What did the Bush Administration know, and when did it know it? How deeply involved were U.S. intelligence and military personnel in the recent Venezuelan coup? Has our Latin American policy been highjacked by the same cabal of anti-Cuban fanatics who got this country in deep trouble during the 1980s? Those are some of the questions the U.S. Congress needs answers to if this nation is to maintain even a shred of credibility in its " war on terrorism."
Congress should begin with the White House's point man on the region, Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Reich, a Cuban refugee, met several times with coup leaders, and advised civilian coup leader Pedro Carmona during the abortive uprising. Reich denies having anything to do with the overthrow of President Hugo Chavez and says he knew nothing about the events of April 11 because of an "informational blackout."
However, according to former National Security Agency (NSA) officers Wayne Madison and Richard M. Bennett, U.S. Army units in Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas "assisted in providing communications intelligence to U.S. military and national command authorities on the progress of the coup." Is Reich lying?
His track record suggests he is. When Reich was Sec. Of State for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Reagan Administration, he engaged in "prohibited covert propaganda," according to the General Accounting Office. Reich furnished newspapers with phony stories and opinion pieces supporting the Nicaraguan contras. He also helped spring Orlando Bosch from a Venezuelan prison in 1987. Bosch, another Cuban refugee, was jailed in 1976 for bombing a Cuban airliner and killing 73 people.
The committees also needs to probe Pentagon official Rogelio Pardo- Maurer, another Cuban refugee, who met with military coup leader Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon in the weeks before the coup. Pardo-Mauer and the Pentagon deny there was any discussion of a coup.
But Madsen and Bennett charge that CIA and civilians contracted by the U.S. military at Marandua airfield in Eastern Columbia "stood by to provide logistics support for the leading members of the coup." They further charge that Navy patrol aircraft and at least five surface ships were involved in intercepting communications, and that Special Operations Psychological Warfare units jammed radio frequencies and cell phones in Caracas and other major cities.
Pardo-Mauer was the former chief of staff of the Nicaraguan Contras, ground zero for the Iran-Contra scandal, which deeply scarred U.S. credibility in Latin America during the 1980s.
Congress should certainly investigate the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operations) in Fort Benning, Ga. that trained two of the key coup leaders, Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda. The "School" is infamous for producing 11 dictators in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala.
According to STRATFOR, a private intelligence provider, the CIA had close ties with the most reactionary wing of the operation, including the extreme rightwing Catholic organization, Opus Dei, and General Ruben Rohas (Ret.). It was this group that put Carmona into power, who then dissolved the Legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the National Election Commission, fired provincial governors, and suspended the Constitution.
Following meetings between the Bush Administration and coup leaders, an anonymous email was sent to the Financial Times detailing what would eventually became the coup's blueprint: a strike at Petroleos de Venezuela, leading to gas shortages, which would create chaos. The chaos would spark demonstrations that would force Chavez to resign under military pressure.
According to STRATFOR, the CIA, through the Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, NC, has worked on organizing oil union leaders and military commanders since the summer of 2001. The Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy also funneled almost $900,000 to Chavez foes.
Did the U.S. actively try to undermine the Venezuelan economy in order to create a crisis that would trigger a coup?
The stakes here are high, and routine disavowals or in- house investigations of U.S. involvement won't do. "Latin Americans don't give much weight to U.S. denials, because Washington has never admitted its participation in any coup - not in Chile or anywhere else," says former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., John Biehl.
Certainly the coup has sent a collective chill through countries from Columbia to Argentina, many of which endured U.S.-supported military dictatorships in the '60s and '70s. While Americans tend to have short memories about things like the 1973 U.S.-backed coup in Chile, no one else in Latin American can afford such amnesia. The images of the "disappeared" opponents, arbitrary arrests, and plundered economies ushered in by those coups are sharply etched in the collective memories of people from Buenos Aires to Caracas.
"There is anxiety in Brazil and the rest of Latin America," says former Brazilian foreign minister Luis Felipe Lampreia," because the U.S. no longer seems so committed to democratic principles."
That sentiment alone should be enough to trigger a Congressional inquiry.
Copyright © Conn Hallinan. San Francisco Examiner 2002
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