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Hugo's Close Call

People power it wasn't. Although more than 200,000 antigovernment protesters marched through the streets of Caracas--some to their deaths--the short-lived April 11-12 coup against President Hugo Chavez was secretly hatched by two small but powerful groups: senior military officers and several of the country's richest businessmen. The leaders of the putsch had extensive ties to the U.S. political and economic establishment. At the vortex of the whole mess was the billionaire television magnate Gustavo Cisneros, a fishing buddy of former president George H. W. Bush and king of a business empire stretching from the United States to the Southern Cone.

The failed coup's repercussions have only begun. Although most leaders in the region immediately condemned it as an assault on constitutional rule, the White House equivocated, blaming Chavez for the crisis and raising painful questions about the sincerity of the Bush administration's commitment to democracy in Latin America. Worse, the coup and its aftermath can only add to the uncertainties of a region already shaken by the Shining Path's revival in Peru and the shift of Colombia's civil war to a dangerous new urban phase. In Venezuela itself, Chavez seems likely to become even more set in his demagogic ways. In Washington, meanwhile, Democratic critics are calling the coup a U.S. foreign-policy disaster and planning a full investigation.

The inquiry could become the Bush administration's first foreign-policy scandal. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is seeking classified cables and other documents detailing contacts between top U.S. officials and Venezuelans involved in the failed attempt to overthrow Chavez. Those contacts, NEWSWEEK has learned, are more extensive than the White House has publicly acknowledged.

In the months before the coup, several dissatisfied Venezuelans visited Washington for closed-door talks with U.S. officials. In December, for example, just weeks after U.S. intelligence officials picked up warnings that dissident Venezuelan military officers were plotting against Chavez, Venezuela's top commander called on Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon officer in charge of special operations and low-intensity conflict in Latin America. "I viewed him as being in the same situation as Col. [Augusto] Pinochet in 1971," says Pardo-Maurer, who sympathized with the visitor's complaints about Chavez but wagged his finger "in a friendly way" and warned in Spanish: "No golpes"--no coups.

Nevertheless, U.S. officials appear to have been caught off guard by the coup's timing. And that raises another embarrassing point: why weren't they better informed? "This is a huge intelligence failure, and the ultimate responsibility for that lies with the CIA," says Jack Sweeney, a Venezuela expert who writes for the risk-assessment firm Stratfor.com. "They not only failed to detect that the coup was being hijacked, they failed to realize that it could be reversed."

The White House has never concealed its dislike of Chavez, a man Fidel Castro has fondly called "my political son." It's no coincidence that the Bush administration's top Latin America policy specialists, Otto Reich and John Maisto, have particularly strong backgrounds in Venezuelan affairs (chart). The current U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Charles Shapiro, used to run the State Department's Cuba desk. And the White House has also worked with such Venezuelans as Luis Giusti, a former oil executive who advised Bush officials on energy policy. All four can anticipate some difficult questions.

Some of the toughest will be about Gustavo Cisneros, 58, the suspected bankroller of the coup. The broadcast tycoon was one of Chavez's biggest backers four years ago, before the two fell out over the president's increasing tilt to the left. Cisneros denies any role in ousting Chavez, but as the coup emerged on the evening of April 11, several of its alleged leaders met at the headquarters of his Venevision TV station. Among them was Pedro Carmona, the businessman who took over as "interim president" in the early hours of April 12. "That government was put together in the offices of Gustavo Cisneros," says opposition legislator Pedro Pablo Alcantara. "The supreme chief was Cisneros." Cisneros insists he had no role in the interim regime. He calls the congressman's allegations "false, irresponsible and unacceptable."

Otto Reich, the State Department's lead man on Latin American affairs, tells NEWSWEEK he spoke with Cisneros "two or three times" during the coup. Reich says he was only seeking information, not trying to encourage or direct the plotters. "We had absolutely nothing to do with this," he says. Upon learning that Carmona had dissolved the National Assembly, Reich adds, he instructed Ambassador Shapiro to give the interim president an urgent message: "If there's going to be an extraconstitutional government, we can't work with you." It was already too late. Cisneros called Reich on Saturday afternoon to say an angry pro-Chavez mob was besieging Venevision's offices. The businessman insists that was the sole contact he had with Reich during the coup. As everything disintegrated, Cisneros was in the presidential palace, pleading in vain by phone for the public support of popular labor leader Carlos Ortega.

Now the media baron is facing something even scarier: an angry Hugo Chavez. Last week the president publicly raged against Venezuela's privately owned news media. "This coup d'etat would not have been possible without the help of the news media, especially television," Chavez asserted. "If the news media and television in particular want to continue encouraging this and we allow this to happen, this will bring on a civil war." He promised to launch a thorough investigation of the role played by Venevision and other "laboratories of lies," as he called the media. That news is bad enough for Cisneros. It may bode even worse for ordinary Venezuelans. The failed coup has given Chavez a perfect excuse to stifle the media--and anyone else who dares to question him.