William Blum

Official website of the author, historian, and U.S. foreign policy critic.

US coup against Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, 2002

Jacobo Arbenz, Cheddi Jagan, Fidel Castro, João Goulart, Juan Bosch, Salvador Allende, Michael Manley, Maurice Bishop, Daniel Ortega, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Hugo Chávez … all Latin American leaders of the past half century, all progressive, all condemned to suffer the torments of hell for their beliefs by the unrelenting animosity of the United States.

Chávez had been elected president by a wide margin in 1998, breaking a lock on power by the two establishment parties that had dominated Venezuelan politics for decades. He repeated the strong electoral showing in 2000. But in the eyes of Washington officials, Chávez was no more than a man guilty of the following offenses:

He branded the post-September 11 US attacks on Afghanistan as “fighting terrorism with terrorism”, demanding an end to “the slaughter of innocents”; holding up photographs of children said to have been killed in the American bombing attacks, he said their deaths had “no justification, just as the attacks in New York did not, either.” In response, the Bush administration temporarily withdrew its ambassador. 1 When she returned to Venezuela, she had what one US official called a “very difficult meeting” with Chávez, in which she told him “to keep his mouth shut on these important issues.” 2

He was very friendly with Fidel Castro and sold oil to Cuba at discount rates or in exchange for medical and other services. Chávez called for an end to the US embargo against Cuba.

His defense minister asked the permanent US military mission in Venezuela to vacate its offices in the military headquarters in Caracas, saying its presence was an anachronism from the Cold War. 3

Chávez did not cooperate to Washington’s satisfaction with the US war against the Colombian guerrillas. 4

He denied Venezuelan airspace to US counter-drug flights. 5

He refused to provide US intelligence agencies with information on the country’s large Arab community. 6

He promoted a regional free-trade bloc and united Latin American petroleum operations as ways to break free from US economic dominance. 7

Chávez also opposed the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a globalization program high on Washington’s agenda.

He visited Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gaddafi in Libya. Secretary of State Colin Powell testified to Congress that Chávez visits “some of the strangest countries”, referring to the Venezuelan’s visits to Iran, Iraq and Cuba – all on the US list of alleged state sponsors of terrorism. Chávez supporters noted that Libya, Iran and Iraq are members with Venezuela of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), in which Chávez has played a leading role. 6

And more in the same vein, which the Washington aristocracy is unaccustomed to encountering from the servant class. Uncle Sam has been inspired to topple numerous governments which displayed considerably less disrespect for him than Venezuela did.

Chávez, moreover, had been trying to institute all manner of reforms to relieve the suffering of the poor (who comprise about 80 percent of the population), a program not likely to win favor with a class-conscious, privatization-minded US government and Venezuelan upper and middle classes: restructuring the state-owned oil company, which he regarded as having become a state-within-a-state, to achieve greater national control over oil resources; reinforcing a constitutional ban on the privatization of the oil company; changing the agreements with foreign oil companies that were excessively generous to the companies; establishing a new progressive constitution; numerous ecological community development projects; enrolling over one million students in school who were previously excluded; increasing the minimum wage and public sector salaries; halting the previous government’s initiative to privatize Venezuela’s social security system; reducing unemployment; introducing a credit program for women and the poor; reforming the tax system to spare the poor; making health care much more available; lowering infant mortality; greatly expanding literacy courses; land redistribution in a society where two percent of the population controlled 60 percent of the land. 9

The coup

On April 11, a military coup toppled Chávez, who was taken to a remote location. Pedro Carmona, the chairman of Venezuela’s largest chamber of commerce, was installed as president. He proceeded to dissolve the legislature, the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, the national electoral commission, and the state governorships. Carmona then decreed that the 1999 constitution, which had been written by a constitutional assembly and ratified by a wide majority of voters, following the procedures outlined in the previous constitution, was to be suspended. On top of all this, the new regime raided the homes of various Chávez supporters. 10

And what was the reaction of the US government to this sharp slap in the face of democracy, civil liberties and law, that fits the textbook definition of dictatorship?

The Bush administration did not call it a coup. The White House term of choice was “a change of government”. They blamed Chávez for what had taken place, maintaining that his ouster was prompted by peaceful protests and justified by the Venezuelan leader’s own actions. It occurred, said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, “as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people.” 11

The State Department also expressed its support for the coup, declaring that “undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chávez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela”. 12

And the US ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), Roger Noriega, declared that “The people of Venezuela, loyal to their republican tradition and their fight for independence, peace and liberty, will not accept any regime, legislation or authority which contradict values, principles and democratic guarantees.” 13

But Noriega was ignoring the fact that the previous September the OAS had adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which expressly condemns the overthrow of democratically elected governments among its member states and requires specific actions by all members when this occurs.

