Tuesday, April 12, 2005

What happened on April 11, 2002? An interview with Francisco Toro.

Between April 11 and April 14, 2002, Venezuela witnessed some of the most bizarre events in recent Latin American history. They could be dismissed as nothing more than a bit of Venezuelan folklore if they had not been so tragic. Twenty people died that day, and yet, three years later, we still don't know who killed them or what really happened.

I was not in Venezuela at the time and I have heard very differing views about what happened. I started to understand the issues behind the history after I read Francisco Toro’s essay Venezuela’s 2002 Coup Revisited”. This is a must-read piece of work for those interested in recent Venezuela history.

From 1999 to 2003 Francisco was a freelance journalist writing for foreign media outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Financial Times. He was in Caracas on April 11 2002 and he has kindly agreed to answer my questions on the events of that day.

1.-How would you describe the situation in Caracas in the days before April the 11, 2002?

It was clear from the first few days of April that something very nasty was about to happen. The mood of national crisis was palpable in the air. The government obviously had a calculated strategy to escalate the crisis as much as possible. But the opposition wasn't the least bit shy about escalating the crisis either. Both sides were itching for a showdown, and a showdown is what they got. Last year, Chávez actually acknowledged, in a speech, that escalation was precisely what he'd been trying to get. "Plan Colina" he said it had been called, together with a "Colina Taskforce" in charge of implementing it. The government served up a steaming plate of "casquillo" - provocation - and the opposition ate it up with relish. Both sides decided to play "chicken" with the country; to my mind both were incredibly irresponsible. In the months and years following the coup, both sides played a fairly sick game of "tira la piedra y esconde la mano" - trying to pretend that they had been entirely blameless in the events of April. Each side has built up a "heroic story" about the crisis - where all of the blame was pegged on the other. Those stories are really seductive to people on one side or the other, but both omit key parts of the story and twist others. More than anything, I would advise readers not to buy the hype (either side's hype) uncritically.

2.- Can you explain to us what were you doing on April 11 , 2002 and what were the circunstances that took you to be a witness of the tragic events of that day?

I was working on an unrelated freelance documentary at the time, so I had access to a camera crew. We went out and got some video, some of it got picked up by the BBC, even. But we didn't get any smoking-gun type material. To this day I kick myself for not having thought to pan the camera accross the rooftops on Avenida Baralt that day - we could've gotten the evidence that the entire country has been looking for ever since. But I didn't think of it in the general mayhem.

3.- Why are you sorry that you did not put the camera across the rooftops on Avenida Baralt? Can you sum up for us what was happening??

At around 3:45 p.m. a shooting spree started on Avenida Baralt – the main North-South avenue in downtown Caracas. Many eye-witnesses claim they saw people shooting from rooftops on Avenida Baralt. No video has surfaced to show that, and to this day nobody knows who the shooters were, or if they really existed. All we know is that at a quarter to four in the afternoon, Chávez started a speech on cadena nacional - a nationwide broadcast on all TV channels and radio stations - and at almost exactly the same time a serious gun fight broke out on Avenida Baralt. Twenty people died around Miraflores that day. People fell on both sides.?Three years on, we still don't know who shot first, from where, or on who's orders. The fact is, the shootout that afternoon was never really investigated properly. It took the Prosecutor General's Office an astounding two weeks to even secure the scene of the crime and start to collect bullet casings and such. Obviously, by that time most of the evidence had been cleared away.

4.- The Chavistas claim that the large march that took place against the goverment was rerouted to Miraflores on purpose to create problems that would lead to the removal of Chavez. Were you there when the rerouting happened? If so, can you describe it?

I wasn't there, so I trust the version of events published by Sandra La Fuente and Alfredo Meza in their excellent book, "El Acertijo de Abril." (The April Riddle,) which is the most trustworthy source on the crisis I know of.

They report that on the evening of April 10th, the main opposition leadership, including CTV (the labor union federation), Fedecamaras (the employers' federation) and several radical NGOs, met in Fedecamaras headquarters in El Bosque. They were concerned that the second day of the General Strike had not been as successful as the first and the movement could peter out if they didn't get results soon. It was at that meeting that the plan to re-route the march was hatched, as well as the decision to present the re-routing as a spur of the moment thing the next day. This was part of the game of "chicken" the two sides were playing. The opposition thought that by precipitating a crisis, they could provoke the armed forces to step in on their side. This meeting has been more or less erased from the opposition's own "heroic version" of events, but when you think about it the manipulation involved is pretty grotesque: these guys planned an insurrectional march, in secret, and bamboozled hundreds of thousands of caraquenos to take incredible risks for the sake of their gamble. The fact is, they used us as cannon fodder.

