May 1, 2009

Everything you ever wanted to know about April 11th and weren't afraid to ask

Quico says: Following our Skype Interview last month, Aprileleventhologist extraordinaire Brian Nelson kindly agreed to answer some of your questions about his six years of research into the 2002 April coup.

Brian's very-soon-to-be-published book The Silence and The Scorpion, is the most comprehensive account of the April Crisis written to date.

[If you haven't had a chance yet, listen to our original "Skypecast" here and here. Both are MP3 files.]

Brian Nelson writes:
Thank you for taking the time to respond to and debate my interview. As the comments showed, April 11-14th is still a very controversial and emotional topic and I don’t think anyone feels like justice has been done.

Many of your questions or comments were about my analysis of the violence on April 11th—what is my opinion on who started shooting? what is my opinion on who is responsible?

As I mentioned in the interview, adding my opinion was in many ways contrary to the spirit of the book; rather my goal was to give the perspectives of the people who were actually there (both pro- and anti-Chávez) and let the reader figure it all out. In other words, I tried to convey the experiences of people like Omar as well as people like Carlos. Therefore, if you come to the book with a set position on Venezuela, then you will find many chapters that follow characters that support your viewpoint; but you will also find many chapters that go against it.

I intentionally avoided using my own voice in 90 percent of the book, only stepping in when I felt it necessary to avoid confusion. The timing of events on Baralt Avenue was one of those few instances when I felt I had to stop and explain to the reader what I believe really happened. If I had not done this, it would have been too confusing for English readers who are not familiar with the events.

It should be noted that even when I did use my own voice, I still let characters contradict me. If their testimony belied what I said, I did not simply edit it out, I left it in. This, I hope served as an indication to the reader that these events were disputed.

Timing of violence on Baralt Avenue—Part I
“LaLucca” wrote: How does Nelson's book compare and contrast with Wilpert's version of events? ….if I remember correctly the whole of Wilpert theory was based on a very late timing for Tortoza's killing ….Wilpert puts it at 4.20pm and then develops this whole business with the CNN journo Otto Neusttad, the generals announcing the killings before they took place, etc,etc…

Greg Wilpert has done some very good work on the coup. In fact, his blow-by-blow of events is remarkably similar to mine and many of our conclusions (including the extent of U.S. involvement) are very similar, too.

I do, however, differ on the timing of the violence, which ends up being very important. As you mentioned, Greg Wilpert wrote that Jorge Tortoza was shot and killed at 4:20 pm. (This was the timing given in the documentary La Cadena.) My research shows that he was actually shot and killed right around 2:30 pm. Jesús Arellano was shot a few minutes before Tortoza (shots of the dying Arellano are the last pictures on Tortoza’s camera), and undercover DISIP officer Tony Velásquez (the first gunshot victim on Baralt) was shot even earlier than that, farther up the street.

I am confident that my timing is correct because it was confirmed by six eyewitnesses I interviewed — four opposition marchers, a journalist, a police officer and one Chávez supporter. They all saw Tortoza, they were all interviewed separately, and they all agreed on the time.

Other bits of information also support this earlier timing:
  1. Responding to reports of shots fired on Baralt Avenue, the metropolitan police that were blocking the march on 8th Street moved to Baralt. This happened at just about 2:30 too.
  2. In his testimony before the National Assembly, General Eugenio Guitiérrez, who was in charge of the National Guard troops that day and was on the back patio of Miraflores, said that by 3:00 pm he saw wounded coming from Baralt Avenue.
  3. Two pro-Chávez gunshot victims on Baralt that I interviewed told me they were shot at about 3:00 p.m. The bullet that struck them was at street level—likely fired by police.
  4. Doctors at nearby hospitals also confirmed that the wounded began to arrive around 3 p.m. or earlier. The plastic surgeon who did the reconstructive surgery on Malvina Pesate said he got the call to come to the hospital at 3:30. In other words, Pesate was shot (moments after Tortoza), was taken on a motorcycle out of El Silencio, was put on a truck and taken to the Red Cross center, then driven to Hospital de Clínicas Caracas, given preliminary first aid and X-rays, and then someone contacted the plastic surgeon—all by 3:30 pm.
  5. At 3:30 Carlos Ortega called General Rosendo to say that there were six dead.

