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The unmaking of a coup

Those who sought to depose the Venezuelan president thought they had it figured out. They were wrong.

By DAVID ADAMS and PHIL GUNSON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 22, 2002


CARACAS, Venezuela -- The shooting hadn't started yet and there was still a feeling of fiesta in the air.

A sea of people flowed through the capital. It was Thursday, April 11, and hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were marching in opposition to the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Amid the throng, union leader and Chavez opponent Carlos Ortega was marvelling at the massive turnout when his cellphone rang.

On the line was Gen. Lucas Rincon, chief of Venezuela's armed forces.

They spoke briefly, a witness says. Then Ortega turned to those around him and said, using a profane epithet to refer to Rincon, "He says we've won! ... It's all over."

But it was only beginning.

Over the next 48 hours the political pendulum would swing one way, then the other. The two days would be punctuated by gunfire, frantic phone calls, political double-cross and military maneuvering.

Rival conspiracies, with vastly different agendas, would collide and dissolve.

And Chavez, a firebrand former paratroop commander who was elected as a national savior barely three years earlier, would be unceremoniously deposed, only to rise from the ashes.

* * *

The catalyst of the April 11 demonstration was Chavez's recent move to take control of the autonomous state oil company. But activists seeking to oust Chavez had been meeting in secret for months.

A simple strategy had emerged from the meetings, which involved people close to Ortega and representatives of a broad spectrum of Venezuelan society.

"Our job was to heat things up," said one of the conspirators who, fearing reprisals, asked that his name not be published. "We believed we had to put pressure on Chavez by bringing people out onto the street. That was the only way to fracture the government and create a constitutional way out of the crisis."

Now the plan was unfolding, and the anti-Chavez crowd was in a buoyant mood. After three years of being dismissed by the president as a "squalid" minority, they owned the streets of Caracas. And, despite an announced plan to march on the oil company, some in the crowd wanted more.

"Miraflores, Miraflores," they yelled, referring to the capital's 19th century presidential palace.

Standing near Ortega was independent political consultant Jose Ricardo Thomas. For the rest of the afternoon Thomas stuck by Ortega's side, scribbling notes on a newspaper.

"I didn't want to miss any of this," he said later, as he pieced together his notes. "Anyone could tell it was going to be a historic day."

Ortega would later confirm much of Thomas' account, though he disputed the salty language that Thomas wrote.

* * *

Needing a place to consider their options, Ortega and the others -- Thomas included -- leapt on motorbikes and sped off to the nearby offices of the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), of which Ortega is secretary-general.

Soon after they arrived, the phone rang again. This time, Gen. Rincon wanted Ortega to come to his military headquarters at Fort Tiuna, on the outskirts of Caracas.

Suspecting a trap, Ortega asked for time to contact his people. The general wanted to know where he was. Ortega hung up. Turning to the others in the room, he said, "Do you think I'm going to tell him where I am? F--- that. They'll arrest us all."

Ortega's people decided they weren't safe in their offices and decamped to the nearby Coliseo Hotel. Ortega put in a call to Pedro Carmona, head of the private sector business group, Fedecamaras.

Since late last year, Carmona and Ortega had led the opposition's united front. Their contrasting backgrounds complemented each other. A diminutive and unassuming businessman, Carmona was highly regarded among the country's elite. Ortega, a burly former oil worker, had defeated Chavez's hand-picked candidate as chief of the CTV in October.

Ortega told Carmona they had to meet. Before that could happen, news of the shooting came.

As the march had neared the palace, bullets began to fly. Witnesses reported seeing snipers with rifles on the roofs of several government buildings. By the end of it, 17 people, mostly anti-Chavez marchers, were dead. As many as 140 were injured.

At the hotel, Ortega's phone rang again. This time he reacted angrily.

"You have the historic opportunity of being a hero for the nation," he told Gen. Rincon. "I haven't got guns or a uniform to stop this bloody barbarity. You're the general. It's up to you."

After the call, Ortega sat back in his chair and took a long drag on a Belmont cigarette. "I was pretty tough on him, eh?" he told the others. "S---, I'm giving the orders." Everyone laughed.

The mood changed when TV coverage of the march was interrupted by Chavez making a national address from the palace. He didn't look as though he was about to give up power. Everything was under control, Chavez insisted.

