The 48 Hour Coup
An investigation into CIA involvement in recent failed coup in Venezuela
What really happened when the radically socialist leader of a major oil-producing country was deposed in a military coup for just 48 hours? David Raby and Jim Carey investigate an extraordinary event in world politics and examines the copious evidence now emerging of major US involvement.
10th May 2002
12.30 pm West Wing. White House. Washington 12 April 2002 . .The democratically elected President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, has just been ousted in a military coup and White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, is defining the US reaction.
"Let me share with you the administrations thoughts," says Fleischer. "We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked the crisis."
It was an extraordinary statement. A year previously the US had signed the Organisation of American States Democratic Charter, committing all member states to condemn any undemocratic change of government. Now, just a year later, the democratically elected president of the fourth biggest oil producing country in the world had been forcibly removed in a military coup. And the US was siding with the new regime within a day.
In the UK, Dennis MacShane, Foreign Office minister in charge of Latin American affairs, hastily chimed in, describing Hugo Chavez as a "ranting, populist demagogue". In a further astonishing display of political drunkenness he went on to blurt: "[Chavez] was dressed in a red paratroopers cap and a rugby shirt and waved his arms up and down like Mussolini an odd disturbing spectacle."
The Spanish Prime minister and current head of the EU council of ministers, Jose Maria Aznar, also joined the headrush of diplomatic imprudence by phoning Chavezs illegal presidential replacement to offer support. Even the International Monetary Fund stepped hastily forward when Thomas Dawson, IMF spokesman, promised co-operation for a country it doesnt yet have any financial hooks on. "We stand ready to assist the new administration in whatever matter they find suitable," he said.
COMMERCIAL TV STATIONS SHOWED FOOTAGE OF THE VIOLENCE, EDITED TO GIVE THE STRONG IMPRESSION THAT THE GUNFIRE HAD COME FROM CHÁVEZ SUPPORTERS, AND THAT A PEACEFUL DEMONSTRATION HAD BEEN BRUTALLY SUPPRESSED.
Rumours of a coup had been circulating in Caracas at least since November last year when Chávez decreed a series of radical measures which included major agrarian reform and a shake up in the Venezuelan oil industry. The immediate pretext for the coup was a conflict at PDVSA, the state oil company. PDVSA is the biggest oil company in the world and the largest company of any kind in Latin America. Chavezs plan to increase the percentage paid by oil companies for extracting Venezuelan oil were being blocked by PDVSA management, and oil workers affiliated to the CTV (the old corrupt labour federation). Early in April, Hugo Chávez announced the complete replacement of PDVSAs board of directors and the management and workers went on strike. On 9 April the CTV commenced a general strike, initially for 24 hours but then indefinite. On 11 April CTV president, Carlos Ortega, lead a protest demonstration of more than 200,000 people. The size of the demo was at least in part due to an incessant campaign of media promotion presented by Venezuelas largely anti-Chávez media outlets. With the exception of one state channel, Venezuelan TV is owned entirely by big business and is overtly antipathetic to Chavezs radical socialism. Carlos Ortega diverted the rally away from its original destination, the PDVSA headquarters, towards the presidential palace of Miraflores. There the demonstrators were faced by a counter-demonstration of Chávez supporters and, as police intervened to separate the two groups, shots rang out from surrounding buildings. More than 20 people died with 100 wounded. Commercial TV stations showed footage of the violence edited to give the strong impression that the gunfire had come from Chávez supporters, and that a peaceful demonstration had been brutally suppressed. The President responded by ordering the temporary suspension of TV broadcasts for their incitement to violence.
