Response to the Venezuelan Government’s Attacks on The Silence and the Scorpion
Also on this page:
Who is Greg Wilpert?
Venezuelanalysis.com and Human Rights.
Rebuttal to Wilpert’s Review of The Silence and the Scorpion.
The Silence and the Scorpion presents a serious problem for the Chávez government because it exposes its involvement (and consequent cover up) of many of the human rights violations that sparked the 2002 coup—violations that left at least 19 people dead and close to 150 wounded. My book makes clear that most (although not all) of the violence was caused by Pro-Chávez gunmen and National Guard troops who were under orders from the Chávez government. This is something that the Venezuelan government has gone to great lengths to conceal: It suspended the Truth Commission, destroyed evidence, fired investigators, refused to open cases brought by victims, and funded propaganda and misinformation to rewrite the history of coup. (Hardly the actions of a government that is blameless.) What’s more, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) has been trying to send a delegation to Venezuela for seven years to investigate these and other human rights violations. Unfortunately, in order to enter the country their request must be accepted by the Chávez government, something it refuses to do year after year.
GREG WILPERT AND THE VENEZUELAN GOVERNMENT
Because my book deviated from the government’s official spin of the events, I knew that when it was published I would be assailed by the government’s propaganda machine. I was not disappointed.
Most of the attacks on my book have been rather juvenile rants by government-supported websites, usually in Spanish. The most interesting attack came from a man named Greg Wilpert who is the founder of a website called venezuelanalysis.com. This website claims that it is “an independent website produced by individuals” to provide accurate reporting on Venezuela. Greg Wilpert describes himself as a “free-lance journalist.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
In fact, Greg Wilpert works closely with Venezuela’s diplomatic mission in the United States. He is married to a Venezuelan diplomat, Carol Delgado, who works at the Venezuelan consulate in New York City. As Wilpert has discussed in interviews, he began the website at the urgings of his friend Martin Sanchez, another Venezuelan government official and currently the Consul General to Venezuela’s consulate in San Francisco. Wilpert’s site was meant to be the English-language equivalent of the propaganda site that Sanchez started, aporrea.org (a site that many charge with inciting attacks on Venezuela’s Jewish community in 2009). One of Wilpert’s writers at Venezuealanalysis is Eva Golinger, described by The New York Times as, “one of the most prominent fixtures of Venezuela’s expanding state propaganda complex.”
Indeed, my sources in the Venezuelan government (both former and present) tell me that Wilpert is, like Golinger, an integral part of Venezuela’s propaganda complex and key to their foreign service mission in the United States. My sources explained that when his review of my book was written Wilpert was splitting his time between the Venezuelan Information Office (VIO), the venezuelanalysis.com website, and the Global Exchange program—a program that organizes student trips to Venezuela.
Given Greg Wilpert’s ties to the Chávez government, his review of my book should be seen for what it is—the Venezuelan government’s attempt to minimize the impact of a book that is politically damaging.
A PROBLEMATIC STANCE ON HUMAN RIGHTS
It should also be noted that this is not the first time that Wilpert has engaged in this type of “damage control.” In fact, whenever there is critical news about the Chávez regime—particularly reports of human rights violations—Wilpert and Venezuelanalysis.com are there to lend a helping hand. And here is the disturbing part: Wilpert and his staff have tried to discredit virtually every independent human rights study during Chávez’s twelve-year rule.
Here is a sample of headlines from the Venezuelanalysis.com website:
“The Reporters Without Borders Fraud”—May, 2005
“Human Rights Watch in Venezuela: Lies, Crimes and Cover-ups”—September 2008
“Reporters Without Borders Lies About Venezuela”—May 2009
“Venezuela Rejects Inter-American Human Rights Commission Report” —May 2009
(This is my personal favorite as it conjures up the absurd image of millions of Venezuelans standing up in their living rooms and shouting, “How dare the IAHRC stand up for my rights!”)
“OAS Report on Venezuelan Human Rights ‘Politicised’ Says Government”—Feb. 2010
“Human Rights Watch Perpetuates Bias and Myth Against Venezuela” —January 2011
Venezuelanalysis.com’s most dramatic attempt to cover up human rights violations came in 2008 when Human Rights Watch wrote a very detailed and well-researched 230-page report chronicling transgressions ranging from suppression of the media to the compromise of the judiciary--“A Decade Under Chávez: Political Intolerance and Lost Opportunities for Advancing Human Rights in Venezuela.”
