The Coup That Keeps On Ticking: The Murder of Danilo Anderson

The November 18 car bombing of Danilo Anderson in Caracas was reminiscent of another car bombing, in another era. In 1976, former member of Salvador Allende's Socialist government Orlando Letelier died when is car exploded in Washington, D.C. Anderson, like Letelier, had information on coup plotters, those who tried to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April 2002. Neither Anderson's nor Letelier's assassination required Sherlock Homes to guide police in their hunt.

The November 18 car bombing of Danilo Anderson in Caracas brought back vivid memories. When I read that two explosions tore through the Venezuelan prosecutor’s SUV, I flashed back 28 years to a traumatic event in my life.

I met Orlando Letelier in 1971 when he served as President Allende’s Ambassador in Washington. In 1972, he joined Allende’s Cabinet until his arrest on September 11, 1973. Defense Minister Letelier knew General Augusto Pinochet, who led the coup that day and ordered Letelier’s guards to arrest him. “An obsequious and untrustworthy man,” Letelier described Pinochet, “the guy who earns tips in the barber shop by helping you into your jacket and brushing off the hair.”

I didn’t know Anderson. But like Letelier, he had information on coup plotters, those who tried to oust Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in April 2002. Neither Anderson’s nor Letelier’s assassination required Sherlock Homes to guide police in their hunt.

Letelier in exile represented elected and recognized government. For Pinochet, the illegitimate coup maker, Letelier loomed as commander of a massive exile army, not as a single individual trying to educate Congress and the public about massive human rights violations in Chile.

After the Letelier assassination, the CIA tried to cover up the hit to protect their illegitimate progeny. But an informant told FBI Bureau agents that a Chilean secret police official had contracted with a New Jersey based anti-Castro gang to kill Letelier. The Cubans detonated a car bomb by remote control, similar to the technique that killed Anderson 28 years later.

The Anderson assassins must have had “experience” in building such devices, a retired FBI agent told me. Indeed, Venezuelan Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacon declared that the whackers used military-grade C-4 plastic explosives and a remote control device. The explosions broke windows in nearby buildings.

I remember on September 21, 1976 the FBI vacuuming the broken glass on Embassy Row’s Sheridan Circle, after the bomb ripped through Letelier’s car. “These people are pros,” an FBI agent commented.

The FBI arrested two of the Letelier-Moffitt killers, years after the murder. They pled guilty, got twelve years, served seven and got paroled. The INS then re-arrested them as undesirables, but in August 2001 George W. Bush insisted ­ over strong objection from the INS and FBI — that these “Cuban patriots” deserved to return to civilian life in Florida.

Good terrorists receive US hospitality. Bad terrorists, those with Arab names, feel the wrath of US bombers, troops and prison guards at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, whether or not they did anything criminal.

Ironically, the prissy John Ashcroft ordered the arrest and confinement of thousands of innocent people. They did not know the nature of the charges against them, much less have access to an attorney. Yet, Ashcroft refused to sign the indictment of Pinochet, the initiator of the 1976 car bombing in Washington. If doubts existed, prosecutors and FBI investigators said publicly: it was “inconceivable” that the Letelier assassination could have occurred without Pinochet’s authorization. A US intelligence memo cites Pinochet boasting in 1981 that “There is not a leaf in this country which I do not move.”

High level hits occur when high level officials authorize them. Who wanted Anderson eliminated? Anderson’s investigative portfolio included some 400 individuals who during the coup signed a declaration supporting self-proclaimed President Pedro Carmona, the President of the Chamber of Commerce. Chavez’s opponents charged that Anderson’s probe amounted to political persecution. The prosecutor’s office pointed to the 19 people who had died and the 300 wounded during the coup: criminal acts. The culprit list included former Caracas Mayor Alfredo Pena, still in hiding, and some 60 military officers who both participated in the coup and in last year’s Caracas bombings of the Colombian Consulate and the Spanish Embassy.

Anderson apparently had also developed a case that linked US agencies to the coup. Otto Reich, then Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, had met repeatedly with the coup plotters before their failed attempt to oust Chavez as had Elliot Abrams, of the National Security Council. Like Reich, Abrams led the ideological charge in the 1980s “dirty wars,” in which US policy became linked to Central American death sq uads. The April 21, 2002 Observer, citing OAS sources, states that Abrams and Reich discussed the coup “in some detail, right down to its timing and chances of success, which were deemed to be excellent.”

