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The Fire Next Door

April 14, 2002
By Raffique Shah

THEY must have popped vintage champagne as they toasted each other at the Langley, Virginia headquarters of the CIA last Friday morning. Before they took up duties at the office that day, the Agency's most challenging project in the Americas since it removed the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the late 1980s, the emergence of the populist Hugo Chavez Arias of Venezuela as a Latin powerhouse, had come to an abrupt halt. Chavez, a military leftist who came to power by a landslide victory in elections held a few years ago, had been hounded out of office by a cleverly orchestrated plot that involved the captains of industry, trade union leaders and, of course, well-groomed high-ranking officers of that country's armed forces.

For those among us who had seen the US power-play performed on so many stages-meaning sovereign states-over the past 50 years, it was not unexpected. Chavez became the champion of Venezuela's poor from the "barrios" and rode to power with a wave of popularity, the likes of which had not been seen in South America since Juan and Eva Peron rampaged through Argentina in the 1950s. For millions in oil rich Venezuela who had lived through two oil booms and seen no change in the persistent poverty that dogged them for generations, Chavez was the Simon Bolivar of the 21st Century.

He was, in many ways, too good to be true. He spoke of the re-distribution of his country's immense wealth so that the masses would share in what was effectively theirs. He assailed those who had stolen from the people over the years and vowed to put economic power in the hands of the masses. He refused to blindly follow the dictates of Washington and became very friendly with Cuba's Fidel Castro. He even courted Caribbean countries, offering many of his poorer neighbours oil at preferential prices.

Clearly, the US government could not have this rat right at its back door gnawing away at a strategic chunk of its hemisphere of influence. Castro remained the piece of bitter aloes stuck in Langley's throat-in spite of numerous attempts to assassinate him or have him removed from power. Now, with Chavez turning into a younger version of Fidel, just when the Pentagon thought they would see the last of the latter through the ravages of age, it was too bitter a pill for them swallow.

So even as the Taleban in Afghanistan turned out to be the proverbial pain-in-the-ass, Chavez could not be forgotten. In fact, the attack on the World Trade Centre last September 11 may have taken America's mind off Chavez for a brief moment. But even as they decided to take on the Taleban head-on, a task that would fall in the laps of the "brass" at the Pentagon, Langley will have been focussing on Chavez. He could not be allowed to remain in control of the USA's biggest supplier of oil in the West.

True, Chavez appeared to be naive in many respects. He imitated Castro down to the red beret, and never bothered to temper his leftist language. Worse than that, he took on the fašade of a dictator although he had won two elections by landslide margins. He commandeered the country's main radio and television stations, firstly to interact with his people, but ultimately to peddle his propaganda. When the industrialists, no doubt in collaboration with certain trade unionists, started mobilising the oil workers against him, he failed to catch on and deal directly with the workers. Then the middle classes took to the streets much the way they had done against previous presidents, and he still did not appear to take a hint.

For those of us who had seen the CIA and the Americans conduct similar operations elsewhere, we knew that it was only a matter of time before they got Chavez. An invasion was out of the question. Already, US troops are bogged down in Colombia in that country's war against leftist guerillas and the big cocaine cartels. That intervention does not have the full blessings of the American people. To attempt to land troops in Venezuela would have galvanised the people of South America against the invaders, which would have been bad for its image and worse for its geopolitics.

The US, therefore, used a strategy that's older than the CIA (which was born out of the OSS that operated during World War II). It is no coincidence, nor is it through sheer generosity, that the US offers free training to officers of the armed forces of most, if not all, countries in the hemisphere. Manuel Noriega of Panama was one such officer: he was groomed to replace Omar Torrijos, another officer who had taken over the country by coup in 1968, but who would later adopt a "Bolivarian" stance, challenging the US for control of the Panama Canal.

Many such officers become silent CIA operatives who might never be called upon to do anything for the Agency throughout their careers. But, as happened in Venezuela, when a "bad guy" turns up on the scene, it's time to awaken the "sleepers". When, therefore, senior naval and army officers started making public statements against Chavez, which, in other circumstances, would have landed them before courts martial, it became clear what method the CIA was about to use to remove Chavez. Most of the demonstrations that were mounted in the past few weeks were also part of the plan. And when, on Wednesday, some 11 people were killed by gunfire (no one knows who fired-and my belief is they'll never know: agents provocateurs!), that was the signal for the coup.

And so, in the wee hours of Friday morning, Chavez, probably finally coming to terms with what had hit him, offered his resignation. He was replaced by a junta that, interestingly-though not surprisingly-is headed by the leader of that country's business federation (Fedecamaras), Pedro Carmona. At his side, generals Efrian Vasquez, Ramirez Poveda and Alfonso Martinez provided the military muscle necessary to keep the illegal government in power.

For most Trinidadians, Venezuela is as relevant to them as Mongolia. But geopolitics will dictate otherwise. Chavez, in spite of being removed from power, has the strongest power base any individual has in a country 11 miles away from us. More than likely, some kind of unrest, possibly guerilla warfare, will start there. If we didn't notice the occurrences there before, it's time we do so now. Because the fire next door will very likely leap over into our front yard.

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