The April 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez represented the perhaps most important turning point of the Chavez Presidency. First, it showed just how far the opposition was willing to go to get rid of the country’s democratically elected president. Up until that point the opposition could claim that it was merely fighting Chavez with the political tools provided by liberal democracy. Afterwards, the mask was gone and Chavez and his supporters felt that their revolution was facing greater threats than they had previously imagined. A corollary of this first consequence was thus that the coup woke up Chavez’s supporters to the need to actively defend their government.
Second, the coup showed just popular Chavez really was and how determined his supporters were to prevent his overthrow. They went onto the streets, at great personal risk (over 60 people were killed and hundreds were wounded by the police in the demonstrations that inspired the military to bring Chavez back to power), to demand their president’s return to office.
Third, the coup woke up progressives around the world to what was happening in Venezuela. It forced them to examine why a supposedly unpopular and authoritarian government would be brought back to power with the support of the county’s poor. As such, the coup shone a spotlight on what was happening in Venezuela and eventually rallied progressives around the world to support the Bolivarian (and now socialist) project.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly for the future evolution of the Venezuelan conflict, the coup was the third nail in the political coffin of the country’s old elite. The first such nail was Chavez’s election in 1998, which brought an explicitly anti-establishment figure into Venezuela’s presidency for the first time in forty years. The second nail was the passage of the 1999 constitution and Chavez’s confirmation as President, in 2000, which democratically swept the country’s old elite almost completely out of political power, such as the governorships, the Supreme Court, and the National Assembly. With the third nail, the failure of the 2002 coup, the opposition lost a base of power in the military and a significant amount of good will in the international community. The next three nails, the failed 2002-2003 oil industry shutdown, the August 2004 recall referendum, and the December 2006 presidential election, only further solidified the old elite’s demise as a political force in Venezuela.
Each of these victories against the opposition heightened consciousness in Venezuela about the need to take the Bolivarian revolution further and thus also allowed Chavez to further radicalize his political program. The coup attempt represented a crucial moment in this process because it was the most dramatic expression of the Venezuelan conflict between a charismatic President and a mobilized poor population on the one hand and the country’s old elite and their supporters on the other.
Preconditions for a Coup
With Chavez’s popularity rating apparently sinking in late 2001 and early 2002, especially among the middle class, and the general inability of the country’s old governing elite to accept Chavez as the legitimately elected President of Venezuela, it became just a matter of time for this old elite to form an alliance with dissident military officers and to organize a coup. The events in 2001 that led up to the coup can be summarized as the following:
- The departure of key former supporters from Chavez’s coalition (half of the MAS – Movement towards Socialism – party, Caracas Mayor Alfredo Peña, and MVR – Chavez’s party Movement for a Fifth Republic – co-founder and Minister of the Interior Luis Miquilena).
- The business sector’s uproar over 49 law-decrees passed in November 2001 that revamped the country’s banking, agriculture, oil industry, and fishing industries, among other things.
- The union federation’s (CTV) anger over the government’s push for union elections in October 2001.
- Chavez’s opposition to the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism.”
- The mass media’s active participation in the political conflict, largely taking the place of the discredited centrist and conservative parties.
- A developing recession, due to a rapid decline in world oil prices following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S.
Many of these development were a consequence of Chavez refusing to play along in the “politics as usual” game of accommodating the established powers in society, whether the old union leadership, the church, the business class, the private mass media, or the government of the United States. In his first three years in office (1999-2001) Chavez thus proved himself to be a political leader of a completely different sort than the kinds the country’s old elite and the middle class had expected. Until 2000, following the mega-elections, it still looked like Chavez could perhaps be the kind of leader who talked tough, but who acted like a moderate. However, with the 49 law-decrees, especially the land reform and the new hydro-carbons law, Chavez proved that he was a different kind of leader.
