Saving Hugo Chavez

Ambassador Otto Reich in Foreign Policy:

Saving Hugo Chávez

The United States never tried to kill the late Venezuelan leader. In fact, we may have even saved his life.

As a former U.S. official with substantial experience in Venezuela, I was not surprised, but still outraged to hear the temporary new leader of that country, Nicolas Maduro, accuse the United States of murdering his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. I feel obliged to set the record straight, not because I care about what Maduro thinks, but because if not challenged, Maduro’s latest falsehood will become another urban legend circulating the globe on the Internet.

Predictably, in two dozen interviews I gave to international press in the 48 hours following Chávez’s death, two journalists, one from the BBC and one from the U.S. Spanish-language CNN channel, questioned me about Maduro’s accusation, implying it was credible that the United States had “inoculated Chávez with the cancer” that killed him. I replied, of course, that the United States had nothing to do with his death.

Despite the hostility that characterized the U.S. relationship with Chávez, it is not only false to accuse the United States of killing Chávez, but the truth is that we likely prevented his assassination on more than one occasion. Since, as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, I played a part in at least one of those instances, I feel compelled to defend our country once again from the calumnies of our foes and their acolytes by relating just one such incident. While everything herein is the best of my recollection, contemporary State Department records will substantiate the facts.

On a routine day in 2002, my secretary called me to the phone: “Ambassador Shapiro needs to talk to you on ‘secure,'” the encrypted U.S. government telephone network by which sensitive conversations are conducted. Charles Shapiro was our ambassador to Venezuela, and receiving calls from him and other ambassadors on “secure” was also routine. Weeks before, Charles and I had communicated often via secure phone for days as we attempted to manage the U.S. response to Chávez’s removal from the presidency by his own people, and his subsequent return.

“Have you seen the report on the latest conspiracy to kill Chávez?,” Shapiro asked.

I replied: “Yes, I did. Is this one real”?

Reports of assassination plots and coups d’état against Chávez surfaced at least twice a week in 2002. To separate fact from fiction, we were assisted by a dozen U.S. agencies that sift 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through human or technical intelligence, news, publications, rumor, misinformation, propaganda, half-truths and innumerable real and false material.

The call from Shapiro that morning, however, was not about baseless gossip. I had indeed read of the newest “plan” to kill Chávez to which Shapiro referred. It had seemed at least plausible. But I surmised, correctly, that if it were credible then I would be soon hearing from my Washington staff, other agencies, or from our embassy in Caracas.

Shapiro related the reasons why his embassy felt this was not ordinary and I agreed we should not ignore it. (For obvious reasons, I will not go into the details of the plot.) He then came to the call’s central purpose: “I need your concurrence to notify Chávez.”

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