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Venezuela 2002 Coup Attempt

On 11 April 2002, Venezuela's military ousted President Chavez, detained him, and installed pro-opposition businessman Pedro Carmona as interim president. But the coup quickly faltered and ultimately crumbled amid massive protests and bloody confrontations between Chavez-backers and security forces. Less than 48 hours after his ouster, a triumphant Hugo Chavez returned to power and Carmona went into exile.

By 2002, it had become clear to policymakers in the United States that Latin America, considered by U.S. political elites to be their own backyard, was slipping away. They needed to act if they wanted to maintain their control over the region. The wave of progressive and revolutionary governments in Latin America began in 1998, with the election of Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela. That marked the beginning of the Bolivarian revolution. Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina would soon follow.

In February 2002, Chavez fired retired general Guaicaipuro Lameda from his post of President of the government-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, and replaced him with a former Communist Party militant. Protesting Chavez's actions, officials and workers at the company launched a production slowdown. On 11 April 2003, the third day of the strike, about 200,000 people marched in Caracas, calling on Chavez to resign. The march began peacefully but degenerated into violence, with a group of Chavez supporters opening fire with handguns. In all, 15 people were killed. The "massacre," as Chavez opponents called it, gave the military the moral authority to break with the president.

On 11 April 2002 the head of Venezuela's National Guard said the military had taken control of the country from President Hugo Chavez. In a televised address, Gen. Alberto Camacho Kairuz said the Chavez administration had "abandoned its functions" and the armed forces chief of staff, Gen. Bernabe Carrero Cubero, said that military leaders had asked the president to resign and call for new elections. The country's richest business leaders, its largest labor confederation, its top military men and its most influential media had joined forces against Chavez.

Chavez returned to power on 14 April 2002 following the collapse of the coup leadership in the face of an emotional outpouring from supporters in slums and towns across the country. President Chëvez's comeback left Washington looking rather stupid. The national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, didn't help that impression when she cautioned the restored president to "respect constitutional processes."

The Inter-American Democratic Charter is an Organization of American States' agreement to condemn and investigate the overthrow of any democratically elected OAS member government and, if necessary, suspend the offender's membership. The charter was approved by the 34 OAS member nations in Lima, Peru, on 11 September 2001. Washington's lack of commitment to democracy in the region had been made clear by the response to the Chavez coup attempt. Over the past decade, previous Administrations had reacted promptly in similar situations in Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru and Guatemala -- publicly calling for an adherence to the rule of law. This time around, the US reaction was muted, first accepting Chavez´s ouster, then embracing the coup leaders, and finally accepting the lead of the OAS to condemn the coup. In previous crises, the US rallied other countries around the hemisphere.

President George W. Bush appointed Otto Reich as his point man on Latin America. According to the Observer newspaper, Reich, a fervently anti-Castro right-wing Cuban-American, met with the coup plotters just months before the events of April 2002. The plotters would also meet with Elliot Abrams, a senior figure during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and a senior director at the National Security Council in Bush’s administration.

Abrams made a name for himself as a staunch anti-communist, helping implement the U.S.'s Cold War strategies, including the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and the sponsorship of brutal dictatorships and right-wing paramilitaries throughout the hemisphere. Abrams would also be convicted for withholding information from the U.S. Congress regarding his efforts to illegally fund the Contras in Nicaragua.

The coup-plotters also allegedly met with John Negroponte, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Negroponte is best known in Latin America for his tenure as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s when U.S. military aid to the country’s right-wing government dramatically increased as part of an effort to use the country as a base to suppress national liberation struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador and elsewhere.

In the months before the coup, the US Embassy in Caracas had sought to distance itself from coup rumors. US Ambassador Donna Hrinak, took the unusual step of asking the American military attache to cease contacts with the dissidents. But Washington's signals to Chavez's opponents had been open, and at the highest levels. On 05 February 2002 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed concern "with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chavez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about." Similar remarks were made that same day by CIA director George Tenet. The opposition felt it had the green light from Washington to remove Chavez from power.

A Central Intelligence Agency intelligence brief entitled, “Venezuela: Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt,” dated April 6, 2002 — a mere five days before the coup plot would be carried out — explicitly stated that a coup was set to take place. “Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possible as early as this month, [CENSORED]. The level of detail in the reported plans – [CENSORED] targets Chavez and 10 other senior officers for arrest.” The brief pinpointed precisely how the coup plotters intended to set off the president’s overthrow, saying, “To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month.”

