Five Years Later, Venezuelan Ambassador Reflects on US-Backed Coup

Five years ago this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was temporarily ousted in a short-lived coup he says was backed by the United States. On the fifth anniversary of the coup, we speak with Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera.


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AMY GOODMAN: Five years ago this week, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was temporarily ousted in a short-lived coup. The date was April 11 and 12, 2002.

The leader of the coup was a business executive named Pedro Carmona. Carmona quickly received the support of the Bush administration, as well as much of the corporate press in the United States. After the coup, the New York Times proclaimed in an editorial, “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator.”

But within forty-eight hours, following massive street protests, Chavez was back in power. After the coup, Carmona was arrested, but he managed to flee to Colombia where he sought political asylum. However, Carmona’s fate could soon change.

On Tuesday, Venezuela’s highest court ruled state prosecutors could request Carmona’s extradition from Colombia on charges of civil rebellion.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States, but first let’s turn to an excerpt of a documentary made by two filmmakers who were in Caracas during the 2002 coup. The film is called The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The excerpt begins with the White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer.

    ARI FLEISCHER: Let me share with you the administration’s thoughts about what’s taking place in Venezuela. […] We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. […] The Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations, […] fired on unarmed, peaceful protestors, resulting in ten killed and 100 wounded. […]That is what took place, […] and a transitional civilian government has been installed.

    NARRATOR: Despite the blackout by the Venezuelan private media, members of Chavez’s government had managed to communicate with international television networks, getting the message back to Venezuela via cable TV that Chavez had not resigned and was being held captive. Very quickly, the word began to spread.

    Chavez had not been seen or heard of since he had been taken away two days earlier. That morning, as we drove around Caracas, the atmosphere was electric. Despite police repression, people had decided to march on the palace.

    With so many people out on the streets, the palace guard who had remained loyal to Chavez decided to act. Behind Carmona’s back, a plot was being hatched by Chavez’s men to retake the palace. The plan was for the guard to take up key positions, surround the palace and to wait for a given signal.

    With all their positions secured, the signal was given. The presidential guard moved in. Several members of the newly installed government were taken prisoner, but in the confusion, Carmona and the generals had managed to slip away.

    As the guards secured the building, Chavez’s ministers, who had been in hiding for the last two days, began to arrive back to the palace to try and reestablish the legitimate cabinet.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, produced by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Brien. Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States will join us in a moment. He was in Caracas during the coup.


AMY GOODMAN: We turn now back to Venezuela. Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is with us, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States. He was in Venezuela during the coup. At the time, he was the Vice Minister of Oil and Gas under Chavez. Ambassador Alvarez, welcome to Democracy Now!

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: A very good morning to you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Where were you when the attempted coup took place five years ago?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Well, we were basically observing the demonstration, the opposition demonstration. And, well, you know, just I remember that we were instructed to go to the TV. Basically, we went to the state television just to give messages to people, because we knew from that very moment that there was a plan to create a media coup. And, one by one, members of government went to the state television just to try to balance the information.

And then we had, you know, all the — when all the media, they started saying that the government has been shooting at the peaceful demonstration, which, as you know, was not right, and then the whole thing started, and then we have generals and then President Chavez was caught.

And I was not at the palace that day. I went back later on the 13th. But basically, until very late in the evening, President Chavez was considering the situation. There were two possibilities. One possibility was to resist and to have a military confrontation in Venezuela. President Chavez thought that that was going to be a bloodshed and it was not possible. There was also the possibility to take the government to another place in the country — Maracay, for example. And then, well, finally he was caught prisoner.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did he get back to the palace?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Well, the thing is that we were all surprised, and you have to understand that — imagine you have all the private TV, because after that, at 11:00 to 12:00, the state TV network, Channel 8, was closed down, so there was not alternative and all we had is a private media. They were celebrating. They were preparing themselves to the transition, and they were creating the situation that everything was normal, that everybody was supporting the new government, that nobody was supporting Chavez, that Chavez has resigned, etc.

