Coups often do not go exactly as planned. While some result in military despotism and others in democratic reforms, some coups simply never seem to gain enough momentum to be successful. Such was the case during the 2002 Venezuelan coup attempt, when military high command briefly ousted Hugo Chávez from office. For a mere forty-seven hours, Chávez saw power slipping from his hands when union leader Pedro Carmona was declared interim president. While Carmona did announce presidential elections in which he would not run—thus opening the door to democratization—his dissolution of both the National Assembly and Supreme Court were met with great opposition. Lacking enough widespread support, the coup quickly collapsed when Chavistas surrounded the presidential palace. Carmona resigned and Chávez returned.
First elected president in 1998, Hugo Chávez quickly changed Venezuela’s political direction by enacting a new constitution. Initially admired by the vast majority of Venezuelans, Chávez galvanized business leaders when he gained control of all independent organizations of the Venezuelan government, such as PDVSA, the state oil company. Subsequently, when Chávez appointed political allies to prominent posts in PDVSA, the National Federation of Trade Unions called a general strike on April 9, 2002. It was only two days later when the streets of Caracas flooded with Venezuelans opposed to Chávez. In addition, military leadership, suspicious of increased Cubanization and democratic backsliding, augmented the opposition to Chávez due to his close ties with authoritarian leaders like Fidel Castro.
At the time, Gary H. Maybarduk served as economic counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and observed the grounds for the opposition to Chávez and the subsequent coup attempt firsthand. Short-staffed and at a loss of what to do, Maybarduk’s warnings to those at the embassy were met with skepticism. Fortunately, what could have turned out to be a long-lasting period of peril and turmoil, with up to a million protesters marching on the presidential palace, only lasted for a few days. Maybarduk had previous experience with political turmoil while serving in Nicaragua during the Sandinista takeover in 1979, and in Sierra Leone shortly before the outbreak of the Sierra Leonean Civil War in 1991.
Gary H. Maybarduk’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 28, 2007.
Read Gary H. Maybarduk’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Alek Blonk
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“And I go over to the presidential palace and I’m wearing a tee shirt and baggy pants and tennis shoes, and it didn’t do any good, everybody recognized me as an American.”
Christmas at FSI:
From an oil strike to mass protests
MAYBARDUK: Chávez makes a change at the top of PDVSA, the state oil company. The state oil company has a tradition of Venezuela being fairly independent, being run like a business…. I can’t remember all the details but Chávez’ change started off another strike this time led by the employees of PDVSA including most of the top management and they shut down the country’s oil production. Very quickly it’s joined by another general strike within the rest of the country….
The private sector, of course, was leading the strikes, they understood the U.S. position…everybody was now telling us there would be no coup. There would simply be such enormous demonstrations that eventually some senior people probably from the army would go see Chávez and tell him he needed to resign. Having listened to Chávez for now two and a half years, nobody in the embassy believed that scenario, could not believe that demonstrations would force Chávez out of office. But of all the opposition figures we talked to, Carmona seemed to be the most rational, the need to replace Chávez, get on with democratic government and move forward. It had none of this kind of emotional gutsy, you know, Chávez is another Castro, and we need to kill the son-of-a-bitch kind of thing that you heard from so many people. I heard that a lot. I heard that a lot from my contacts.
So, the demonstrations continue, and they are big or bigger than the ones in December. I have now walked through several of these demonstrations and one thing that is interesting to me is the color has changed. No longer is it all just fair skinned people there are an awful lot of people with dark skin in it. Both my sons are down for a visit, I take them to one of the demonstrations, and both of my sons are very progressive and one at that point considered himself an anarchist, he later became a democrat, but they’re fascinated to see the Communist Party banners marching in demonstrations against Chávez.
Q: Were there counter demonstrations?
MAYBARDUK: Oh yes, thank you, yes there were counter demonstrations. I was the only one to go to those. It was a really hard problem getting people in the embassy to just to pass the group think; I get my staff to go too. They were smaller, they were darker, but they too were passionate, and they could be good size just if one is 50-100,000 and the other is several hundred thousand. These were good sized demonstrations. Generally speaking, a lot of the Chávez supporters were bussed in, the government would bus them in, and you could see the long line of busses that had been bussed in from all over the country, whereas on the opposition side it was pretty much spontaneous….