Concerning Otto Neustaldt’s Account
Now that we know the shooting started earlier, Otto Neustaldt’s story that Admiral Hector Ramírez Pérez knew about deaths before they occurred becomes problematic. Recall that Meza and La Fuente report in “El Acertijo de Abril” that the supposed first taping of the Admiral’s announcement came right around the beginning of Chávez’s special broadcast, which we know started at 3:45 pm—about 75 minutes after the first deaths (Tortoza and Arellano). That’s plenty of time for the officers to learn of the killings. Meza and La Fuente also reported that someone called out Tortoza’s name as one of the dead before the taping began.

I am not saying this to exonerate Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez of wrong doing. On the contrary, my research showed that he had been conspiring against Chávez for many months—he did want to have a coup. What I am not convinced of is that he said people had been killed before they were—something that would imply that he had a hand in those killings.

I tried to reach Otto Neustaldt a couple of times to clarify exactly what happened, but received no response. Since I could not confirm the story, I decided not to include it in my book. And, as I mentioned above, I had shown in one of my first chapters that Admiral Héctor Ramírez Pérez was indeed conspiring against Chávez, so it became something of a moot point.

Timing of Violence- Part II – To address Berto and Carlos’s questions
Carlos is right about a few things here. I agree with him that many of the opposition victims were not shot by the Puente Llaguno gunmen. One of the things I quickly realized from talking to the people who were there was that what happened on Baralt Avenue spanned more than three hours (a lot can happen in 3 hours of shooting) and during that time the different groups (Chávez supporters, marchers, and police) were all moving around quite a bit.

I’m afraid that too many people want to match the videos of the shooting of Arellano, Tortoza and Pesate with the video of the Puente Llaguno gunmen. But these events took place two hours apart. The gunmen were not shooting from Puente Llaguno until about 4:30 (and were 3 blocks away), while Arellano, Tortoza and Pesate were shot at about 2:30.

My research shows this sequence of events:
The first round of casualties was suffered by the opposition at about 2:30 p.m. near the Pedrera intersection. These people (Arellano, Tortoza, Pesate, et al.) were shot by gunmen on the street (not by snipers and not from Puente Llaguno and not by the National Guard). They were shot by gunmen who were very close to marchers, perhaps as close as 20 meters, shooting Southward. Arellano—shot in the chest while looking North; Tortoza—shot behind the left ear while jogging East; Pesate—shot though the cheek while facing North.

All three of these killings were captured on video and in each one we can see that the victims are facing northward (with the slight exception of Arellano who comes back on camera the second after he is hit—his right hand coming up reflexively to the wound in his chest). These videos also show how close the marchers are to the Chávez supporters—fluctuating between about 20 and 50 meters apart as they throw rocks at each other.

In response to this first round of casualties, the Metropolitan Police—who were concentrated a block away on Eighth Street—came and tried to separate the two groups. However, the pro-Chávez crowd perceived this separation as an attack by the police; they thought the police were helping the march get through to the palace, so they turned their weapons increasingly on the police.

Over the next hour and a half or so the distance between the march and the pro-Chávez crowd steadily increased to about 3 city blocks with the police in the middle. There was still a lot of firing, but the number of casualties was smaller. Still, more and more Chávez supporters were being shot as the police returned fire on the gunmen (and hit unarmed people, too).

A bit after 4:30 the gunfight between the police and pro-Chávez gunmen reached its apex and Luis Fernandez captured one side of it in his (in)famous video.

You might ask how I know it was 4:30. In the original Luis Fernandez video we can hear Chávez’s special broadcast over the loudspeakers outside of Miraflores in the background. Because we know what time the broadcast began and ended [and because Chávez occasionally mentions the time], the video becomes a kind of clock.

This is the time when the pro-Chávez side suffered most of its casualties. Indeed, my research shows that during this last 45 minutes of the violence the pro-Chávez side suffered all of their fatalities.