Preparing for a Coup
Therefore, the radical sectors of the opposition, which could not accept Chavez as the legitimately elected president, began plans for a coup, which it put into motion in early 2002. One of the first elements in this plan was to demonstrate to the public that there supposedly was widespread discontent within the military. The first to launch this wave of disapproval was Colonel Pedro Soto, a former assistant to President Carlos Andrés Perez, who announced in a public event on human rights, on February 7, 2001, that the president should resign because Venezuela had become a dictatorship. Soto declared himself to be in rebellion, basing himself on article 350 of the constitution, which says that citizens have a right to civil disobedience, should the government violate constitutional norms. Immediately, the mass media were all over Soto in a frenzy. It seemed as if they were desperate for a new face that would take the lead. Soto, however, was quickly arrested for insubordination and would eventually flee to Miami.
Chavez put the incident off by saying, “He was a traitor together with a group companions… Then he did not get promoted to general, filed a complaint for not being promoted, with the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruled his claim without merit…” Shortly thereafter, another officer, Captain Pedro Flores Rivero, of the National Guard, joined Colonel Soto in demanding the president’s resignation. Both Soto and Flores gave speeches against the in the Plaza Altamira, in one of Caracas’ most upscale neighborhoods, where they accused the government of being a totalitarian dictatorship.
Eleven days after Soto’s first denunciation, on February 18, another military officer, Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, made similar statements, saying that Chavez had violated the right to freedom of the press, eliminated the separation of powers, and was attempting to set up a regime similar to the one in Cuba. Each officer, in addition to their charges against the government, also claimed that there was much discontent within the military. The series of military officers’ pronouncements thus began to appear planned to coincide with the opposition’s gathering momentum, to create an increasing impression that Chavez no longer had the backing of the country’s military.
PDVSA Management Take the Lead
All along during the time of increasing tensions, ever since the passing of the 49 law-decrees, managers from the country’s state owned oil company, PDVSA, complained about the law that was supposed to reform the oil industry. However, the conflict with the management had been on a relatively low burner until Chavez decided to name a new board of directors for PDVSA. Since the Venezuelan state is the only owner of PDVSA, the president has the authority to unilaterally name its board of directors. Chavez had repeatedly complained to the public about his frustrations about getting direct answers from PDVSA as to its finances. He referred to PDVSA as a “state within a state” and as being a “black box” that he was determined to open. He took his first real step in doing so when he named a new board of directors on February 21. By that time PDVSA already had three presidents in three years, all of whom seemed to be closer to the company’s upper management than to the president.
The last PDVSA president, General Guaicaipuro Lameda, was someone Chavez thought he could trust, but who did not seem particularly eager to help Chavez in figuring out PDVSA’s finances. Chavez thus named Gaston Parra, a fairly well-known leftist engineer who specialized in the oil industry, to the post of PDVSA president. At first the oil industry executives did not say much about the new board. Gradually, though, protests against the new board were voiced, especially from the management. At one point even, a group of PDVSA workers complained that managers were trying to push them into supporting protests against the new board of directors. Talk of a possible general strike began to develop, both amongst the PDVSA management and among the CTV leadership. In early March, the CTV began to speak publicly about the possibility of organizing a general strike for March 18th. A little later it was decided to set the general strike date for April 18th. Meanwhile, the government warned that should the management walk out on their job, in a general strike, everyone who did so would immediately be fired.
The oil management’s rallying cry became “Respect the meritocracy!” in reference to their claim that the new board of directors did not have the necessary experience or background in the oil industry. While it was true that most of them came from outside PDVSA, all of them did have extensive backgrounds as oil industry analysts. The hypocrisy of the management’s claim that inexperienced people were put into place becomes all the clearer when one looks at past boards of directors, named under Chavez’s predecessors, some of whom indeed had nothing at all to do with the oil industry and the management at the time did not utter any complaint.
The overall opposition discourse had begun to revolve primarily around PDVSA, with the opposition’s argument being that PDVSA “belongs to the people, not to the government.” The opposition tried to create the notion that as long as the “meritocracy” runs PDVSA, it would be non-ideological and would be run in the interests of all Venezuelans. However, if the new board of directors were allowed to stay, PDVSA would become an ideologically leftist organization, run in the interests of a political party. Exactly why the “meritocrats,” who were closely identified with former PDVSA president Luis Giusti, someone who followed the precepts of privatization and of neo-liberalism, would be less “ideological” than Chavez’s board nominees was never explained.
