Last Friday, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez looked like a goner. News reports (see "International Papers") claimed he'd resigned the presidency at the "request" of high-ranking military officers. By early morning, a new interim president was installed—a business leader with roots in the oil industry—and "el Comandante" was in custody. But on the third day he rose again. On Sunday, after a countercoup, Chávez was back in the presidential palace delivering one of his trademark rambling speeches. What happened in Venezuela last weekend, and who was behind it all?
Many suggested that the Bush administration, the CIA, and/or the Pentagon were involved in orchestrating the anti-Chávez putsch. To be sure, he did nothing to endear himself to the U.S. government. In contrast to previous Venezuelan leaders, who pumped as much oil as they possibly could, Chávez followed OPEC oil-production limits to the letter. Skeptics couldn't help but note that the coup occurred the very week Saddam Hussein announced a unilateral suspension of Iraqi oil exports and when there were anti-American protests around the Middle East. (Oil prices fell on the news of Chávez's ouster and rebounded upon his return.) Washington hates the company Chávez keeps—he idolizes Fidel Castro; he has paid visits to his OPEC chums in Libya, Iraq, and Iran; he's more sympathetic to Colombia's leftist guerrillas than to the U.S.-backed drug war there; and last October he castigated the United States for killing civilians in Afghanistan.
Washington's response to events in Caracas damaged its reputation as an advocate of democracy—the administration made no protests about the abrupt removal of an elected leader, and bizarrely, after his reinstatement, U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice warned Chávez to "respect constitutional processes."
But did U.S. officials actively conspire to overthrow President Chávez? On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that senior U.S. officials met with opposition activists "several times in recent months" and agreed that a regime change was desirable. But although a Defense Department official told the paper, "We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy," the White House is adamant it didn't offer "any signal of support" to the opposition.
Several sources came forward with circumstantial suspicions. A columnist for Britain's Guardian reported that last year a "visiting Venezuelan" told her a coup was "in preparation, with the full support of senior figures in Washington." The Financial Times said it had received an e-mail a week before the coup attempt, "purportedly forwarded from a US official employed at the Pentagon, who had lunched with a senior Venezuelan military officer," detailing the events that would lead to Chávez's removal. (The prediction was accurate until the post-protest chaos, after which it took a more constitutional path than actual events.) Writing in Salon, Joshua Micah Marshall said that at a meeting with senior Latin American diplomats in Washington last Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich was in possession of suspiciously precise details about the circumstances of Chávez's removal. Some attendees believed Reich must have been in contact with conspirators because his "tortured" justifications for the overthrow "could only have been rationalized by the coup plotters themselves." And in a bizarre exchange on CNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews last Thursday, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who was in Mexico City, told the host he was pondering a trip to Venezuela: "[A] number of people were killed [in Caracas] today. And it looks like there may be a full-blown coup attempt against the dictator there. I've been involved in Venezuela."
A Cuban diplomat quoted in the official Havana daily Granma boiled the conspiracy theories down to their essence, declaring: "It is well known that in this part of the world, the coup d'état recipe always requires U.S. backing. Either coups are organized from there or they are sponsored and protected by the Yankees." But despite all the premonitions and parallels with CIA-sponsored coups in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), there's no concrete evidence. Then again, many years passed before the intelligence service admitted its involvement in those events.
Given how many blunders Pedro Carmona managed to squeeze into his 36 hours as president, it's understandable that Langley wants no credit. Within hours of taking office, Carmona launched an aggressive attack on the entire political apparatus—he dissolved the national legislature, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office, the national election commission, and even tried to dismiss governors, mayors, and town councils. His "unity" Cabinet excluded moderate opposition parties and labor unions, which had played a key role in organizing the general strikes that were reported to have crippled Caracas last week.
Authoritarian he may be, but since his failed coup attempts in 1992, Chávez has been ballot-box crazy. Venezuela's voters went to the polls six times between December 1998 and December 2000 as Chávez sought electoral approval for his constitutional reforms. (Business Week once declared, "The former paratrooper's weapon of choice is not the rifle but the referendum.") So, Carmona's anti-democratic tendencies spooked Venezuelans—according to Britain's Independent people quickly decided, "[T]he cure was worse than the sickness."
When the army's commander in chief discovered that Carmona had disbanded parliament, he threatened to withdraw his support. Carmona recanted, but by then the army had lost faith in him. According to the Wall Street Journal, army brass was miffed that Carmona chose a naval officer to be his defense minister, and the Financial Times reported that while some officers from the national guard, air force, and navy supported the new regime, the army was generally loyal to Chávez. There were also reports that presidential guards were offended by Carmona's coziness with the media barons he gleefully received at the presidential palace even before his ministers had been sworn in. As soon as they saw Carmona in action, the army regretted their part in Chávez's removal.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was underestimating Chávez's popularity. Although his core constituency, the 80 percent of Venezuelans who live in poverty, may be tiring of his "Bolivarian revolution," Chávez is preferred over any figure from the Venezuelan elite. Chávez supporters became enraged when they realized their demonstrations were receiving zero media coverage. As the street protests turned violent, with police firing on demonstrators, and the armed forces gradually reasserted their commitment to Chávez, Carmona realized his administration was doomed, and he resigned. Reinstated, Chávez claimed that the media had misrepresented the events that led to his removal.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.
Photograph of Hugo Chávez by Ho/Reuters.