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Concerning Otto Neustaldt’s Account.

Otto Neustaldt was a correspondent for CNN at the time of the coup. During the violence on April 11 he recorded a press conference by a group of high-ranking Venezuelan officers led by Admiral Hector Ramírez Pérez. In this press conference the officers denounced Chávez's role in the violence and mentioned that there had been several deaths.

The problem arose when Neustaldt mistakenly reported that the officers made this announcement before any deaths had actually occurred. Even though this was contradicted by other journalists from the very beginning, it caused a controversy because it seemed to suggest that the violence was started by the military and not the Chávez government. Why? The logic here was that if Admiral Hector Ramírez Pérez knew about deaths before they occurred, then the military must have had a plot to kill people all along.

But Neustaldt was wrong—the first deaths had occurred over an hour before the press conference. The generals knew there were deaths, but Neustaldt did not. The first recording of the announcement (there were two) was taped just about the same time that Chávez started his special broadcast at 3:45 p.m. However, the first fatality occured between 2:15 and 2:30 p.m. when Jesús Arellano was killed on Baralt Avenue. The photographer Jorge Tortoza was killed shortly after, right around 2:30 p.m. (Shots of the dying Arellano were the last pictures on Tortoza’s camera.)

There were at least 75 minutes for the officers to hear about the first deaths. In fact, Venezuelan journalists Alfredo Meza and Sandra La Fuente reported in their excellent book on the coup “El acertijo de abril” (The Riddle of April) that someone called out Tortoza’s name as one of the dead before the taping of the first press conference began.

So it is clear that Otto Neustald was mistaken about the time that the first fatalities occurred. (How could he know when the shooting started? He was on the other side of Caracas.) Unfortunately, Neustaldt's story was enthusiastically embraced by the Venezuelan government and has become one of their "Talking Points" about the coup because it fits their spin on events—it points to a military conspiracy that absolves the government of responsibility for the violence.

What is really interesting, however, is that Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez did indeed want to overthrow Hugo Chávez and—as explained in The Silence and the Scorpion—he had been plotting for months. Even more interesting is that Hugo Chávez himself had known about the plot and had done nothing.

A lot of fingers would be pointed at the admiral as the man who was responsible for the coup. And at first glance it makes sense. After all, here was a high-ranking military officer who was planning a coup when an odd sort of coup actually occured. What's more, Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez ended up being named the new Minister of Defense and had a cozy relationship with the interim president.

But was this coup really the admiral's coup? It doesn't appear so.

While I by no means believe that Admiral Ramírez Pérez is a saint—he was in cahoots with Carmona and was conspiring against a democratically elected president—he does not appear to have done much that was technically illegal during the coup. The Venezuelan Supreme Court agrees, which is why, in August 2002, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to even put him on trial.

Yet how can we know for certain that Admiral Ramírez Pérez wasn't responsible for the first deaths on April 11? I mean, how can we be positive? Well, because we can watch the first deaths on video and they are clearly caused by pro-Chávez gunmen.

Watch the videos of the first deaths on April 11th.


Below is a trascript of the uploads from Otto Neustaldt to CNN on April 11th that Alek Boyd shared with me. Note that his only upload that day occured at 22:30 GMT. (Caracas, Venezuela is GMT - 4 hours.) That means it was 6:30 p.m. in Caracas when the press conference of Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez was uploaded, more than four hours after the first deaths had occured.


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