In a series of employee meetings, the company’s management and administrative employees decided to engage in work slow-downs, to pressure the government into appointing a new board of directors; one that would be chosen more in accordance with past practices of naming board members as a kind of promotion from within the company. Meanwhile, the largest oil workers union, Fedepetrol, which Carlos Ortega of the CTV was the leader only a year earlier, said that it would support an oil industry strike, should the management call for one. However, the other four oil worker unions sided with Chavez in the dispute.
A few days later, though, Fedepetrol reversed its decision and announced that it would not support the strike after all. Actually, the union’s leadership was divided, with the union’s president, Rafael Rosales, saying about the PDVSA crisis, “The management has its conflicts and we have ours. If someone has reason to protest, it is us, who have been disrespected by this management, since all of our problems are their fault, since they are our bosses.” The union’s general secretary, Felix Jimenez, though, said that Fedepetrol should support the management’s strike.
On the 4th of April, 2002, PDVSA management employees began their strike. Large sections of PDVSA were shut down, such as several gasoline distribution centers, practically all administrative offices, and the El Palito refinery. The stoppage of the refinery later turned out to be extremely costly to PDVSA because the crude oil in its mile-long pipes turned into asphalt and large sections of the refinery ended up being permanently damaged, requiring wholesale replacement of parts of the refinery. The Minister of Labor, Maria Cristina Iglesias announced on television that all those who failed to show up from work would be fired, for abandoning their workplace. She reiterated that this was not a legal strike. Venezuela’s Attorney General, Isaias Rodriguez, also appeared on television, to say that the oil company strike is completely illegal because it is not being called by any of the recognized unions of the oil company, nor does it involve a labor conflict.
Two days into the PDVSA management strike, the CTV pledged it would join the strike/lockout by calling for a national general strike on April 9. The decision represented a moving up of the original general strike date, which had been set for April 18. Ortega said that the strike would at first be set for 24 hours, but could be extended for 48 hours or turned into an indefinite strike, depending on how the situation evolved and how the government reacted. So as to make the strike sound legal, Ortega said, “We want to dismiss that the CTV supposedly has the intention of weakening the government. What we are asking of the government is to comply with the collective bargaining agreements and that no one mistreats us.”
Ortega also warned, “The government can decree ten thousand states of exception, the strike will take place,” in clear reference to the rumors that Chavez might decree a state of emergency. Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel, though, repeatedly denied that rumors of a state of exception had any basis and said that the “rumors of a state of exception are aimed at creating distress and unrest among the population.”
With the media joining in the conflict and with an increasingly virulent opposition rhetoric on its political talk shows, the government tried to counter these with its “cadenas”—the Venezuelan government’s legal prerogative to force all broadcast media (TV and radio) to simultaneously broadcast a special government announcement. In the days leading up to the strike, the government made frequent use of this, broadcasting ten minute messages of the vice-president, Diosdado Cabello, explaining how the government would not give in to blackmail over the PDVSA conflict. Cabello said that last December 10, during the general strike, “we made some mistakes that we will not make this time. For example, December 10 we let ourselves be squashed mediatically… If we have to respond every ten minutes with a cadena so that the information would be true and transmitted to all Venezuelans, then we will do it.”
Finally, on Sunday, April 7th, Chavez stated unequivocally that he had had enough. During his weekly television program Aló Presidente Chavez announced that the top seven managers of PDVSA would be summarily fired. He read each of their names off a piece of paper and declared loudly and full of gratification, as if he were a baseball umpire, “You’re out!” Twelve other managers would receive early retirement. Chavez also said, “I have given clear instructions to the president of PDVSA so that anyone who calls for a strike would be fired immediately, without any discussion.”
The other big announcement Chavez made during his television program was that the minimum wage would be raised 20%, starting May 1st. This was in response to the CTV’s demand that Chavez should fulfill an old campaign promise of raising the minimum wage. The announcement was broadcast on all television and radio networks, interrupting an announcement that Carlos Ortega was about to make.
After the broadcast, Ortega made his announcement, saying that Fedecamaras and numerous other organizations had decided to support the general strike that was being convoked for April 9. Representatives from all groups he mentioned were present. Even Venezuela’s Catholic Bishops Conference joined, represented by the Jesuit priest Mikel de Viana, who said, “If what is happening in PDVSA is going to be the form in which union demands will be met, this is not how the working class should be treated. The only system in which the principle of authority is invoked is in a dictatorship.” Also present were directors of various media outlets, such as Miguel Henrique Otero of the opposition newspaper El Nacional, saying, “We are all in this struggle, in defense of the right to inform.”