5.- In your essay about the events of April 11 you write that Chavez' groups had infiltrated the meeting in El Bosque and Chavez was aware that the march was going to be rerouted and yet he chose to do nothing about it. What do you know about this?

La Fuente and Meza report that two separate chavista agencies had infiltrated the meeting at El Bosque where the march re-route was planned: Disip and Aporrea. That means that Chávez had at least twelve hours warning that the march would go to Miraflores - a detail that often escapes people. Now, with 12 hours warning, Chávez had options. The most obvious one would have been to order the National Guard to set up road-blocks on the access routes to Miraflores - a single contingent at the end of Avenida Bolivar would probably have been enough to stop the march. The National Guard is equipped and trained to deal with civilian demonstrations: it's a major part of their mission. It's telling, and very troubling, that Chávez chose, instead, to call out the army together with his armed civilian supporters. The Venezuelan Army has no non-lethal weapons at its disposal, and no training in crowd control. Chávez's plan was to face down several hundred thousand unarmed civilians with light tanks and soldiers carrying automatic assault rifles (FALs). It's a good thing General Rosendo and General Vásquez Velasco, the officers ordered to implement this order, flatly refused. Going along would have set the stage for a much bigger massacre than the one we had. It's also important to remember that the constitution the chavistas had written less than three years earlier specifically bans the use of firearms in civilian demonstrations. Chávez's order was not only incredibly dangerous, it was also unconstitutional.?

6.- The opposition claims that Chavez sent his bolivarian groups to shoot against the crowd. Do you think that that statement is correct? What did you witness?

Well, there's no direct evidence of that. What we can say for sure is that part of the government's plan was to surround Miraflores with hardcore chavista civilians. Some 15,000 turned up following calls on state-run television. This contingency plan had been worked out between chavista civilian leaders and military officers in the days prior to April 11th, as reported by General Rosendo in his testimony to the National Assembly. Rosendo says he argued against the plan, and wrote a letter to Chávez pointing out that it had a high potential to degenerate into a massacre. Chávez brushed off his concerns.?It's also clear that many of those civilians ended up with guns in their hands, and some of them used them. La Fuente and Meza were able to confirm that chavista groups handed out handguns to anyone who wanted them that afternoon, though only after the shooting had already started. "Some took them, some did not," is how they describe the dynamic. Which guns in which hands killed which protesters is one of the things we don't know because no serious investigation was ever held.

7.- Can you tell us more about the famous "cadena" that took place at the moment the shooting started?

It was just bizarre. Chávez gave a generic speech for almost two hours, without directly mentioning the huge mess just outside his door. He was sitting a mere block from a massive bloodbath, but it somehow slipped his mind to say anything about it, or to try to take any measures to stop it. Time and again, a military officer would step into the frame to hand him a slip of paper. La Fuente and Meza confirm that those bits of papers contained a running tally of the cassualties taking place outside. He would read the notes, pause momentarily, then continue his speech. At no point did Chávez stop to do anything to stop the violence. He spent a good few minutes, I remember well, talking up his new program for a Vehículo Utilitario Familiar – a subsidized delivery van - to go on the market later that year. It's hard to overstate how incongruous it all was: you're in the middle of a massacre, you turn on the radio, and you hear the president speaking about subsidizing delivery vans? Surreal, totally surreal. It's not at all clear what the point of that cadena was. It escaped no one's attention that the shooting and the cadena started just about at the same time. What you read into this depends on where you stand, of course, but there was a very definite sense that Chávez was using the cadena to cover up the violence outside. Certainly that impression is bolstered by his announcement, towards the end of the speech, that he had ordered the National Guard to take the private broadcasters off the air. One way or another, it didn't work. During the speech, the private TV stations split their screens down the middle, showing Chávez on the left side of the screen and pictures of the massacre on the right side. It was the only way the private broadcasters had to break the first news blackout of the crisis. Of course, the second news blackout they implemented themselves, on April 13th.

8.- The goverment claims that after the Carmonada millions of people took the streets to claim for the return of president Chavez. Where were you on April 13 and what did you witness?