Wilpert and his writers proceeded to publish seven separate articles trying to discredit the HRW report. Simultaneously, the Venezuelan government expelled the authors of the report from Venezuela. As someone who has investigated some of these violations personally I can attest to the accuracy of the HRW report; in fact, all of the human rights reports mentioned above as well as those by Amnesty International and The Human Rights Foundation echo each other—state harassment of journalists and NGOs, infringement of free speech, prosecution of political opponents, state-sponsored violence against the opposition. What’s more, in February 2010 all of Human Rights Watch’s major conclusions were verified in a 302-page report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
So who is trying to silence the evidence?
REBUTTAL TO WILPERT’S REVIEW OF THE SILENCE AND THE SCORPION
Let’s take a closer look at Wilpert’s review, which is a fascinating combination of error and distortion. I must admit, after reading his review, I had the strong suspicion that Wilpert does not actually read the books he so passionately discusses. Over and over again he claims I say things that I don’t say and insists that I miss facts that I haven’t. But then again, the content of my book is largely irrelevant to him: The important thing for him is to rehash the Venezuelan government’s spin on the coup.
As I mentioned before, Wilpert’s priority is to counter the evidence that the Venezuelan government broke the law with regards to 1) the violence perpetrated by the National Guard and Pro-Chávez militias and 2) Chávez’s ordering of Plan Avila (using the army against civilians). Therefore, it is not surprising that Wilpert spends a disproportionate amount of his review on these two topics.
CONCERNING THE NATIONAL GUARD AND PRO-CHÁVEZ MILITIAS
Wilpert’s first false statement concerns the National Guard’s role in the violence. Wilpert says that there were insufficient National Guard troops to stop the opposition march as it approached the palace. Wilpert writes: “In the end, Chávez could rely on only a small handful of National Guard troops, who stopped the opposition's advance on two of the three streets leading to Miraflores. This is also left out of Nelson's account.”
On the contrary, I address the deployment of the National Guard in great detail (see pages 23, 40 and P. 261 among others).
Baralt Avenue, where the majority of the deaths occurred, was the third street that Wilpert refers to, suggesting that if there had only been more National Guard troops, then things would not have turned so ugly. But Wilpert is being deceptive here. Not only were there plenty of National Guard troops around Miraflores that day, but they were actually deployed, en mass, on Baralt Avenue. They sat there all afternoon, watching a four-hour gun battle and did nothing to stop it. (See my website for pictures of these troops standing just feet away from the Pro-Chávez militants.)
This brings credence to the testimony of Chávez’s (now defected) generals that he and his cabinet discussed deploying his armed militias (Bolivarian Circles) in conjunction with the National Guard four days before the march. Generals Rosendo, Usón, and Vásquez Velasco all confirmed that during their meeting with Chávez on Sunday, April 7th, that members of the Tactical Command for the Revolution discussed using the militias as a paramilitary force to protect the palace.
After that meeting the militias were indeed placed on a 24-hour “vigil” around the palace. This is recorded in many pro-Chávez news sources and confirmed in my interviews with Chávez loyalists. (See Francia, Nestor, Puente Llaguno: Hablan las victimas, Publicaciones Monfort, Venezuela, 2002, p. 63-64, 92.)
What’s more: on April 11th, the National Guard were not deployed in a cordon across Baralt Avenue to block the march (as they were on the two other paths towards the palace), but only on the eastern side streets. This meant that the marchers—unable to turn toward the palace, were forced to continue toward the pro-Chávez militants who—as can be seen in photographs on my website—were waiting for them with sticks, knives, and guns.
Still, Wilpert (lamely) tries to place doubt in the reader’s mind about the pre-meditated deployment of the militias with the National Guard, saying that “[t]his claim relies on a single piece of questionable evidence: the testimony of Rosendo's personal assistant, who says he overheard Defense Minister José Vicente Rangel tell Caracas mayor Freddy Bernal to order Bolivarian Circle members to arm themselves with rocks and sticks to scare opposition demonstrators. Although Rangel vehemently denied having ever told Bernal such a thing, even if he did, this is not the same as giving an order to shoot opposition demonstrators.”