By now more uncertain than ever about the way things were going, Ortega and the group decided to keep moving. Thomas, the political consultant, offered to take them to the house of a friend in la Floresta, a leafy middle-class neighborhood in the capital.

In a fourth and apparently final conversation with Rincon, the union boss was livid.

"Grab (him) and end this butchery," he said, referring to the president.

Half an hour after they got to la Floresta, Carmona arrived in a taxi from the march.

The two leaders sat down by themselves. Exactly what was said, only they know. Thomas recalls overhearing talk of creating a junta. Ortega and his advisers deny using that word.

But the idea of a junta had been discussed for months, said a participant in the secret meetings. It would consist of nine people: four military officers -- army, navy, air force and National Guard -- and five civilians.

Neither Carmona nor Ortega were to be members. It was felt they could do more good in their current positions.

Around 5:30 p.m., Carmona, Ortega and three others piled into a tiny Chevrolet Corsa. They headed for the studios of Venevision, one of the country's leading television stations.

There they would find many of their opposition colleagues, lining up to be interviewed. The mood was upbeat.

Things didn't appear to be going Chavez's way after all. A string of military officers, including a National Guard commander and the deputy interior minister, had come out against the president.

It wouldn't be long before army chief of staff Gen. Efrain Vasquez would follow.

* * *

The news of Chavez's resignation came from the presidential palace after 3 a.m. Friday. Rincon made the announcement, though Chavez would later deny having resigned.

Ortega and Carmona were at the TV station, where they'd been off and on throughout the night. Ortega said he was going to get some rest.

"Everyone was tired," recalled CTV political consultant Miguel Manrique. "That's when the problems started."

Ortega left for a friend's house. Carmona said he would be at the Four Seasons hotel.

When Ortega checked the TV about two hours later he was shocked to see Carmona, surrounded by military officers, announcing he was taking charge.

"When he saw that, he was upset," Manrique said.

Later Friday morning, Ortega and the CTV heads met Carmona at the palace to express their concerns. They insisted on broad-based civilian participation in the new government. Shortly after, Ortega left the city. Saying he felt unwell, he flew to his hometown of Coro, 200 miles west of the capital.

For several hours, Ortega shut himself away with his family, taking calls only from his closest friends and allies.

"This all died for me," he told Manrique when the two next spoke. "The fat cats hijacked it. But that gentleman (Carmona) will fall."

* * *

Exactly what happened in the early hours of Friday morning remains something of a mystery. Instead of turning in at the Four Seasons, Carmona had gone to the military headquarters, Fort Tiuna, where he was accompanied by a group of heavily armed civilians, Venezuelan press reported.

Some of their faces, and weapons, could be seen behind Carmona when he made his TV appearance. They have since been identified as bodyguards belonging to Isaac Perez Recao, a wealthy businessman and reputed arms dealer.

Detailed reports in the Venezuelan press say Perez Recao had been plotting a coup for more than four months. No denials have been issued since the story appeared Tuesday.

The Perez Recao family is a majority shareholder in a petro-chemical firm, Venoco. For many years, Carmona was Venoco's chief executive.

"We believe Carmona was kidnapped by a highly conservative sector of the business community," said Lt. Col. Wilmer Castro, a former air force officer who helped restore Chavez to power.

"They put a Praetorian Guard around him. It was a gorilla coup."

Carmona, under house arrest by the restored Chavez government, has denied he was involved in a conspiracy. Interviewed by local media, he asked forgiveness for his errors.

"I did it in good faith," he said, downplaying the alleged role of Perez Recao.

"It's totally false that I served as a vehicle or instrument of anyone."

Only 32 years old, Perez Recao is regarded in Venezuelan business circles as a man to be feared. Lt. Col. Castro, who runs the government airline, Avensa, described him as a "Rambo businessman, a yuppie with guns."

Castro and others say the Perez Recao group comprised a strange mix of conservative businessmen, lawyers and military officers with otherwise distinguished records.

That was evident on Friday afternoon when officials began arriving for Carmona's swearing-in as interim president.

For the first time in the past three years, the faces in the basement media room of the Miraflores palace were almost exclusively white, the suits Armani, the accents those of the Country Club district of Caracas.

Gone was the multicolored, multiclass alliance of hundreds of thousands of marchers that had marched peacefully on the palace, to be met with rocks, tear gas and bullets. After a minute's silence for the 17 dead, the would-be government got on with business.