The General Strike
That Tuesday, April 9th, 2002, no newspapers appeared, the television channels all broadcast practically the same thing—either voluntarily the statements of the opposition or involuntarily the official government “cadenas”—, public busses and the subway were running, banks were open, but all fast food franchises and many restaurants were closed, as were most schools, practically all privately operated offices were closed, but government offices were open, and, perhaps most importantly, PDVSA’s administrative buildings, located mostly in Caracas, were shut down. The streets tended to be like on a Sunday in the middle class neighborhoods, while in the poor neighborhoods things were quite normal. Throughout the day Venezuelans were presented with completely opposite images of what was going on in Venezuela. While the private media presented only nearly empty streets and closed storefronts (recorded in middle class neighborhoods), the state media and the “cadenas” presented busy streets and open shops and street vendors (in the poor neighborhoods). For someone who was not familiar with Venezuela, the contrasts could hardly have been more confusing.
Fedecamaras and the CTV, which had taken on the leadership of the opposition, announced that evening that the strike was a success, with 80% of workplaces closed down, and that since the government did not concede to any of the opposition’s demands, such as the removal of the new PDVSA board members, it would extend the general strike another 24 hours. Carlos Ortega explained the reason for continuing by saying, “Our reasons have to do with the aggressive and intolerant conduct of the government, as its response to the demands of the workers.” That night, in the opposition strongholds, a noisy “cacerolazo”—the banging of pots and pans in protest—took place throughout the country.
The next day it became clear that the strike was already losing force. While most streets in the middle class neighborhoods were still much calmer than usual and most stores were still closed, there was noticeably more activity than the day before. Perhaps to animate the opposition, as a strategic ploy to prepare the ground for the coup, General Nestor Gonzalez Gonzalez announced his non-recognition of President Chavez as Commander in Chief. He said that he was doing this because Chavez was “disrespecting” the Armed Forces due to his supposed support of Colombian guerilla forces. General Gonzalez had been one of the officers accused of corruption in the management of Plan Bolivar 2000.
In a warning of what was to come, one of the leaders of the opposition, the former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda, said to the newspaper El Universal, when asked what would happen when Chavez leaves office, “The armed forces will play a fundamental role, recognizing that we have a government outside of the rule of law…”
Also that day, the opposition announced that it had formed an umbrella organization, called “Coordinator for Democracy and Liberty,” to which all oppositional NGOs (40, according to spokespersons), oppositional parties (about 10), and the CTV and Fedecamaras belong. Their first action would be to organize a demonstration that would gather at Caracas’ Parque del Este and march on the freeway a mere two kilometers, to the one of PDVSA’s main buildings in the middle class neighborhood of Chuao. One of the spokespersons for the umbrella group, which would later come to be known as the “Democratic Coordinator,” said, “We are in a context in which we are applying articles 333 and 350 of the Constitution…”
CIA Was Involved
On April 12, 2002, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer stated:
“Let me share with you the administration’s thoughts about what’s taking place in Venezuela. It remains a somewhat fluid situation. But yesterday’s events in Venezuela resulted in a change in the government and the assumption of a transitional authority until new elections can be held.
The details still are unclear. We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. Government supporters, on orders from the Chavez government, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in 10 killed and 100 wounded. The Venezuelan military and the police refused to fire on the peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government’s role in such human rights violations. The government also tried to prevent independent news media from reporting on these events.
The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed. This government has promised early elections.
The United States will continue to monitor events. That is what took place, and the Venezuelan people expressed their right to peaceful protest. It was a very large protest that turned out. And the protest was met with violence.”
On that same day, U.S. Department of State spokesperson Philip T. Reeker, claimed:
“In recent days, we expressed our hopes that all parties in Venezuela, but especially the Chavez administration, would act with restraint and show full respect for the peaceful expression of political opinion. We are saddened at the loss of life. We wish to express our solidarity with the Venezuelan people and look forward to working with all democratic forces in Venezuela to ensure the full exercise of democratic rights. The Venezuelan military commendably refused to fire on peaceful demonstrators, and the media valiantly kept the Venezuelan public informed.