I was outside Fuerte Tiuna at around mid-day, again with my camera crew. There was a very angry group of hardcore chavistas protesting just outside the fort, looked over by a group of soldiers. There was an uneasy peace between the two. The protesters did not quite cover the highway overpass into Fuerte Tiuna - one or two thousand people at most. I was not outside Miraflores that day, but I've spoken with eye-witnesses who saw about four blocks worth of Avenida Urdaneta full of Chávez supporters. Some tens of thousands of people. The crowd built through the night, and other crowds assembled in other cities. It's hard to get a precise count, but the 8 million figure Chavez is an obvious exageration.

A big part of the chavista "heroic story" about the coup is that the crowds were responsible for Chávez's return. It's just not true - there's plenty of evidence to show that the key decisions that brought Chávez back were made by loyal military officers in Fuerte Tiuna and in Maracay. In fact, the bulk of the crowds came out after it became clear the generals had decided to bring Chávez back, not before.

9.- Can you tell us a little more about what happened in Fuerte Tiuna and on the role of the military in this whole episode?

This is the most confusing parts of the crisis. Leading up to April 11th, a lot of discontent had been brewing in the armed forces about Chávez's demolition derby style of governance. The generals could see Chávez's escalation strategy just as clearly as everyone else, and many were alarmed by it. More than a few cliques of friends within the armed forces were speaking privately about the situation, and at least some were conspiring to launch a coup at some point in the future. But events moved much faster than their planning. When Generals Rosendo and Vasquez Velasco refused Chávez's order to put the army on the streets, the floodgates burst open. All the little cliques that had been operating behind the scenes came into the open all at once. Dozens of generals poured into the fourth and fifth floor of the Army Headquarters inside Fuerte Tiuna to try to decide what to do next. Another part of the chavista "heroic story" is the idea that everything that happened that night flowed from a carefully planned, US backed conspiracy. But eye-witnesses in Fuerte Tiuna that night say the scene was an out-and-out "gallinero" - a chaotic free for all - rather than any single organized conspiracy. The chain of command had gone to all hell. The various groups of generals couldn't agree on anything, even what to do with Chávez (keep him around and try him? send him away to Cuba?) General Vásquez Velasco, who was the nominal head of the army, should have taken control of the situation. But precisely because he had not been part of any conspiracy, it was easy for the conspiratorial clique backing Carmona to outflank him. Neither Rosendo nor Vásquez Velasco woke up that day thinking they would end up overthrowing the government: if they had, they wouldn't have ended up in such a chaotic situation. The big irony is that if the coup had been carefully planned, like the chavistas say it was, it almost certainly wouldn't have unraveled. It's unthinkable, for instance, that in a carefully planned coup the coupsters would "forget" to take control of the military garrison sitting next door to the presidential palace. Yet, amazingly, that's exactly what happened: the chavistas in charge of the Palacio Blanco kept control over their garrison throughout the crisis simply because the coupsters didn't take the trouble to replace them!

10.- What is your conclusion about this whole affair? Who, according to you, is responsible of the deaths of innocent civilians on April 11, 2002?

I have no idea who is responsible for those deaths. Nobody does. One thing I do know is why we don't know: we don't know because, once Chávez returned to power, his prosecutor general/crony Isaías Rodríguez stubbornly resisted a chorus of petitions to launch a serious investigation into what happened. Calls for an independent truth commission were never heeded. The investigation was put in hands of politically pliant prosecutors - including the late Danilo Anderson -who never made a serious attempt to find out what went on. I mean, it took these jokers two weeks - TWO WEEKS - to even send ballistics experts to secure the "crime scene" on Avenida Baralt. That detail alone speaks volumes about the kind of prosecutor general Isaías Rodríguez is. Either this was a cover-up, or Isaías Rodríguez is the world's most incompetent prosecutor. One way or another, the guy should've resigned long ago. The overall lesson, for me, is that it's almost imposible to reach closure on an episode like this when the institutions responsible for finding out what happened are openly politicized. Without access to a single, broadly shared version of what happened, each side just goes ahead and creates its own fantasy-version of events, its own Disney-style story where everything they did was good and righteous and justified and everything the other side did was bad and criminal and indefensible. It's sad, but it's not really possible to move towards reconciliation when there's so much we still don't know.


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