[Marxism] NYTimes "Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan Officers"
jbustelo at gmail.com
Sat Sep 8 08:52:59 MDT 2018
Because the NYTimes is paywalled, I'm sending the whole article
>>Trump Administration Discussed Coup Plans With Rebel Venezuelan
The Trump administration held secret meetings with rebellious military
officers from Venezuela over the last year to discuss their plans to
overthrow President Nicolás Maduro, according to American officials and
a former Venezuelan military commander who participated in the talks.
Establishing a clandestine channel with coup plotters in Venezuela was a
big gamble for Washington, given its long history of covert intervention
across Latin America. Many in the region still deeply resent the United
States for backing previous rebellions, coups and plots in countries
like Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil and Chile, and for turning a blind eye to
the abuses military regimes committed during the Cold War.
The White House, which declined to answer detailed questions about the
talks, said in a statement that it was important to engage in “dialogue
with all Venezuelans who demonstrate a desire for democracy” in order to
“bring positive change to a country that has suffered so much under Maduro.”
But one of the Venezuelan military commanders involved in the secret
talks was hardly an ideal figure to help restore democracy: He is on the
American government’s own sanctions list of corrupt officials in Venezuela.
He and other members of the Venezuelan security apparatus have been
accused by Washington of a wide range of serious crimes, including
torturing critics, jailing hundreds of political prisoners, wounding
thousands of civilians, trafficking drugs and collaborating with the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which is considered a
terrorist organization by the United States.
American officials eventually decided not to help the plotters, and the
coup plans stalled. But the Trump administration’s willingness to meet
several times with mutinous officers intent on toppling a president in
the hemisphere could backfire politically.
Most Latin American leaders agree that Venezuela’s president, Mr.
Maduro, is an increasingly authoritarian ruler who has effectively
ruined his country’s economy, leading to extreme shortages of food and
medicine. The collapse has set off an exodus of desperate Venezuelans
who are spilling over borders, overwhelming their neighbors.
Even so, Mr. Maduro has long justified his grip on Venezuela by claiming
that Washington imperialists are actively trying to depose him, and the
secret talks could provide him with ammunition to chip away at the
region’s nearly united stance against him.
“This is going to land like a bomb” in the region, said Mari Carmen
Aponte, who served as the top diplomat overseeing Latin American affairs
in the final months of the Obama administration.
Beyond the coup plot, Mr. Maduro’s government has already fended off
several small-scale attacks, including salvos from a helicopter last
year and exploding drones as he gave a speech in August. The attacks
have added to the sense that the president is vulnerable.
Venezuelan military officials sought direct access to the American
government during Barack Obama’s presidency, only to be rebuffed,
Then in August of last year, President Trump declared that the United
States had a “military option” for Venezuela — a declaration that drew
condemnation from American allies in the region but encouraged
rebellious Venezuelan military officers to reach out to Washington once
“It was the commander in chief saying this now,” the former Venezuelan
commander on the sanctions list said in an interview, speaking on
condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals by the Venezuelan
government. “I’m not going to doubt it when this was the messenger.”
In a series of covert meetings abroad, which began last fall and
continued this year, the military officers told the American government
that they represented a few hundred members of the armed forces who had
soured on Mr. Maduro’s authoritarianism.
The officers asked the United States to supply them with encrypted
radios, citing the need to communicate securely, as they developed a
plan to install a transitional government to run the country until
elections could be held.
American officials did not provide material support, and the plans
unraveled after a recent crackdown that led to the arrest of dozens of
Relations between the United States and Venezuela have been strained for
years. The two have not exchanged ambassadors since 2010. After Mr.
Trump took office, his administration increased sanctions against top
Venezuelan officials, including Mr. Maduro himself, his vice president
and other top officials in the government.
The account of the clandestine meetings and the policy debates preceding
them is drawn from interviews with 11 current and former American
officials, as well as the former Venezuelan commander. He said at least
three distinct groups within the Venezuelan military had been plotting
against the Maduro government.
One established contact with the American government by approaching the
United States Embassy in a European capital. When this was reported back
to Washington, officials at the White House were intrigued but
apprehensive. They worried that the meeting request could be a ploy to
surreptitiously record an American official appearing to conspire
against the Venezuelan government, officials said.
But as the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela worsened last year, American
officials felt that having a clearer picture of the plans and the men
who aspired to oust Mr. Maduro was worth the risk.
“After a lot of discussion, we agreed we should listen to what they had
to say,” said a senior administration official who was not authorized to
speak about the secret talks.
The administration initially considered dispatching Juan Cruz, a veteran
Central Intelligence Agency official who recently stepped down as the
White House’s top Latin America policymaker. But White House lawyers
said it would be more prudent to send a career diplomat instead.
The American envoy was instructed to attend the meetings “purely on
listening mode,” and was not authorized to negotiate anything of
substance on the spot, according to the senior administration official.
After the first meeting, which took place in the fall of 2017, the
diplomat reported that the Venezuelans didn’t appear to have a detailed
plan and had showed up at the encounter hoping the Americans would offer
guidance or ideas, officials said.
The former Venezuelan commander said that the rebellious officers never
asked for an American military intervention. “I never agreed, nor did
they propose, to do a joint operation,” he said.
