Back, by Popular Demand? How Venezuela's Hugo Chávez Got a Second Chance

Hamburgers, Cured Ham, and Oil

Otto Reich
Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, speaks to members of Congress, May 21, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Following the unsuccessful coup d’etat aimed at toppling the constitutional government of Hugo Chávez, a journalist from Spain said last week that “it smells like hamburgers, jabugo (Spanish cured ham), and oil!” Obviously, he knew what he was talking about: the participation of officials from the United States, Spain, and El Salvador in the revolt headed by business leader Pedro Carmona Estanga.

The claim doesn’t sound far-fetched, since U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela Charles Shapiro (who formerly managed the Cuba desk at the State Department) and Spanish Ambassador Manuel Viturro met with de facto president Pedro Carmona after he had dissolved the National Assembly and the country’s principal institutions.

According to private investigations, one of the coup’s consequences was the privatization of [the state oil company] Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), turning it over to a U.S. company linked to President George Bush and the Spanish company Repsol; plus the sale of CITGO, the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA, to Gustavo Cisneros and his partners in the north; as well as an end to the Venezuelan government’s exclusive subsoil rights.

For this to happen, it was necessary to suspend the 1999 constitution and take advantage of the conflict at the state oil company, where top management was following orders sent from the north through its former president Luis Giusti. And support came from businessman Isaac Pérez Recao, for whom Carmona had worked in the Venoco oil company, and who actively participated in the coup and provided financing.

A high-level military source talking to Agence France-Presse expanded on what had already been published in the local press: that Pérez Recao controlled a small “right-wing extremist” group that was “well armed, with even grenade launchers...under the operations command of Rear Adm. Carlos Molina Tamayo,” one of the officials who had already publicly rebelled against Chávez in February and had been placed in charge of Carmona’s military cabinet. According to the military source, this group “was connected to a security company owned by former Mossad (Israeli intelligence service) agents,” although this doesn’t mean Israel was involved in the coup.

But this news was not particularly astonishing either: The Rambo impersonator who personally guarded Carmona was Marcelo Sarabia, linked to security entities and companies—one of them a Mossad franchise—and known to boast of spending nights in the U.S. Embassy bunker.

The U.S. intelligence newsletter accused the CIA of “having knowledge of the (coup) plans, and of possibly helping the ultraconservative civilians and military officials who unsuccessfully tried to gain power over the interim government,” and cited members of the [right-wing Catholic organization] Opus Dei and officials linked to retired Gen. Rubén Pérez Pérez (son-in-law of former President Rafael Caldera) as participants in the coup.

What was indeed confirmed is that the airplane booked to take Chávez off Orchilla Island and out of the country belonged to Paraguayan banker Víctor Gil (TotalBank). And where was it headed? According to personnel of the airplane registered in the United States, the flight was headed to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory.

U.S. intervention was to be found not only in “advice” from high government officials in Washington such as Roger Pardo-Maurer (in charge of special operations and low-intensity conflicts in Latin America for the Pentagon), Otto Reich, and/or John Maisto, but also from Lieut. Col. James Rodger, assigned to the Military Attaché Office of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, who supported the revolt with his presence on the fifth floor of army headquarters, where he advised the generals in the rebellion.

Otto Reich, in charge of Latin American affairs at the State Department, confirmed having spoken “two or three times” during the coup with Gustavo Cisneros, a fishing companion of former President George Bush and head of a business empire extending from the United States to Patagonia (DIRECTV,  Venevisión, Coca Cola, Televisa). Reich told Newsweek that he was only seeking information, not encouraging or directing the coup organizers. “We had absolutely nothing to do with it,” he added.

What is perhaps surprising is the case of two Salvadorans detained after the April 11 events, who, according to local intelligence sources, belong to a death squad trained for attacks in different Latin American countries (before in Cuba and Panama, and now in Venezuela). These sources point to links with the former Venezuelan ambassador to San Salvador, Christian Democrat Leopoldo Castillo, currently a radio commentator and business association adviser.

