WASHINGTON — The U.S. government eagerly reached out to Venezuelan presidential candidate Hugo Chavez in 1998 and moved quickly to denounce a rumored coup plot against the man who's become one of the Bush administration's archenemies, newly declassified State Department documents obtained by McClatchy reveal.
State Department officials initially appeared dazzled by Chavez's oversized persona and his promise for sweeping reforms, and seemed sincere in their efforts to help him, the documents show. Some of those overtures drew positive responses from Chavez, who said he wanted U.S. help in fighting corruption and drug trafficking.
But as the months passed, American unease grew, and cables from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, began warning of "populism" and "the authoritarian threat which lurked behind his tough policy statements."
McClatchy obtained 53 documents totaling some 200 pages, mostly cables from the embassy, in response to a 2005 Freedom of Information Act request.
The documents — almost of all them redacted for classified or sensitive information, some so heavily that they're little more than blank pages — are a small slice of U.S. government records on Venezuela.
However, they shed new light on the behind-the-scenes deliberations over how to deal with Chavez, a firebrand former lieutenant colonel who led a failed military coup in 1992 but was elected president in a landslide on Dec. 2, 1998.
In meetings with U.S. diplomats and in public speeches, candidate Chavez expressed anger at having been denied a U.S. visa because of the coup attempt but was otherwise friendly, according to the documents. A close Chavez associate told embassy officials that, "We cannot survive without a good relationship with the United States," according to a Sept. 22, 1998, cable.
When rumors spread in 1998 that Army chief Ruben Rojas Perez, the son-in-law of then-President Rafael Caldera, would stage a coup to stop Chavez from winning the presidency, U.S. diplomats told the Venezuelan government that Washington "would react negatively and immediately to any attempt to derail the electoral process or otherwise interfere in the successful, democratic transition of power," according to an Oct. 21, 1998, cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington.
After Chavez won the election, he asked Colombian President Andres Pastrana for advice on how to establish good relations with Washington, according to a Dec. 23 cable. Pastrana's response: Be straightforward and avoid surprises.
A Jan. 20, 1999, cable setting the scene for a meeting between Chavez and President Bill Clinton a week later said that Chavez's proposals for democratic and constitutional changes could become a model for other nations.
"He has told us that Venezuela's relationship with the U.S. is of transcendental importance and that he wants to do everything he can to improve that relationship," said the embassy report, which was signed by the then-U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, longtime Latin America expert John Maisto. "We want to do the same."
Another document quotes Peter Romero, then the top State Department official for Latin America, telling a group of top U.S. business sector leaders in Caracas that if Chavez accomplished "50 percent of what he says he wants to do, that is good."
But there was some early unease.
A Feb. 9, 1999, cable recounting Chavez's inauguration speech said that he, "left little doubt that anyone who opposed him should be ready to fight" and warned of "flashes of populism" and "the authoritarian threat which lurked behind his tough policy statements."
"We chose to see the glass more than half full," Maisto told McClatchy when asked about the declassified cables.
But as Chavez pressed ahead in 1999 for a new constitution and became friendlier with Cuba, embassy officials grew more concerned. One cable recommended that Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering use an upcoming meeting with Chavez to "express the importance that those changes continue within a democratic, legal, and constitutional framework."
Chavez had reached out to Europe to "counterbalance" U.S influence and "initiated a close relationship with the Castro regime, including what appears to be a close personal relationship with Fidel Castro," the same Aug. 3, 1999, cable said.
Clinton administration officials also were perplexed by Chavez's refusal to allow U.S. counter-drug flights over Venezuela and by a December 1999 refusal to allow a Navy ship to unload military personnel and relief supplies and equipment after massive mudslides that killed thousands, Maisto said in his interview.
Chavez met Clinton twice and President Bush once — in Quebec, Canada in early 2001.
In October 2001, as the world rallied around Washington following the Sept. 11 attacks, the embassy in Caracas reported a speech in which Chavez noted that, "Venezuela had good relations" with the United States. But he went on to say the same of "several other nations, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Algeria."
By 2001, relations were souring, and after Chavez equated the U.S. war in Afghanistan with the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York and Washington, then-U.S. Ambassador Donna Hrinak was recalled to Washington for consultations.
Chavez's battles with his domestic foes also were intensifying at the time.
A Nov. 7, 2001, cable called attention to a military high command statement of support for Chavez, and noted, "This town is full of coup rumors, something that was not the case of a few weeks ago."