He claimed that he and his comrades considered striking last summer,
when the government suspended the powers of the legislature and
installed a new national assembly loyal to Mr. Maduro. But he said they
aborted the plan, fearing it would lead to bloodshed.
They later planned to take power in March, the former officer said, but
that plan leaked. Finally, the dissidents looked to the May 20 election,
during which Mr. Maduro was re-elected, as a new target date. But again,
word got out and the plotters held their fire.
It is unclear how many of these details the coup planners shared with
the Americans. But there is no indication that Mr. Maduro knew the
mutinous officers were talking to the Americans at all.
For any of the plots to have worked, the former commander said, he and
his comrades believed they needed to detain Mr. Maduro and other top
government figures simultaneously. To do that, he added, the rebel
officers needed a way to communicate securely. They made their request
during their second meeting with the American diplomat, which took place
The American diplomat relayed the request to Washington, where senior
officials turned it down, American officials said.
“We were frustrated,” said the former Venezuelan commander. “There was a
lack of follow-through. They left me waiting.”
The American diplomat then met the coup plotters a third time early this
year, but the discussions did not result in a promise of material aid or
even a clear signal that Washington endorsed the rebels’ plans,
according to the Venezuelan commander and several American officials.
Still, the Venezuelan plotters could view the meetings as tacit approval
of their plans, argued Peter Kornbluh, a historian at the National
Security Archive at George Washington University.
“The United States always has an interest in gathering intelligence on
potential changes of leadership in governments,” Mr. Kornbluh said. “But
the mere presence of a U.S. official at such a meeting would likely be
perceived as encouragement.”
In its statement, the White House called the situation in Venezuela “a
threat to regional security and democracy” and said that the Trump
administration would continue to strengthen a coalition of “like-minded,
and right-minded, partners from Europe to Asia to the Americas to
pressure the Maduro regime to restore democracy in Venezuela.”
American officials have openly discussed the possibility that
Venezuela’s military could take action.
On Feb. 1, Rex W. Tillerson, who was secretary of state at the time,
delivered a speech in which he said the United States had not “advocated
for regime change or removal of President Maduro.” Yet, responding to a
question afterward, Mr. Tillerson raised the potential for a military coup.
“When things are so bad that the military leadership realizes that it
just can’t serve the citizens anymore, they will manage a peaceful
transition,” he said.
Days later, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has sought to shape the
Trump administration’s approach toward Latin America, wrote a series of
Twitter posts that encouraged dissident members of the Venezuelan armed
forces to topple their commander in chief.
“Soldiers eat out of garbage cans & their families go hungry in
Venezuela while Maduro & friends live like kings & block humanitarian
aid,” Mr. Rubio wrote. He then added: “The world would support the Armed
Forces in #Venezuela if they decide to protect the people & restore
democracy by removing a dictator.”
In a speech in April, when he was still White House policy chief for
Latin America, Mr. Cruz issued a message to the Venezuelan military.
Referring to Mr. Maduro as a “madman,” Mr. Cruz said all Venezuelans
should “urge the military to respect the oath they took to perform their
functions. Honor your oath.”
As the crisis in Venezuela worsened in recent years, American officials
debated the pros and cons of opening lines of dialogue with rebellious
factions of the military.
“There were differences of opinion,” said Ms. Aponte, the former top
Latin America diplomat under Mr. Obama. “There were people who had a lot
of faith in the idea that they could bring about stability, help
distribute food, work on practical stuff.”
But others — including Ms. Aponte — saw considerable risk in building
bridges with leaders of a military that, in Washington’s assessment, has
become a pillar of the cocaine trade and human rights abuses.
Roberta Jacobson, a former ambassador to Mexico who preceded Ms. Aponte
as the top State Department official for Latin America policy, said that
while Washington has long regarded the Venezuelan military as “widely
corrupt, deeply involved in narcotics trafficking and very unsavory,”
she saw merit in establishing a back channel with some of them.
“Given the broader breakdown in institutions in Venezuela, there was a
feeling that — while they were not necessarily the answer — any kind of
democratic resolution would have had to have the military on board,”
said Ms. Jacobson, who retired from the State Department this year. “The
idea of hearing from actors in those places, no matter how unsavory they
may be, is integral to diplomacy.”
But whatever the rationale, holding discussions with coup plotters could
set off alarms in a region with a list of infamous interventions: the
Central Intelligence Agency’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow
Fidel Castro as leader of Cuba in 1961; the American-supported coup in
Chile in 1973, which led to the long military dictatorship of Augusto
Pinochet; and the Reagan administration’s covert support of right-wing
rebels known as the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.
In Venezuela, a coup in 2002 briefly deposed Mr. Maduro’s predecessor,
Hugo Chávez. The United States knew a plot was being hatched but warned
against it, according to a classified document that was later made
public. The coup took place anyway and the George W. Bush administration
opened a channel to the new leader. Officials then backed away from the
new government after popular anger rose against the coup and countries
in the region loudly denounced it. Mr. Chávez was reinstated as president.
In the latest coup plot, the number of military figures connected to the
plan dwindled from a high of about 300 to 400 last year to about half
that after a crackdown this year by Mr. Maduro’s government.
The former Venezuelan military officer worries that the 150 or so
comrades who have been detained are probably being tortured. He lamented
that the United States did not supply the mutineers with radios, which
he believes could have changed the country’s history.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “But I’m the least affected. I’m not a
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