But as we have seen, it is much more than “a single piece of questionable evidence.” Wilpert has omitted the evidence from both pro- and anti-Chávez sources that the militias were ordered to protect the palace on April 7th, as well as the evidence presented by Venezuelan journalists Alfredo Meza and Sandra La Fuente in their excellent book on the coup “El acertijo de abril” (The Riddle of April) that handguns were passed out to the militia members as the march approached.
One last point about the National Guard: recall that Wilpert said that the National Guard “stopped the opposition's advance on two of the three streets leading to Miraflores.” But what he oddly fails to mention is that on one of those other streets (Eighth Street ), the National Guard stopped the march by firing bullets into it, resulting in the deaths of three civilians, and, according to Venezuelan lawyer Alfredo Romero, the wounding of close to 50 people. This was not only verified by dozens of eye-witnesses, but it was caught on video and can be seen in the documentary film La Cadena.
Wilpert also goes into a lengthy discussion of the militia groups captured on tape firing from the Llaguno Overpass by Venezuelan Journalist Luis Alfonso Fernandez. Wilpert writes, “According to opposition sympathizers and to Nelson, these shooters were likely responsible for most of the casualties, both among the opposition and Chavistas.” He then states that this is unlikely due to the distance involved—three city blocks.
Once again, Wilpert has it all wrong. One of the major contributions of my investigation was proof that the majority of the casualties were caused by Chávez’s militia groups below the overpass who were much closer to the opposition march—sometimes as little as 30 feet away. Many of these gunmen were photographed and some were filmed. These men began shooting at approximately 2:30, just as the opposition march was arriving. It was not until the Metropolitan Police pushed these militants back, that the gunmen on the overpass opened fire—at 4:35. However, it is of course possible that some of the rounds fired at police did wound and kill opposition marchers at this later time.
CONCERNING PLAN AVILA
To understand Wilpert’s manipulation as he tries to cover up Chávez’s illegal orders to the army, you need to have a little background. What is Plan Avila? In the words of Francisco Toro, “…those two words will mean little to foreign readers, but they will send chills down the spine of any Venezuelan.” Plan Avila is a military operation by which the army takes control of the streets. The plan was first implemented in February 1989 to quell riots and resulted in massive civilian deaths when the military opened fire on large crowds. Again Francisco Toro: “The army killed at least 277 people during Plan Avila '89.” Although many suspect the actual number is much higher. I was in Venezuela at this time as a high school exchange student and I had the gruesome images of scores of dead bodies burned into my memory. A nationwide curfew was imposed and those who violated the curfew were shot on sight.
To make sure that this never happened again, the Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 expressly prohibited the deployment of the army against civilians. Only the National Guard was authorized to handle civil disorder.
Yet, regardless of its illegality, Hugo Chávez called for Plan Avila on April 11th. Why? Because he was afraid of two things:
1. That he would get trapped inside his palace if the massive march was allowed to surround it.
2. He feared that his enemies in the military would use the civil protest as an excuse to launch a coup against him (even though there is no evidence that a military strike was actually planned for that day).
In other words, he did it to save his skin. Chávez’s ordering of Plan Avila was intercepted and recorded (you can hear the hesitation and equivocation in his voice when he orders it). Consequently, the president could not deny that he had done it, everyone heard him. Therefore, he claimed that Plan Avila was no longer Plan Avila, but a harmless procedure for securing the palace (even though that procedure had already been implemented by the Casa Militar—Chávez’s personal military force). Ask yourself, does President Obama rely on the US Army to secure the White House
Predictably, Wilpert parrots Chávez in this regard. (Talking Points, anyone?) Wilpert writes, “But according to General Jorge García Carneiro, a Chávez loyalist, and others in the military, Plan Ávila had been changed since 1989 and was intended only to protect vital government buildings--in this case Miraflores…”
Here’s the full story. After reading this, you tell me if you think Plan Avila is just to secure the palace. On April 11th, as the opposition march neared, Chávez tried to get four different generals to implement Plan Avila, moving steadily down the chain of command. Two were close personal friends: Lucas Rincón and Manuel Rosendo. They were the highest and second highest ranking officers in the military, respectively, and Chávez had known both men for over 20 years. Chávez called Rincón first. As Chávez himself described the exchange, Rincón initially stalled, saying he wanted to go and check on the troops. When Chávez asked again, Rincón said, “It wasn’t convenient” to implement the plan. (Rincón would eventually be forgiven for refusing the order and was later promoted.) Chávez then moved on to General Rosendo who refused three times throughout the afternoon on the grounds that it was illegal. Chávez then tried to get General Vásquez Velasco, head of the army, but Vásquez Velasco had gotten wind of things and refused to even answer the phone. He didn’t want to touch it. Finally, Chávez called General Jorge García Carneiro, an old friend from the military academy, who said he would do it. This too was recorded and we can hear a very unsure Chavez asking Carneiro. Carneiro has to reassure Chávez saying, “Don’t worry.”
