Former Minister of Finance General Francisco Usón during our interview, December, 2003. Photo by Brian Nelson
On the eleventh floor of the Venezuelan Central Bank, two blocks east of Miraflores, Finance Minister General Francisco Usón was starting to worry. From his window he could see Chávez supporters converging on the palace.
He thought back to the meeting he had had with Chávez last night. He had told the president that he thought the situation was very grave: “We think tomorrow’s strike is going to be very strong, because today’s was certainly a success.” Usón knew because he had been keeping tabs on the strike, flying around the country with the minister of interior relations, the minister of the environment, and the minister of justice to see who was working and who wasn’t. “Tomorrow we will be talking about a massive number of people in the metropolitan area,” Usón said. “President, we have forty-eight difficult hours ahead, but if we can make it to Friday night without violence, we will make it through this because by Saturday and Sunday this strike will collapse in on itself, and on Monday we’ll wake up with our country back.”
Chávez had told his friend not to worry, that tomorrow, April 11, would be a day when he would exercise “maximum tolerance.”
“President, because you say so, I will sleep peacefully tonight,” and Usón had left the palace.
Now, looking out at the people amassing around Miraflores, Usón was beginning to lose the tranquil feeling he had the night before. He had felt a jolt of apprehension when he heard that the march was really coming, then relief when President Chávez had fired (or technically, accepted the resignation of) the new board of directors of PDVSA that he had recently appointed. It was a move that they hoped would defuse the situation, but as Usón watched the approaching march on TV, he realized that it had had no impact. The problem, Usón realized, was no longer who controlled PDVSA. The problem had become Hugo Chávez.
Usón called the vice president, Diosdado Cabello, and the minister of information to tell them that they should send emissaries to the leaders of the march and be open to receiving their proposals. Maybe that would head off a confrontation. The vice president told him that this had already been taken care of.
Then Usón had to address more immediate concerns. His head of personnel was telling him that many of his employees were requesting permission to go home for the day. They knew that the march was coming and they wanted to be as far away from Miraflores as possible when it arrived.
To assuage people’s fears, Usón began going from floor to floor asking people to remain calm and telling them they would be perfectly safe. He started on the eleventh floor and began working his way down. It seemed to be working. Usón had an unexpectedly gentle demeanor for someone who had spent his life in the military. He was a short, pudgy man with brown skin and a face that looked more round than it really was because of the big 1970s-style eyeglasses he wore—the kind with the little tint of amber in them. He spoke easily and with confidence. He was so gregarious you immediately sensed that he was trustworthy because it seemed that a man who talked so much and so openly couldn’t possibly have anything to hide. The combination of his appearance and his character had a disarming effect on people.
When Usón reached the fourth floor, someone said to him, Minister, have you seen what the people down in the street have in their hands? Usón realized that from his office on the eleventh floor it was impossible to make out such detail. He went to the window and saw that the Chávez supporters were carrying rocks, sticks, chains, baseball bats, and metal pipes. Again, Usón’s apprehension spiked.
He continued down to the ground floor and out into the street. On the opposite corner, in front of the Ministry of Exterior Relations, he saw a National Guardsman. Usón asked for his commanding officer. The soldier told him they had set up a command post in the Santa Capilla church. There Usón found the commanding officer, a colonel, who assured him that everything was under control. They planned to stop the marchers and keep everyone separated. “Don’t worry, General,” he said. And from what Usón could see, that’s what the troops were doing, staying in front of the Chávez supporters.
Feeling a little better about things, Usón started to head back to the Central Bank. Then he noticed an MVR activist (a Chávez party member) with his red beret, carrying a soda bottle crate, but instead of empty bottles, it was filled with Molotov cocktails. Things are definitely not good, Usón said to himself, especially when the National Guard are twenty yards away and are doing nothing.
Once back inside the Central Bank, Usón gave the order to evacuate the building. He had security close the front doors and begin to send people out the basement exits. Usón told everyone to go straight home and not to hang around to see what would happen.
Although most people could see the growing possibility of bloodshed, Usón had more warrant than most to worry. Two events in the past week had heightened his fear that the regime was willing to use violence as a political tool. The first was a high-level meeting held last Sunday, April 7—the same day that Chávez had publicly fired the PDVSA managers on his TV program. In attendance were Chávez, most of the cabinet, Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, and the military high command—including Generals Vásquez Velasco, Commander of the Army, and Manuel Rosendo, the head of the Unified Command of the National Armed Forces (CUFAN).
The president began the meeting by saying that the strike the opposition planned was treasonous and he asked for opinions on how to counteract it and the marches. This request opened a discussion about how to best defend the palace, the process of declaring a state of emergency, cutting the signals of the anti-Chávez TV stations and, if necessary, to impose martial law.
The president asked General Rosendo to give a detailed outline of Plan Avila, a secret military operation for taking control of the streets. Using Plan Avila to quell civil unrest made the high command very uncomfortable because the last time it had been implemented was to stop large public protests during the Caracazo of 1989, when hundreds (and many believe thousands) of civilians had been massacred in the streets by the army.