The highest ranking officer in the Venezuelan army, Commander in Chief General Efraín Vázquez and several other top officers then demanded Chávez's resignation, and shortly afterwards troops took him by force from Miraflores to the Venezuelan Army HQ at Fort Tiuna. Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce (FEDECAMARAS), assumed leadership of a junta which included several military officers, senior businessmen, members of the rightwing Catholic organisation, Opus Dei, and a Catholic bishop. Carmona decreed the dissolution of the National Assembly, of all state and municipal governments, of the Supreme Court and the National Electoral Council. He also abrogated 48 laws passed by Chávez. Air Force General Román Aquiles Gómez, one of several officers who had publicly declared hostility to the government in February, declared that Chávez was under arrest and would have to answer for the bloodshed of the previous two days. All over the country arrests began of Chavista officials and the situation took on all the characteristics of a witch-hunt.
The first sign that all was not going well for the de facto regime came when Chávez's Attorney-General, Isaías Rodríguez, appeared live on TV under the pretence of announcing his resignation, but instead denounced the new regime as illegal and declared that Chávez had not resigned. At least two state governors refused to recognise the regime, and reports began to emerge of military opposition to the coup. On Saturday 13 April popular demonstrations began all over the country demanding the return of Chávez. General Vázquez announced the military would only support Carmona's government if it respected several basic constitutional points, including recognition of the National Assembly. Backed by several other military units, the commander of the Parachute Battalion at Maracay, 80 km west of the capital, threatened to revolt unless Chávez was released by midnight on Saturday 13 April. Chavista public officials, backed by popular demonstrators, reoccupied public buildings and other Latin American countries said they would not support the new unelected regime. The coup unraveled within 48 hours, and Carmona resigned and was arrested along with other coup leaders. By 3am on Sunday 14 April Chávez was back in Miraflores and, later that morning, he was sworn in again as President before the National Assembly.
A VENEZUELAN CONGRESSMAN CLAIMS SECURITY POLICE DETAINED TWO GUNMEN, ONE AMERICAN AND ONE SALVADOREAN, ON THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTINGS BUT HE CAN FIND NO RECORD OF WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM.
It is now clear that Chávez never resigned in the first place. He was quickly flown from Venezuelas military HQ at Fort Tiuna to the Caribbean island of La Orchila. The junta originally claimed Chavez had expressed the desire to go into exile in Cuba, but information subsequently discovered by Chavista officers indicates the plan was to send him elsewhere against his will, probably to Puerto Rico (i.e. US territory).
New information also began to emerge about the violence at the 11 April violence demonstration, which had been used as the pretext for the coup and was being constantly cited as justification by the White House.
"Government supporters, on the orders of the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors," asserted Ari Fleischer to the press gathered in the West Wing. "The Venezuelan military and police refused to support the governments role in such human rights violations." US Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, even suggested in public that the snipers who fired on the April 11 demonstration were Cuban agents. He offered no evidence.
However, the majority of those who had died at the demonstration turned out to be pro-Chavez supporters. Independent eyewitness reports offer various suggestions as to the origin of the shooting. A Venezuelan journalist at the scene reports that he entered Miraflores after the disturbances and that loyal officers showed him three foreign mercenaries they had taken prisoner. Another report in the Venezuelan magazine Koeyú, refers to two Salvadoreans who were arrested and said to be members of a death squad previously involved in sabotage in Cuba and Panama. Venezuelan Congressman, Roger Rondon, claims security police detained two gunmen, one American and one Salvadorean, on the night of the shootings but he could find no record of what happened to them.
DESPITE THEIR CONTINUING STATE OF DENIAL, US FINGERPRINTS HAVE BEEN FOUND ALL OVER THE SHORT LIVED COUP IN VENEZUELA.
A further unexplained feature of the coup is the presence on Orchila Island of an unidentified small plane with US markings, reported by Venezuelan sources including Chávez himself. In addition, the presence of US Navy ships in international waters off the Venezuelan coast was widely reported and subsequently admitted by Washington. Officially, they were coincidentally in the area carrying out manoeuvres but former US Navy intelligence officer and now intelligence analyst, Wayne Madsen, says the US vessels provided communications assistance to the coup leaders, and jammed the signals of the Cuban, Iraqi, Iranian and Libyan embassies. Madsen also claims US military attaches had previous contact with the Venezuelan military about the possibility of a coup: "I first heard of Lieutenant-colonel James Rogers [the assistant military attaché now based at the US embassy in Caracas] going down there last June to set the ground Some of our counter-narcotics agents were also involved."