Do these sound like the actions of men who are merely charged with securing a few buildings?
Wilpert is, in fact, fully aware of the human rights implications of Plan Avila, but appeared to be suffering from a case of selective amnesia. Here is an excerpt from his own 2007 essay about the coup:
A ruling of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, in August 2002, found that the Venezuelan government must change this plan, in order to comply with human rights standards. The human rights organization COFAVIC says that the Chavez government has only partially applied the ruling, mostly as concerns reparations for affected families of the events of February 1989, but not with respect to the training of soldiers in human rights or crowd control” (Wilpert, Greg, “An Account of April 11-13, 2002, in Venezuela”).
Why doesn’t Wilpert mention this in his review? Because he is using the time-tested technique of Card Stacking— selective omission of vital information in order to deceive people. Thank you, Joseph Goebels.
Finally, there is the added absurdity of Wilpert using the “expert testimony” of General Jorge García Carneiro since it was Carneiro himself who attempted to implement Plan Avila on April 11th and who will likely be the first general to be court-martialed if there is ever an independent investigation.
NEBULOUS CONSPIRACY THEORIES
There was so much physical evidence against the Venezuelan government and their role in the violence, that they had to scramble to find scapegoats. They quickly seized upon the most gossamer stands of evidence to create the impression of a conspiracy. Wilpert makes reference to a few of the government’s favorite conspiracy theories in his review, such as the claim by former CNN reporter Otto Neustaldt.
As Wilpert discussed, during the violence on April 11 Otto Neustaldt 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.
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.
Yet how can we know for certain that Admiral Ramírez Pérez wasn't responsible for the first deaths on April 11? Well, because we can watch the first deaths on video and they are clearly caused by pro-Chávez gunmen.
For more on the Otto Neustald, see this page on my website.
I want to make it clear that the opposition was not blameless during the coup. They also did illegal things, but that is widely known. What has been obscured is the government’s crimes.
It is useful to think of the 2002 coup in Venezuela as two separate events. On April 11th, there was an opposition march that was illegally suppressed by the Chávez government and its supporters. On April 12th, there was a coup, led by the civilian-military faction that was quickest to exploit the power vacuum created by April 11th. Yes, this was an illegal change of power and the Carmona regime quickly revealed itself to be little better than a dictatorship, but that is a well-known story that no one is disputing.
When Chávez asked for Plan Avila, on April 11th, his most loyal generals refused. When the images of violence began pouring into living rooms all over the country, more and more politicians and generals refused to recognize him as the leader.
Feeling that he had lost control and still convinced that this was a well-planned conspiracy, Chávez agreed to turn himself over to the rebelling generals. (For the former Lt. Colonel, to lose the military was to lose the country.) In the early hours of April 12th, he met with them at the Fort Tiuna military base (after his resignation had been announced by his most senior general, Lucas Rincón). It was only then in the midst of the rebelling generals that Chávez realized he had it all wrong. There was no planned attack that day. It was clear by the way the generals were all fighting among themselves. No one was in control. Once he realized this he changed his mind; he refused to resign. That was when the coup began, not on April 11th, but on April 12th because instead of trying to impeach Chávez for what had happened, they tried to ship him off to Cuba and not tell anyone about it. That’s when the military leaders first broke the law. (Recall that refusing Plan Avila was actually their right since it was an illegal order.)
Much later, after Chávez was restored to power he as asked why he thought the coup had collapsed so quickly. His answer is telling. “Because the coup had no clear leader,” he said. So I ask you: what kind of conspiracy has no leader? One that is largely spontaneous; a reaction to the illegal actions of the Chávez government on April 11th.