On April 9th there is another huge rally in front of PDVSA, and it’s like a party, you have a sense of everybody thinks Chávez is coming down. You see families out there, you see fathers carrying their children on their shoulders, you see college students…and I go over to the presidential palace and I’m wearing a tee shirt and baggy pants and tennis shoes, and it didn’t do any good, everybody recognized me as an American. But anyway, a much smaller demonstration of probably not more than ten thousand, maybe less. It is not well lighted around there so that just adds to the gloom of the situation, and you came away with this feeling that it is over, that Chávez can’t rally his supporters, but I also saw something different. I had been in Argentina, of course, during the return of Perón as a student and what had struck me in Argentina is how the believers, the Peronistas, the believers, the shirtless ones, believed in Perón like he was a God. No matter what he did there was this absolute faith and that’s what I saw among the Chávez supporters….
“But at some point, a group of generals go over to talk to Chávez and suggest he resigns.”
Overworked and sleep deprived
April 11, 2002, we have a country team meeting or an expanded country team meeting because we are now down to kind of an emergency mood, we are worried about demonstrations coming to the embassy and everything else. I simply state I said, “I don’t know what to do about this anymore. It looks like it’s totally out of our hands, but this is going to come to violence and Chávez people are going to fight back.”
Not only did I not get any support for that country team meeting but actually the press attaché laughed at it. Later the DCM came over and saw me afterward and he said, “Gary, if what you say is true what can we do about it?” I said, “I’m just warning everybody, I am at a loss now of what to do.” Well, the demonstrations started, and they were bigger than ever; I mean there were thousands, tens of hundreds, I don’t know, it could have been a million people I don’t know, who knows of these numbers. All I can tell you is that it looked like the entire city was out there.
By this point I am running both the economic and political sections, the political counselor is sick, he had a problem with alcohol, and I don’t know if that was the issue but anyway he was out. His number two, a good man, a civil servant, who was on excursion tour, his wife was having a nervous breakdown and he was home taking care of her. That left one junior officer in the political section. So, I was running both the political and economic sections and we were covering what was happening over at the offices of the chamber of commerce and the national chambers of commerce and trying to follow as best we could. I send out two of my officers to sort of cover…at this point I can’t go out myself because somebody’s got to run the operation from the embassy to cover the demonstrations. There is this monstrous rally with Carmona and Ortega and at the end of the rally they announce that they are going to march downtown to a plaza downtown not on the presidential palace but on another plaza. Again, you can watch it from the embassy. You can watch all this happening from the embassy, this mob of people moving. I’m getting reports and doing the best we can from my two people in the field. One was over near the presidential palace, reports that trucks had arrived with baseball bats, and they are handing out baseball bats to the Chávez supporters. Here’s where I get really fuzzy but it’s interesting…. At some point apparently the parade march changes and begins to head toward the presidential palace. At the head of the parade is Carmona and a former general, who’s name escapes me, but he had been the head of PDVSA at one point, he had been a Chávez appointee at one point. They get a phone call from Ortega warning them that they need to get out of there as there is violence or there is going to be violence. This point is factually unclear to me as to when they got the phone call. I don’t know if it was before the shooting started or after the shooting started but the shooting started, and it ended up in a firefight between the police and Chávez supporters who are firing from an overpass over the highway which the demonstrators are going to march; parts of this gets on television.
Now at this point the press, which never liked Chávez, was totally with the opposition…. The one government owned station essentially goes silent. It wasn’t taken over; it just sort of like everybody left. So now most of the news reports we are getting is from the side of the opposition….Carmona and the general were put on motorcycles and are scooted out of the parade; again I don’t know if this is before or after the shooting started. A column of armored cars leaves Fort Tiuna which is quite a ways from downtown, goes several miles and stops and parks; never moves again.
My other officer is in a position where he can see on some hill the presidential palace; he hears the shooting. Neither of my officers saw the shooting, I’m in the meantime by the way trying to get them on their cell phones and trying to tell them to get the hell back to the embassy; whatever is going to happen it would be nice to know about it but it is not worth getting yourself killed….But at some point, a group of generals go over to talk to Chávez and suggest he resigns. It was reported later that he was completely emotionally exhausted, and he does resign just like it had been predicted to us.
So, he’s taken away for his own protection to Fort Tiuna and the idea was to send him off on exile; now there has been no force here at this point, he has not yet been physically arrested or anything. By the time he gets to Fort Tiuna I mean the shootings had taken place, people were dead and there are people who want to put him on trial. The plan was to send him either to Cuba or the Dominican Republic, but a decision instead is made to send him to an island off the coast, basically a prison island until they decide what to do. So ends April 11, at least as far as I know, an incredible day.
