Our Gang in Venezuela?
But NED was only a part of the picture. For months before the coup, according to several US media reports, US officials in Venezuela had assorted conversations with Chavez foes, and these interactions, purposefully or not, may have led the plotters to believe the Bush Administration would look favorably on anyone who made Chavez go away. Newsday noted that long before the coup, business, union and civic leaders were meeting to plan opposition to Chavez, and at one such meeting--attended by Carmona and held at the US Embassy--a coup was proposed. US officials, according to the newspaper, say they immediately killed the idea. But the officials continued to interact with these Chavez opponents. The newspaper quoted one Venezuelan source familiar with these discussions as saying, "All the United States really cared about was that it was done neatly, with a resignation letter or something to show for it." And the Los Angeles Times reported that a "Venezuelan leader who visited Washington for an official meeting said he concluded after talks with US officials that the Americans would not necessarily punish the leaders of a government that overthrew Chavez." A Western diplomat told the Washington Post, "I don't think the US provided any active or material support for [the coup]. But the people involved may have seen all of these meetings and visits, added them all up, and come up with an idea that they were on the same team." Last November then-US ambassador Donna Hrinak instructed the US military attaché in Venezuela to cut off contacts with dissident military officers. But Vice Adm. Carlos Molina, one of the leading military opponents of Chavez, said he had met with a US official several weeks before the coup.
After the coup failed, Chavez officials found inside the presidential palace documents left behind by the coup-makers. One was a note apparently written by Luis Herrera Marcano, chargé d'affaires in the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington. He was reporting on a conversation he had had with State Department official Phillip Chicola while the coup was under way. According to a copy published by Proceso, a Mexican newsmagazine, Chicola said, "Given that the United States signed and fully supports the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which condemns any violation of constitutional rule, it is necessary that the transition currently under way in Venezuela, which [the United States] understands and sympathizes with, conserve constitutional structures."
On the morning of April 12, according to the New York Times, Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told a gathering of Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors that they had to support the new government. The next day Reich spoke twice to Venezuelan media magnate Gustavo Cisneros, according to a Cisneros spokeswoman. Cisneros's role in the coup--if he had one--has been a topic of speculation in Venezuela, for on the night of April 11 Carmona met with other opposition leaders at a TV station owned by Cisneros. (Cisneros denies he was a force behind the coup.) Cisneros's spokeswoman maintains that Reich called on April 13 "as a friend" because Chavez supporters were protesting at media outlets in Caracas. And on the morning of April 13, US ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro met with Carmona. According to Carmona, Shapiro expressed concern regarding Carmona's dissolution of the legislature and urged Carmona to be less antidemocratic. If Carmona is to be believed, Shapiro did not oppose the unconstitutional means by which Carmona seized power.
The Bush Administration claims that all the contacts before and during the coup were kosher. The US Embassy in Venezuela released a statement maintaining that "of course" US officials met with opposition figures, for "that is an Embassy's job." But it insisted that "officials in Washington and in Caracas consistently and repeatedly emphasized the United States' opposition to any extra-constitutional alteration of power." The embassy denied that US military officials were involved in coup activities. It noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell declared, "We condemn the blows to constitutional order." But Powell said that on April 19--six days after the coup collapsed.
There has been no thorough public exploration in Washington of the precoup contacts or the efforts of Bush officials to nudge the coup in a direction that would permit the Administration to openly support the takeover. At the request of Senator Christopher Dodd, who chairs the Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Latin America, the Inspector General of the State Department has been examining Bush Administration actions before and during the coup. Dodd asked the IG to review cables, e-mails and other records to determine what US officials told Chavez's foes and to examine NED programs. The report is due at the end of July, and Dodd expects to hold hearings afterward. On April 23 the New York Times reported that the Pentagon was reviewing its actions during the coup to insure that no military officials had encouraged the plotters. But Lieut. Comdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, says no formal review was initiated: "It was just a matter of getting the facts together. There were questions why people from the US defense attaché were on a Venezuelan military base while this thing was going on. It was nothing out of the ordinary."
One matter that warrants scrutiny is a Washington Post report that two military officials who publicly challenged Chavez in the weeks before the coup--Vice Admiral Molina and Col. Pedro Soto--each received $100,000 from a Miami bank. The newspaper cited an unnamed diplomat in Venezuela as its source for this curious allegation. Who in the United States might have been secretly subsidizing Chavez's foes? Any official body that wants to investigate could start by subpoenaing Soto. In April he fled Venezuela for the United States, and in June he asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Miami for political asylum, claiming that he feared for his life.
Postcoup Venezuela is a jittery place of deepening division, marked by rising gun sales, political violence, constant rumors of another coup and talk of assassination. Former President Jimmy Carter failed to broker talks between Chavez and his foes; on July 11 an estimated 600,000 people demonstrated against Chavez. For the time being, Consorcio Justicia has given up on holding a large pro-democracy conference. "It's a nasty environment," executive director Ponce says. "We have a radical opposition and a radical government. We are unable to find ways to negotiate." So his group is now using NED money for smaller projects. The failed coup has changed his perspective. Has it affected the policies and plans of the Bush Administration, NED or NED's grantees? If a Congressional hearing regarding Venezuela's cloudy coup ever convenes, that is one of many questions that ought to be asked.