Coups in Venezuela: The Long Legacy Continues

The President of Venezuela was removed from power with U.S. assistance due to his left leaning politics, his clashes with conservatives and his objections to American power and influence in Latin America. The coup leaders consulted with the United States for some time in preparation for the coup. When the leader of the coup declared himself president, the US quickly recognized him and blocked efforts of the elected president to return. The US was a strong partner in the coup and, on several occasions, dispatched the navy and American diplomats as a demonstration of support to the coup government.

Though this sounds like a report of American activity in Venezuela today, it is a report of the events of 1908 when the US helped Juan Vicente Gómez to oust Cipriano Castro in a coup and to rule Venezuela as a strongman for the next twenty-seven years.

American intervention in Venezuela is not new. The US coups did not start with Hugo Chávez: they started a century before.

A century later, though, the US was still following the same script. In 2002, the democratically elected Hugo Chávez was briefly removed from office in a coup before the people and the military restored the popular leader to power. That is well established history. Never included in American history, though, is that as early as April 17, 2002, it had already been revealed that "Bush administration officials acknowledged . . . that they had discussed the removal of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for months with military and civilian leaders from Venezuela."

Just days after that revelation, it was reported that the Bush administration’s backing of the coup did not begin with its endorsement of the coup government. Officials of the Organization of American States (OAS) confirmed that the Bush administration "was not only aware the coup was about to take place, but had sanctioned it." Washington’s meetings with Venezuelan plotters included "a number of meetings" with coup leader Pedro Carmona himself. The meetings began several months before the coup. Another coup plotter who met with Washington, Vice Admiral Carlos Molina, said "We felt we were acting with US support." Details right down to the timing of the coup were discussed. The State Department would eventually admit that the Bush administration "provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the military coup."

The US hoped the Chávez movement would die with Chávez. But it didn’t. Frustrating American designs, Chávez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, easily defeated his opponent, Henri Falcón, in the next election. So, now Maduro had to be removed. The long legacy of coups continued.

This time, the plan was to deceptively repaint the election as illegitimate because of a low voter turnout. But the turnout was low only because of the radical opposition’s decision to boycott the election. Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College, and one of the world’s leading experts on Venezuelan history and politics, told me in a personal correspondence that the radical opposition only boycotted the election "in order to claim that Maduro lacked legitimacy.” Tinker Salas told me that "the opposition opted to abandon the electoral arena in the country and adopted the strategy of international pressure to oust Maduro. That is why they would not sign the negotiated agreement brokered last year by Jose Luis Zapatero that would have defused the current crisis."

That was the plan. But it was an American plan. Jose Rodriguez, Venezuela’s communications minister, says that then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called the opposition’s spokesperson, Julio Borges, and instructed him to refuse to sign the agreement.

But the real plan was bigger. The real plan was to convince, not just the radical opposition, but the entire opposition to boycott, creating an uncontested election that could then be presented to the world as an illegitimate election. Latin America expert Mark Weisbrot has reported that "the leading opposition contender for Venezuela’s May presidential election, Henri Falcón, was told by US officials that the Trump administration would consider financial sanctions against him if he entered the presidential race." When Falcón not only refused to boycott but reached out to other opposition leaders to side step the boycott and join his campaign, Todd Robinson, the top US diplomat in Venezuela, "met with Falcon" to try "to persuade him to withdraw as his challenge was undermining US efforts to isolate Maduro."

Though the turnout was low by design, the election was still hardly uncontested. The opposition aligned pollster Datanalisis had Falcón in a statistical tie with Leopoldo Lopez, and significantly ahead of Henrique Capriles, as the most popular opposition candidate. Lopez and Capriles were considered the two most popular opposition candidates.

And not only were the elections not uncontested, they were not illegitimate. At least four different groups of international observers monitored the election, including the International Electoral Accompaniment Mission of Latin America’s Council of Electoral Experts, an African Mission, and a mission made up of four Caribbean countries. All four certified the election as fair. The Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA) is made up of former top electoral officials from throughout Latin America. It reported that “Technically, up until today, we have not observed any element that could disqualify the electoral process. . .. We can emphasize that these elections must be recognized, because they are the result of the will of the Venezuelan people.”