While Rosendo was discussing Plan Avila, a group of Chávez’s party officials entered the meeting. It was Deputy Cilia Flores (chair of the Political Command of the Bolivarian Revolution), Guillermo García Ponce (a veteran hard-liner who had worked with the communist guerrillas in the 1960s), and Freddy Bernal (one of the principal organizers of the Bolivarian Circles and a local mayor). This group was the Tactical Command for the Revolution(Commando Tactico de la Revolución), or CTR, and it controlled much of Chávez’s political machine.
Uncomfortable glances were passed among the generals, and Rosendo abruptly changed the subject. Information about Plan Avila was secret and not to be discussed openly.
Usón noticed that with these new arrivals the tone of the meeting instantly changed, as did the attitude of the president. Before the appearance of the Tactical Command, Chávez had been behaving like the president of Venezuela and the commander in chief of the armed forces—his two primary roles. It had been to discuss how the government would weather the storm. But now Chávez was transformed: He was now the leader of the Bolivarian Revolution, a very different role. The meeting, too, was no longer about what was best for the government of Venezuela; it was about what was best for the revolution. For Usón this meant that Chávez’s options were greatly limited. He could not say things in front of these people that he could say among his generals, for, in a way, he was outnumbered and could easily lose face.
The Tactical Command steered the meeting toward their plans to employ the Bolivarian Circlesas a paramilitary force to stop the marches and defend the president, specifically by organizing them into brigades. Then they discussed a plan to have the National Guard storm the central offices of PDVSA in Chuao to take control of the oil company by force. They also spoke of launching an aggressive information campaign on both the public and private TV stations, including having loyalists fill the highways with cars and then broadcasting the images on TV to make it look as if people were working.
In another plan to head off the strike, the president of PDVSA, Gastón Parra, suggested giving out a bonus to each PDVSA employee who did not join the strike. He said he could disburse 200 billion bolivares, or 1.5 million per employee (about $172,000 and $1,200 per employee, respectively).
This proposal irritated Usón for several reasons: First of all, in recent weeks Parra had not been sending PDVSA’s promised contributions to the treasury (which constituted half of all government revenue), claiming that the oil company was experiencing “cash flow problems.” The fact that Parra had enough money to pay a loyalty bonus meant that he had not been honest. Usón needed that money. He had already been forced to delay many payments, including government paychecks, which was causing labor tensions. It was also beginning to look as if they wouldn’t meet their payments on the foreign debt. The internal debt, too, was being financed by the sale of bonds that no one was buying. Then there was Chávez’s new minimum wage: That morning the president had announced a 20 percent increase in the minimum wage. Last night Chávez had called Usón and asked him if he could increase the minimum wage by 16 percent, which Usón had said was impossible; 12 percent was the maximum that could be funded, yet the president had gone ahead and made the announcement anyway. The increase would be effective May 1—twenty days from now! How were they going to pay for it?
Usón turned on Gastón Parra. “How is it that you can offer these people that kind of money, when we should be using it to pay teachers’ salaries or medicines in the hospitals or food in the schools?”
But Chávez cut him off, telling Usón that this was a political meeting of ministers, not a discussion of administrative issues. In over twenty-five years of friendship, it was the first time that Usón could remember Chávez raising his voice in front of him.
As Usón sat quietly for the rest of the meeting, he reflected that the Tactical Command was considering everything imaginable to try to keep control of the situation, which signaled to Usón that the situation was the exact opposite—out of control. He also feared that Chávez was losing control over the more radical members of his party.
The other incident haunting Usón about the prospect of violence was a conversation he had just last night with a close adviser to Chávez, General Jacinto Pérez. Pérez had been one of Usón’s and Chávez’s professors at the Military Academy and now his office was located right next to the president’s. The previous evening, when Usón had gone to give his report on the strike, he had to wait for a time outside of Chávez’s office. Pérez was there working, and he and Usón began to talk about the situation. Pérez, a military historian, confided that the revolution was in a crisis and that it needed to rejuvenate itself. Then he said something that shocked Usón. Pérez told him that the revolution needed to be cleaned, purified with blood. When he heard that, Usón, knowing how this man had the president’s ear, wondered what he had been telling Chávez.
Now, as Usón watched the armed loyalists grouping around Miraflores, he began to wonder what the government had planned. What exactly were the orders the National Guard had been given? And what orders did the Bolivarian Circles have?
By 12:30 there were well over a thousand Chávez supporters around the palace and more were arriving every minute. They created a human barrier blocking every possible route the march might take. The National Guard was in position, too, having set up cordons blocking all the major avenues to the palace. All, that is, except for the narrow stairs under the Llaguno overpass, where the bulk of the Circulos Bolivarianos had congregated. This, as it turns out, was where most of the killing would take place.