Clash of Visions Pushed Venezuela Toward Coup
Admiral and President Were Old Rivals
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
CARACAS, Venezuela, April 20 -- The son of a soldier, Rear Adm. Carlos
Molina was one of the brightest Venezuelan
military officers of his generation. Highly educated, driven and inspirational, Molina made admiral by age 45. He was appointed
national security adviser soon thereafter, only to be abruptly fired by another military star and contemporary, President Hugo
Bitterness, belief or a mixture of the two drove Molina to appear on
television Feb. 18, in full-dress uniform with medals
covering his chest, to demand Chavez's resignation. Regardless of the motive, even the president's supporters interpreted the
break as an alarming sign of the depth of opposition to Chavez's three-year-old administration. Molina was someone to be
Six weeks later, on April 11, a protest march on the presidential palace
turned into a bloody melee, and senior military officers
intervened to force Chavez from power. Molina, whom active and retired military officers have identified as part of a group of
officers that had been plotting Chavez's removal for months, joined the provisional government as head of the president's
security. He stayed until Chavez reversed the coup the next day.
Now Molina is one of five officers under house arrest -- and unbowed.
He maintains that Chavez's government is "illegitimate"
and that discontent in the military will boil over again. He said he believed the United States would support efforts to oppose
"We felt we were acting with U.S. support," Molina said of the change
of government. "We agree that we can't permit a
communist government here. The U.S. has not let us down yet. This fight is still going on because the government is illegal."
Molina's confrontation with Chavez seems a parable of the divisions
in this oil-rich but socially fragile country, divisions that
Chavez has put in service of the self-declared revolution that his detractors say is dangerous and undemocratic. Urban and
rural, conservative and socialist, navy and army: Molina and Chavez, like the social forces that shaped them, appear to have
been on a collision course for years.
If not exactly from what Chavez's has criticized as the "rancid oligarchy,"
Molina comes from a privileged Venezuela.
Light-skinned and education in Catholic schools, Molina grew up here in the capital as the son of an army engineer who
encouraged him to join the navy. His career took him to the United States and Europe, democracies that he said helped him
develop different notions about how to solve Venezuela's problems than the populist prescriptions of Chavez.
"I'm the middle class, and that's all I want for this country," Molina said.
The dark-skinned, kinky-haired Chavez grew up in a different Venezuela,
on the parched southwestern plains of Barinas state.
He is the son of schoolteachers and the ideological product of at least one influential communist professor. He turned to the
army for the education and career it could provide.
Venezuela's military has long been one of the country's most admired
institutions. The army comprises the vast majority of the
military's 79,000 uniformed members, and is the most socially diverse and politically liberal of the service branches. The navy is
one of its smallest forces, and considered the most exclusive. As recently as three decades ago, only the children of married
parents were accepted into the naval academy that Molina attended.
When Chavez entered the army's academy in the early 1970s, a project
by Venezuela's Communist Party to infiltrate the ranks
with sympathizers was 10 years old. The project eventually fractured into ideological splinters, and Chavez became the head of
a small group of leftist officers in the early 1980s that opposed the conservative government. In 1992, then-Lt. Col. Chavez led
this group in a failed coup to topple President Carlos Andres Perez, an attempt that made him a national figure and paved the
way for his election six years later.
"He talked to thousands of people in the countryside when he got out
of jail, and they all told him they didn't agree with
elections and that they wanted him to return with arms," recalled Luis Alfonso Davila, a former army colonel who is Chavez's
foreign minister. "But he chose elections."
Chavez's victory destroyed the two political parties that had shared
power in Venezuela since the last military dictatorship
ended in 1957. Without an established party of his own, he turned mostly to the army to fill key civilian jobs in his
administration and perform social work in the countryside, such as building schools, stocking markets and doing other chores
that many soldiers began to consider beneath them.
He also turned for support and advice to Cuban President Fidel Castro
at the expense of his relationship with the United States
and an influential group of officers, including Molina. In exchange for cheap oil, Cuba has sent several hundred sports trainers to
Venezuela, who opposition leaders contend are organizing pro-Chavez groups known as Bolivarian Circles. The groups have
been implicated in the shootings that left at least 14 people dead, including a number of Chavez supporters, on the day of the
Anibal Romero, a political science professor at Simon Bolivar University
who taught at the naval war college, said that in trying
to build a political party from military ranks, Chavez "miscalculated badly because the military here is mostly conservative in that
they belong to a privileged group and are linked for professional reasons to the United States. The exception is Chavez, not the
Molina, on the other hand, "is representative of a certain type of officer -- an aristocrat," Romero said.