It is clear that the Metropolitan Police shot many of them—by this time the police had called in SWAT-type units with high caliber rifles to “neutralize” the gunmen. They likely shot several of the armed gunmen like Erasmo Sánchez—a man who can be seen in one of the videos firing at police moments before he was shot in the head. Others were possibly hit by misses by the police and there is a good possibility that others might have been hit by friendly fire from the Chávez supporters’ haphazard shooting. It was very chaotic.

In the book, I often let characters contradict the things I said or other characters said so that the reader would know that things were disputed. This is one of those cases. I let several characters say that the Metropolitan Police started the violence, even though my research doesn’t support this, because this perception has become (a) part of the reality of the coup.

About the Title and Cover
“Firepig” very eloquently asked about the origins of the title and cover. Actually, the original title of the manuscript was simply “The Silence,” but my agent and the marketing department at Nation Books were afraid that this would not work as a title because American readers would not know that it referenced the area in Caracas where the violence and the coup began. So I went back to the manuscript and began looking for alternatives. “The Silence and the Scorpion” won out, in part because my editor and I both really wanted to keep “The Silence” in the title.

But why Scorpion? Near the end of the book, I recount my first interview with General Usón in 2003 (before he was arrested and imprisoned). In that interview he described Chávez as a scorpion—someone who might have good intentions, but who is, by his nature, militant.

The story of the cover is similar. I initially wanted a cover that showed the split television screen that many people saw on April 11th. This depicted Chávez’s special broadcast on one side and the violence on the other. (I thought that made a nice metaphor: A split screen for a split nation. It would also have suggested the book’s balancing of perspectives.) However, it was difficult to find actual images of the split screen and these were often of poor quality. In the end we had to scrap the idea.

Luckily, Brent Wilcox at Nation Books was able to create the final cover from one of the archival photos. My editor, agent, and I all loved it so we went with it. I like this cover because it is somewhat ambiguous—it is not clear if the man holding the flag is for or against Hugo Chávez. It is only clear that he is patriotic.

Responding to Santiago Garcia’s question about snipers. The appendix of my book is called “The Sniper Riddle,” and in it I try to make sense out of all of the reports of snipers. I must admit, I was only partially successful in clarifying this.

There were three “zones of violence” where the presence of snipers was alleged:
  1. Baralt Avenue from The National Building to Hotel Eden
  2. Between El Silencio Metro and El Calvario
  3. Urdaneta Avenue from Miraflores to the Central Bank.
In the appendix I take a look at each zone individually.

Here’s a quick summary

Zone 1 —Baralt Avenue
Contrary to accepted wisdom, I actually don’t believe there were snipers in this zone. Instead I think that the confusion of the situation, low visibility and echoes in the streets gave people the impression that there were snipers. Imagine for a moment standing in a crowd and suddenly seeing people collapse from bullet wounds, this would likely make you think there were snipers. However, the forensics and photographic evidence suggest that those who were shot in this zone were shot by other people on the street with low caliber handguns. For example, Malvina Pesáte, Jorge Tortoza, and Jesús Arellano were all shot at street level. The Chávez supporters injured or killed in this zone appear to have all been shot by police or friendly fire and/or ricochets.

Zone 2 — El Silencio Metro to El Calvario
It is likely that in this zone there were National Guardsmen and members of Chávez’s Honor Guard working as snipers to support the Guard’s effort to turn back the march. One witness saw the barrel of a FAL sticking out from the Miraflores parking garage and believed that this was the weapon that killed Jhonnie Palencia, an opposition marcher. Another saw a man dressed in black with a FAL shoot a man sitting on the steps of El Calvario. It is important to remember that for the National Guard and the other security forces around Miraflores, Plan Avila was in effect—these soldiers had been given orders to hold back the march and maintain the security perimeter around the palace. (This is also the zone where a National Guardsman was videotaped firing his pistol at the march.)

