December 3, 2004
Documents Show C.I.A. Knew of a Coup Plot in Venezuela
OGOTÁ, Colombia, Dec. 2 - The Central Intelligence Agency was aware that dissident military officers and opposition figures in Venezuela were planning a coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, newly declassified intelligence documents show. But immediately after the overthrow, the Bush administration blamed Mr. Chávez, a left-leaning populist, for his own downfall and denied knowing about the threats.
Long irritated by Mr. Chávez's ties to Fidel Castro and his blistering anti-American attacks, the Bush administration provided the Venezuelan government in Caracas with few hard details of the looming plot, although American officials say they broadly talked to Mr. Chávez about opposition plans.
Mr. Chávez was removed from power on April 12, 2002, after 18 people died in a spate of gunfire during a huge antigovernment protest. Taken into custody by dissident military officers, Mr. Chávez was spirited out of Caracas while an interim government led by Pedro Carmona, a Caracas businessman, took power.
The new government dissolved Congress and the Supreme Court and hunted down Mr. Chávez's ministers. But Mr. Chávez returned to power on April 14, riding the crest of a popular uprising against the coup plotters.
In a senior intelligence executive brief dated April 6 - one of several documents obtained by Jeremy Bigwood, a freelance investigative reporter in Washington and posted on at www.venezuelafoia.info/, a pro- Chávez Web site - the C.I.A. said that "disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chávez, possibly as early as this month." Those intelligence briefs are typically read by as many as 200 officials in the Bush administration.
The same brief said the plot would single out Mr. Chávez and 10 senior
officials for arrest. It went on to say that the plotters would try to
"exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later
this month" or from strikes staged by white-collar workers at the state
oil company. Two days later, another brief stated flatly: "Disgruntled
The documents do not show that the United States backed the coup, as Mr. Chávez has charged. Instead, the documents show that American officials issued "repeated warnings that the United States will not support any extraconstitutional moves to oust Chávez."
In interviews with The New York Times and other news organizations in the days after the coup, administration officials vigorously denied having had advance knowledge of plans to oust Mr. Chávez, whom they blamed for the uprising.
Hours after Mr. Chávez was overthrown, Ari Fleischer, then the White House spokesman, said, "the Chávez government provoked the crisis," while Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said that "undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chávez administration provoked yesterday's crisis."
State Department officials interviewed Wednesday stressed that the United States repeatedly warned opposition leaders against trying to remove Mr. Chávez through unconstitutional means. They also said that a senior American diplomat met with Mr. Chávez a week before the coup and warned him of the plot.
"I did say to him, there are all these rumors of coup plotting, which we were very concerned about, and he almost dismissed them," the diplomat, who asked not to be named, said in an interview from Washington. "He was dismissive of that, as if it were no big thing."
But questions remain over how much the United States told Mr. Chávez. A 95-page report produced after the coup by the State Department's inspector general on the American role during the Venezuelan crisis devoted only one sentence to warnings the United States made to Mr. Chávez about a possible plot.
The C.I.A. said that its role was not to provide information to the Venezuelans. Speaking by phone from Washington, a spokeswoman said the agency's responsibility was to ascertain what was transpiring in Venezuela, make an educated prediction on what could happen and then pass the information to the State Department.
When violence erupted on April 11, antigovernment television stations blamed Mr. Chávez, and military officers announced that they were withdrawing support for the president. It has since become clear that supporters of both the government and the opposition were responsible for the violence, but chaos reigned in the hours after the shootings.
"You add all that together and it certainly appeared that the government had used excessive force," said the senior American diplomat, explaining Washington's tough reaction toward Mr. Chávez.