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US debacle in Venezuela: Bush administration backtracks on
By Bill Vann
18 April 2002
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The brief overthrow and subsequent restoration of Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez has left that Latin American country in
a state of deep political crisis. There are strong indications
that, despite the humiliating debacle suffered by those who carried
out an April 11 coup d’etat, new US-backed attempts to remove
the elected government are in the offing.
If one accepts the Bush administration’s account, high-ranking
US officials met on a virtually continuous basis in recent months
with the military officers, businessmen and trade union bureaucrats
who organized the ill-fated April 11 military coup in Venezuela.
But, administration spokesmen insist, these officials repeatedly
urged the coup plotters not to take extra-constitutional action.
This self-serving version of the US role was fashioned only
after the nascent junta headed by big business association chief
Pedro Carmona disintegrated in the face of a popular uprising
in the streets of Caracas and growing divisions within the Venezuelan
When it appeared that the plotters had succeeded, the White
House could not contain its glee, quickly blaming the coup on
Chavez and proclaiming the junta’s legitimacy.
The composition of the coup leadership further discredits Washington’s
denials of responsibility. That a group of military officers—several
of them graduates of the Pentagon’s School of the Americas
in Fort Benning, Georgia—and wealthy businessmen would ignore
Washington’s “advice” and go ahead with a coup
d’etat opposed by the US government defies all logic.
Even if taken at face value, this absurd scenario would make
the Bush administration an accomplice in the abortive attempt
to overthrow an elected Latin American government. Though repeatedly
notified that a coup was planned, it did nothing, by its own admission,
to warn the Chavez government.
The information that has emerged in the wake of the coup makes
it increasingly clear that a right-wing cabal of anti-Castro Cubans
and veterans of the CIA-organized “contra” army that
attacked Nicaragua in the 1980s worked intimately with those who
organized the coup.
According to the Bush administration, within hours of the junta’s
announcing its seizure of power, Otto Reich, the US Assistant
Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was in telephone conversation
with Carmona, advising him on the political tactics to be pursued
by the new “military-civilian” regime.
US officials cited the conversations, in which Reich allegedly
urged Carmona not to immediately dissolve the National Assembly,
as evidence that the Bush administration was defending democratic
But the exchange, as reported by these officials, indicates
that Reich was working to prevent the regime from overreaching
during its first day in power, fearful that it would provoke popular
The Pentagon, meanwhile, acknowledged that Rogelio Pardo-Maurer,
the Defense Department official responsible for Latin America,
discussed the proposed coup in Washington with Gen. Lucas Romero
Rincon, chief of the Venezuelan military command. Officials claimed
that Pardo-Maurer warned the general about Washington’s concern
for democracy and human rights.
The credibility of these claims can best be judged by examining
the background of the administration’s supposed champions
of democracy. Reich, a right-wing Cuban exile, served in the 1980s
as the head of the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy,
an outfit set up by Lt. Col. Oliver North to further the illegal
US funding and arming of the contra mercenary army in Nicaragua.
An investigation concluded that Reich’s office had “engaged
in prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” using CIA and
military resources to spread disinformation, vilify the Nicaraguan
government and build support for the contras.
Afterwards, Reich became US ambassador to Venezuela, where
he established close ties to the extreme right in that country.
He distinguished himself by working successfully to free the anti-Castro
Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch, who was jailed for putting a bomb
on a civilian Cuban aircraft, killing 73 people.
Pardo-Maurer, meanwhile, spent the 1980s working in Washington
as the chief spokesman for the Nicaraguan contras.
Finally, in Caracas, the US installed Charles Shapiro as its
ambassador in February, just as preparations for the coup emerged
in the open with pronouncements by several military officers against
the Chavez government. Shapiro enjoyed close ties with the Cuban
reactionaries who have assumed control of the Bush administration’s
Latin American policy, having served as the head of the State
Department’s Office for Cuban Affairs before taking the Venezuelan
He also is a veteran of the bloody wars fought by the Reagan
administration in Central America, having served as the US Embassy’s
political officer in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. He occupied
this post, which is often used as a cover for the top CIA agent
in a given country, at a time when the CIA was orchestrating a
savage campaign of repression that claimed the lives of thousands
of Salvadoran workers and peasants.