US intelligence knew of the intimate details of the plot well in advance without informing the Venezuelan government; the coup proceeded exactly as predicted; and the coup-plotters had recently met with senior U.S. officials. At a minimum, the US seemed to some to be an accessory.

There were published reports that suggested that the US military provided intelligence or other assistance to the Venezuelan military as it conducted this coup. There were reports that Navy vessels carrying out exercises off Venezuela's Caribbean coast engaged in strategic communications jamming during the days of the coup. Wayne Madsen, a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Navy, told the Guardian that Navy vessels aided the coup plotters, jamming signals of the Venezuelan military.

Immediately after the ouster, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer suggested that the administration was pleased that Mr. Chávez was gone. "The government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," Fleischer said, which "led very quickly to a combustible situation in which Chávez resigned." The US government was quick to recognize the de facto government of Carmona, calling it a “transitional civilian government” while failing to mention that Chavez had in fact been kidnapped and that subsequent government was in power only as the result of a military intervention.

Within hours of the coup, Otto Reich, the assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, summoned a number of Latin-American ambassadors to his office and told them that Chavez had resigned and he urged them to support the new government. Reich reportedly phoned Venezuelan coup leader Pedro Carmona the day he took over as interim president, pleading with Carmona not to dissolve the National Assembly, which He said would be "a stupid thing to do," and would provoke an outcry. Subsequent reports suggest that this phone call was made by the US ambassador.

Otto Juan Reich, the State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, Reich's counterpart at the Defense Department, met with Venezuelan leaders of the coup during preceeding months. Pardo-Maurer was an aide to the head of the Contras when they were waging their US-backed war against the elected leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reich was a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal. In the mid-1980s ran the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean. Since Reich is a hard-line anti-Castro Cuban immigrant with a long history of covert activity, speculation spread that that he - along with other veteran cold warriors - helped stage-manage the Venezuelan coup.

On 16 April 2002 Victoria Clarke ASD (PA) was asked for the record whether or not the US military provided any intelligence and other support to the Venezuelan military when they were conducting the coup against President Hugo Chavez? Clarke reponded that "We wouldn't talk about any intel matters, but I can say emphatically that we had somebody from our policy shop who met recently with the chief of staff, who made it very, very clear that the U.S. intent was to support democracy, human rights, that we in no way would support any coups or unconstitutional activity." The meeting took place between the assistant secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Pardo-Maurer and General Lucas Romero Rincon, chief of the Venezuelan high military command, on 18 December of 2001.

The United States suggested that Chavez's increasingly autocratic governing style was largely responsible for provoking the popular discontent that resulted in his brief ouster. Regional leaders criticized the Bush Administration when Mr. Fleischer blamed President Chavez for provoking the coup that briefly drove him from power after his supporters fired on protesters. When President Chavez returned to office two days later, Mr. Fleischer said the Bush Administration repeatedly told opposition leaders that they would not support a coup. Asked her reaction to the brief ouster, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said "I hope that Hugo Chavez takes the message that his people sent him that his own policies are not working for the Venezuelan people... "

A senior State Department official emphatically denied that the United States in any way supported a coup to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "Let me now say, categorically: the United States did not participate in, inspire, encourage, foment, wink at, nod at, close its eyes to, or in any way leave the impression that it would support a coup of any kind in Venezuela," said Ambassador Lino Gutierrez, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere. "In all our meetings with Venezuelans in the government and opposition in recent months, in Washington and in Venezuela, we underlined this fundamental principle of our policy." Discussing the U.S. response to the upheaval last week in Venezuela at a session at the North-South Center in Washington 17 April 2002, Gutierrez said, "We oppose military coups in any democratic country."

“The United States was hosting people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S. sponsored NGOs in training people that were involved in the coup … I think there was U.S. involvement, yes,” said the Washington Post's Scott Wilson, the paper's Latin America correspondent at the time.

Ever since, Chavez accused the United States of orchestrating the coup, and argued that Washington has no credibility as a defender of democracy in the Americas. US officials have repeatedly denied the charge. To date, no evidence had emerged that the Bush administration actively aided in the preparation or execution of the coup attempt. What remains an open question to many historians, however, is whether the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the coup and tacitly backed Chavez' ouster, and to what extent the United States embraced the short-lived interim Venezuelan government.

With regard to the use of unconstitutional or undemocratic means to remove or otherwise oppose the Chávez government, U.S. policy was repeated so often and so consistently that it became mantra-like. Department spokesmen, Washington based U.S. officials of all agencies and at all levels, and Embassy Caracas representatives all stated and re-stated publicly and privately U.S. opposition to any undemocratic or unconstitutional political change in Venezuela.