And then — but, you know, that night ’til 12:00 at night, there were huge demonstration and huge unrest all over the country. We were impressed, because there was not a way of knowing about that, except that through telephones and people that send you messages, because there was not media coverage through all that process.

And then, next day, the 13th, we ourselves — I was in charge of trying to protect some of my colleagues. They were more, you know — because there was a lot of political persecution — some people were killed — I went to a few embassies trying to protect some people, and we were also trying to get some of our colleagues and comrades out of the country, because we needed a voice outside the country.

But then the whole thing turned out, and at 2:00, myself, while I was resting in an unknown place, because we hardly slept those days, and I was called at 2:00 the 13th, telling, “Bernardo, instead of going where you were supposed to go, come to the palace, because we are taking the palace back.” And then we went there — me, personally. It was impossible to get in. I was taken by people, because there were hundreds of thousands of people, and we were taken into the palace. We were like twenty, twenty-five, thirty of us. And then, from that moment on, the whole situation was how to transmit and how to tell the Venezuelan people that we were back in palace. And we could do that only probably ten hours later, because, as you know, there was a media blackout, a completely media blackout that day.

AMY GOODMAN: President Chavez has accused the United States of being behind the coup. Do you share that view, Ambassador Alvarez?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Yes, absolutely. And let me tell you, Amy, what happened in Venezuela, don’t forget that the Under Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere was Otto Reich. Otto Reich, you just have to see what he’s doing now, what his position is in Venezuela. He’s a Cuban American, very rightwing, a person responsible for many things in the Iran-Contra, and he was the one conducting the policy.

And what happened in Venezuela is a classical coup that we had in the United States in Haiti, even in the case of Chile, when you have — if you remember the case of Chile, the whole thing started when the owners of the media, they came to Washington, they talked to Kissinger, and they said, “Well, this is not sustainable. We have to do something,” and they started the whole destabilization process in Chile. Exactly the same format, they used in Venezuela.

The only thing is it’s incredible that a country with huge resources dedicated to intelligence, that they just took the version of the media, and actually we don’t know now what version was that. Was it the version of the US embassy and the US Department of State taken by the media, or was the media just taken like that by the State Department? But all you have to see is to see the format not only of that day, the 11th of April, but the previous, on all the events in that policy of regime change. So I have no doubt that they were trying to apply a much more sophisticated plan of regime change as they have done in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see those same efforts being made today?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Well, the thing is, you know, today is a very strange day for us, because it’s a bittersweet situation. On the one hand, although today we are celebrating the anniversary of the coup — and, of course, when we think about the 11th, we think always about the 13th, that for the first time in history you have these massive demonstrations of people and we were able to get back democracy in Venezuela.

But today, just today, Amy, we have, because of the inaction of the US government, a known terrorist, Luis Posada Carriles, may be liberated. Today, if there is not a decision by the US government to accept the request of Venezuela for preventing detention for extradition or to charge Posada Carriles with an immigration detainer, this guy might be tomorrow sleeping in his house in Miami, which is — I don’t know. It’s like this is an emblematic figure of the double standard in the fight against terrorism, but also the icon of the Cold War, the icon of all these illegal interventions of the US all over the world and particularly Latin America. So it’s amazing that we are on the one hand celebrating the 11th of April, and on the other hand Posada Carriles might be freed today. So, in the case of the coup —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me just explain for one minute, Ambassador, again, the Cuban militant, Luis Posada Carriles, a US ruling allowing him to post bail. Posada is connected to the 1976 bombing of the Cuban airliner that killed seventy-three people, though he’s not being held in the Texas jail on terrorism charges, but on minor immigration charges. The question is: will he be released? Now, you — the Venezuelan government has asked for him to be extradited to be tried in Venezuela. He had been jailed there, but broke out of jail. Cuba has asked for him to be extradited. What is your response to the US government refusing to do this?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Yeah, look. In the case of — Cuba has said, OK, don’t send him to Cuba, and the only extradition request is the one made by Venezuela, because we have a treaty with the US, a 1922 treaty, extradition treaty with the US, that we have even used in the past. So the US government, if they want to be consistent with their policies against terrorism, they only have two options: one, they extradite him to Venezuela, and we will judge him in Venezuela for terrorism; or second, they have to try and judge him in the US for terrorism, because the US have to follow the international law, the Montreal Agreement and many other legal instruments that actually the US have to follow.

