U.S., Hands Off Venezuela! Let’s Change Our Reputation for Intervention

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Let’s keep in mind, in the wake of the death today of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, the words of his late night speech on Saturday, December 8, 2012 — the last that he gave in public:

No faltarán los que traten de aprovechar coyunturas difíciles para, bueno, mantener ese empeño de la restauración del capitalismo, del neoliberalismo, para acabar con la Patria. No, no podrán, ante esta circunstancia de nuevas dificultades -del tamaño que fueren- la respuesta de todos y de todas los patriotas, los revolucionarios, los que sentimos a la Patria hasta en las vísceras como diría Augusto Mijares, es unidad, lucha, batalla y victoria.

Hugo Chavez

Whatever happens now is the business of Venezuela — not of us.

Nicolás allá está la Espada de Bolívar, a ver si la pueden traer ¿eh? La Espada de Bolívar, la espada del Perú, la que le dieron a Bolívar en el Perú 1824, bueno, delante de esa espada juramos ¿eh? Delante de esa espada juramos, delante de esta bandera juramos, delante de Dios, delante de nuestro Pueblo. Estaremos muy pendientes y pido todo el apoyo, todo el apoyo del Pueblo y de todas las corrientes y de todos los sectores de la vida nacional, de los patriotas de Venezuela, civiles, militares, hombres, mujeres ¿eh? En estas circunstancias, todo el apoyo, bueno, en primer lugar para el Gobierno Revolucionario en esta coyuntura, continuar arreciando la marcha rumbo a lo que ya está ahí en el horizonte, la gran victoria del 16 ¿no es? 16 de diciembre, las gobernaciones de todo el país y el apoyo, la unidad ante las decisiones que tengamos que ir tomando en los próximos días, en las próximas semanas, en los próximos meses. Sea como sea y con esto termino, hoy tenemos Patria, que nadie se equivoque.

Hoy tenemos Pueblo, que nadie se equivoque.

Hoy tenemos la Patria más viva que nunca, ardiendo en llama sagrada, en fuego sagrado.

Some of you may not have gotten all of that.  Google Translate will be only a partial help, as it leaves Chávez sounding incoherent in places, which I don’t think he was:

There will also try to exploit those difficult situations for, well, keep that commitment to the restoration of capitalism, neoliberalism, to end the country.No, they can not, in these circumstances of new difficulties that may be size-response-all and all patriots, revolutionaries, those who feel up to the Homeland in the viscera as would Augusto Mijares, is unity, struggle, battle and victory. 

Nicholas is beyond the Sword of Bolivar, to see if they can bring huh? Bolivar’s sword, the sword of Peru, which gave Bolívar in Peru 1824, well ahead of that sword swear huh? Ahead of that sword we swear in front of this flag swear before God, before our people. We are very aware and ask all the support, all the support of the people and all the current and all sectors of national life, the patriots of Venezuela, civil, military, men, women, huh? In these circumstances, all the support, well, first for the revolutionary government at this juncture, the raging continued march toward what is already there on the horizon, the great victory of 16 is not it? December 16 governorates across the country and support the unit before decisions have to be taken in the coming days, in the coming weeks, in the coming months. Whatever the case and I conclude, today we Patria, make no mistake.

Today we Pueblo, make no mistake.

Today we have the country more alive than ever, sacred flame burning in the sacred fire.

(Our Spanish-speaking readers are invited to correct Google’s errors; I’ll post corrections as provided.)

Certain factions in Venezuela have been waiting hungrily for this day.  These people are our country’s “friends” — historically this has generally meant oligarchs and military business interests, rather than anything most of us would find friendly — including many who have been provided safe havens in the U.S.   Chávez was, in his last speech, warning the country of this prospect.  These forces — and for those who have gotten used to or never known other than peace in Latin America, we call them “counterrevolutionaries,” a term that translated and truncated was most famously used for the Nicaraguan “contras” with which we were aligned during the late 1970s and through the 1980s — have resented Chávez and his exportation of what passes for revolution (many would simply call it self-determination) in countries including Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru — but pointedly not Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia.