Yesterday’s events in Venezuela resulted in a transitional government until new elections can be held. Though details are still unclear, undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela. According to the best information available, at this time: Yesterday, hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans gathered peacefully to seek redress of their grievances. The Chavez Government attempted to suppress peaceful demonstrations. Chavez supporters, on orders, fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in more than 100 wounded or killed. Venezuelan military and police refused orders to fire on peaceful demonstrators and refused to support the government’s role in such human rights violations. The government prevented five independent television stations from reporting on events. The results of these provocations are: Chavez resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the Vice President and the Cabinet. A transition civilian government has promised early elections.
We have every expectation that this situation will be resolved peacefully and democratically by the Venezuelan people in accord with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The essential elements of democracy, which have been weakened in recent months, must be restored fully. We will be consulting with our hemispheric partners, within the framework of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, to assist Venezuela.”
Why re-cite these statements here? These statements from the highest levels of the U.S. Government show the prepared version of the events that took place during the April 11-12 coup d’etat against Venezuelan President Chávez. Moreover, these revealing statements now prove, in light of documents recently obtained from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), that this prepared version of events was knowingly false and made with the intention of deceiving the international community in order to justify a violent overthrow of a democratic government.
The White House and the State Department both claimed that the Chávez government had provoked violence and actions that resulted in the President’s alleged resignation. They also asserted that the Chávez government had fired on unarmed, peaceful protesters and that the Venezuelan military and police had refused orders to “support the government’s role in human rights violations”. The U.S. Government referred to the protests and actions of that day as though they were spontaneous, unplanned events. The U.S. Government has also continued to deny to this day any involvement whatsoever in the April 2002 coup d’etat.
However, there is a vast amount of evidence that has surfaced since the coup demonstrating that the events on April 11, 2002 were entirely premeditated by a sector of the opposition intent on overthrowing the Chávez government. Furthermore, my own investigations have provided a plethora of evidence proving the U.S. involvement in the coup on various levels. Most revealing on the Venezuelan front was a news program on Saturday morning, April 12, 2002, “24 Horas” with host Napoleon Bravo. On that program, Bravo interviewed Vice-Admiral Carlos Molina Tamayo, a professed coup leader, and Victor Manuel Garcia, Director of the polling company CIFRA who claimed to have represented the “civil society” during the coup. Both Molina Tamayo and Garcia gave a jaw-dropping, detailed account of the events leading up to the coup and those key Venezuelans involved, including crediting the private televisions stations for their complicity and aide. Their testimony, along with Chacao municipal mayor Leopoldo Lopez of the Primero Justicia political party and Napoleon Bravo’s own admissions of complicity in the coup, provided plenty of proof that the overthrow of Chávez was a premeditated event.
Later, an extraordinary and award-winning documentary by filmmaker Angel Palacios, “Puente Llaguno: Claves de un Masacre”, revealed how the Venezuelan private media had manipulated and distorted the events that unfolded on April 11, 2002 in the opposition march, which resulted in widespread violence and death. The documentary also provided sufficient proof that snipers unrelated to the Chávez government had provoked the violence in the opposition march that justified the forced removal of Chávez from office. Furthermore, the documentary succeeded in proving that a well-planned military-civilian coup d’etat had taken place that day and that those involved were connected to the highest levels of the U.S. government.
But the evidence of actual U.S. involvement in the coup itself remained scarce up until recently. On www.venezuelafoia.info, I have posted hundreds of documents that evidence the intricate financing scheme the U.S. government has been carrying out in Venezuela since 2001, that includes financing well over twenty million dollars to opposition sectors. The funding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental entity in the U.S. financed entirely by Congress and established by congressional legislation in 1983, has provided more than three million dollars since late 2001 to opposition groups, many of which were key participants in the April 2002 coup. And in June 2002, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), set up an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, allegedly for the purposing of helping Venezuela to resolve its political crisis. The OTI in Caracas has counted on more than fifteen million dollars in funding from Congress since June 2002 and has recently requested five million more for 2005, despite the fact that it was only supposed to be a two-year endeavor. All evidence obtained to date shows that the OTI has primarily funded opposition groups and projects in Venezuela, particularly those that were focused on the August 15, 2004 recall referendum against President Chávez.