For example, in November 2001, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for WHA Lino Gutíerrez was quoted in the Venezuelan press as saying: “We would categorically reject any attempt to remove Chávez. We consider President Chávez to be the democratically elected leader of Venezuela. We stand by the Organization of American States Democratic Charter, which says very clearly that any government that achieves power via extra-constitutional means will not be welcome in the OAS.”

One meeting between Ambassador Shapiro and Venezuelans was shocked into uncomfortable silence by the vehemence of the ambassador’s warnings against a coup d’etat. It would be fair to say that everyone of consequence in Venezuelan political and military circles was well aware of American opposition to a coup or anything resembling a coup by mid-April 2002.

Throughout the course of the weekend of April 12-14, Embassy Caracas and the Department worked to support democracy and constitutionality in Venezuela. Based on credible reports that (a) pro-Chávez supporters had fired on a huge crowd of peaceful Chávez opponents, killing some and wounding others; (b) the Chávez government had attempted to keep the media from reporting on these developments; and, bowing to the pressures, (c) Chávez had fired his vice president and cabinet and then resigned, the Department criticized the Chávez government for using violent means to suppress peaceful demonstrators and for interfering with the press.

Both the Department and the embassy worked behind the scenes to persuade the interim government to hold early elections and to legitimize its provisional rule by obtaining the sanction of the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. When, contrary to U.S. advice, the interim government dissolved the assembly and the court and took other undemocratic actions, the Department worked through the Organization of American States (OAS) to condemn those steps and to restore democracy and constitutionality in Venezuela.

While it is clear that NED, Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chávez government, thetr was no evidence that this support directly contributed, or was intended to contribute, to that event.

The State Department's point man for Latin America at the time, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich, testified on Capitol Hill 11 March 2009. Speaking about the future of U.S.-Latin American relations, Reich said President Obama must distinguish between democratic leaders and despots in the hemisphere. Those words prompted a testy response from Democratic Congressman Bill Delahunt of Massachusetts.

"I have full confidence in President Obama," he said. "And I dare say in the case of Venezuela, he would not have made an effort to support tacitly the coup. He would not have attempted to influence ambassadors in other nations in Latin America to confer legitimacy to the Carmona government. When Pedro Carmona swore himself in, his first act was to abolish the National Assembly, to abolish the judiciary."

Reich demanded an opportunity to respond, but Delahunt cut him off. "There are rules here," he said. "I have the floor."

Later given a chance to speak, Reich said, far from endorsing the coup at the time, he issued a stern message to the interim Venezuelan government through the U.S. Embassy in Caracas. "I instructed [former U.S.] Ambassador Charles Shapiro to find Mr. Carmona and tell him that if he swore himself in, violating Chavez's own constitution, that he could not count on the support of the United States government, and we would have to impose economic sanctions [on Venezuela]," Reich said.

Most Latin American governments quickly condemned the coup, although relatively few demanded Mr. Chavez' return to power. The Bush administration initially acknowledged a change of government in Venezuela, and did not condemn the coup until it had collapsed. In the interim, Reich convened a meeting with Latin American ambassadors in Washington.

At the hearing, Congressman Delahunt repeatedly asked Reich if he pressed the ambassadors to lobby their governments to recognize the Carmona regime. Time after time, Reich said no.

"I'll accept that," said Delahunt. "Is that your answer?"

"My answer is that we told the Latin American ambassadors what we believed was taking place in Venezuela at the time," Reich replied. "But I am telling you we did not tacitly endorse a coup."

The US government acknowledged contact with those opposed to President Chavez before the coup, but said there was no encouragement of illegal actions. An internal probe of US government activities leading up to the coup found no evidence of wrongdoing.

December 2002 - General Strike

The Venezuelan opposition began a general strike against President Hugo Chavez on 02 December 2002. The aim was to intensify street protests in an attempt to force the president to bring forward elections. The opposition decided - to the surprise of many observers - to continue extending its strike day-by-day. In mid-December, the strikers shut down a large portion of the country's oil industry, drastically reducing the production of Venezuelan oil and its delivery to internal and external markets. President Chávez declared the strikers' demands unconstitutional and enlisted the help of the military to maintain production. By mid-December government efforts to free the country's oil industry from the clutches the national strike had provoked protests from petroleum workers and Venezuela's merchant marines. President Chavez fired 16,000 of the striking workers and has replaced them with workers loyal to his government.