I hope by now it is clear that Wilpert is not at all concerned with the facts of The Silence and the Scorpion, but rather in using this review to advance the Venezuelan Government’s agenda. At every turn Wilpert is minimizing the government’s responsibility as well as the magnitude of the human rights violations. For example, he says there were only 60 wounded during the violence, an impossibly low figure as Vargas Hospital alone—where I spent two weeks doing interviews—received 75 wounded; and Vargas was only one of five hospitals that received casualties. The true figure is around 150. However, we can still only speculate on the exact number of wounded and killed because, again, the Venezuelan Government has no interest in allowing an investigation that will uncover the truth.
In his review Wilpert even goes as far as to try to cross-sell the reader into other government propaganda. For example, the documentary film he recommends to readers “Puente Llaguno: Keys to a Massacre” was made with the support of both the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. It depicts only the Pro-Chávez side of the events and is full of mistakes and misleading images. The film is in English and is shown to college students and other tourists who visit Venezuela on the Global Exchange program, (the program that Wilpert formerly assisted). The film is narrated by Michael Fox, Wilpert’s co-worker at Venezuelanalysis.com, who is also an assistant Editor at NACLA. Curiously, there is no disclaimer about these connections in the review.
Now let’s turn our attention to NACLA, the lefty journal that printed Wilpert’s review. Let’s take stock of the situation: NACLA has used a Venezuelan government spokesman to review a book that exposes that same government’s role in human rights violations. A clear conflict of interest, but also an obvious marker of NACLA’s low journalistic standards. As a consequence NACLA—which has historically been a strong advocate for human rights—now finds itself covering them up because it does not want to face the inconvenient truth about Chávez’s undemocratic and militant ways. Or perhaps the NACLA editors believe in the “greater good” of Chavismo, that you need to break a few eggs to make an omelet? Perhaps they believe that the revolution is more important than the law, more important than democracy and human rights. Very dangerous thinking, indeed. I recommend they reeducate themselves and I think a good place to start is by picking up one of the human rights reports mentioned earlier. Perhaps a closer look at the victims of political violence, harassment and political persecution will make them reconsider their belief that the ends justify the means.
On NACLA’s webpage it claims that it “works toward a world in which the nations and peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean are free from oppression and injustice.” Not as long as you have Greg Wilpert and Michael Fox working for you.
And how is it that not one, but two propagandists from Venezuelanalysis.com end up working for NACLA? Greg Wilpert on the Editorial Board and Michael Fox as assistant editor? Is it due to a nice donation from Caracas? It makes sense, since NACLA provides a level of legitimacy (albeit small) that blogging for the widely discredited Venezuelanalysis.com does not.
One of the few positive results of Hugo Chávez’s destruction of the Venezuelan economy is that he can no longer spend as lavishly on propaganda and disinformation. In fact my sources tell me that in the summer of 2009 the Venezuelan government cut “a significant portion” of its funding to Wilpert and Venezuelanalysis.com. (Which may be the impetus for Wilpert’s and Fox’s move to NACLA.) Coinciding with this cut, Venezuelanalysis.com immediately began a fundraising drive. (The website explained its sudden need for donations with these words: “we lost nearly all of our funding as a result of the world financial crisis in 2009.”) An imaginative way to put it, certainly. The Global Exchange Program, for which Wilpert also worked, also appears to have been suspended as they have not updated their website since the winter of 2010.
Telesur, unfortunately, seems to still be a high enough priority for the regime to receive adequate funding.
a website which receives grants and support from the Venezuelan government:
Wilpert, Gregory and Kozloff, Nikolas, “Hugo Chavez's Future (An Interview with Greg Wilpert),” zmag.org. 11 March 2007.
<<http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/1850>> (Accessed 2 Feb 2010).
In this interview Wilpert explains how Venezuelanalysis.com received “some funding from the Ministry of Culture;” however, my sources say this is a gross understatement and Venezuelanalysis.com was almost entirely funded by the Venezuelan government until the summer of 2009.
incited attacks on Venezuela’s Jewish community: Lomnitz, Claudio and Rafael Sánchez “United By Hate” July/August 2009. <<http://bostonreview.net/BR34.4/lomnitz_sanchez.php>> (Accessed 10 April 2011).
Romero, Simon, “In Venezuela, an American Has the President’s Ear,” The New York Times, February 4, 2011.
Toro, Francisco, “Venezuela's 2002 Coup Revisited: The Evidence Two Years On.” Caracaschronicles.com.