Oliver Stone’s new documentary, South of the Border, documents a little-known but crucially significant factor in U.S.-Venezuelan relations: the United States’ involvement in the short-lived 2002 coup d’etat that forced Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez from office for two days. Declassified CIA and other U.S. government documents that show the U.S. funded groups involved in the coup, and attempted to help the coup succeed. As the film points out, this is crucial information to understand the tense relationship that the Venezuelan government has had with the U.S. government ever since.
A U.S. State Department document shown in the film states:
…it is clear that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.
Declassified CIA documents from March and early April 2002 show that the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the coup and even some idea of how it would happen: “Dissident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month. . . . To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company.”
Despite this advance knowledge of the coup, after Chavez was ousted, then-White House spokesman Ari Fleischer claimed that Chavez’s departure was not the result of a coup,: “We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. … President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed.”
The film also breaks new ground with an interview with then- Washington Post foreign editor Scott Wilson, who describes the U.S. involvement in the coup. This is significant, as this story was never told previously in the Post. Wilson says:
Yes, the United States was hosting, people involved in the coup before it happened. There was involvement of U.S.-sponsored NGOs in training some of the people that were involved in the coup. And in the immediate aftermath of the coup, the United States government said that it was a resignation, not a coup, effectively recognizing the government that took office very briefly until President Chavez returned.
A rarely-seen post-coup CIA document from April 17, 2002 describes a “U.S. backed initiative to send an OAS [Organization of American States] democracy mission to Venezuela…” described later on as “OAS efforts that might legitimize the coup plotters” and “an OAS mission to constrain his [Chávez’s] ability to retaliate against his foreign or domestic opponents.”
The film also documents the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) pledge of support for the coup government the day after Chavez was forced from office. In a video recording of an IMF press briefing on the IMF’s website, and included in the film, then-IMF spokesperson Thomas Dawson stated, regarding the IMF’s position on the coup: “I hope that this, these discussions could continue with the new administration [of coup leader Pedro Carmona] and we stand ready to assist the new administration in whatever matter they find suitable.” The IMF video is also notable because Dawson clearly seems to have been reading from a prepared statement. This indicates that the decision was made by the directors of the Fund, which in this hemisphere would need approval from the U.S. Treasury Department.
Additionally, according to Jorge Castañeda, then-Mexico’s foreign minister, the U.S. engaged in other efforts to have the coup government recognized: “Effectively, there was a proposition made by the United States and Spain, to issue a declaration with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and France recognizing the government of [coup president] Pedro Carmona.” (AFP, November 28, 2004). As Castañeda has demonstrated repeatedly, through written opinion pieces and other fora, that he is critical of Chavez, he is a credible witness for this statement.
Images of the actual declassified CIA documents, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request made by Jeremy Bigwood to the CIA in November, 2003, follow:
This document, from March 5, 2002, describes growing opposition to Chávez in sectors including within factions in the Venezuelan military, but suggests that "A successful coup would be difficult to mount." Context surrounding this statement is redacted.
This document shows that as early as March 11, 2002 - a full month before the coup - the CIA was aware of the real possibility of a coup. The document notes "the military may move to overthrow him [Chávez]."
In this April 1, 2002 document, the CIA uses the word "coup" to describe plans within factions of the Venezuelan military: "Reporting suggests that disgruntled officers within the military are still planning a coup, possibly early this month."
This document, from April 6, 2002, reveals that the CIA had advanced detailed knowledge of the coup plot several days before the coup. Yet the U.S. government did nothing to warn Venezuela's democratically elected government of the threat.
The document states:
Dissident military factions, including some 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... To provoke military action, the plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA...
This April 8 document also reveals the U.S.' advance knowledge: April 8:, "Disgruntled military officers are planning a coup..."
This document describes actions by supporters of President Chávez and the elected government to return Chávez to power.
This post-coup document, from April 17, 2002, describes a "U.S. backed initiative to send an OAS democracy mission to Venezuela..." described later on as "OAS efforts that might legitimize the coup plotters" and "an OAS mission to constrain his [Chávez's] ability to retaliate against his foreign or domestic opponents." (The inclusion of the word "foreign" here is very interesting. While the document then specifically points to Colombia as a foreign government that supported the coup government, the U.S. of course also supported the coup, and led diplomatic efforts to have the coup regime recognized internationally.)
The document also notes that "...Latin American governments will take a more jaundiced view of the US commitment to democracy following Chávez's brief ouster and Washington's perceived endorsement of the interim Carmona government." Indeed, this was probably true, and contributed to the U.S.' estrangement from Latin America - an estrangement that deepened considerably with the U.S.' tacit support for the coup in Honduras last year.