Some of you may be asking: “Why was this guy so paranoid?”  Answer: he wasn’t.  Younger readers and those less attentive a decade ago may not know about the attempted coup that took place in April 2002 — one of the really rotten moments of U.S.-Latin American relations of this century.  It’s the sort of thing that — as with many such events in the world — Americans tend to gloss over while the people who were most affected by them remember and resent.  Let’s go to that Wikipedia link for a refresher about that coup — in which Chavez was held prisoner in his own country until the new government overplayed its hand and fractured the coalition that had favored deposing them.  (This section is long; it would be understandable to skip it, but if you’re interested, here it is.)

Chávez’s detention

In the early hours of 12 April, the coup plotters demanded Chávez’ resignation. With the loss of “almost all … military force on hand in order to resist or move to another place”,[58] Chávez said that he would consider it to avoid a potential bloodbath if there were disturbances involving the crowds outside Miraflores.[59] However, he declared that four conditions would have to be met, including that he be allowed to resign before the National Assembly, with power passing constitutionally to the Vice President prior to new elections; and that he would be able to address the nation live on television.[58][59] At 3 am, with the coup plotters threatening to bomb the Miraflores palace if Chávez did not resign, Chávez told General-in-Chief Lucas Rincón that he would do so. Within twenty minutes Rincon had announced on television that Chávez had been asked for his resignation, and had accepted.[60] A few minutes later, Chávez was told that the four conditions he had declared would no longer be accepted, and Chávez declared that he would surrender himself to the coup plotters as “president prisoner”.[61]

After the resignation had been announced, Chávez was escorted under military guard to Fort Tiuna, where he met with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Chávez was also met by army officers, who by then had determined that he was not to be sent to Cuba. Instead, Chávez would be taken to La Orchila, a military base off the coast of Venezuela, until rebel leaders could decide Chávez’s fate. Whilst being held at Fort Tiuna, Chávez had access to television and saw the rolling television claims of his resignation, and became concerned that he would be killed (and the death made to look like suicide) in order to keep the narrative clear.[62] He was able to get word out that he had not in fact resigned, via a telephone call to his daughter, who, via switchboard operators at Miraflores still loyal to Chávez, was able to speak first to Fidel Castro and then to Cuban television.[63] In an interview with two women from the military’s legal department, Chávez reiterated that he had not resigned, and they faxed a copy of his statement to the Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez. To make the news public on Venezuelan media, Rodriguez called a press conference, supposedly to announce his own resignation. Instead, on 12 April at 2 pm, he announced live on television that Chávez had never quit, and was being held illegally. Most of his statement was cut off, with Venezuelan networks returning to the studios.[64] In the evening, Chávez was flown to the remote naval base of Turiamo, near Puerto Cabello, where he considered the risk of his own murder/assassination. According to Chávez, at one point an officer declared to another, “If you kill the president here we’ll all kill one another.”[65] On 13 April, with the critical support of top military officer Raúl Baduel,[66][67] and with Chávez supporters having retaken Miraflores and the soldiers holding him now calling him “President”, Chávez wrote a note from his captivity in Turiamo stating specifically that he had not resigned.[68]

Carmona’s interim presidency

Businessman Pedro Carmona, president of Fedecámaras, was installed as interim President after Chávez’ detention. Carmona issued a decree, which came to be known as theCarmona Decree, dissolving the National Assembly and Supreme Court, and voiding the 1999 Constitution.[69] The decree declared that new elections for a “National Legislative Power” would take place no later than December 2002, and that this would draft a general reform of the 1999 constitution; new “general national elections” would take place within a year of the decree’s declaration.[70] The decree also suspended the Attorney General, Controller General, state governors and all mayors elected during Chávez’s administration.[71][72] As one academic later put it, “all institutions were abolished leaving the country effectively without the rule of law.”[73] A Rio Group meeting of Latin American governments taking place that day in Costa Rica adopted a resolution condemning the “interruption of constitutional order in Venezuela”, and requesting a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS); only Francisco Flores of El Salvador said that he would recognise the Carmona government.[74] Carmona also reinstalled Guaicaipuro Lameda as head of PDVSA. PDVSA management swiftly announced the end of oil exports to Cuba, and declared that it would step up production, implying an end to cooperation with OPEC.[75]