Venezuelan congressman, Roger Rondon, also claims Lt-Col James Rogers and another military officer he names as Ronald MacCammon, were at the Fort Tiuna military HQ with the coup leaders on the night of April 11 and 12. The US deny the presence of any US personnel at the base although they say two military personnel, including Lt-Col Rogers, drove round the base on April 11.
Chavista military sources also claim three US naval vessels and three helicopters (which they identify by serial number) entered territorial waters without permission for several hours on 13 April.
Information is now emerging on the financing of the coup. In a general sense it was backed by the entire Venezuelan establishment: the old dominant parties AD and COPEI, the CTV labour federation, FEDECAMARAS, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the commercial media, etc. Over the previous year the US had channeled thousands of dollars in grants to groups opposed to Chavez. Among the recipient of payments provided by a non-profit agency funded by the US congress called the National Endowment for Democracy, were the CTV labour union whose protests precipitated the coup. But according to the Miami newspaper, El Nuevo Herald, (not in the least sympathetic to Chávez), one of the principal financial backers was a young Venezuelan entrepreneur, Isaac Pérez Recao.
Pérez Recao regularly moves between Caracas and Florida and is a major shareholder in the Veneco petrochemical company of which Pedro Carmona the 48-hour illegal president - is an executive. Pérez Recao is also linked to several obscure Florida companies alleged to be linked to the CIA. The Venezuelan paper, El Nuevo País, reports that the conspirators met several times at Pérez Recao's house east of Caracas, and that he controls an extreme right-wing paramilitary group trained by former agents of the Israeli Mossad.
We also know that US Asst. Sec for the Western Hemisphere, Otto Reich, had a meeting with Carmona, in November last year. [see Red Pepper Investigations March 2002 for more on Reichs long history of malevolent involvement in Latin American politics]. We also know that the Venezuelan Armys Inspector General Lucas Romero Rincon, had visited the Pentagon in December 2002 for a meeting with the US Asst. Sec. of Defence for the Western Hemisphere, Rogerio Pardo-Maurer; another George W appointee to have been heavily involved in supporting the contra rebels in Nicaragua. Two of the coup leaders, General Efraín Vázquez and Ramirez Poveda, are also known to have graduated from the notorious School of Americas, the CIAs school of insurgency which has trained a multitude of covert operators.
Furthermore US ambassador Charles Shapiro, who had been appointed only a couple of months previously, was seen on12 April emerging from the presidential palace with Carmona; the Spanish ambassador is also reported to have been present at one point. The US government admit their ambassador met Carmona the day after the coup but insist he simply advised the juntas leader to return Venezuela to democratic rule. Much to the embarrassment of the US, however, Carmona insists no such advice was given.
When the 48 hour junta left Miraflores in a hurry, they left behind evidence said to include a message from a State Department official to Carmona dated 13 April; pointing out that Chávez's resignation would have to be approved by the National Assembly in order to maintain a semblance of constitutional order.
Despite their continuing state of denial, US fingerprints have been found all over the short lived coup in Venezuela. It is still marginally unbelievable that political diplomacy and prudence were thrown to the wind in both the US and Europe within a day of a military overthrow of a democracy. Perhaps the heady smell of oil, induced western politicians and leading financiers to abandon all sense of diplomatic caution. Perhaps the ousting of a radical socialist leader made giddy the minds of western capitalists. Whatever the reason, their premature celebrations became an embarrassing hangover devoid of justifiable excuses within just 48 hours. US fingers have plunged into Latin American pies before but never have they been so hastily rebuffed by popular insurrection and Latin American solidarity.