So the problem is, we have requested the extradition of Posada, even before he became public in Miami, because we knew — everybody knew — that he was in Miami. And yesterday, we sent another diplomatic note to the State Department saying, “After twenty-two months waiting, you haven’t done anything. So now that this guy might be free, so we, Venezuela, we want to again request that you detain — that is, a preventive detention of Posada on the extradition request — and we reaffirm the request for extradition of Posada.”

AMY GOODMAN: On September 28, 2005, a US judge ruled Posada cannot be deported to Venezuela, because he “faces the threat of torture” in Venezuela. Ambassador Alvarez, your response?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Yeah, well, my response is in that — you know, that the one that represent Venezuela in that case is the US government. I cannot send to El Paso my own lawyer, because, as we have a treaty of extradition, the US government is representing Venezuela. And you know what happened? That in that hearing the only witness presented was an associate of Posada that used to be also with him working in the police in Venezuela. He was his lawyer, and he, himself, he said that he thinks that there was not conditions for him in Venezuela. And the US government did not present, did not even question this witness. So from the very beginning, that was the inaction of the US government, because they could have told us, they could have brought many people from Venezuela that would tell that Posada will have, we guarantee, all the rights for him, but he has to be judged in trial. I mean, we cannot keep him only because of immigration. It’s like if you were going to take Osama bin Laden to a country because he’s entering a country without a visa.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, Bernardo Alvarez Herrera. He’s joining us in the Washington studio. Ambassador, there was an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday, “High Stakes: Chavez Plays the Oil Card.” And it says, “With President Hugo Chavez setting a May 1 deadline for an ambitious plan to wrest control of several major oil projects from American and European companies, a showdown is looming here over access to some of the most coveted energy resources outside the Middle East.”

It quotes a number of oil analysts, like Pietro Pitts, an oil analyst who publishes Latin Petroleum, an industry magazine based in Venezuela, who says, “Chavez is playing a game of chicken with the largest oil companies in the world. And for the moment, he’s winning,” he says. And it says the confrontation could easily end up, though, with everyone losing.

Can you explain what the May 1 deadline is and what President Chavez’s plans are for oil in Venezuela?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Well, first, there is no surprises in that, in the actions we have been taking. And that was part of the coup d’etat, because, as you remember, we changed the law, and we went through a process, and we had a new hydrocarbon law. And in this new hydrocarbon law, we reverted the privatization process in Venezuela regarding oil and gas, particularly of upstream oil. So companies knew from the very beginning that under the new law we were changing the conditions, first.

But second, we were giving them the chance to participate with us. Private companies, US private companies cannot participate in Mexican oil. Imagine that. And Mexican is a political ally of the US, and you have signed a treaty, a free trade agreement, with Mexico. But US companies could not participate in Mexico, in Saudi Arabia and in many other countries.

So, on the one hand, in that law we reaffirm which has been a historical principle of Venezuela that the government should and the state should control the natural resources and we have to have the majority. But also, we gave chances to private capital, national and international, to participate, and this is what we have been doing. First, we changed the service contract, and now we are taking the majority in the heavy oil projects in the Faja. We have been talking to the companies. We have been — me, personally — have been talking to all of them. They have to decide whether they should stay or not. We hope that most of them will stay, if not all, because we are giving them the chance to access the Venezuelan reserves. So this May 1 is the last — let’s say the last phase of a policy of recovering the control of natural resources in Venezuela that we started in the year 2000.

AMY GOODMAN: Looking at ExxonMobil, the New York Times piece goes on to, well, first quote Michael Economides, an oil consultant in Houston, who said, “We are on a collision course with Chavez over oil.” He compared Chavez’s populist appeal in Latin America with the pan-Arabism of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya two decades ago, saying, “Chavez poses a much bigger threat to America’s energy security than Saddam Hussein ever did.”