On 13 December 2002 The White House said that it wanted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to call early elections to end the political crisis that has paralyzed the country's vital oil industry. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the United States was convinced that early elections are the only peaceful and politically-viable way out of Venezuela's political crisis. "The United States believes that this is the best course to preserve peace in Venezuela, a society that has been wracked on an increasingly-daily basis with violence. And the president believes that the solution to issues that could potentially involve violence is to defuse the violence and focus on democracy."

Diplomats from the United States, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Spain, and Portugal, the so-called "friends of Venezuela," pressed for a solution, based on proposals set forth by former US President Jimmy Carter on 21 January 2003. Under the Carter plan, there would either be a recall referendum in August 2003, or a change to the constitution that would allow for early elections.

By February 2003, after nearly two-months, the opposition strike in Venezuela began showing signs of weakening, but the divide between those who oppose and those who support President Hugo Chavez remained wide. The general strike that shut down almost all commerce in Venezuela since 02 December 2002 was starting to come undone. Little by little, merchants are opening their doors, or expanding hours of operation, if they were already open. Owners of shopping centers, theaters and other popular destinations say they expect to open soon.

The strike cost Venezuela more than $4 billion, and the economy was expected to show a 25-percent contraction this year as a result. The nation's currency, the Bolivar, lost nearly 30-percent of its value. Oil production in this, the world's fifth-largest producer, fell as low as 200,000 barrels-a-day in January 2003. By the end of January, the government managed to move production back up to about 1,000,000 barrels-a-day, but that was still only about a third of what used to be produced.

Since January 2003, President Chávez has expanded his administration's control over the economy by banning foreign-currency trading and imposing price controls on a number of products. Chávez has also been pressuring the Venezuela's central bank to reduce interest rates, and has indicated that he would like to restructure external debt under more favorable terms.

2002-2003 - Continued Conflict

In late March 2003, Venezuela's military bombed and strafed an outpost in the far western part of the country. Its target: a Colombian paramilitary group pursuing Colombian rebels across the border into Venezuela. It was yet another indication of Colombia's civil strife spreading to other countries. Colombia reacted angrily at what it considered a foreign intervention in its own affairs. Venezuela responded it was protecting its territory, but in fact, is thought to be sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas who regard Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as an ideological ally. most of the attention was on Venezuela because of the reported sympathies between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and some of the Colombian guerilla groups, the two largest groups the ELN and the FARC in particular.

Although the general work stoppage ended on February 3, 2003 in non-oil sectors, there has been no resolution of the strike in Venezuela's oil sector, now in its sixth month. As of May 2003, Venezuelan crude oil production is widely believed -- by striking workers and independent analysts -- to be around 2.6 million barrels per day.

Venezuela has been supplying Cuba with 53,000 barrels of oil a day at reduced prices in exchange for the services of Cuban doctors, paramedics, teachers, workers, and other technicians who participate in internationalist missions. Cuba's petroleum debt with Venezuela's State Oil Company, PDVSA, rose to $266 million by May 2003. The Castro regime has fallen behind on payments to PDVSA repeatedly since Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez signed a trade agreement in October 2002. PDVSA supplies approximately 35% of the island's oil under generous financing terms that amount to a 25% price subsidy over 5 years.

The opposition umbrella group, known as the Democratic Coordinator, long insisted the country could not endure the controversial leadership of populist President Hugo Chavez until August 2003, when his current six-year term reached the three-year mark. They accused the president, among other things, of seeking to impose an authoritarian regime, of repeatedly violating the constitution and of destroying the economy. Despite staging a devastating, two-month long strike and business stoppage, which paralyzed the country's vital oil industry, in a bid to force the president to resign or hold an early vote, the opposition was eventually forced to give in.

After months of talks among Venezuelan government, the opposition, and diplomatic representation led by the "Group of Friends," which includes Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Portugal, Spain and the United States, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Carter Center, relevant parties were unable to reach an agreement to stage a referendum in 2003.

2003 - Cuba Connection

The claim that Hugo Chavez wants to copy Fidel Castro, repeatedly denied by the government, received fresh impetus in July 2003. The catalyst was the launch of a nationwide literacy campaign designed in Cuba. There have also been renewed allegations that Cuban doctors and sports instructors, as well as teachers, sent in the hundreds by Fidel Castro, are part of an indoctrination scheme aimed at introducing communism by stealth.

Chavez made a deal with Cuba's Fidel Castro, though many of the deal's provisions - like bartering Venezuelan goods for Cuban doctor and other professional services - were questionable in the norms of international trade. Details of the deal were suppressed from traditional Venezuelan media, but those details did leak out via the Web.

