In 1992, Defense Minister Gen. Fernando Ochoa told me how the Venezuelan military misread an attempted coup by a small group of dissident officers led by an odd guy nobody had heard of.
In 1998, on the day of new presidential elections, I found myself in the apartment of that same “odd guy,” the flashy comandante Hugo Chavez.
Chavez and I talked for several hours before he went off to become president.
“I am not a communist, not a fascist,” he said at one point.
“I am a democrat. We don’t copy other models; we invent them!”
At that time, I guessed he would rule as a man of the far democratic left. But when I saw him again, five years later at a press conference in New York, Chavez seemed a different man, almost a raging godfather.
The press was now his enemy. He was the victim of a “psychological war.” The man who had previously denied any religious conviction, believing only in his singular hero, the “liberator” of Latin America, Simon Bolivar, suddenly took a small silver cross out of his pocket and began to sing in a strange voice, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”
Here is what had happened in those crucial five years.
Since its much-heralded revolution against the military dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela had been ruled by two parties that called their system “democracy,” but used the word fraudulently, as they robbed the country blind and stole Venezuela’s vast oil wealth.
Without a serious moral democratic model, that “odd guy,” now President Chavez, emigrated intellectually to Cuba.
Soon, Cuban intelligence agents were all over Venezuela. Venezuela became a socialist country run by Cubans from the shadows. Fair-minded analysts began to call it a Cuban-inspired “criminal empire.” By the time Chavez died in 2013 and the thuggish Nicolas Maduro came to power, it didn’t even have food to feed its people.
This week, the young head of the National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaido, emerged to challenge Maduro’s socialist “paradise.”
Twenty nations backed Guaido, while Maduro’s weary backers — Russia, China and Iran — hesitantly stood behind him.
Here’s what’s interesting. First, the truculent Maduro did not immediately take any of his usual violent actions. Second, forces in Washington and Miami, it turned out, had been quietly working on a plan to back Guaido for some time.
What’s even more revealing are the details of the plan to back Guaido. Led by Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio and National Security Adviser John Bolton, the Trump administration has been working with other nations on a diplomatic plan, primarily non-military and non-traditionally interventionist, to change the regime in Venezuela from within.
They are using the power of millions of dollars of blocked Venezuelan funds in U.S. banks, plus American oil investments in Venezuela, making them available to Guaido, while European nations were doing the same. Twenty million dollars in food and medical aid was immediately promised to Guaido.
Finally, this week the U.S. imposed sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, an act that could cut off the country’s main source of cash, since the U.S. is the only creditor that pays in cash.
These are promising and diplomatically fascinating steps, and the Trump administration will deserve credit for them if they can bring Venezuela back to itself.