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Bush Lends A Hand

JP Leary
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

It was only after mass protests returned Hugo Chávez to power last April 14, replacing the disgraced businessman Pedro Carmona, that the American government belatedly joined the rest of its hemisphere in opposing the coup against the elected Venezuelan leader. As his boss Colin Powell floundered in the Middle East, it was Otto Reich, the right-wing head of President Bush’s Latin American policy corps, who sounded the administration’s initial endorsement of the coup.

It was routinely regarded at the time as a bad week for US diplomacy. With Powell out of the country, Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) wryly called for “adult supervision” at the State Department. But was this simply ineptitude—a case of the State Department’s proverbial cat being away—or a hasty American reaction to an expected, but surprisingly failed, coup d’état?

Substantial contacts between American officials and Venezuelan coup leaders in the months leading up to the insurrection make it improbable that the United States was taken by surprise by the events of April 11. Just as unlikely is the possibility that this insurrection was orchestrated in Washington along the lines of, for example, the 1973 overthrow of Chile’s president Salvador Allende (that tragic event was certainly better planned). However, it is clear that the United States was committed to seeing the coup succeed—and that American officials knew beforehand that a military overthrow was in the works. Whether they knew when, and what form it would take, however, is still a matter of speculation.

Also troubling is the significant amount of money channeled to Chávez opponents over the past year by a congressionally funded policy institute, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Organizations receiving NED funds for their work with Chávez opponents include the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), or the Solidarity Center, which granted funds to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a key player in the events that led to the coup.

The key American officials connected to Venezuelan insurrectionists appear to be: Reich, assistant secretary for western hemisphere affairs, staunch anti-Castroite, former ambassador to Venezuela, and veteran of the Central American proxy wars of the 80s; Cuban-American Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs and former chief of staff to the Nicaraguan Contras’ representative in Washington; and Charles Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Caracas who, according to the White House, met with Carmona the morning after the coup.

The New York Times reported that Reich phoned Carmona on April 12, the day he took power, and asked him not to dissolve the National Assembly because it would be “a stupid thing to do”—apparently not, however, because it would be unconstitutional or illegal. The White House later corrected itself to say that it was Shapiro, not Reich, who issued this advice, although Carmona told the British Guardian that Shapiro made no such request during their meeting that day.

The US link

The inconsistency in these accounts has not quieted suspicion that the US was stage-managing the coup from its very earliest stages, rather than working to restore the “constitutional order” that it hypocritically berated Chávez for having unsettled. Reich also confirmed that throughout the crisis he spoke with right-wing Venezuelan mogul Gustavo Cisneros, the boss of two national television stations, but only to seek the information for which American officials at the time claimed to be so starved. (In an “information blackout,” who better to ask for news than a media tycoon?) Carmona, it is worth noting, came to his swearing-in ceremony directly from Cisneros’ office.

Newsweek later reported that Venezuelan military officers informed US officials about coup plans this past February. Dissident military officers were, in fact, meeting with US officials about Chávez as early as last November, when the State Department ordered its military attaché in Caracas to cease contacts with an outspoken group that included Rear Adm. Carlos Molina and Col. Pedro Soto, who took part in the revolt and had previously called publicly for Chávez' removal.

After that demand, the United States moved to distance themselves from the two, and in early April, just days before the coup action, embassy officials refused Soto’s request for a meeting. However, Molina, who has said since that he believed he was acting with American support, indicated that he met with US military personnel outside the US embassy some time shortly before the 11th. Carmona himself had a meeting in Washington with Reich and others in November when, he told media, the Americans pointedly and repeatedly discussed their disdain for Chávez.

Initially, the White House claimed it was reacting to a chaotic situation as it developed with the best information available at the time. Thinking that Chávez had resigned under popular pressure, the explanation went, the Bush administration wanted to help restore social order and constitutionality as best it could under the circumstances. However, as the truth about Chávez's “resignation” became known and as evidence of American foreknowledge of coup plans has emerged, the administration revised its version of events.

Diplomats say they discouraged any overthrow of Chávez, while admitting that the possibility of a putsch was discussed by senior US officials and Venezuelan dissident figures. Pardo-Maurer has conceded that he met in December with Gen. Lucas Romero Rincón, the chief of the Venezuelan military high command and the officer who announced the president’s resignation. The Pentagon’s statement on the meeting says: “We made it very, very clear that the United States’ intent was to support democracy and human rights, and that we would in no way support any coups or unconstitutional activity.” A defense department official quoted by the New York Times rejects suggestions that the US actively sponsored the coup, but noted: “We were not discouraging people.”

AFL-CIA again?

For some time, the NED—a publicly funded, semiprivate body set up to “strengthen democratic institutions around the world through non-governmental efforts” —has been channeling funds to anti-Chávez forces. Founded in 1983 by Ronald Reagan, the NED disperses grants to affiliated organizations, principally the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), the foreign policy wings of the Republican and Democratic parties, a pro-business group, and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center.