These are the figures who were supposedly trying to talk the
Venezuelan generals and financial elite out of staging a coup.
Given their records, it seems far more likely that they were among
the principal instigators and organizers of the military overthrow.
Washington’s desire to bring down Chavez is bound up with
US strategic interests in the hemisphere and internationally.
As the world’s fourth-largest petroleum producer, Venezuela’s
importance to US foreign policy has grown with the spiraling crisis
in the Middle East. The Chavez government antagonized the US by
providing low-cost oil to Cuba—as well as to Central American
and other Caribbean nations—and by supporting tighter discipline
on quotas within OPEC to keep up the price of petroleum. He has
also refused to cooperate with the US military escalation in Colombia,
where the Bush administration has proposed a shift from the “war
on drugs” to an open counterinsurgency campaign, which is
to include the use of US-backed military units to protect US-owned
oil installations and pipelines.
The recent election of a Venezuelan to head OPEC and the Chavez
government’s talk of supporting an Iraqi proposal to withhold
oil exports in response to Israel’s offensive on the West
Bank sent US efforts to put an end to his government into high
Chavez’s “Fifth Republic Movement" and “Bolivarian
Revolution” are cut from a familiar pattern of Latin American
military populists, from Argentina’s Peron to General Velasco
Alvarado in Peru and General Omar Torrijos in Panama. Unlike these
predecessors, however, Chavez has done relatively little to expand
the public sector and has pursued economic policies that fall
well within the parameters established by the International Monetary
Fund, passing laws allowing the takeover of the Venezuelan telecommunications
sector by the multinationals and assuring the property rights
of the foreign oil corporations.
It is a measure of both the rapacious aims of US capitalism
and the huge social gap between wealth and poverty in Venezuela,
however, that Chavez’s limited social reforms in education,
health care and land distribution were seen as an intolerable
threat. His attempt to place his own appointees on the board of
the state oil corporation and to curb the drive to privatize the
institution provoked the ire of both native and foreign capitalists.
It also provided the opening for one of the main participants
in the coup, the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers, or CTV.
This corrupt and bureaucratized organization, which by its own
account formally represents barely 12 percent of Venezuelan workers,
is among the closest allies of the US AFL-CIO.
Since Chavez came to power in 1998, the AFL-CIO’s American
Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), the successor
to the infamous American Institute for Free Labor Development
(AIFLD), which provided critical “labor” support for
military coups in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere in the
1960s and 1970s, has played an increasingly active role in Venezuela.
Funded by the US Agency for International Development and the
National Endowment for Democracy, the ACILS sent the Venezuelan
CTV “technical advisors” to help prepare the confrontation
It was a general strike called jointly by the CTV and the employers’
federation, FEDECAMARAS, headed by Carmona, and the mass demonstration
that they both organized in Caracas, which launched the coup.
Gunfire that felled about a dozen people was blamed on forces
loyal to Chavez and seized upon by the military as the pretext
to take power. Investigators have since established that the first
shots were fired by sharpshooters operating with the demonstrators,
and that the first four victims were among those defending the
While the junta managed to imprison Chavez, it soon fell prey
to internal contradictions that grew ever deeper as popular outrage
over the coup spilled into the streets of Caracas and other major
Carmona and his military allies carried out measures of the
kind imposed by the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and other extreme
right-wing regimes. With a stroke of his pen, the business leader
disbanded the National Assembly, abolished the constitution, revoked
every law passed by the Chavez government and affirmed the right
to dismiss any elected governor or mayor in the country.
Behind Carmona stood the wealthiest and most reactionary sections
of the Venezuelan ruling class, which were determined to use the
coup to assert their unfettered control over an oil-rich economy
that has long yielded them huge fortunes, while leaving 80 percent
of the population in poverty.
Among those backing the junta was a single political party,
Justicia Primero, or JP, the successor of the Christian Democratic
COPEI party, which controls just six of the national legislature’s
165 seats. To a large extent, the preparations for the coup were
funded by the Perez Recao family, the owners of the Venezuelan
petrochemical corporation Venoco, which fielded its own armed
bands in the midst of the abortive overthrow. Also reported to
have a significant role was Opus Dei, the right-wing Catholic
Faced with a regime controlled by Venezuela’s traditional
exploiters, masses of workers, students and poor defied the tanks
and troops to defend what little they have gained during the Chavez
years. Whole neighborhoods erupted in street battles and looting,
while the city’s poor marched toward the center of the capital.