Zone 3 —Urdaneta Avenue from Miraflores to the Central Bank
This is where things get particularly complicated and where there is a great deal of conflicting evidence. I am able to reach some interesting hypothesis in my book, but in the end I cannot conclusively say who these alleged snipers were or who they were aligned with.

About funding/allegiences
Given all of the spin surrounding April 11th and that many of the facts have been distorted and manipulated for political ends, it is important to ask about the origins of any article, book, or movie about the coup. I was aware of all of the spin and polarization from the beginning, so one of my primary tasks was to depict the events independently and without outside influences.

As the original interview explained, I unilaterally changed the idea for my book from a novel to literary journalism. Then I researched it on my own, I conducted the interviews on my own, and I wrote it on my own. I was very adamant about being independent, which is why it took six and a half years to finish (my grant only covered a portion of the initial research; all subsequent research and writing, including another trip to Venezuela, I paid for myself).

More important, however, is who is actually printing and distributing the book. As I mentioned earlier, my publisher is Nation Books, which is the book division of The Nation Magazine—the largest leftist weekly in the United States. Current releases by Nation Books include “Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army;” “Collateral Damage: America’s War against Iraqi Civilians;” and “Sweet Jesus, I Hate Bill O’Reilly.” In other words, it is hardly a mouthpiece of the U.S. State Department and neither am I.

Unfortunately, Venezuela has become so polarized that any book written about it will be criticized as being biased in some way, whether it be towards the opposition, the government, the military, the media, the Church, or the United States. While I know that some will surely disagree with my conclusions, I have allowed every side to give its perspective on the events.

In The Silence and the Scorpion government supporters say they were attacked by police on Baralt Avenue, while opposition members say that they were ambushed by Bolivarian Circles. The book tells the stories of journalists being harassed and assaulted as well as the stories of how the media manipulated and failed to cover Chávez’s return. It shows how Chávez’s advisers feared the president would be handed over to the United States (à la Manuel Noriega) as well as the White House reaction to the coup. It shows human rights violations but it also shows Venezuelans helping other Venezuelans in need, even when they knew that the person was in the “enemy” camp.

All these perspectives are part of April 11-14th and all of them show another facet of the truth that we are all looking for.

Thank you again for your questions and comments.

Brian Nelson

Click here to order the book from Amazon.

April 30, 2009

The number cruncher

Juan Cristobal says: - In recent days, Hugo Chavez named former Finance Minister Nelson Merentes to head Venezuela's Central Bank. The move would not be chavista if it wasn't controversial, as there was no public hearing on Mr. Merentes' nomination.

Most of the criticism stems from the fact that Merentes is not an economist - he is a mathematician. To me, this seems curiously off-base, specially considering how economics and mathematics have a lot in common, more so each day.

It's not the training he lacks that is the problem, it's what he's willing to do with what he has.

The real danger comes from the fact that Merentes is not only a yes-man but a particularly clever one. As Daniel chronicles, his rise to fame came from devising a voter cheat-sheet that ensured that chavismo, with 60% of the votes, got 97% of the seats in Venezuela's Constitutional Assembly. He was also allegedly involved in numerous shady dealings while at the head of our Treasury.

Merentes left the government to start a "polling firm" that was so closely linked to chavismo, he named it "Grupo de Investigacion Siglo XXI," which practically mirrors the government's pledge to take us to "Socialismo del Siglo XXI."

The polling firm's track record was pretty bad. For example, Merentes predicted the opposition would win two states in last year's regional elections, when in fact they won 5 plus the race for the now-defunct Caracas Mayor's position. He also predicted Chavez's candidates would win Libertador by 37 points (they won it by 12); Petare by 7 points (they lost by 12), and Miranda by 19 points (they lost by 7 points).

Yet in spite of his spotty track record, Merentes gained a reputation as a loyal number cruncher. You would think a number cruncher would be a good fit for the Central Bank, right? Think again.

It's common knowledge that most of what the government publishes is not to be believed. At the same time, BCV figures are, for the most part, still relied upon by economists in Venezuela and abroad. This will probably change.