Reich had invited opponents of Chavez to the White House, including Carmona, who later installed himself as head of a junta. General Lucas Romero Rincon, head of the Venezuelan military, conferred with Pentagon officials in the pre coup months. In addition, anti-Chavez groups sponsored by National Endowment for Democracy (NED) agencies also traveled to Washington during the weeks before the coup. Last week, documents revealed that the CIA knew of the planned coup and did not inform the Chavez government. Shocking!

Anderson’s list included people who had received NED money. Congress funds NED to promote democracy; thus, Carl Gershman, NED chief, declared that his organization only promoted democracy in Venezuela. How plotting military coups fell within NED’s view of democracy remained a mystery. Anderson also probed bank accounts of NED conduits to see if the US agency had actually bankrolled coup plotters.

The April coup provoked Reich to call a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean ambassadors. Chavez’s ouster, he informed them, didn’t signify a break of democratic rule. Since Chavez had supposedly resigned, he was therefore “responsible for his fate.” Reich offered immediate support for the Carmona government. He never inquired about why the elected Vice President didn’t assume power, which he should have under Venezuela’s constitution if the president resigned.

Reich could not cover the “backed by Washington” label on the Caracas coup. Chavez himself mentioned that an airplane with US registration numbers had parked at one of the locations to which his captors brought him during the coup. White House spokesman at the time, Ari Fleischer, “did not know” whether Washington had provided a plane to fly the Venezuelan President into exile.

Even after the failed coup, Washington turned a blind eye to Venezuelans training in Florida for the express purposes of invading their country and assassinating Chavez. The United States refused to extradite three officers subpoenaed by Venezuelan courts to answer charges of having plotted terrorist bombings.

Amateur sleuths will conclude from this that the list of probable assassins of Danilo Anderson should include those who initiated the coup and their allies in Washington, especially those ring leaders who feared that the prosecutor had enough evidence to convict them. Venezuelan officials implicitly cast the blame net abroad.

Venezuelan authorities displayed a video tape played on Miami TV of “Commando F4,” Venezuelans and anti-Castro Cubans training with guns in the Everglades. Retired Captain Luis García of Venezuela’s National Guard pledged to return to his country with a “violent solution.”

Another tape showed Orlando Urdaneta, a former Venezuelan TV personality involved in the coup, boasting to a Miami Channel 41 that “Venezuela’s problems could be resolved by means of a rifle with a telescopic sight and good aim.”

Venezuelan Information Minister Andres Izarra declared: “We want the government of the United States to explain how it is that these terrorist groups that act with total freedom in Florida … make these statements through the media under the government’s nose.”

“Chavez must die like a dog, because he deserves it,” said two time Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez in a July 25, 2004 interview published in El Nacional, a Venezuelan daily. “I am working to remove Chavez [from power],” Perez continued. “Violence will allow us to remove him.”

Such language should have drawn a rebuke, but instead the Bush government, which admitted that it knew about the coup plans and did not inform President Chavez, simply reiterated its commitment to democracy. Few editorials challenged the contradiction between commitment to democracy and backing a coup against an elected president who won overwhelmingly in 1998. Indeed, after the coup failed, the Chavez opposition demanded a referendum. Chavez won 58% in August 2004.

Washington has relied on obedient governments in Latin America for decades of Gunboat Diplomacy, Dollar Diplomacy and Good Neighbor Policies. No matter the nomenclature, the United States continued to extract wealth from Latin America. After World War II, Washington unfurled the ideological Cold War banner. The CIA used the anti-communist epic as a pretext to engage military and civilian thugs to knock off disobedient governments. These “contract agents” in a US supported coup in Guatemala in 1954 proceeded to slaughter more than 100,000 mostly Indian peasants. In 1964, the US backed a military coup in Brazil to replace an elected government. In Chile, with a US green light, tanks fired cannons and military jets fired rockets into the presidential palace of President Salvador Allende.

When the Cold War umbrella collapsed as the Soviet Union imploded, Washington erected a new heroic rationale for its eternally innocent intervention: terrorism. Anderson’s corpse adds to the immense pile of the dead in Washington’s quest to bring democracy in Latin America by thwarting all efforts at democracy.

Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America