Sunday April 21, 2002
The failed coup in Venezuela was closely tied to senior officials in the US government, The Observer has established. They have long histories in the 'dirty wars' of the 1980s, and links to death squads working in Central America at that time.
Washington's involvement in the turbulent events that briefly removed left-wing leader Hugo Chavez from power last weekend resurrects fears about US ambitions in the hemisphere.
It also also deepens doubts about policy in the region being made by appointees to the Bush administration, all of whom owe their careers to serving in the dirty wars under President Reagan.
One of them, Elliot Abrams, who gave a nod to the attempted Venezuelan coup, has a conviction for misleading Congress over the infamous Iran-Contra affair.
The Bush administration has tried to distance itself from the coup. It immediately endorsed the new government under businessman Pedro Carmona. But the coup was sent dramatically into reverse after 48 hours.
Now officials at the Organisation of American States and other diplomatic sources, talking to The Observer, assert that the US administration was not only aware the coup was about to take place, but had sanctioned it, presuming it to be destined for success.
The visits by Venezuelans plotting a coup, including Carmona himself, began, say sources, 'several months ago', and continued until weeks before the putsch last weekend. The visitors were received at the White House by the man President George Bush tasked to be his key policy-maker for Latin America, Otto Reich.
Reich is a right-wing Cuban-American who, under Reagan, ran the Office for Public Diplomacy. It reported in theory to the State Department, but Reich was shown by congressional investigations to report directly to Reagan's National Security Aide, Colonel Oliver North, in the White House.
North was convicted and shamed for his role in Iran-Contra, whereby arms bought by busting US sanctions on Iran were sold to the Contra guerrillas and death squads, in revolt against the Marxist government in Nicaragua.
Reich also has close ties to Venezuela, having been made ambassador to Caracas in 1986. His appointment was contested both by Democrats in Washington and political leaders in the Latin American country. The objections were overridden as Venezuela sought access to the US oil market.
Reich is said by OAS sources to have had 'a number of meetings with Carmona and other leaders of the coup' over several months. The coup was discussed in some detail, right down to its timing and chances of success, which were deemed to be excellent.
On the day Carmona claimed power, Reich summoned ambassadors from Latin America and the Caribbean to his office. He said the removal of Chavez was not a rupture of democra tic rule, as he had resigned and was 'responsible for his fate'. He said the US would support the Carmona government.
But the crucial figure around the coup was Abrams, who operates in the White House as senior director of the National Security Council for 'democracy, human rights and international opera tions'. He was a leading theoretician of the school known as 'Hemispherism', which put a priority on combating Marxism in the Americas.
It led to the coup in Chile in 1973, and the sponsorship of regimes and death squads that followed it in Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere. During the Contras' rampage in Nicaragua, he worked directly to North.
Congressional investigations found Abrams had harvested illegal funding for the rebellion. Convicted for withholding information from the inquiry, he was pardoned by George Bush senior.
A third member of the Latin American triangle in US policy-making is John Negroponte, now ambassador to the United Nations. He was Reagan's ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 when a US-trained death squad, Battalion 3-16, tortured and murdered scores of activists. A diplomatic source said Negroponte had been 'informed that there might be some movement in Venezuela on Chavez' at the beginning of the year.
More than 100 people died in events before and after the coup. In Caracas on Friday a military judge confined five high-ranking officers to indefinite house arrest pending formal charges of rebellion.
Chavez's chief ideologue - Guillermo Garcia Ponce, director of the Revolutionary Political Command - said dissident generals, local media and anti-Chavez groups in the US had plotted the president's removal.
'The most reactionary sectors in the United States were also implicated in the conspiracy,' he said.
Ed Vulliamy in New York