Did Venezuela's Opposition Meet with US Officials in Puerto Rico?

Revelations made by a determined community media reporter in Venezuela indicate that four leading figures of the opposition against President Hugo Chávez may have met with a U.S. official in Puerto Rico. The details of the meeting remain sketchy, but the brewing scandal is already stoking the flames of what promises to be one of the most heated electoral battles in Venezuelan history: the constitutional referendum on whether to allow elected officials, including Chávez, to seek multiple reelection.

January 14, 2009

Even by Venezuelan standards, the story seemed implausible. On January 9, a young reporter Pedro Carvajalino, from community television station Ávila TV, filmed four leading figures of Venezuela's right-wing opposition returning from Puerto Rico. They had just arrived by private jet from the U.S. territory, where they had purportedly met with representatives of the U.S. Department of State.

According to emails obtained by the reporter, officials held the meeting to plan strategy and secure funding aimed at defeating a proposed amendment to the Venezuelan constitution that would allow elected officials, including President Hugo Chávez, to seek reelection.

The story first broke on Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), a government television channel. The brewing scandal has quickly become a centerpiece of a debate over U.S. interference in the internal affairs of the country as it prepares to vote on the re-election referendum in February.

Visibly surprised by Carvajalino's presence, the four individuals included three members of opposition parties: Jorge Borges a leader of Primero Justicia; Luis Planas, Secretary General of the Christian Democratic Party (COPEI); and Emilio Barboza, President of Un Nuevo Tiempo. The fourth was Alberto Federico Ravell, the director of Globovisión, a more strident local version of Fox News in Venezuela. Globovisión's editorial line and 24-hour programming are vehemently opposed to the Chávez government.

Ravell refused to give responses to Carvajalino's questions and then proceeded to verbally spar with the young reporter who repeatedly asked about the purpose of the trip to Puerto Rico. When Carvajalino labeled Ravell a “palangrista” (a journalist who receives bribes in exchange for published materials), the media mogul exploded and started yelling obscenities at the reporter, threatening him physically and reportedly blurting out homophobic comments. While this exchange unfolded, the other three leading figures of the Venezuelan opposition remained largely silent; one opted to take pictures with his cellular phones.

During the VTV interview that broke the story, Carvajalino produced an email allegedly from Ravell to Borges, Plana, Barboza, and another opposition leader, Henry Ramos Allup from the Acción Democrática (AD) party, who did not accompany the others on the trip. The email supposedly shows the meeting had been in the works for some time and was originally planned for Miami; though, it was subsequently moved to Puerto Rico. Carvajalino has not disclosed how he obtained the email and its authenticity remains a mystery.

Patrick Caulfield, the leading diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Caracas had left for Puerto Rico a few days earlier. An embassy spokesperson has confirmed that the Caulfield traveled to Puerto Rico, but insists that he was there on unofficial business to attend a wedding and take a few days of vacation.

According to Carvajalino, Ravell's email states “our friend from the embassy will leave one day earlier.” It also makes reference to a group of “advisors who have been working very hard these last few days" and “will outline a strategic campaign with ideas about TV commercials, events and speeches.” The email further states that they have “bounced ideas with major league advisors in the United States … everything is ready to confront this reform.” Finally, Ravell brings up the $3 million needed to pay for the campaign's costs, “which will have to be shared by all.”

On Sunday, the mainstream print media paid scant attention to the incident. This all changed, when Chávez on his first broadcast of Aló Presidente for 2009, his regular Sunday show, decided to retransmit the Ávila TV broadcast on cadena nacional, a nationwide transmission that all government-licensed media must carry.

The next day, Minister of Communication Jesse Chacón held a press conference in which he confirmed the existence of Ravell's email and said the government is collecting further information to ascertain if US government officials have illegally intervened in the internal affairs of Venezuelan.

The United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) has called on the Minister of Foreign Relations to also investigate the matter. Jorge Rodríguez, the PSUV Mayor of the Libertador district of Caracas has insisted that Globovisión should register with the National Electoral Commission as an opposition party.

Ravell has acknowledged the trip to Puerto Rico, but he insists the purpose of the trip was to meet with Chileans leaders, who had helped defeat Pinochet in a national referendum—a rather transparent effort to cast Chávez as a dictator.

William Echeverría, president of the National Association of Journalists, who has an early morning show on Globovisión, condemned the young reporter's aggressive tactics and language, claiming that it unduly incites passions. And Yon Goicoechea, a former “student leader” and recipient of the right-wing Cato Institute's Milton Friedman award for freedom who now serves as an advisor to Primero Justicia, also came to Ravell’s defense.

Beyond the fact that Ravell, Borges, Barboza, and Planas all traveled together to Puerto Rico, little more has been confirmed at this point. However, if the allegations are proven, then the opposition will once again find itself on the defensive, trying to disprove that their funding and strategy are not "Made in U.S.A." Even just the possibility of the charges being true is likely to stoke the fires of the referendum battle, which already promises to be one of the most heated elections in Venezuelan history.

The alleged US government link to the Puerto Rico meeting is particularly sensitive given Washington's past financial support to the Venezuelan opposition through the National Endowment for Democracy and other analogous institutions. Domestically, the Puerto Rico meeting undermines efforts by Un Nuevo Tiempo and Primero Justicia, parties to distance themselves from the policies of AD and COPEI, which governed Venezuela from 1958 through 1998. Finally, the meeting is one more bit of evidence that corroborates allegations by the PSUV and other leftist forces that the commercial mainstream media in Venezuela—especially Globovisión—are simply an extension of the opposition.

Editor's Note: Watch Carvajalino's report from the airport:

Miguel Tinker Salas is a professor of History and Latin American studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California. He is co-author of Venezuela: Hugo Chavez and the Decline of an Exceptional Democracy and author of Under the Shadow of the Eagles. His new book, The Enduring Legacy, Oil, Culture and Society in Venezuela will be published by Duke University press in the spring. Born in Venezuela, he holds Venezuelan and US citizenship.

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