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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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In his memoir, Vecchio explained how Santana invited him to attend a 1.011 gathering in Caracas near the end of his time at Harvard.

"There were so many people that I could not see Elias," Vecchio said of the rally. "I believe it was the first act of civic protest of Venezuelan society against the 1.011 decree, and from where 'Movement 1.011' was born."

Though the campaign failed, it shaped the contours of the fervently anti-communist movement that eventually orchestrated a failed coup against Chavez in April 2002. Vecchio returned to Harvard and completed his studies before that fateful day, but wasted no time in mobilizing with anti-government groups as soon as he came home.

"Once back in Venezuela," recalls Vecchio, "Elías [Santana] was the first one I called".

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Exxon's man in Venezuela finds his path

By the time Vecchio moved back to Venezuela in September 2001, Chavez had been in charge for nearly three years. The country was in the midst of rapid change: in 1999, over three quarters of voters had approved a new constitution which widened political participation and advanced rights for women, workers, the rural poor and indigenous people. These reforms brought forward the prospect of a new set of laws which threatened the narrow interests of the country's ruling class, as well as those of corporate America.

Vecchio's former employer, Mobil, had merged with Exxon and was still operating in Venezuela at the time. But his former employer at PDVSA was now in the crosshairs of the Bolivarian revolution ushered in by Chavez. Venezuela had nationalized its oil reserves during the 1970's, however neoliberal reforms instituted twenty years later opened the industry up to private finance. Chavez sought to reverse that process, placing the previously untouchable PDVSA hierarchy in jeopardy.

Chavez's decision to replace PDVSA's entire board in early 2002 set him on a collision course with the country's elite, triggering an oil strike that paralyzed the country's economy and accelerated the drive to remove him from office.

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By this time, Vecchio was harvesting influence among a rapidly expanding NGO sector in Venezuela thanks to his mentor, Santana. "When I definitively returned to the country in September 2001, Elias [Santana] told me they were exploring the possibility of creating a new association," Vecchio writes in "Free."

Four months later, in January of 2002, he and Elias founded Ciudadania Activa, a self-described "civil association" outfit with a focus on political "decentralization."

On April 11th, 2002, Venezuela's opposition made its play against Chavez, kidnapping him and spiriting him away to an island, temporarily removing him from power. The president of Venezuela's Chamber of Commerce, Pedro Carmona, was placed at the helm of a "transitional government" established in the infamously un-democratic "Carmona Decree". Among the representatives of "civil society" who signed the April 12th document was a co-founder of Vecchio and Santana's Ciudadania Activa, Rocío Guijarro.

Though the coup failed within 48 hours thanks to a massive public mobilization, Ciudadania Activa is still operational today. It was found to have received $76,900 from USAID in the years following the coup, though the real amount of funding Ciudadania Activa has reaped from the US government remains unknown.

Having failed to oust Chavez through a coup, USAID expanded its footprint in Venezuelan civil society. In August 2002, the State Department subsidiary assembled a Caracas "Office for Transition Initiatives" (OTI) and contracted a private firm called Development Alternative Incorporated (DAI) to disburse funds to anti-government groups.

One of Vecchio's old pals happened to be overseeing DAI's multi-million dollar project. In his autobiography, Vecchio writes about a man named Antonio Iskansdar, a "great friend" whom he lived with upon moving to DC to study at Georgetown. Also a former PDVSA employee, Iskansdar went on to serve as "Program Advisor" to OTI Caracas, in his own words, "designing [the] first grants programs" working with civil society organizations."

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Oddly, Vecchio made no mention of his friend's work in the US regime change operation, describing him merely as a helpful companion. Today, Iskandar still works for DAI, which was named USAID's "Large Business Partner of the Year" in 2018.

In English language interviews, Vecchio has glossed over his activities in the years immediately after the failed 2002 coup. For instance, in a conversation with The Yale Globalist, he described himself simply as a "professor at a local university." In reality, however, Vecchio was laying the foundation for a political transition at home, embedding within US government funded civil society groups while maintaining what he described as a "successful" career as a tax lawyer. Never mentioned to US outlets is the fact Vecchio was working for ExxonMobil while Chavez's efforts to drive foreign companies out of Venezuela reached a fever pitch.

In an interview with The Yale Globalist, Vecchio framed his entry into politics as an early response to the rise of Chavismo. "It was in 2001," the magazine reported, "when Carlos saw what was happening, he realized, 'one could not ignore what was going on anymore'". On closer examination, it appears Vecchio only transitioned into politics once Chavez prevailed in nationalizing Venezuela's oil industry, thus crushing his chances to flourish within it.

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