That was no less than the dismantling of Chavez's controversial "revolution." Out went the 48 laws, proclaimed in November, that lay at the heart of the ousted president's populist political and economic project. Out went the 165-seat national assembly, democratically elected less than two years earlier.

As the decrees were read aloud, the social elite of Caracas could not contain the glee. "Democracia! Democracia," they shouted, as the de facto government closed down the country's congress.

"It was the arrogance of the bourgeoisie," opposition congressman Pastor Heydra said. "These people feel they own the country, and were scared they were going to lose it all."

Meanwhile, the labor leaders and civil rights activists -- stunned at a turn of events that none of them had foreseen -- faded quietly away. Their dream of a constitutional transition to a post-Chavez era had died.

Of church leaders, only the country's Roman Catholic cardinal, Ignacio Velasco, sat beaming as Carmona swore himself in, flanked by a double row of generals and admirals. In Heydra's view, "He turned himself into a dictator."

As to who was pulling the strings, no one outside the inner circle could tell. "Carmona is a fiction. He doesn't exist," political columnist Manuel Felipe Sierra said. But if the president wasn't the boss, who was?

There was little time to find out. The interim government's life was brief and marred by key errors. As Heydra put it, "When you leave in the hands of amateurs things that should be left to professionals, these are the kind of mistakes that get made."

Mistakes, for example, like ordering illegal raids on the leaders of the newly ousted Chavez movement and their families. Or abandoning the project for a nine-member junta with representatives not just from the military but the media, church, unions, "'civil society" and political parties.

Other errors included failure to replace the palace guard -- handpicked Chavez loyalists -- or secure the streets around Miraflores. "The first thing you do in the ABC of coups," Heydra said, "is order a curfew."

* * *

The new regime began to come apart almost before the ink was dry on its first set of proclamations. The trouble began an hour down the freeway west of Caracas, in the country's fourth-largest city, Maracay.

A military complex in Maracay controls the country's strategic heart. It was from here that Hugo Chavez launched his unsuccessful coup in 1992. The complex includes the Libertador air base, home to the country's aging fleet of F-16 fighter-bombers.

The Parachute Brigade was under the command of Gen. Raul Baduel. "Baduel is a super-Chavez," journalist Sierra said.

Baduel had been part of the 1992 coup. Now he was to play a crucial part in foiling Chavez's downfall.

On Saturday morning, Baduel proclaimed himself in rebellion against the interim government. He gathered a cluster of like-minded active and retired officers who had come to Maracay. As the day wore on, and the situation in the capital deteriorated, pro-Chavez demonstrators swarmed around the base -- 10,000 to 15,000 by mid afternoon.

The regional TV channel was also loyal to the ousted president. Said Sierra, "Maracay was a chavista fiesta."

Baduel is reported to have had his personal differences with Chavez. According to a friend, architect Nedo Paniz, Baduel rebelled against Carmona, "not on behalf of Chavez, but against all that had gone on" since the provisional government was sworn in.

A devotee of the Taoist way of life, Baduel is described by Paniz as, "a strange guy. ... He's very thoughtful, philosophical. He reacted against what he saw was happening -- how this was all being manipulated by a tight-knit mafia."

Anti-Chavez plotters say they had always had the general marked down as a "neutral" in their coup plans. But his role was to be crucial in the restoration. Those who flocked to support him included several former military men who had fallen out of favor with the government, but who would now win back their place in the comandante's good graces.

Among their first moves was to organize the sabotage of the country's fleet of 12 Super-Puma helicopter gunships. Batteries were removed from the engines and placed in a safe. A team was dispatched to disable the undercarriage of the presidential plane -- a Boeing 737 -- on the runway at a Caracas airport.

"We weren't going to let them fly Chavez out of the country" Castro said.

In the end, he never left. After being removed from the presidential palace, Chavez was placed under armed guard at Fort Tiuna. He was later transported to a small military base on the coast at Turiamo and then flown to the island of Orchila in the Caribbean.

It was there that he was rescued by commandos from Maracay in the early hours of Sunday morning.

By then, Carmona had fled the palace.

The precise whereabouts of Perez Recao are not known. He reportedly left the palace by private helicopter. It is widely rumored in Venezuela that he later flew to Miami.

-- David Adams is the Times' Latin America Correspondent. Phil Gunson is a Times correspondent based in Caracas.

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