backed coup in 1973 ousted Chile’s president, Salvador Allende, the first democratically elected socialist head of state in the hemisphere. Gen. Augusto Pinochet ruled Chile brutally for the next 17 years. In the 1980s, the United States financed the right-wing “contra” guerrillas to undermine the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

“It was never an issue of a wink,” said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institute in Washington. “It was a full-scale, overt and covert policy to change governments that we didn’t like in Latin America, with an extremely strong preference for right-wing military regimes as opposed to left-wing governments.”

However, those policies generally ended in the 1990s as the United States adopted a stance of supporting the region’s emerging democracies.

Now some regional specialists say the United States may be returning to the old days. Their concern stems in part from President George W. Bush’s policymaking team for Latin America, which includes three central figures from the Iran-contra scandal and “dirty wars” in Central America in the 1980s.

They are Otto Reich, Bush’s chief policymaker for Latin America; Elliot Abrams, of the National Security Council; and John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In addition, a top Pentagon official for Latin American affairs, Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, was a close associate of the contra forces.

U.S. officials have confirmed that in the months and weeks leading up to the coup against the democratically elected left-leaning Chávez, a stream of Venezuelan businessmen, journalists, military officers and politicians opposed to Chávez met with U.S. officials in Caracas and Washington. They include Pedro Carmona, who replaced Chávez briefly as president and is head of Venezuela’s version of the Chamber of Commerce.

‘Informal, subtle signs’

Defending the meetings, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, “United States officials explicitly made clear repeatedly to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup.” U.S. officials say they also met with Chávez supporters. Contradicting Fleischer, a Defense Department official told The New York Times that in the U.S. officials’ meetings with Chávez foes, “We were not discouraging people. We were sending informal, subtle signs that we didn’t like this guy.”

Last November, then-U.S. ambassador Donna Hrinak took the unusual step of ordering the embassy’s military attaché to end his frequent meetings with dissident Venezuelan military officials, U.S. officials said.

One turned out to be another coup leader, Vice Adm. Carlos Molina. Hrinak issued the order because U.S. officials had learned the dissidents were “involved in illegal activities or what would be illegal activities,” said a State Department official who asked not to be named.

Venezuelan and U.S. officials are investigating allegations that two high-level military officials from the U.S. embassy, including Army Lt. Col. James Rogers, were at Fuerte Tiuna military base the first night of the coup while Chávez was being held there.

The U.S. embassy initially called the allegations “pure rubbish.” A month after the overthrow, it issued a statement saying the two officials were at the base for two hours late Thursday afternoon, April 11, just before the coup unfolded that evening. They were checking reports of troop movements, the embassy said, and returned Saturday, April 13, during the coup to check the general situation. Rogers has an office in the main building at Fuerte Tiuna, Venezuela’s Pentagon.

Chávez told The Washington Post that a Venezuelan coastal radar installation detected a foreign military ship, helicopter and airplane operating in and over Venezuelan waters that Saturday while he was being held on a small Caribbean island and military base, La Orchila. In its statement May 14, the embassy said that during the coup two U.S. Coast Guard ships and a U.S. Customs airplane were participating in a U.S.-Netherlands anti-narcotics training mission near Curacao and Aruba off Venezuela’s coast, but no U.S. military vessels or aircraft were involved.

Also raising questions is the general response of the United States to the coup, which initially it refused to condemn. Instead, it blamed Chávez for his own ouster. Then, on his first full day as “president,” Carmona shared breakfast in the presidential palace at about 9 a.m. with U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro.

“It shows you the depth of the U.S. connection to this thing,” Birns said in a phone interview in late April. “It’s the first few hours of his presidency. He hadn’t even been sworn in yet.”

Shapiro, who served in El Salvador in the 1980s, said that at Reich’s suggestion he met with Carmona to urge him not to dissolve the Congress. Carmona dismissed Congress anyway. He also sacked the Supreme Court, abolished the constitution, and eliminated other hallmarks of democracy, giving himself dictatorial powers.

The details of how the coup occurred are deepening suspicions of U.S. involvement among critics, such as Birns, who draw parallels to the 1973 coup in Chile. They contend that Chávez’s overthrow was not the result of a “spontaneous popular uprising” as the coup leaders, the U.S. government and Chávez opponents contend. Rather, they say, it was a highly orchestrated, carefully thought-out plan by a corrupt class of business, labor, media and military elites who are backed by the United States and who see Chávez’s “peaceful revolution” on behalf of Venezuela’s impoverished majority as a threat to their privileges.

“This is as classic as they come,” said William Blum, author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. In an April 27 interview with NCR, Blum said the CIA was “not even embarrassed” to use its “same methods all over again,” namely, helping to create a situation of chaos and violence that invites the military to step in.