The coup failed, and Maduro, like Chávez before him, remained in power. The US attempted to ignore the failure, and simply covered their eyes and recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela.

But more had to be done. The US couldn’t count on countries closing their eyes forever. So, the long legacy of coups continued. On April 10, 2019, the American Center for Strategic and International Studies held a secret meeting to plan a Venezuelan coup. The people in attendance included Guaidó’s envoy to the United States, Carlos Vecchio. The US sent "some of the most influential advisors on President Trump’s Venezuela policy," including former and present officials from the State Department, National Intelligence Council, the National Security Council and the military.

On the same day, Vice President Mike Pence announced to the U.N. Security Council that "the Trump administration is determined to remove President Nicolás Maduro from power in Venezuela," boldly confessing to the world’s international body that the US intended to carry out an illegal coup.

Just days later, they did: the US attempted another Venezuelan coup. The US believed that they had successfully negotiated deals with critically placed people in Venezuela, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Maikel Moreno, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino and the commander of the presidential guard, Ivan Rafael Hernandez Dela. The US envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams, admitted that "There have been some interesting negotiations among Venezuelans inside the regime and outside the regime about returning to the constitution…. They negotiated for a long time the means of restoring democracy." But the Americans were wrong, apparently out deceived by the Venezuelans. "It seems," Abrams mourned, "that today they are not going forward."

American confidence seems to have arrogantly removed the usual cloak of clandestine secrecy, as first signaled by Pence’s UN boast. The coup was planned at the highest levels, involving US diplomats and, apparently, Pence and Pompeo. The plan, they thought, was a done deal and a sure thing. The Supreme Court Chief Justice would declare Maduro’s election illegitimate, Guaidó would declare himself president, and the Minister of Defence and the commander of the presidential guard would back him. According to a source who was coordinating between the coup plotters and people in Maduro’s inner circle, the coup plotters "spoke to everybody and we never received a no from anybody."

But the three apparent Venezuelan partners never showed up to the coup, leaving the U.S. exposed and alone in the failed coup.

John Bolton has recently confirmed that both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump knew of the plan: Pompeo informed him on April 30 that "this was the day." He then woke up Trump to pass on the news.

When it became clear that the coup was failing, incredibly, it was so clear that the US had been involved that Bolton’s concern was not denying the obvious US involvement, but assuring the world that anyone in Venezuela had been involved in the coup at all. In front of the White House, Bolton betrayed his illusory partners and revealed to the press that Moreno, Padrino and Hernández Dala had been co-conspirators. "I just wanted everybody to be sure that we knew what was going on," Bolton said. "That we knew that people in the Maduro regime had been part of this plot."

Bolton claims that Trump fully supported the coup and was prepared to support Guaidó right up until the coup. After failing, Bolton says, Trump lost interest and "didn’t want anything to do with it.”

But the US didn’t lose interest when Trump lost interest. With the new Biden administration, the long legacy of coups continues.

On January 19, Biden’s then nominee for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, told members of the US senate that Biden will continue to recognize coup president Juan Guaidó. Blinken, who apparently called Maduro a "brutal dictator," called for "an effective policy that can restore Venezuela to democracy." On February 3, State Department spokesman Ned Price confirmed that the US recognizes Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president. Then on March 2, the State Department went further: Secretary of State Blinken called “Interim President Juan Guaidó,” stressing the need for “free and fair elections.” Blinken said that the US is working with the usual cast of “likeminded allies,” like the OAS, to exert pressure on Venezuela.

And in a recent sign that the US focus is still on a coup in Venezuela, Anthony Blinken said, in a recent congratulatory tweet to newly elected Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso, "Good to speak with President Elect Lasso Guillermo about how we can work together to strengthen our economies, restore democracy in Venezuela, and create a more secure region for the benefit of all."

The long legacy of coups in Venezuela continues.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.