“He even becomes president and the first thing he does is he absolves the national assembly, he absolves the Supreme Court, dissolves every other constitutional court in the country.”
President for a day
Luckily, I live two blocks from the embassy and I go home that night for a few hours sleep. I have a nice couch in my office, and I give my colleague a blanket and a pillow I keep hidden in the basket when I want to take a nap and she sleeps in the embassy.
Sometime during the night there are riots destroying the large shopping center in town. The next morning there is a meeting, I don’t know if it was at the state house or the assembly but in any event which essentially is going to swear in Carmona as the temporary president. He essentially swears himself in and he is surrounded by people who nobody has ever seen before. At some point during this I get a visit from several senior people in the private sector movement who I’ve gotten to know pretty well, they’ve been to dinner at my house along with Carmona and they say can you get through to Carmona? Nobody can get through and he’s got these new people blocking our way and we can’t get to him. We don’t have that contact. He even becomes president and the first thing he does is he absolves the national assembly, he absolves the Supreme Court, dissolves every other constitutional court in the country. He does promise new elections within a year; where that came from to this day I don’t know and it leaves everybody wondering where you are at this point.
During the course of the day Washington starts getting hit by all the members of the OAS (Organization of American States). Remember that back on September 11th we all signed this charter which basically says that this is a continent where everybody has always believed in national sovereignty. We don’t get involved in each other’s affairs, but it says basically it is the responsibility of all states in the region to protect democracy in each and every individual state. At the OAS we are getting clobbered by the Latins that this is wrong, that Chávez cannot be removed from government this way and so by now, I guess, it is the morning of the thirteenth. Sleep is so limited that it is really hard to keep track at this point. We could not report events fast enough, we did not have… I mean I have an extra person out of the consular section and about five or six people working for me. We couldn’t keep up and report and we are running twenty-four-hour shifts. While I’m in charge of coordinating the reporting, the DCM regularly approves the outgoing cables of the agency and the defense attaché’s office without me or any of his staff seeing them. So, we are beginning to lose control that way in the embassy plus everybody is exhausted, barely able to keep up, the radio stations are all reporting the same thing with the opposition now in government. In the meantime, we had several days before these events, maybe a week or two before, had told our defense attachés they could no longer go over to Fort Tiuna. As this came to a head we did not want to be seen as the instigators, which meant we no longer had any contact with the military.
So, I think it was on the morning of the thirteenth we get a phone call from Washington saying, “You’ve got to talk to Carmona and get him to reverse these decisions about abolishing the assembly, about abolishing the Supreme Court and so on. The ambassador asked me if I had a cell phone or something for Carmona. I had his office phone, but I did not have his cell phone. We tried to figure out how to get in touch with him. The embassy operator figures it out fairly easily and says, “Let me call the presidential palace,” and he picks up the phone. So, Shapiro delivers the message, you know, you’ve got to reestablish the rest of the constitution as well as moving ahead to free elections. He says, “OK, Mr. Ambassador you are probably right.” He goes over to Fort Tiuna with the generals, and they begin to figure out what to do next. They are busy fighting over who’s going to have what ministries and so on. In the meantime, a colonel or brigadier general in charge of the parachute battalion or brigade in a nearby city announces that he does not support Chávez’ overthrow and wants Chávez returned, setting the stage for a fight within the military. Chávez at this point is off on one of the islands off the coast. You then start seeing pictures on television of motorcycle gangs, Chavistas, threatening the TV stations. There are pictures of them roaring up to the TV stations and all of a sudden the TV stations start going off the air. There may have been large demonstrations out at Fort Tiuna in favor of Chávez, that’s what the Chavistas said. We never saw that on television, we never saw any pictures of it; I never got a clear story.
In any event, while the generals and some politicians and new president are meeting at Fort Tiuna they put no guards to protect themselves and somebody with a company of soldiers comes over and arrests the whole bunch of them. I often want to teach a course on how not to conduct a coup. The next thing you hear is Chávez is on his way back, and by the way Chávez never resigned. Witnesses swear he resigned but they never got him to sign a piece of paper. So, he never officially resigned and within a day Chávez is back in power.
TABLE OF CONTENT HIGHLIGHTS:
BA in Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 1963–1967
MA, Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University 1967–1968
Joined the Foreign Service 1975
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea—Economic officer 1976–1978
Managua, Nicaragua—Economic counselor, chief of section 1979–1982
Freetown, Sierra Leone—Deputy Chief of Mission 1988–1991
Havana, Cuba—Political-economic officer 1997–1999