A Peruvian journalist described the impression made by the
demonstrations against the coup: “They came down from the
‘cerros’ [shantytowns] armed with sticks, rocks and
others with guns firing into the air. All with menacing gestures
shouted ‘Chavez, Chavez.’ It is the first time that
I was so afraid to go into the street. The police tried to control
them, but by noon they were overwhelmed.”
While the junta’s leaders had arrested Chavez and leading
aides and raided the homes of a few hundred of his known supporters,
they and their American backers had failed to make the kind of
preparations needed to drown a mass movement of working class
protest in blood.
The alliance formed under Washington’s tutelage quickly
began to fracture in the face of popular opposition. After joining
Carmona in calling the strike that was to pave the way to the
coup, the CTV’s chief bureaucrat, Carlos Ortega, accused
the business leader of “betrayal” and denounced him
for seeking to form a “dictatorship of the right,” according
to those who were present at their discussions. He announced the
withdrawal of his support.
Within the armed forces there were also significant defections.
Many in the military high command regarded Chavez—who as
a paratroop officer staged his own aborted coup in 1992—as
an upstart. Veterans of the counterinsurgency campaigns of the
1960s, they resented his friendship with Cuba, and chafed under
his proposals to use army units for social development projects.
Others, however, were Chavez’s military cronies and had benefited
from his presidency, receiving promotions and preferable assignments.
The collapse of the coup has been compared in Cuba and Latin
America generally to the debacle of the Bay of Pigs invasion of
1961, when the CIA and the Kennedy administration grossly underestimated
the capacity of the Cuban people to fight against the restoration
of the hated Batista regime.
The Bush administration has distinguished itself on the international
arena by asserting its right to remove foreign governments that
it does not find to its liking. This was the policy it pursued
in Afghanistan and it is the policy that it attempted to carry
out in Venezuela.
The blatant US attempt to overthrow an elected Latin American
government has elicited only muted criticism from the Democrats
in Congress. In many countries, the revelations that have already
emerged about the administration’s activities in Venezuela
would have provoked a desperate crisis and the likely fall of
the government. But the lesson the Bush administration will likely
draw from its failure in Caracas is to rely even more heavily
on direct US military intervention.
For his part, Chavez has responded to the events with a show
of contrition and plea for conciliation that has not been matched
by any of those who overthrew and abducted him. He has held round-table
discussions with the employers’ federation, the union bureaucracy
and the Catholic Church, all of which had a hand in the coup.
He has agreed to put his regime’s limited agrarian reform
and the law upholding state control of the oil industry up for
Justicia Primero, which is the political party most implicated
in the coup, has called for Chavez’s resignation and the
dissolution of all elected bodies in the country.
The CTV bureaucracy has demanded a national referendum “for
our people to democratically express their will over whether they
want the current government to continue directing the country’s
destiny.” The trade union bureaucrats have also demanded
the immediate release of military officers and a handful of civilians
who were placed under arrest for their part in the coup.
Meanwhile, the US State Department has authorized the voluntary
departure from Venezuela of all embassy personnel in non-emergency
positions and all dependents, while reiterating a warning to Americans
against travel to the country, declaring that “the political
situation remains fluid and there has been widespread civil unrest.”
All this indicates it is not a matter of if, but when another
attempt will be made to bring down the Chavez government. Washington
and its local allies are undoubtedly preparing for far more systematic
and murderous repression against those who resist the next coup.
For the working people of Venezuela and Latin America as a
whole, the events of the past week are a stark warning. Faced
with a mounting economic crisis, unprecedented social polarization
and growing social revolt throughout the continent, capitalism
is driven to revive the methods of counterrevolution and dictatorship.
Only by mobilizing its strength independently of all sections
of the military and the political establishment on a socialist
program will the working class be able to defend its rights against
the conspiracies of US imperialism and the native ruling elite.
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