Despite their different backgrounds, Molina was too accomplished for
Chavez to overlook: an officer with two master's
degrees, fluent in four languages and an expert in signals intelligence, anti-submarine warfare and weapons systems on the
frigates and destroyers that account for most of Venezuela's surface fleet. In November 2000, Chavez named Molina his
national security adviser.
Molina helped create an "intelligence center" at Miraflores, the presidential
palace, designed, in the words of Chavez aides, to
"monitor the social situation around the nation." Chavez opponents viewed the operation as another step toward a police state.
Although part of Chavez's inner circle, Molina said last week, "I was a trusted man, but only relatively so."
Molina said he was alarmed by what he saw in his national security role.
Without offering evidence, Molina said he discovered
Chavez's "ties with and sympathies for" Colombia's Marxist guerrillas fighting a U.S.-backed government next door. He said
Chavez brought in Cuban advisers to control dissent at home. Chavez has denied both charges.
But Molina said that, beyond those specific security concerns, he became
convinced that Chavez was carrying out a communist
project that he began when he was a young army officer. "The evidence couldn't be more clear -- his attacks on civil society,
the media, the church -- that he is turning this country into a large class struggle," Molina said.
After eight months, Chavez dismissed Molina. The president offered him
the ambassadorship to Greece, which Molina
According to non-U.S. diplomats here who know him, Molina began last
November to plan for Chavez's ouster with a group
of dissident officers led by Air Force Col. Pedro Soto. But the sources said Molina broke with the group to join with a more
powerful faction of senior navy and national guard officers who ended up in the provisional government this month.
Soto is now one of three officers seeking asylum in the Bolivian embassy
here. On the day of the coup, he was in Washington,
attending a House committee hearing where Otto J. Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, was
testifying. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), a staunch Castro opponent, introduced Soto as a "great patriot."
Molina denied having met Soto until after making his opposition to Chavez
known in February, which followed soon after
Soto's public demand for the president's resignation. Several members of the provisional government and retired military
officers familiar with the events said Molina was a central figure in the planning leading to Chavez's removal, including meetings
with U.S. officials in the preceding weeks.
But in the interview, Molina, accompanied by his lawyer, said he had
not been planning Chavez's removal and had not had
contacts with U.S. officials "for many months." He declined to describe in detail the days surrounding the coup and Chavez's
return, saying only that the provisional government believed it was following the law.
Molina did say that two days after he denounced Chavez in February,
he was approached at the Hotel Tamanaco here by
Michael Ferber and Elizabeth Winger Echeverri, two staff members of the International Republican Institute. The
Washington-based organization has a stated mission of promoting democracy, and its top officials have worked with senior
officials in the Bush administration. Molina said, "They wanted to talk about human rights, democracy, their operation in
Washington. I can't remember what else we discussed."
In recent weeks, the institute was in contact with Chavez opposition
figures and appears to have served as a channel between
them and the Bush administration. The institute brought a group of Chavez opponents, including members of the country's
largest labor and business groups, to Washington in March for a panel discussion on the threats to democracy in Venezuela and
a series of meetings with members of Congress and the administration.
The institute's president, George Folsom, served on the Bush administration's
transition team and has worked with Reich at a
number of Washington policy institutes, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Georges A. Fauriol, the
institute's vice president of strategic planning, ran a policy program at CSIS with Reich, and the two men sat together on the
board of the Center for a Free Cuba, an anti-Castro exile group.
Military sources say that as many as 3,000 officers and soldiers may
have been actively involved in Chavez's removal, including
60 generals and 20 admirals. But the military support for the coup quickly fractured as the interim government moved to
dissolve the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, and to void the constitution.
Molina said he last saw Chavez on April 12, at the height of the coup,
at the Fort Tiuna military base here where Chavez was
taken after being ousted. In a passing remark, Molina said, Chavez told him that he had resigned and hoped to leave the
country for Cuba with his family. Chavez has since said he never resigned; in any event, he did not go into exile.
Today, with the tables turned, neither man seems apologetic.
"We still think he has to go to trial for his role in the violence,"
Molina said of Chavez, referring to the unrest of the past month.
"My democratic values made me do this."