Chavez Regained Power While Plotters Bickered
Coup Was Not Planned, Ex-Leader Says
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 17 -- One reason Pedro Carmona, a bookish
economist and alleged insurrectionist, was
selected to run the interim government after a coup here last week was that he was one of the few people who didn't want the
Those with presidential ambitions in Venezuela -- the aspirants are
legion -- took themselves out of consideration Friday when
the military was hunting for someone to head the junta. The condition was that anyone who had the job would not be able to
run in presidential elections to be held within a year.
Carmona was the face of Venezuela's short-lived coup, which ousted President
Hugo Chavez last Thursday. Behind him,
however, were clashing agendas and personalities that doomed the change in government, and made possible Chavez's return
two days later.
"It was going to take time to put together the new government teams
and consolidate our control over the situation," Carmona
said today in an interview at his apartment, where he is under house arrest. "This was not something that was premeditated, as
you can see from the ensuing confusion. That gave the Chavez forces time to reorganize and return."
Untangling the various forces that contributed to the coup and its collapse
is a consuming passion in Venezuela and beyond its
borders. There is a vigorous debate about the possible roles of U.S. officials, powerful Venezuelans abroad and leading military
Carmona, who was an economist with the Foreign Ministry and has run
a variety of trade associations, rose to prominence last
year with the success of a national strike he called as head of Venezuela's largest business group. He joined a large labor group
last week in a second strike, which became a catalyst for Chavez's ouster.
Carmona also enjoyed support among a small faction of dissident navy
and air force officers, some of whom had met with U.S.
officials in recent months, that had begun organizing against the three-year-old Chavez administration last fall, according to
former members of the provisional government.
The role of the military and civic groups in the coup is the subject
of an investigation by the Organization of American States.
OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, who left Venezuela today to deliver his findings to the organization in Washington,
warned that democracy was being damaged by the military's involvement in politics.
"This tradition has been established in Venezuela in the last few years
that military officers are important protagonists in politics,"
Gaviria said. "It is very unhealthy. Close that door."
A possible U.S. role in the coup is being scrutinized here by Chavez
supporters and opponents. Western diplomats generally
supportive of U.S. foreign policy acknowledge that severe damage has been done to relations between the Bush administration
and the third-largest supplier of oil to the United States.
U.S. officials have denied that they encouraged opposition members to
overthrow Chavez, but diplomats here suggested that
the large number of visits to Washington and the U.S. Embassy here in recent months by people hostile to his regime may have
signaled tacit support for the opposition.
"I don't think the U.S. provided any active or material support for
this," a Western diplomat said. "But the people involved may
have seen all of these meetings and visits, added them all up, and come up with an idea that they were on the same team."
At least three people who landed key jobs within the provisional government
have acknowledged that they met with U.S.
officials in the past six months. One of them was Vice Adm. Carlos Molina, who said that he had a meeting with a U.S. official
outside the U.S. Embassy within the past six weeks.
But U.S. officials say that although they were aware of the growing
dissent, they sought to distance the United States from
opposition figures who might be plotting a coup. In November, the U.S. ambassador at the time, Donna Hrinak, took the
unusual step of ordering the embassy's military attache to stop meeting with a group of dissident officers, according to a U.S.
That group, according to a Western diplomat here, included Molina, Air
Force Col. Pedro Soto and several other officers who
in February publicly demand Chavez's removal. The U.S. diplomat said Soto and Molina each received $100,000 from a
Miami bank account for denouncing Chavez.
Soto and Molina could not be reached for comment today. Molina is under
arrest and was the subject of a military hearing
today. Soto is among three officers seeking asylum in the Bolivian Embassy.
In his role as head of the business association, Carmona traveled to
Washington in November with a delegation of seven
business leaders. He said the delegation met with John Maisto, Bush's national security aide for Latin America, Energy
Secretary Spencer Abraham and Otto J. Reich, then Bush's nominee to head the State Department's Western Hemisphere
affairs division. Reich, a conservative Cuban exile who has expressed his deep concerns over Chavez's leftist agenda, now
holds the post under an appointment.
Carmona characterized the meetings as a lobbying effort to have Venezuela
included in a group of Andean nations that enjoy
preferential trade agreements with the United States. Soon after Chavez's speech in October, U.S. officials informed him that
Venezuela would not be part of the group.
"They talked a lot about the difference they had with the government,
and that getting into [the trade agreement] would be
impossible," Carmona said. "They were very angry at Chavez, really tired of him."
But Carmona said they gave no indication that they supported Chavez's
removal, and he said he next spoke with U.S. officials
after Chavez was ousted. He met with the recently arrived U.S. ambassador, Charles Shapiro, and the Spanish ambassador
Carmona said Shapiro was concerned about the dissolution of the National
Assembly and suggested in general terms that he
find a way to put the government back on a more democratic footing.
Carmona is waiting to see if the government charges him with rebellion.
The crime carries a sentence of up to 20 years in
"The crisis is still here," Carmona said. "It hasn't been resolved."