Did Venezuela’s Opposition Meet with US Officials in Puerto Rico?

If the allegations are proven that opposition leaders met with U.S. government officials, then the opposition will once again find itself on the defensive, trying to disprove that their funding and strategy are not "Made in U.S.A."

Even by Venezuelan standards, the
story seemed implausible. On January 9, a young reporter Pedro
Carvajalino, from community television station Ávila TV, filmed four
leading figures of Venezuela's right-wing opposition returning from
Puerto Rico. They had just arrived by private jet from the U.S.
territory, where they had purportedly met with representatives of the
U.S. Department of State.

According to emails obtained by the reporter, officials held the
meeting to plan strategy and secure funding aimed at defeating a
proposed amendment to the Venezuelan constitution that would allow
elected officials, including President Hugo Chávez, to seek reelection.

The story first broke on Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), a
government television channel. The brewing scandal has quickly become a
centerpiece of a debate over U.S. interference in the internal affairs
of the country as it prepares to vote on the re-election referendum in

Visibly surprised by Carvajalino's presence, the four individuals
included three members of opposition parties: Jorge Borges a leader of
Primero Justicia; Luis Planas, Secretary General of the Christian
Democratic Party (COPEI); and Emilio Barboza, President of Un Nuevo
Tiempo. The fourth was Alberto Federico Ravell, the director of
Globovisión, a more strident local version of Fox News in Venezuela.
Globovisión's editorial line and 24-hour programming are vehemently
opposed to the Chávez government.

Ravell refused to give responses to Carvajalino's questions and then
proceeded to verbally spar with the young reporter who repeatedly asked
about the purpose of the trip to Puerto Rico. When Carvajalino labeled
Ravell a “palangrista” (a journalist who receives bribes in
exchange for published materials), the media mogul exploded and started
yelling obscenities at the reporter, threatening him physically and
reportedly blurting out homophobic comments. While this exchange
unfolded, the other three leading figures of the Venezuelan opposition
remained largely silent; one opted to take pictures with his cellular

During the VTV interview that broke the story, Carvajalino produced
an email allegedly from Ravell to Borges, Plana, Barboza, and another
opposition leader, Henry Ramos Allup from the Acción Democrática (AD)
party, who did not accompany the others on the trip. The email
supposedly shows the meeting had been in the works for some time and
was originally planned for Miami; though, it was subsequently moved to
Puerto Rico. Carvajalino has not disclosed how he obtained the email
and its authenticity remains a mystery.

Patrick Caulfield, the leading diplomat at the U.S. embassy in
Caracas had left for Puerto Rico a few days earlier. An embassy
spokesperson has confirmed that the Caulfield traveled to Puerto Rico,
but insists that he was there on unofficial business to attend a
wedding and take a few days of vacation.

According to Carvajalino, Ravell's email states “our friend from the
embassy will leave one day earlier.” It also makes reference to a group
of “advisors who have been working very hard these last few days" and
“will outline a strategic campaign with ideas about TV commercials,
events and speeches.” The email further states that they have “bounced
ideas with major league advisors in the United States … everything is
ready to confront this reform.” Finally, Ravell brings up the $3
million needed to pay for the campaign's costs, “which will have to be
shared by all.”

On Sunday, the mainstream print media paid scant attention to the
incident. This all changed, when Chávez on his first broadcast of Aló
Presidente for 2009, his regular Sunday show, decided to retransmit the
Ávila TV broadcast on cadena nacional, a nationwide transmission that all government-licensed media must carry.

The next day, Minister of Communication Jesse Chacón held a press
conference in which he confirmed the existence of Ravell's email and
said the government is collecting further information to ascertain if
US government officials have illegally intervened in the internal
affairs of Venezuelan.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has called on the
Minister of Foreign Relations to also investigate the matter. Jorge
Rodríguez, the PSUV Mayor of the Libertador district of Caracas has
insisted that Globovisión should register with the National Electoral
Commission as an opposition party.

Ravell has acknowledged the trip to Puerto Rico, but he insists the
purpose of the trip was to meet with Chileans leaders, who had helped
defeat Pinochet in a national referendum—a rather transparent effort to
cast Chávez as a dictator.

William Echeverría, president of the National Association of
Journalists, who has an early morning show on Globovisión, condemned
the young reporter's aggressive tactics and language, claiming that it
unduly incites passions. And Yon Goicoechea, a former “student leader”
and recipient of the right-wing Cato Institute's Milton Friedman award
for freedom who now serves as an advisor to Primero Justicia, also came
to Ravell’s defense.

Beyond the fact that Ravell, Borges, Barboza, and Planas all
traveled together to Puerto Rico, little more has been confirmed at
this point. However, if the allegations are proven, then the opposition
will once again find itself on the defensive, trying to disprove that
their funding and strategy are not "Made in U.S.A." Even just the
possibility of the charges being true is likely to stoke the fires of
the referendum battle, which already promises to be one of the most
heated elections in Venezuelan history.

The alleged US government link to the Puerto Rico meeting is
particularly sensitive given Washington's past financial support to the
Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy and
other analogous institutions. Domestically, the Puerto Rico meeting
undermines efforts by Un Nuevo Tiempo and Primero Justicia, parties to
distance themselves from the policies of AD and COPEI, which governed
Venezuela from 1958 through 1998. Finally, the meeting is one more bit
of evidence that corroborates allegations by the PSUV and other leftist
forces that the commercial mainstream media in Venezuela—especially
Globovisión—are simply an extension of the opposition.

Miguel Tinker Salas is a professor of History and Latin American
studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is co-author of
Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy and author of Under the Shadow of the Eagles. His new book, The Enduring Legacy, Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela will be published by Duke University press in the spring. Born in Venezuela, he holds Venezuelan and US citizenship.