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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 7/8/19

From Exxon to 'Ambassador': How Carlos Vecchio Became Venezuela's Top Coup Lobbyist

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Vecchio's resume is similar to those of his upper crust peers in Venezuela's opposition. Leopoldo López, who would go on to found the Popular Will party with Vecchio, also worked for PDVSA during the pre-Chavez era, serving as a consultant and analyst from 1996 to 1998. Similarly, two-time failed presidential candidate Henrique Capriles worked as a tax lawyer, not for the oil industry, but for Venezuela's revenue service, before co-founding the Justice First party along with Lopez in the year 2000. These men represented the replacement generation of Venezuela's oligarchy that saw its future stymied by Chavez's ascent.

Vecchio's early career ambitions were fueled by petroleum profits. In 1994 he began his professional relationship with Mobil, offering legal counsel to the oil company before it merged with Exxon. He writes in his book that at Mobil, he "was earning six-times more than what he'd made with PDVSA." Yet it was while working for PDVSA that he began looking at "the posters of the Fulbright Scholarship with interest." With only a partial command of English, he applied for the State Department-sponsored program until he finally scored success in 1998.

The US embassy in Caracas may seem like a strange location for an academic scholarship to hold interviews, but that's exactly where the eager lawyer would have to audition for his Fulbright. Vecchio writes about memorizing basic replies in order to prepare for the interview, noting that "if they took me off-script it would ruin everything." Fortunately for him, when he was asked impromptu what he would do "if he were Venezuela's finance minister," a sympathetic panelist allowed him to answer in Spanish. Vecchio left the meeting brimming with confidence. A few months later, while sitting in his office at Mobil, Vecchio received word from the US embassy that he'd won a complete scholarship.

"We're going to pay for everything," the embassy informed him one July afternoon. By January 1999, Vecchio was in Washington DC with a US-funded scholarship in hand. Days later, Chavez was inaugurated for his first term as president. The Bolivarian Revolution had begun and so had the oligarchy's backlash.

Finding a US-backed political mentor at Harvard

While in the US capital, Vecchio says he "studied more than 12 hours daily" in order to learn English and complete his masters in tax law at Georgetown University.

"Everything I got in life has been because of education," Vecchio told The Politic in 2013. "I realized if I need to be a politician, I have to educate and prepare myself very well."

Despite his lack of English fluency, Vecchio wrote that he applied for several jobs in the States. As with his Fulbright application, the determined corporate lawyer overcame his anxiety with a second language to cinch a lucrative contract.

"When my turn to talk came, it got very difficult, but did the best I could," Vecchio writes in his book, "and it turns out that I get the job, a job in New York after I finish my Masters [at Georgetown]! In 2000 I would be working in New York with a $110,000 a year salary, getting $10,000 after signing. I felt like a Major League Baseball player."

Vecchio worked with the undisclosed company for three fruitful months before moving on to Harvard's Kennedy School, the famed institution where young people seeking careers in establishment politics are trained by the leading lights of neoliberal economics and interventionist foreign policy. The Kennedy School currently hosts former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Obama UN Ambassador Samantha Power, and economist Ricardo Hausmann another top advisor to Guaido's coup administration among its faculty. It also happened to be the alma mater of Vecchio's future partner in the foundation of the Popular Will party, Leopoldo Lopez.

"[The Harvard] Kennedy [school] especially gave me a great sense of what was going on [in] the world, and allowed me to see my country as part of a globalized world rather than a country that was just isolated and concerned with nothing but its internal affairs," Vecchio explained to The Politic.

It was on the Harvard campus where Vecchio encountered his political mentor, Elias Santana, a seasoned activist who traveled to Boston to mobilize opposition to the Constituent Assembly process initiated by Chavez in 1999. For years, Santana had been working closely with US government backed groups to promote "voter education" in Venezuela. When he met Vecchio on Harvard's campus, Santana gave the studious lawyer his first nudge towards activism.

In Vecchio's words, Santana was "my first link, let's say, with a political actor of national linkage not focused on the parties but with a civil association". And he was no minor link.

Santana's group, Queremos Elegir, had been coordinating with the USAID and US State Department-funded International Foundation for Electoral Systems since 1993, when IFES selected it as one of "two civic associations [considered] as adequate interlocutors to promote voter education programs" in Venezuela despite the fact it was "limited" and employed "only one paid staff" member. IFES assessed Queremos Elegir to be "part of an agenda" that demanded "a greater role for the private sector in the solution of community and national problems." Fliers produced by the group for distribution during the 1998 presidential election openly thanked the US-controlled Inter-American Development Bank for funding their production.

By 2000, Queremos Elegir was leading the effort to suspend Venezuela's upcoming presidential election, the first to take place under the newly ratified constitution. In his book "Suicide of the Elephants?" Latin America researcher Rickard Lalander writes that Santana and his partner at Queremos Elegir, Liliana Borges, "played important roles in the mega-electoral process of 2000. They were called to the Supreme Court as voices of Venezuelan civil society (and decentralization) to state their arguments for the postponement of the election".

The following year, Chavez's new government was met with its first anti-government civil society demonstrations. Known as the "1.011 Movement", they emerged in response to a presidential decree that sought mild educational reforms to expand public schooling and create sports and literacy programs in collaboration with the Cuban government. This was a red line for Venezuela's opposition. Led by Santana, Chavez's opponents pressured parents and teachers to denounce what they branded the "Cubanization and ideologization" of education.

Chavez "tried to mess with our schools and civil society and we will not accept it," Santana told CNN during a January 2001 demonstration described as the "largest protest against President Hugo Chavez's government to date."

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