On the afternoon of the coup [April 12], the plotters, including Carmona, met at the Venevisión television station. “This government was put together at Gustavo Cisneros’ office,” said opposition legislator Pedro Pablo Alcántara (Democratic Action Party). The person who read Carmona’s decree and who Carmona named as attorney-general was Daniel Romero, who had been a private secretary to former President Carlos Andrés Pérez and a functionary in the Cisneros organization.

We have already seen repercussions in Washington from the unsuccessful coup, which may lead to the Bush administration’s first public scandal in foreign policy. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee may order the requisition of documents that detail contacts between Venezuelan citizens—such as the former president of PDVSA, Luis Giusti—and high-level U.S. civil and military officials.

Only after the negative reactions to the dissolution of the National Assembly and the suspension of the constitution by the plutocratic Carmona government—among the heads of state at the Río Group meeting in Costa Rica, military generals, and the civil opposition to Chávez—did we begin to hear talk of a pluralistic junta that would respect the validity of Congress, governors, and mayors.

Numerous phone calls were made between Caracas and Washington from Friday night [April 12] to Saturday midday. From the Pentagon, the need for compliance with a series of points was communicated to Gen. Efraín Vásquez, the main officer in command during the short-lived Carmona government, transmitted in Washington by State Department officials to Venezuela’s chargé d’affaires in Washington, Luis Herrera Marcano, to Carmona by Shapiro himself, and to high-ranking army officials by Col. Harkins, also part of the U.S. delegation in Caracas.

When they fled the Miraflores presidential palace, the coup organizers left behind a sumptuous lunch, as well as some documents in the president’s office. One of them had been sent by Herrera Marcano to the person who was undoubtedly the link between those who carried out the coup and the U.S. government, Rear Adm. Molina Tamayo. Communication 913 (curiously on Venezuelan Embassy letterhead, instead of Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela letterhead) reads:

“Mr. Phillip Chicola of the State Department communicated with me by telephone this morning to ask me to urgently communicate the following viewpoints of the U.S. government to the Venezuelan government:

1. Given that the United States signed and fully supports the Interamerican 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. To this end, it considers it to be indispensable that the National Assembly ratifies the resignation by President Chávez, and that if an appeal is made to the Supreme Court, that it also rules affirmatively....He indicated that not only were they [U.S. authorities] obliged to adhere to provisions in the Democratic Charter, but they are also subject to legal norms that make it necessary to report to Congress any rupture in constitutional legality in any country in the hemisphere and eventually suspend all cooperative activities.

2. Along this same line, Mr. Chicola suggested that the new government send a letter to the U.S. government as soon as possible in which a formal commitment is made to call for new elections in a reasonable period of time....3. He also indicated that it would be very important to receive a copy of the resignation signed by President Chávez. 4. Finally, he expressed his hope that a substitution be made for the current permanent representative of Venezuela to the Organization of American States (OAS) in the near future....”

Representatives in the OAS Permanent Council already knew what role they were to play. The secretary-general, Colombian César Gaviria, had suggested that since the Chávez government had been toppled, Ambassador Valero should not be allowed to enter the meeting. The message had been transmitted by Chilean representative Esteban Tomic and the council president, Margarita Escobar of El Salvador. Efforts were made by the United States, Ecuador, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Colombia for the de facto government to be recognized, while Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil—with unanimous support from the Caribbean countries—insisted on giving the Democratic Charter its debut.

The latter countries reacted negatively for the second time when Gaviria announced that the Carmona government had removed Valero. It was the representative from Barbados who rebuked the secretary general for serving as the link between coup leaders and the OAS, and for ordering the dismissal of an ambassador without following the necessary procedures.

As for Spain, neither Foreign Minister Josep Piqué nor embassy officials in Caracas could hide their delight. Some Spanish businessmen who get along better with Chávez than with the embassy said there was a fund of 500 million bolivars (more than a half-million dollars) for co-financing the general strike and the coup, with money coming from large consortiums such as Repsol and from banks, but none of this could be confirmed.

At any rate, Spanish Ambassador Viturro called together all high-ranking Spanish personnel last Sunday to make it clear what strategy would be followed: to insist on the need for a referendum, or for Chávez to call for new elections in the near future. This is exactly the same strategy launched by U.S. Ambassador Shapiro from the Valle Arriba [U.S. Embassy] bunker in southeast Caracas when talking to English-speaking journalists.