CARACAS, Venezuela — The president bade farewell to his honor guard, young men armed with semiautomatic rifles who wept because Hugo Chavez was leaving, seemingly forever. The soldiers wanted to fight, to turn the Miraflores palace into a bunker against their enemies, but the president wouldn't let them.
"Your lives are just beginning," Chavez said, according to his later account.
At that moment on the night of April 11, it appeared that Chavez's three-year reign as Venezuela's strongman president was over. The country's richest business leaders, its largest labor confederation, its top military men and its most influential media had all joined forces against him. They had Chavez cornered. And he knew it.
Most of the top leaders of the anti-Chavez alliance had talked, at one time or another, to representatives of the United States government. They had met with embassy officials, Pentagon analysts, military attaches and even trade representatives. The Venezuelans left those meetings encouraged. Although the Americans said they wouldn't approve of a coup, it was clear the most powerful nation on Earth wanted Chavez out too.
Chavez left the palace and a short while later was in the custody of his generals and admirals. For months they had worked to drive him from office, but a surprising series of events--including the shooting of anti-Chavez protesters--had brought the president down so quickly that few of the movement's leaders had a firm idea of what should happen next.
Interviews with opposition leaders and U.S. officials make clear that the campaign to oust Chavez was centered almost entirely in Caracas, the capital, among Venezuelans who had grown tired of the president's heavy-handed rule. But key chapters also took place in Washington and in the Caracas offices of the U.S. military attache.
Slightly more than two days after he was driven from office, Hugo Chavez staged the most lightning-fast political resurrection in modern Latin American history. He triumphantly returned to Miraflores palace, embraced by his honor guard and by some of the thousands of people who had come to greet him.
"I knew there would be a reaction," Chavez would tell reporters the day after his reinstatement. "What surprised me was the speed and efficiency of the response."
U.S. Official Met With Anti-Chavez Forces
Chavez's return was a vindication for his most devoted supporters, the poor of Caracas' hillside slums, who see him as a symbol of hope despite his abundant quirks and flaws. It was also an embarrassment for the Bush administration and its point man in the region, a Cuban American who has never tried to hide his dislike for Chavez, Fidel Castro's most ardent ally in the Western Hemisphere.
In the months before the coup, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto J. Reich met with several influential figures in Venezuela, the world's fourth-largest oil exporter and a key U.S. supplier, according to American officials and dissidents in the country.
Reich met in February with a key figure in Chavez's fall, Carlos Ortega, head of Venezuela's largest labor confederation and the man who called a general strike that catalyzed the opposition.
"He said, 'The United States is not going to recognize a de facto government, or a government that comes [to power] via a coup,' " Ortega recalled in an interview Saturday. "That was their position."
Nevertheless, after the uprising put business leader Pedro Carmona in power April 12, the White House blamed Chavez for the crisis and gave tacit backing to Carmona's government. Carmona swore himself in as president--without any apparent legal authority to do so--and dissolved a democratically elected legislature.
"The administration should have laid low for at least 48 hours," said one Bush administration advisor. But its "glandular reaction," the official said, "was too much to hold back."
A Deluge of Rumors and Conspiracy Theories
In the days after Chavez's return to power, Caracas was awash in rumors, all claiming to be the real story behind why the uprising succeeded and why it failed just as quickly.
The small band of reporters who cover the Venezuelan military exchanged stories about blond men, perhaps Americans, seen walking alongside the rebellious officers during the uprising (a story later dismissed by at least one leader of the coup).
There were rumors, too, about Cuban attempts to intervene in the crisis--later confirmed, to some extent, by Castro himself. (The Cuban leader said his government contacted the ambassadors of 21 countries in an attempt to get a plane to Venezuela to rescue Chavez.)
In Caracas, one journalist placed oil interests at the center of the coup and its most disastrous missteps, naming the 32-year-old scion of a Venezuelan oil family as its behind-the-scenes mastermind.