I have written other articles explaining the intervention model applied through NED and USAID in Venezuela. This method of intervention is very sophisticated and complex, as it penetrates civil society and social organizations in a very subtle way and is often either undetectable or flimsily justified by the concept of “promoting democracy”, which is what the NED claims to do around the world, despite evidence to the contrary. The mere fact in Venezuela that the NED has financed exclusively anti-Chávez groups and those very same organizations that were involved in the April 2002 coup shows that “democracy” is far from the NED’s intention.
But the CIA intervention in Venezuela is of the crudest, simplest kind. Top secret documents recently obtained and posted on www.venezuelafoia.info show that in the weeks prior to the April 2002 coup against President Chávez, the CIA had full knowledge of the events to occur and, in fact, even had the detailed plans in their possession. An April 6, 2002 top secret intelligence brief headlining “Venezuela: Conditions Ripening for Coup Attempt”, states, “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 Chávez, possible as early as this month, [CENSORED]. The level of detail in the reported plans – [CENSORED] targets Chávez and 10 other senior officers for arrest…” The document further states, “To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month…”
So the CIA knew that a coup attempt would take place soon after April 6, 2002, and moreover, they knew the plan would include Chávez’s arrest and an exploitation of violence in the opposition march. In other words, they knew the plans before the coup occurred and surely they knew the actors involved, many of whose names are probably in the censored parts of the top-secret documents. One could assume that if the CIA had the detailed plans in their possession in the weeks prior to the coup it was because they were associating and conspiring with the coup plotters. So, when Ari Fleischer and Philip Reeker made those statements on April 12, 2002 on behalf of the U.S. Government, they did so with full knowledge that a coup had taken place, Chávez had been arrested and the violence in the opposition march, which they attributed to Chávez, had actually been a premeditated part of the coup plot. The top secret documents that prove this information show they were sent to the U.S. Statement Department and the National Security Agency, which means frankly, the White House knew what was happening all along.
Furthermore, the CIA documents make no mention of any attempts to have Chávez forcibly resign from office. The CIA warnings indicated as early as March 5, 2002 (which is the date of the earliest document provided) that a coup was on the rise and even hinted that prospects for a successful coup were limited. The CIA rightfully felt the opposition was too disperse and divided to successfully overthrow Chávez. But the concept that Chávez had “resigned” as the White House and State Department “confirmed” on April 12, 2002 was merely a set-up, a false claim made with the intention of deceiving the U.S. public and the international community. Remember that the U.S. stood practically alone in the world in its endorsement of the coup-implemented Carmona Government, which it later weakly condemned but only after the coup came tumbling down and the U.S. realized it needed to save face quickly.
A top secret CIA document from April 14, 2002 shows concern that Latin American governments will view U.S. foreign policy as “hypocritical” because of its sole endorsement of the Carmona coup government. The CIA also seems surprised that the region of Latin America so quickly rejected the coup in Venezuela and that the Carmona government “stunningly collapsed”, which demonstrates a possible out-of-date view of the hemisphere and a failure in intelligence gathering and analysis. In fact, the CIA never imagined the coup would buckle because of support for Chávez – their analysis all along showed possible failure due to lack of opposition unity and hasty actions. This is a very important point, because it demonstrates that although the CIA was involved in the coup plotting and the collaborations with dissident military factions and opposition leaders, it was fairly detached from the reality of Venezuelan society.
The CIA’s intelligence failures in Venezuela were apparently repeated during the oil industry strike later in 2002 and the guarimba destabilization attempt, an old-school CIA tactic applied in Chile and Nicaragua. Both of these harsh actions injured the Venezuelan economy and affected the government’s international image, but failed in their goal to oust President Chávez. The NED’s and USAID’s tens of millions of dollars in financing to build and maintain the opposition movement and finance the recall referendum campaign against President Chávez also failed to achieve their mission. In fact, all of these bungled attempts by the U.S. government and its marionette opposition movement have served to strengthen Chávez’s support within Venezuela and paint him as a strong and solid international leader.