Although Carmona promised new elections within a year, with a return to the pre-1999 bicameral parliamentary system, and also repealed a controversial set of 49 laws on the economy which had been passed six months earlier, the dissolution of the institutional framework fragmented the broad anti-Chávez coalition which had supported the coup, with many viewing it as “the triumph of a small oligarchic elite.”[69] Additional strategic errors (the failure to include labour leaders such as Carlos Ortega in the government, and the appointment of Vice Admiral Héctor Ramírez as minister of defence, ahead of army General Efraín Vásquez) contributed to the inability of the interim government to withstand the backlash against it.[69][76]

Pro-Chávez uprising and restoration

Prompted by the spreading news that Chávez had not resigned, Carmona’s installation as President generated a widespread uprising in support of Chávez that was suppressed by the Metropolitan Police.[5] It also led to a demonstration outside the Presidential Palace by hundreds of thousands of people. In contrast to the opposition marchers, “it was the poor from the peripheral barrios who returned Chávez to power.”[77] With the palace surrounded by protestors, and with several hundred paratroopers still ensconced beneath the palace, their commander, José Baduel, telephoned Carmona to tell him that he too was as much a hostage as Chávez was, and gave him an ultimatum that he return Chávez alive within 24 hours.[78] Meanwhile General Raúl Baduel, who headed Chávez’ old paratrooper division in Maracay, had been trying unsuccessfully to make public his opposition to Carmona; however Venezuelan media refused to interview him.[79] Raúl Baduel contacted the head of the Presidential Guard, which remained loyal to Chávez, and told him “it’s now or never”. Late in the morning of 13 April the Presidential Guard entered the palace from their barracks via underground tunnels, and retook the palace; many of the coup plotters escaped.[79] Since Chávez was being held in a secret location, the presidency was assumed for several hours by Vice President Diosdado Cabello until Chávez was reinstated.

After the retaking of Miraflores, the military coup plotters held a meeting in Fort Tiuna, and drafted a statement recognizing Carmona as President, but demanding the restoration of the country’s democratic institutions. In the confusion of the meeting, Chávez ally Jorge García Carneiro crossed out the section recognising Carmona; and it was in this form that the statement was read to CNN studios (since no Venezuelan media would broadcast it).[80] After the coup Carmona was placed under house arrest, but was able to gain asylum in the Colombian embassy after an anti-Chávez protest drew away his security detail.[78]

Whilst Chávez was temporarily removed from office, the Caracas Stock Exchange saw liquid stocks reach record levels, with the index growing nearly 1000 points in a single trading session. When it became clear the coup had failed, the index fell again.[81]

The part that you really do need to know, though, regards the American role in the coup:

Chávez has asserted numerous times that U.S. government officials knew about plans for a coup, approved of them and assumed they would be successful.[94] Chávez also further alleged that “two military officers from the United States” were present in the headquarters of coup plotters.[95] Rear Admiral Carlos Molina, a central leader of the coup, later said that “We felt we were acting with US support … we agree that we can’t permit a communist government here. The US has not let us down yet.”[96]

It was reported that Chávez was seen as an enemy by the Bush administration for his revolutionary posture and his moves to gear Venezuela’s oil wealth to domestic needs.[97] In a hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on 6 February 2002, Senator Pat Roberts questioned CIA Director George Tenet on the perceived threat that Chávez posed to U.S. interests, stating that: “Let me ask you another question on assessment of the threat to the United States in our own hemisphere. Venezuela does supply a great majority of our energy, not to mention trade—it is Latin and Central America, or what we refer to as the 31 countries of the Southern Command. I’m very worried about that, more particularly in regards to Venezuela and a fellow name Hugo Chávez…I would appreciate your assessment. If you could underscore that a little bit, the threat to the U.S. within our own hemisphere..” Tenet responded: “Sir, obviously, Venezuela is important because they’re the third-largest supplier of petroleum. I would say that Mr. Chávez—and the State Department may say this—probably doesn’t have the interests of the United States at heart.”[98][99] Secretary of State Colin Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that: “We have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chávez, and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about.”[100]