As opposition to Chávez increased over the last year, the endowment quadrupled its budget for Venezuela. The NDI received money for improving the “accountability of local government” and the IRI’s office in Caracas received a grant for “political party building.” According to one published report, both groups also paid for visits by Chávez opponents to Washington. On April 12, the head of the IRI echoed the US administration when he praised the overthrow of Venezuela’s elected leader: “The Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country. Venezuelans were provoked into action as a result of systematic repression by the government of Hugo Chávez.”

Critics of the NED point to its government funding, private status, and politicized constituency as a recipe for precisely the sort of under-the-radar meddling that appears to have transpired in Venezuela. The NED has been accused of using its mandate to undermine governments and influence election results from Chile to Costa Rica (the Arias government, whose Central American peace plan so infuriated Reagan, was targeted), Nicaragua (where the NED gave money to Violeta Chamorro, who defeated the Sandinista Daniel Ortega in the 1989 national elections), and even France.

Openly political stances are forbidden by NED rules, though it has skirted its own laws in many cases. Critics of the Endowment also contend that it promotes basically conservative policies—organizations like the IRI can perform “freelance” foreign policy without government oversight while US interests tend to exercise undue influence over independent member organizations. This is of particular concern in the case of the Solidarity Center.

The AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center was founded in 1997 under the reformist administration of John Sweeney. He completed the dissolution of the old American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), fired many of its corrupt leaders, and consolidated the unions’s four regional foreign labor institutes into the new Center. It has field offices in places like the new Balkan nations, Eastern Europe, and in countries where the AIFLD once worked to undermine progressive labor unions and support pro-American, pro-business labor groups: Honduras, the Philippines, Kenya, and El Salvador, to name a few.

In its information brochure, the Solidarity Center describes itself as part of an “international movement for democracy and social justice” and explains its government subsidy: “As do many other key stakeholders in America, the labor movement secures public funding to carry out programs designed to protect the freedom of association and other fundamental worker rights…These goals are universally shared by the American people.”

But are they also shared by the organization that issues the checks? While government funding is not unusual or necessarily dangerous for a national labor organization, some critics charge that the Solidarity Center’s stated mission as an independent, internationalist organizing institute, together with the tainted Cold War history of its predecessor, make its relationship with the foreign-policy objectives of the Endowment counterproductive and worrisome.

Through the Solidarity Center, the NED channeled over $150,000 to the CTV to bolster the confederation’s internal democratic processes. The CTV is led by Carlos Ortega, head of the petroleum workers’ union and a main organizer of the April 11 march against Chávez. Ortega has worked closely with coup leader Carmona in the past. The Center says all funds were used for printing, training, and forums to bring “labor, business, human rights, and religious leaders together in support of freedom of association.”

Collective bargaining

In a recent statement, the AFL-CIO reasserted its support for CTV, referring to recent attempts by Chávez to bar collective bargaining in the petroleum industry and saying, “While we unequivocally condemn the coup attempt of April 12th to dissolve democratic institutions, which appears to have been engineered by a small group of military officers with the support of some powerful right-wing businessmen, there is no evidence that the CTV or its leaders went beyond the democratic expressions of discontent…The AFL-CIO believes other priorities of the Chávez administration, including agrarian reform and assistance to Cuba, for example, are and should be the sole and sovereign concern of the Venezuelan people and their government.” (It does appear that Ortega called, at least briefly, for the dissolution of the National Assembly.)

For this writer, merely obtaining the Solidarity Center’s brochure was complicated. With no one answering the phones and no website (its contact details are available not through the AFL-CIO, but the NED), it is understandable that some unionists are not yet sure if the Center is any improvement on the labyrinthine AIFLD bureaucracy. While it does not appear as if the Solidarity Center was itself involved in the overthrow of Chavez, its involvement with one sector of the opposition recalls for some the still-obscure Cold War record of the Federation.

The AFL-CIO has yet to come clean to its members on its activities then, and the events in Venezuela have led some to renew calls for a public reckoning on the AFL-CIO’s international record and the International Affairs Department’s accountability to union membership. For others, the Solidarity Center’s connection to the Venezuelan coup raises other questions: Can the NED support the kind of cross-border organizing demanded by globalized capital, and supported, at least in rhetoric, by the Solidarity Center? And can the global fight for the right to organize be effectively balanced against the priorities of US foreign policy?

Washington’s direct interference in the sovereign political affairs of Latin Americans was supposed to be a relic of the Cold War. Given that this is one of the most secretive administrations in memory, we may not know many of the details of its involvement in Venezuela for some time—Chileans waited thirty years. Nevertheless, the available evidence points toward, at the very least, White House knowledge of coup plans and a strong, immediate desire to help the insurrection succeed.

Reich’s background, though, leads many observers to suspect the State Department did more than blissfully ignore the coup warnings it received. Chávez has hinted that he has hard proof showing American collusion in the overthrow, but he has not released it. In the meantime, the always-combative Reich is commanding reporters covering Latin America to “Get over the ‘60s and ‘70s mentality. This is a new century.” If only he would do the same.