The New York Times penned its own love note to the new government. In an editorial, the paper stated: “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator … [because] the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.” 14

Veritable grass-roots democracy the coup was.

Reversal of the coup

The coupmakers had bitten off more than they could chew by seriously underestimating the opposition to the coup and to the instant totalitarianism which followed; they had believed their own propaganda about Chávez lacking support – huge rallies in his favor erupted – an illusion on their part no doubt prompted by the heavy concentration of the media in the hands of the opposition, which regularly blacked out news favorable to Chávez. The post-coup support for Chávez induced elements of the military, including some who had taken part in the coup, to step in, retrieve Chávez, and bring him back triumphant to Caracas. He had been gone about 48 hours.

“Decisions to toss out the constitution and hunt down allies of Chávez,” wrote The Washington Post, “reinforced lingering fears held by many Venezuelans, including members of the military, that what had occurred was not a popular revolt but a coup by the business elite.” 10

The Bush administration voiced no misgivings about its support of the coup. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice quickly declared: “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.” She added that Chávez “needs to respect constitutional processes.” 16

Or as Monty Python legend, Terry Jones, put it: Chávez was ousted in “a free and fair democratic coup, only to be returned to office two days later on what seems to have been little more than the whim of the people.”

Prelude to the coup

Immediately after the coup, members of the military and of the new government said that the decision to force Chávez from power had been made six months earlier by a group of dissident officers in the Venezuelan navy and air force. 17

As the coup was being hatched, the United States met with all the key players, either in Venezuela or in Washington: Pedro Carmona, who became president; Vice Admiral Carlos Molina, Air Force Col. Pedro Soto, and several other officers who in February had publicly demanded Chávez’s removal; opposition legislators, and others. A US diplomat revealed that Molina and Soto had each received $100,000 from a Miami bank account for denouncing Chávez. 18

“We felt we were acting with U.S. support,” Molina said of the coup. “We agree that we can’t permit a communist government here. The U.S. has not let us down yet. This fight is still going on because the government is illegal.” 19

The officers who took part in the overthrow of Chávez “understood the U.S. State Department’s repeated statements of concern over the Chávez administration as a tacit endorsement of their plans to remove him from office if the opportunity arose.” … “The State Department had always expressed its preoccupation with Chávez,” retired military officer Fernando Ochoa said after the coup. “We interpreted that as” an endorsement of his removal. 20

However, American officials endeavored to make the point afterward that they had not been encouraging a coup. The White House spokesperson said that such meetings and conversations with dissidents were “a normal part of what diplomats do”. 21 And The Washington Post reported:

Members of the country’s diverse opposition had been visiting the U.S. Embassy here in recent weeks, hoping to enlist U.S. help in toppling Chávez. The visitors included active and retired members of the military, media leaders and opposition politicians. “The opposition has been coming in with an assortment of ‘what ifs,’” said a U.S. official familiar with the effort. “What if this happened? What if that happened? What if you held it up and looked at it sideways? To every scenario we say no. We know what a coup looks like, and we won’t support it.” 4

Of course, if the United States had been against the coup it would have informed the Venezuelan government of what was being planned and who was doing the planning and that would have been the end of it. Inasmuch as Washington normally equates democracy with free elections, here was a chance to strike a blow in behalf of democracy by saving a government that came to power through free elections on two separate occasions.

And Washington would not have financed the plotters.

Financing the coup

The National Endowment for Democracy was on the scene, as it has been for so many other Washington destabilization operations. In their reporting year ending September 30, 2000, in a clear attempt to weaken Chávez’s federal power, NED gave, amongst other Venezuelan grants, $50,000 to PRODEL, a Venezuelan organization, “To promote and defend decentralization in Venezuela. PRODEL will establish and train a network of national and state legislators and mayors to monitor government decentralization activities, advocate for the rights and responsibilities of state and local government in Venezuela, and analyze and debate pending legislation affecting local government.” 23

The following year, announcing that it was expanding its program in Venezuela in response to “a process of profound political change” embarked on by Chávez, 24 NED channeled more than $877,000 in grants to American and Venezuelan groups, none of whom supported Chávez, including $339,998 to provide training in political party and coalition building, and $154,377 to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). 25