According to a report in The New York Times, US Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich warned Congressional aides that there was more at stake in Venezuela than the success or failure of Chávez. He accused Chávez of meddling with the historically government-owned state oil company, providing a haven for Colombian guerrillas, and bailing out the Cuban dictatorship with preferential rates on oil. Reich also announced that the administration had received reports that “foreign paramilitary forces”, who they claimed were Cuban, were involved in the bloody suppression of anti-Chávez demonstrators.[101] No proof was offered. Eva Golinger published an article and her interpretation of several official documents claiming that a number of US agencies, including the CIA, had previous knowledge of the coup. She maintains that the USAID was being used by the CIA in the coup.[102] According to The New York Times, “The documents do not show that the United States backed the coup, as Mr. Chávez has charged. Instead, the documents show that American officials issued ‘repeated warnings that the United States will not support any extraconstitutional moves to oust Chávez.'”[103] The documents showed that American officials knew of the coup attempt beforehand, something which they had strenuously denied in the days after the event.[103] A review of Golinger’s first book carried out by Veneconomy, a political and economic research publication in Venezuela, says that, “In none of the cases where she makes a specific citation of an official [U.S. government] document is there a quote affirming what she states.”[104]

Upon news of Chávez’s return, Condoleezza RiceNational Security Advisor to U.S. President George W. Bush, said: “We do hope that Chávez recognizes that the whole world is watching and that he takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship, which has been moving, frankly, in the wrong direction for quite a long time.”[105] Bush denied any involvement of the U.S. government in the coup attempt and asked Chávez to “learn a lesson” from it.[106] Asked whether the administration now recognizes Mr. Chávez as Venezuela’s legitimate president, one administration official replied, “He was democratically elected,” then added, “Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however.”[107]

In 2009, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that he believed that Washington knew about the abortive coup, and may have been involved.[106]

Bush Administration officials acknowledged meeting with some of the planners of the coup in the several weeks prior to 11 April, but have strongly denied encouraging the coup itself, saying that they insisted on constitutional means.[108] Although, a Defense Department official who was involved in the development of policy toward Venezuela said the administration was sending a different message. “We were not discouraging people,” the official said. “We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don’t like this guy. We didn’t say, ‘No, don’t you dare,’ and we weren’t advocates saying, ‘Here’s some arms; we’ll help you overthrow this guy.’ We were not doing that.”[109]

Because of the allegations, an investigation conducted by the U.S. Inspector General, at the request of U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd, requested a review of U.S. activities leading up to and during the coup attempt. The OIG report found no “wrongdoing” by U.S. officials either in the State Department or in the U.S. Embassy but it also concluded that: “It is clear that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], 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.”[110]

Links between senior Bush’s administration officials and the attempted coup have been established.[111] Previous to the coup Carmona himself has visited Washington several times, where he was received at the White House by Otto Reich who was on the period President George Bush’s key policy-maker for Latin America. He is a Cuban-American right-winger that under the Reagan administration used to run the Office for Public Diplomacy. He was supposed to report to the State Department theoretically, but he was shown by congressional investigations to be reporting straight to Reagan’s National Security Aide, Colonel Oliver North, who worked in the White House, hence answering straight to the Executive Power’s military staff.[111]

Oliver North himself was convicted also under charges of being involved in the Iran-Contra affair in which CIA and the US military intelligence used the profit it obtained from illegal arms sales to UN embargoed Iran to fund Nicaraguan rebels, the “Contras” while all government money transfers to the Contras had been banned by the US congress.[111]

Reich also was linked to Venezuela. He was once made ambassador to Caracas, back in the year of 1986. Although that appointment was contested in the US by Democrat politicians and by Venezuelan political leaders. But Venezuela sought access to the oil market in the US so such objections were overridden. People in the Organization of American States claim Carmona and other leaders of the coup had a number of meetings with Reich over several months. In those meetings they discussed the coup in some detail. Such as its timing, success chances, and they were deemed excellent by Reich. On the coup day Reich called Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors to his office to tell them that the removal of Chávez was not supposed to mean a rupture of democratic rule in Venezuela, as Chávez had (supposedly) resigned himself and thus was responsible for his own fate.[111] He also told them the US government would support the new government (which no other country did).