The poor barrios of Caracas are the scene of a new pilot program aimed at improving health care for the poor. Cubans described as "volunteers" have moved into private homes, where they offer free consultations and medication, often in open competition with clinics run by the metropolitan authorities. Caracas health officials say their budget has been cut by over 50-percent, with the result that their already over-burdened clinics are facing collapse. They suggest that this may be part of a plan to shift resources to the Cuban cooperation project. Adding to the controversy are accusations that the Cubans are neither qualified to practice medicine nor familiar with modern pharmacology or treatment methods. There have been claims by Venezuelan doctors of serious malpractice that allegedly placed patients' lives in danger.

There have been similar complaints by the teachers' unions about the Cuban-designed literacy campaign. Over 70 Cuban teachers were brought in to train Venezuelans to use the audio-visual material. So far, the opposition has been unable to prove its accusations of indoctrination.


On 26 February 2004 Venezuelan Chancellor, Jesus Arnaldo Perez said "The United States must resort to the corresponding institutions to prove its innocence," referring to accusations made several organizations and by Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, regarding US involvement and financing in destabilizing events which were encouraged by opposition sectors against the Venezuelan government, such as the attempted coup that occurred on April 11, 2002. Perez pointed out that "not only Venezuela but the whole world is waiting for an explanation concerning these actions" and he highlighted that it is indispensable for the US government to deliver a speech regarding this issue, "the US must come out of that ambiguity and clarify that it gives support to democracy and not to opposition sectors that are trying to disregard the democratic system".

Venezuelan government representatives, Eustoquio Contreras, Calixto Ortega, Nicolas Maduro and Cilia Flores requested the US Congress to set up a commission to investigate the usage of funds granted to opposition groups by the National Fund for Democracy (NFD) to promote destabilization in the Venezuelan democratic system. The Venezuelan delegation explained that "NFD funds have been used in a biased way, they have been exclusively granted to ultra-radical opposition organizations that have not been in accordance with Venezuelan constitutional channels". They also made reference to the Education Civil Association Assembly which has received 100,000 dollars for an alleged educational reform program, and they added that the founding member and Association president was appointed Minister of Education during Pedro Carmona's attempted coup in April 2002.

On 29 February 2004 President Bush ordered US Marines into Haiti as part of an international stabilization force following the departure of President Aristide. Aristide's departure rattled President Hugo Chavez. In a Caracas speech punctuated by expletives, Chavez insulted President Bush and railed against alleged US intervention in Venezuelan politics. Chavez accused the US of involvement in a 2002 failed coup against him and said it is funding groups seeking a presidential recall vote.

On 01 March 2004 President Chavez said "If Mr. Bush is possessed with the madness of trying to blockade Venezuela, or worse for them, to invade Venezuela in response to the desperate song of his lackeys ... sadly not a drop of petroleum will come tothem from Venezuela."

On 03 June 2004 Venezuelan election officials decided to allow a recall referendum on the rule of President Hugo Chavez to go forward. The council announced that opponents of Mr. Chavez had gained the petition signatures of the 20 percent of the electorate necessary to force a recall. The council had initially rejected the recall move on grounds that a sizable portion of signatures collected were invalid. But after allowing voters to reconfirm signatures late last month, it ruled that recall supporters had gotten the required total of nearly two and a half million. After the election petition verdict, Mr. Chavez reiterated a claim the United States is behind the recall move. Under the Venezuelan constitution, there would be elections for a new president if Mr. Chavez loses a recall before 19 August 2004. But if he is defeated in a recall vote is held after that, Mr. Chavez's vice president would take over and run the country for the remainder of the his term which runs until the end of 2006, effectively extending his government's rule.

On 15 August 2004 Venezuelans voted in a referendum on whether to recall President Hugo Chavez or allow him to complete his term in office. His opponents say he is emulating the failed policies of Cuba's Communist dictatorship. They also say Mr. Chavez is a threat to Venezuelan democracy. Venezuelan authorities have launched politically motivated investigations against recall supporters, including Sumate, a Venezuelan civic organization that is promoting voter education and mobilization. The August 15th recall vote will determine President Hugo Chavez's political future and will send an important message about the future of democracy in Venezuela.

On 16 August 2004 the Venezuelan Electoral Council announced that President Hugo Chavez had won the special recall election through which opponents hoped to unseat him. With 94 percent of the vote counted, more than 58 percent of voters opposed the recall.

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Page last modified: 13-08-2017 18:51:00 ZULU