And then, the article says, “Consider the quandary facing Exxon Mobil after its chairman, Rex W. Tillerson, recently suggested that Exxon might be forced to abandon a major Venezuelan oil project because of its growing troubles with Mr. Chavez. The energy world took notice. So did Mr. Chavez’s government. Only a day later, Venezuelan agents raided Exxon’s offices here in the San Ignacio towers, a bastion for this country’s business elite. The government said that the raid was part of a tax investigation, but energy analysts said the exchange of threat and counterthreat was all too clear.”

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: He’s very — it’s funny that the person that wrote this article, that we know, he didn’t talk to me, for example, because he has taken the second sources, and analysts — you know, in today’s world “analyst” could mean anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Simon Romero and Clifford Krauss were the authors of the piece.

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Yes. And I know. We have talked to him. And apparently it’s because they want to create — I don’t know what they want to create in May 1.

Let me tell you, this is not the perception we have with companies. We are working with them. We are negotiating with them. We did a very successful negotiation process with thirty-two companies, in which we changed the old service contract, a new — mixed companies with majority of the government. Most of the companies — all, except one — did participate, and we are now in a process of arbitr– negotiation process with the only one company that did not want to participate.

We have been compensating companies for fair compensation when we have a goal for a process of increasing the state participation. It’s no doubt that we are going to talk to all companies, and if they have to lose part of the participation, they will be compensated. We have the US companies. They might have, some of them, less participation, but we have companies from all over the world participating with us. We have democratized the participation in the Venezuelan reserves. So this is a completely different picture. They want to create a problem, when there is not a problem. There is an adjustment to a policy that has been clearly expressed by Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Alvarez, we don’t have much time, and I wanted to switch to another issue. I wanted to play for you an excerpt of a conversation that I had earlier this year. The Venezuelan National Assembly agreed to President Chavez’s request that he be allowed to rule by decree in some areas for the next eighteen months. The decision has been criticized as undemocratic by some of Chavez’s opponents. I recently interviewed one critic named Francisco Rodriguez. He teaches at Wesleyan University and is a former chief economist of the Venezuela National Assembly. This is what he had to say, and then I’d like your response.

    FRANCISCO RODRIGUEZ: This figure of enabling law, the law that enables the president to rule by decree, has been used previously in Venezuela, but in the past it used to be very well circumscribed to specific areas of legislation, such as during the debt crisis. The president was granted authority to legislate on particular economic issues. But now what we’re seeing is an enabling law that will allow President Chavez to rule by decree in just about every area of the Venezuelan economy and society. It’s couched in very vague terms, such as social and economic rights transforming state institutions. For the first time in history, the president will have the right to rewrite organic laws, which are laws of constitutional rank, which generally would take a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to change them, but now he will be allowed to do that by decree. So we are seeing a lot of power put in the hands of the president, and we’re seeing something very close to the end of any type of separation of power in Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Alvarez, your response?

BERNARDO ALVAREZ HERRERA: Well, look, as he said, we have been using that in the past. Secondly, we have granted — the National Assembly has granted that special powers to president for twelve — eighteen months. In our constitutional tradition, you give that and you have to have a frame, a time frame, for that. And we have to go to certain areas — social, economics — and, as he said, we are now including a lot of areas.

But one thing which is important is we cannot, in all — according to our constitution, rights, principle, have to be guaranteed. So we cannot discuss, for example, private property. We cannot legislate on one of the principle of the constitution. This is one thing.

And one thing that he is missing, which is the key of all that, is, in the new constitution, there is a possibilities of popular referendum, meaning that if the National Assembly pass a law, and sectors of society, they don’t like that law, although it’s legal, they can go and only with 5% of signatures of registered voters they can go and ask for a national popular referendum. And if they win that national popular referendum, that specific law that was passed during this period should be cancelled.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Alvarez, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you very much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Bernardo Alvarez Herrera is the ambassador from Venezuela to the United States.

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