Now that some of the top-secret documents have surfaced that show the CIA’s complicity and involvement in the April 2002 coup, it leaves one to wonder what is next on the agenda. In September 2001, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, President Bush unconditionally authorized former CIA Director George Tenet’s “Worldwide Attack Matrix”, which targets leaders and prominent figures in 80 countries around the world for assassination. The authorization of the Worldwide Attack Matrix provided the CIA with a virtual carte blanche to conduct political assassinations abroad, justified under the “war against terrorism”. The “Attack Matrix”, a top secret CIA document, authorizes an array of covert CIA anti-terror actions that range from “routine propaganda to lethal covert action in preparation for military attacks”. The plans give the CIA the broadest and most lethal authority in history. Some analysts have indicated that Venezuela is possibly included in the plans.
The recent assassination of Venezuelan Prosecutor Danilo Anderson, conducted in a style reminiscent of CIA operations, could be setting the stage for future political murders. History shows that when the CIA fails to remove a target via non-lethal means, more desperate measures are taken. Despite the fact that the Venezuelan government and its supporters appear to have foiled the CIA numerous times already over the past few years, vigilance, intelligence and increased security measures should become a priority.
The public’s perspective
Friday, April 11, 2002, the opposition marched to the corporate offices of PDVSA-Chuao, which had become one of the key rallying centers. It was estimated that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Venezuelans participated, making it one of the largest demonstrations in Venezuelan history and certainly the largest demonstration of the opposition to Chavez.
Once at the rallying point, one speaker after the other suggested that the demonstration should continue marching towards the Miraflores presidential palace, to demand the president’s resignation. Carlos Ortega, the last speaker said, “You have wasted the resources of the state and now this human river will go towards Miraflores to demand your resignation!” Although demonstration did not have a permit to continue past PDVSA-Chuao, the demonstrators headed towards the presidential palace, which was another eleven kilometers to the west. At Miraflores, however, a crowd of perhaps one thousand Chavez supporters had already gathered a few days earlier, in a more or less constant vigil in front of the palace.
When it became known, around 11 am that day, that the opposition demonstration would head to Miraflores, various pro-Chavez political leaders, such as Caracas Mayor Freddy Bernal and National Assembly Deputy Juan Barreto, appeared on state television urging Chavistas to come to the presidential palace to “defend” it against the opposition. Also, members of the group Asamblea Popular Revolucionaria (Popular Revolutionary Assembly – APR, which later turned into the website Aporrea.org) distributed fliers in the surrounding barrios, urging people to come to Miraflores. Within very little time the demonstration in front of Miraflores grew to several thousand, assembling mainly on the Avenida Urdaneta, which passes in front of the north entrance of Miraflores.
Shortly before the opposition demonstration arrived near Miraflores, the government had positioned National Guard troops, which are responsible for maintaining public order, around the palace. At about 1:30 to 2:00 pm the opposition demonstrators began trickling in to the neighborhood of the presidential palace. The demonstrators at the front of the opposition march were clearly out for a fight. Several witnesses reported that they belonged to the Bandera Roja (Red Flag) party, which is very well known in Venezuela for its willingness to commit acts of violence in pursuit of its goals. Two lines of security forces tried to separate the opposition demonstrators from the presidential palace. The first was a line of metropolitan police, which were under the control of Greater Caracas opposition mayor Alfredo Peña, who did not offer any resistance to the demonstrators as they marched up the western side of the palace compound. The second line of security forces were National Guard troops, armed with shotguns that shoot plastic shrapnel (perdigones) and tear gas.
While the opposition demonstration was trying to get near the presidential palace, at about 1:45 pm, General Lucas Rincon, the country’s highest ranking general read a statement on television that was broadcast on all networks. Behind him was the military high command. In his statement, Rincon denied rumors that President Chavez had been arrested and reaffirmed that the military was solidly in support of its commander in chief.