Maybe Venezuela would be better off with a counter-revolutionary government along the lines of that temporarily installed by Pedro Carmona.  Maybe not.  Personally, I doubt it, but I am neither interested in debating it nor in even investigating whether it is true.  While it is the business of people with an interest in international human rights, I don’t believe that it is my place as an American to take a stand in support of a violent overthrow of the Venezuelan government even if I did think that it was the best thing for Venezuela, because included right along with my American citizenship, at this time in history, is my not being worthy of trust when it comes to imposing Latin American governments.  Our track record there is not good.

We should not help those who may seek to change Venezuela’s regime; nor should we necessarily hurt them.    We should keep them scrupulously at arm’s length.  Here, where we have abused the Monroe Doctrine for the better part of a century, we basically have to stay out.  If there’s an international human rights case to be made for change, it will have to come from Europe, from the UN, or from someone else.  It can’t come from us.  We’ve done too much to earn too much suspicion that the interests of the Venezuelan people are not our interests.  It may (or may not) be a real shame –but that’s the state of play.

One thing of note is missing from that Wikipedia page; I had to go looking for it elsewhere.  It’s what our government — “representing” us, of course — did when we first got news of the coup:

Even before he was elected overwhelmingly as Venezuela’s president in a free and fair democratic vote in 1998, Hugo Chavez’s critics were warning that he was a dictator-in-waiting and Latin America’s next Fidel Castro.

In April some of these same critics, including business elites and members of the military high command, overthrew Chavez in a coup d’etat that lasted 48 hours. As the poor took to the streets to demand his restoration, Chavez returned to power triumphantly.

The coup plotters’ message was puzzling: We have to overthrow the democratically elected president to save democracy.

Washington’s response? The Bush administration not only did not condemn the April 12 coup, but appeared to endorse it and even blamed Chavez for his own downfall. “Undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela,” the State Department said.

After Chavez returned to power, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned not the coup leaders but, remarkably, Chavez to “respect constitutional processes.”

The stance by the U.S. government, which refuses even to call Chavez’s ouster a coup, provoked a barrage of criticism. It seemed to mark a reversal of U.S. foreign policy, which in the 1990s emphasized support for emerging democracies in a region plagued for decades by brutal U.S.-backed military dictatorships and civilian regimes.

The not-so-veiled U.S. support of the coup against Chavez resurrected memories of past CIA-engineered coups against democratically elected leaders in places such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973, or support for right-wing forces such as the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

You don’t remember that?  Venezuelans do.  You think that they should let bygones be bygones?  Venezuelans don’t.  And that’s their decision to make — something that we should honor loud and clear.  (As to who will lead the post-Chavez Venezuela, this article suggests that it’s likely to be either his “global revolutionary in the style of Che Guevara” handpicked successor, his “concentrate on helping the poor within this country in the style of Juan Peron” one-time likely successor, or the moderate opposition figure who polled well against him in the most recent election.)

In the linked page on Wikipedia, there’s a table that I found interesting:

Covert United States involvement
in regime change
1893 Overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii
1949 Syrian coup
1953 Iranian coup
1954 Guatemalan coup
1961 Cuban invasion
1963 South Vietnamese coup
1964 Brazilian coup
1973 Chilean coup
1976 Argentine coup
1979 Afghanistan resistance
1980 Turkey coup
1981 Nicaraguan ‘contras’
2002 Venezuelan coup attempt

The list stops right there — in Venezuela, in 2002.  Good.  Let that be the last entry in that table.  No more covert coups; hands off of Venezuela.  Our foreign policy in most parts of the world (the Iraq-to-Pakistan swath being an obvious exception) has actually improved a bit in the past decade.  Intervention there would be bad for our country, and for the reputation for fairness we should want to build, as well as bad for Venezuela.  Let’s pledge to let them govern themselves and — venceremos — we will win.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)