Putting Merentes at the top of the BCV can only mean the BCV Statistics Office, which has so far escaped relatively unscathed from day-to-day politics, will become the statistical arm of the government.

The implication is that we can kiss the days of reliable economic indicators goodbye. Just like in Cuba, where government statistics make the claim that its GDP per capita puts its population's purchasing power somewhere between that of Brazil and Colombia, so too will we begin to see Kirchnerian number fudging.

Inflation is a problem? Merentes will take care of it. Recession? He'll wipe that off too. International reserves dwindling down? Just add a couple of zeros.

I hope I'm wrong, but I'm probably not. As Hurricane Feces makes its way to our shores, the number cruncher will be there to convince us that everything is "excessively normal."

April 27, 2009

Thoughts on the Eve of the Fifth Anniversary of 1M

Now also on Huffo.

Quico says:
Some events are so momentous, so history shaking, all you need to refer to them is a date. 911 is, I suppose, the grand-daddy of them all, not to mention the main reference point American readers will have for the whole idea of the History Changing Date.

In Venezuela, we have a bunch of them. Our convention, though, is to name them by the day of the month, followed by its initial letter.

So say "27F" and everyone knows you're talking about February 27th, 1989, the day violent rioting swept through the country in response to a fuel price hike. "4F" is February 4th, 1992, the day Chávez attempted to violently overthrow the elected government of Carlos Andrés Pérez, while "11A" is its mirror image: the date of the coup attempt against Chávez 10 years later, on April 11th.

A number and a letter is all you need to conjure up these events because they're the turning points of our national narrative, key junctures when Venezuela's historical trajectory shifted in ways that are still hotly disputed today.

But not every turning point gets the number-and-a-letter treatment. A date like "1M", for instance, means nothing at all to Venezuelans. Which is ironic, because it was on May 1st, 2004 that Venezuelan democracy died, only to be replaced by one of the new breed of "Competitive Authoritarianisms" - regimes where electoral competition coexists with the openly autocratic use of state power.

On Friday, it will be five years since Venezuela's National Assembly voted narrowly to approve a new Framework Law of the Supreme Tribunal. The law expanded the number of sitting magistrates from 20 to 32 and, in direct contravention of the constitution, enabled the National Assembly to both appoint and remove magistrates by a simple majority vote, effectively ensuring a permanent chavista majority.

The twist is that, in Venezuela, the Supreme Tribunal is more than a court of final appeal: it's also the ruling body over the entire court system. The procedures for appointing all first instance and appeal court judges are defined and implemented by a Supreme Tribunal committee - the so-called Dirección Ejecutiva de la Magistratura - which also controls the process for removing judges. Which means that, in Venezuela, controlling the Supreme Tribunal means controlling not just the highest court in the land, but all lower ranking courts as well.

Thing is, 1M wasn't much of a media event. Just a bunch of parliamentarians parliamentating. It didn't yield an image, never produced the kind of footage TV stations could show again and again. It never made it onto the front pages of foreign newspapers...hell, it barely made it onto the front pages back home!

Within days, it was overshadowed by flashier news that seemed more alarming at the time but would soon fade. The whole episode got filed away under the category of "outrageous things chavismo does that we can't do anything about" and forgotten; but its importance would not fade. On the contrary.

Now more than ever, we live under the shadow of 1M. It was then that chavismo put an end to the pretense that any part of the state could curb the president's power. The move heralded the era of the robed magistrate chanting pro-Chávez slogans inside the Tribunal chamber and of Supreme Tribunal chairmen openly declaring that the justice they were there to implement was "revolutionary justice" - openly partisan justice unabashedly dedicated to furthering the political needs of the leader.

The 2004 Supreme Tribunal Law did away, at a single stroke, with society's most important means for protecting itself from the authoritarian inclinations of its rulers, ensuring a subservient justice system that would never again dare to act as a check on the power of the powerful.

1M was the day when all the credibility drained out of our judicial system, the day any possibility that citizens could again use the law to seek redress against the abuses of the powerful was closed for good.

So as we approach its 5th anniversary, lets take a moment to reflect on the grim legacy of the day democracy died.