Union, business call a strike

On Tuesday, April 9, Fedecamaras, the nation’s main business organization, headed by Carmona, and leaders of the main labor group, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers -- CTV -- called a 24-hour general strike. Venezuela’s business-controlled TV stations and newspapers actively supported the walkout. TV stations preempted most regular programming with saturation coverage of the strike and interviews with Chávez opponents calling for his resignation or even a coup. The media coverage went on that way for three straight days as the strike continued. By Thursday, April 11, the strike was losing steam, but CTV head Carlos Ortega extended it indefinitely anyway and called for a protest march to demand Chávez’s resignation.

The march started in wealthy sectors of eastern Caracas and was diverted illegally by its organizers at the last moment from its officially authorized route, heading straight to the presidential palace.

Near the palace, shots suddenly rang out, killing 17 people. Initially, in a widely reported version of the events, military officers, Chávez opponents and the U.S. government said Chávez had ordered his supporters to open fire against the peaceful protestors. Outraged by the bloodshed, the military officers overthrew the president.

But new evidence is emerging that shots were fired by both pro- and anti-Chávez forces who clashed at the scene, and that people on both sides died, according to Venezuelan investigators and eyewitnesses. Chávez’s allies contend the shooting was started by snipers on rooftops, and that the killings were a set-up to make the president appear like a cold-blooded murderer, giving the military an excuse to launch the coup.

Chávez told The Washington Post that four foreigners fired high-powered rifles on the crowd from the Hotel Ausonia. They were arrested by the military unit responsible for protecting Chávez, but released the next day by Carmona’s junta. They have since disappeared. Venezuelan police say at least five of those killed were shot in the head from above.

The labor group CTV, a main Chávez opponent, is a major beneficiary of funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency created and financed by the U.S. Congress and which played a role in the 1980s contra campaign against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Blum contends -- and some endowment officials have acknowledged -- that the endowment was created in 1983 to carry out many of the covert activities of the CIA, which had come under fire in the late 1970s after many of its unsavory activities were exposed. Blum asserts that the endowment remains a CIA conduit, a charge endowment officials deny.

In the last year, the National Endowment for Democracy says it has dispensed $877,000 to Venezuelan and American groups involved in Venezuela including many opposed to Chávez. Beneficiaries include labor groups, journalists and business organizations. The endowment’s heavy presence in Venezuela is “a guarantee of U.S. covert involvement,” Blum said.

Added Steve Ellner, a political scientist at Venezuela’s Universidad de Oriente, in a late April phone interview: “When the U.S. sponsors coups, they don’t usually just call in the military to overthrow the government. They work through civil society. That’s what happened in Chile ... and that’s exactly what happened in Venezuela.”

Officials of the National Endowment for Democracy deny they or the groups they fund had anything to do with the coup. They say they assist groups on both sides of the Chávez debate, and that their nonpartisan mission is promoting democracy. Still, the president of one of the four main groups the endowment channels money through, George A. Folsom of the International Republican Institute, which is active in Venezuela, publicly hailed the coup against Chávez.

To defend democracy

“The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy,” Folsom said in a statement. “Venezuelans were provoked into action as a result of systematic repression by the government of Hugo Chávez.”

CTV union’s Ortega, who works closely with Carmona in the anti-Chávez movement, is not the only influential Chávez foe with U.S. ties. Media tycoon Gustavo Cisneros, one of Latin America’s richest men, is a longtime friend of former President George Bush. Cisneros recently took Bush on a fishing trip in Venezuela.

Some Chávez supporters suspect Cisneros of helping to organize the coup. On Thursday, April 11, at 11:30 a.m., hours before the coup unfolded, leaders of Venezuelan business groups and traditional parties opposed to Chávez gathered with U.S. Ambassador Shapiro for a private luncheon hosted by Cisneros at his mansion.

Cisneros denies he played any role in the coup, though he spoke to Reich, the administration’s top Latin America policymaker, by telephone during the overthrow. Reich says it was strictly to exchange information on the situation. Cisneros and other Venezuelan media magnates met with Carmona in the presidential palace Saturday, April 13, before he had even sworn in his cabinet.

Venezuelan officials also have publicly accused former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez of helping organize the coup. Perez, who lives in New York and Miami and is a close ally of Carmona and Ortega, laughs at the allegation. Perez survived a coup attempt in 1992 led by former paratrooper Chávez and is a fugitive wanted in Venezuela on corruption charges.

Chávez said one item his government is investigating is an airplane he saw parked on the island of La Orchila while he was being held there. The airplane had U.S. insignias.

The plane’s ownership is unclear, but for Blum what happened April 12 in Venezuela is entirely clear. “This is Chile all over again,” he said, referring to the 1973 coup against Allende. Except in this coup, Chávez survived.

Perhaps ominously, though, Allende survived a first coup attempt in June 1973. Three months later a second coup succeeded, leaving him dead and Pinochet as the country’s dictator.

Bart Jones is a reporter for Newsday who worked in Venezuela from 1992 to 2000, mainly as a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press.

Related Web sites

Central Intelligence Agency

Council on Hemispheric Affairs

International Republican Institute

National Endowment for Democracy

National Security Archive

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002