By 2:30 pm, opposition demonstrators and National Guard troops were engaged in a pitched battle, with rocks and tear gas flying between the National Guard and the demonstrators. The troops managed, though, to prevent the demonstrators from approaching the presidential palace’s north entrance from the west. Photographs and video footage later showed how at one point in the confrontation former PDVSA president General Guaicaipuro Lameda urged opposition demonstrators to take a different route of approach to the palace, on the east side of the compound, up the Avenida Baralt. The metropolitan police led the charge up the street. With a water cannon vehicle and an armored personnel carrier the police forged its way up the street, towards an overpass known as the Puente Llaguno (Llaguno Bridge), which is one block from the presidential palace. As the police headed up the street, around 3:30 pm, they encountered no resistance from any National Guard troops and, according to Chavista accounts, opened fire on the Chavista demonstrators who were gathered both on the Avenida Baralt and on the bridge. Also around this time, Chavista demonstrators heard shots being fired at them from buildings surrounding their demonstration. A group of perhaps five or six Chavistas was armed and at around 5 pm began returning fire from the police, while taking cover behind the buildings that border the overpass. The shooters on the overpass would later recount that they were also trying to shoot at the people shooting at them from the buildings.
As more and more people were hit and even killed by the gunfire, the Chavista dead and wounded were taken to a first aid tent located across the street from Miraflores, within a government compound known as the “White Palace.” This small first aid tent had been set up three days earlier, in anticipation of any violence that might occur as a result of the pro-Chavez vigil clashing with anti-Chavez demonstrators. TV commentators, upon seeing footage of the tent, immediately raised questions about it, suggesting that such a tent had never before been placed there and that it was there now precisely because Chavez or his supporters had intended to ambush the opposition demonstration from the Llaguno Bridge. Numerous witnesses would later report, though, that first aid tents had been positioned in this location previously, whenever Chavez used the area in front of Miraflores as a rallying point.
While Chavistas were being shot at from both the metropolitan police and from unidentified shooters in buildings (or sharpshooters, many said), opposition demonstrators were being shot at too. However, it was unclear exactly who was firing at the opposition demonstrators. According to most accounts, the opposition demonstrators never came closer to the Llaguno Bridge—where the Chavista demonstrators were—than about 400-500 meters, which means that the small arms that the Chavistas were shooting with were out of range to hit any opposition demonstrators. It is generally assumed that pistols have an effective range of only about 250-300 meters. Nonetheless, at least seven opposition demonstrators were killed and many more wounded that day. According to most eye-witness accounts, the opposition demonstrators were shot at from the buildings near the opposition demonstration. Autopsies also confirmed that the vast majority of the dead received shots from above, many of them to their heads, most likely from nearby buildings.
According to the final report of the office of the Defensoria del Pueblo (Defender of the People, the human rights defender), there were 19 fatalities that day. Seven of the dead had participated in the pro-Chavez demonstration, seven in the anti-Chavez demonstration, and five were non-partisan bystanders. Also, there were a total of 69 wounded that day. 38 in the pro-Chavez demonstration, 17 in the opposition demonstration, and 14 were reporters or unaffiliated passers-by.
A different kind of battle was taking place in the media while all of the shooting was going on near the presidential palace. That is, all of the private TV stations were broadcasting the battle scenes on the street from the perspective of the opposition demonstration. Shortly after the first demonstrators were being killed by shooters from nearby buildings and by the metropolitan police, at 3:45pm, Chavez took over the airwaves in a national broadcast and made an address to the nation, asking for people to remain calm and severely criticizing the opposition. Repeatedly during Chavez’s speech, he was handed a slip of paper, presumably about what was happening outside the presidential palace, which he would glance at and then continued his address. A few minutes into the broadcast, however, the TV stations, in an apparently coordinated plan, split their screens and showed Chavez on one half and the street battles in the other half. Chavez, upon being informed of what the TV stations were doing, issued an order at about 4:25 pm, to take all private TV stations off the air. Chavez’s broadcast continued for another hour, until 5:15 pm.
The private TV stations managed to get back onto the air during Chavez’s broadcast, via cable and satellite, although not over the regular airwaves. In addition to broadcasting the fight between opposition and National Guard, the TV stations began showing images of Chavistas shooting from the bridge onto the street below, which was off screen. News commentators then claimed, without showing any actual footage, that the Chavistas who were shooting were firing at “unarmed opposition demonstrators.” This claim was repeated over and over again on all of the media. Later this claim would prove to be one of the key elements in providing the justification for the coup.
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