The CTV, long an anti-leftist, Cold War asset of US foreign policy through the AFL-CIO, is run by old-guard, corrupt labor leaders, angered by Chávez’s attempt to reform them. The organization was a key force in the work stoppages and protest demonstrations which galvanized opposition to Chávez. As in Chile in 1973, before the overthrow of Salvador Allende, large crowds of civilians were used to create a feeling of chaos, and to establish a false picture of Chávez as a dictator, providing some of the rationale and incitement for the military to then make a coup “for the sake of the country”. 26

As Mr. Chávez’s reform programs clashed with various business, labor and media groups, the Endowment stepped up its assistance, providing some $1,100,000 for the year ending September 30, 2002, including $232,526 to the CTV. 27

CTV leader, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Pedro Carmona in challenging the government and was invited by a NED affiliate to Washington in February where he met with Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric Affairs, who was likely one of the masterminds of the move to topple Chávez. 28

Inasmuch as Venezuela is the fifth largest oil producer in the world, and the third largest supplier to the United States, it appears plausible to conclude that oil must be a significant factor in the US drive to effect regime change in the country. Yet Washington has opposed governments and movements throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the world with equal determination, without oil or any other resource being a factor. Hugo Chávez is against the excesses of US foreign policy and globalization and has let the world know this, which makes it plain to Washington that he’s not of suitable client material. For the empire to let him get away with this would be to set a very bad example for other non-believers.

Since the debacle of 2002, Chávez’s natural enemies at home and in Washington have not relaxed their crusade against him. Opponents have been trying to unseat him through a recall referendum, a drive that is funded in part, if not in full, by, yes, The National Endowment for Democracy. NED gave a grant of $53,400 to an organization called Sœmate, which appears to be running the referendum campaign. The NED grant document, after castigating Chávez for polarizing Venezuelan society, specifies that Sœmate will “Develop a net of volunteers and [apartidistas] trained to work in elections and in a referendum … [and] promote popular support for the referendum.” 29

Imagine if during the recent referendum in California it was disclosed that the Venezuelan government was funding the movement to recall the governor.

A few weeks before the recall was to take place on August 15, 2004, former president Carlos Andres Perez, a leading member of the old guard, said in a newspaper interview that “the referendum would fail and that violence was the only way for the opposition to get rid of Chávez.” 30

Notes

  1. New York Times, November 3, 2001
  2. Washington Post, February 23, 2002, p.18
  3. Financial Times (London), September 26, 2001
  4. Washington Post, April 13, 2002, p.1
  5. Ibid; Stratfor’s Global Intelligence Update, May 27, 1999
  6. Washington Post, April 13, 2002
  7. Stratfor’s, op. cit.
  8. Washington Post, April 13, 2002
  9. Gregory Wilpert, “An Imminent Coup in Venezuela?”, ZNet Commentary, April 11, 2002, Wilpert was a Fulbright scholar in Venezuela; Conn Hallinan, “U.S. cooking up a coup in Venezuela?”, San Francisco Examiner, December 28, 2001
  10. Washington Post, April 15, 2002, p.1
  11. Ibid., April 13, 2002, p.17
  12. State Department press statement, April 12, 2002
  13. Agence France Presse, April 13, 2002
  14. New York Times, April 13, 2002, p.16
  15. Washington Post, April 15, 2002, p.1
  16. The Associated Press, April 14, 2002
  17. Washington Post, April 14, 2002, p.1
  18. The Times (London), April 17, 2002; Washington Post, April 17, 2002, p.8, April 18, p.17 ($100,000)
  19. Washington Post, April 21, 2002, p.1
  20. Ibid., April 14, 2002, p.1
  21. Ari Fleischer, White House press conference, April 16, 2001
  22. Washington Post, April 13, 2002, p.1
  23. National Endowment for Democracy, Annual Report 2000, p.55
  24. Ibid., 2001, p.49
  25. Ibid., 2001, p.54-5
  26. Kim Scipes, “AFL-CIO in Venezuela: Déja Vu All Over Again”, Labor Notes, April 2004
  27. National Endowment for Democracy, Annual Report 2002, p.61-2
  28. New York Times, April 25, 2002; The Observer (London), April 21, 2002
  29. See http://venezuelafoia.info to view the NED documents
  30. Washington Post, July 26, 2004, p.16

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Killing Hope

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U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II

Freeing the World to Death

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Essays on the American Empire

West-Bloc Dissident

West-Bloc Dissident

A Cold War Memoir