"At present we do not anticipate any imminent extra-constitutional move against Chavez," the cable added, "but cannot guarantee that none will happen."
A few weeks later, the State Department went public with a warning against any coup. "We would categorically reject any attempt to remove Chavez," Lino Gutierrez, the top State Department official in charge of Latin American affairs, told The Miami Herald.
Amid violent street protests, a military coup ousted Chavez April 11-13, 2002, only to see him return to power on April 14 following massive demonstrations. Chavez and his allies have alleged ever since that Washington was behind the coup, and several administration statements suggesting that Chavez's actions had sparked the coup only fueled the suspicions.
A State Department inspector general's investigation later found no evidence of U.S. wrongdoing. "We were trying to figure out what the hell was going on," said Maisto, at the time assigned to the White House's National Security Council staff.
The State Department released to McClatchy only one cable on the coup, an April 13, 2002 dispatch that mostly narrated the events of the day.
As time passed, the embassy cables became devoid of any admiration for Chavez or his politics. A May 15, 2003, report called Venezuela an "illiberal democracy" and concluded that Chavez had grown "stronger than at any period since December 2001'."
"With no systems in place and none on the horizon, all decisions are made by Chavez himself — and are capricious," the report said. "The model appears to be the long lines of CEOs, movie stars, and politicians seeking audiences with Fidel Castro to petition him for favors."
But Chavez was still following the constitution "carefully enough" to avoid foreign censure, the cable added.
"We must not delude ourselves about the extent of our leverage here," the text said. "Chavez is funding his Bolivarian revolution with the proceeds from the Venezuelan petroleum industry and outside pressure is unlikely to produce great results."
Later cables grew darker still.
A Nov. 3, 2003, dispatch tells of U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro urging a Venezuelan official to halt the continuous government allegations of a 2002 CIA coup plot and avoid the rounds of mutual public verbal sniping that came to be known as "microphone diplomacy."
"If the government wanted to avoid microphone diplomacy, this was the wrong way to go about it," Shapiro said, adding that the Venezuelan government had put the life of a U.S. business executive at risk by falsely calling him a CIA agent.
In December, the No. 2 Latin American diplomat at the State Department, Peter DeShazo, visited Caracas and relations thawed a bit. Both sides congratulated each other for refraining from "microphone diplomacy" for six weeks.
The respite didn't last.
On March 5, 2004, Chavez convened foreign diplomats for a speech. Suspecting an anti-U.S. tirade, Shapiro sent his deputy, Stephen McFarland, with instructions "to leave if appropriate," according to a cable sent the same day. Having a U.S. diplomat walk out of a presidential speech is extremely rare.
After Chavez accused the United States of supporting coup plotters, the cable reported, McFarland "stood up, looked at Chavez in the eye, and walked out without comment."
Shapiro would later recall that the incident went largely unnoticed, in part because McFarland was seated far back in the audience.
On May 5, 2004, Shapiro sent another cable, warning that a pro-Chavez group was threatening to sue him for alleged involvement in a 2002 military coup against Chavez.
"The government's charges are baseless and they know it," the cable said, "but the government repeats them, presumably in hopes of convincing voters that Chavez and the government are the defenders of Venezuelan sovereignty against an invented U.S. threat."
A chronology of key events involving Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez:
Feb. 4, 1992 — He leads a failed military coup against elected President Carlos Andres Perez. He surrenders and is jailed.
March 28, 1994 — He's freed under a presidential pardon.
Dec. 6 1998 — Chavez wins the presidency with 56 percent of the vote.
Feb. 2, 1999 — Chavez is sworn in as president and announces that he'll push for a constitutional assembly.
April 25, 1999 — Voters agree to dissolve the legislature and elect a constitutional assembly.
Dec. 15, 1999 — The new "Bolivarian Constitution" is approved by 71 percent of voters.
July 30, 2000 — Chavez is re-elected under the new constitution.
November 2001 — Under powers granted to him by the new legislature, Chavez issues 47 laws by decree. The move sparks protests that spread over the next months.
April 9, 2002 — Businesses and unions call a nationwide strike against Chavez.
April 11, 2002 — After street clashes leave at least 12 dead, military officers ask Chavez to resign and take him into custody.
April 14, 2002 — He's released and returns to power amid massive demonstrations in support of his presidency.
Aug. 16, 2004 — He wins a recall referendum with 58 percent of the vote, vows to carry on with his leftist "revolution" and urges Washington to "respect" his government.
Compiled by Monika Leal, Miami Herald News Researcher