The story of regime-change brain Carlos Vecchio’s rise through elite US institutions and the oil industry captures the essence of Venezuela’s opposition.
By Anya Parampil and Diego Sequera
May 24th was a day of hard-earned celebration for Carlos Vecchio, the man tasked with leading the Trump administration’s coup attempt in Venezuela from the US capital. His face was largely obscured in the grainy Twitter video of the moment he and his gaggle leaned out of a third-story window and hoisted a brand new flag onto Venezuela’s former diplomatic mission in Washington DC, but Vecchio was clearly beaming as a small crowd of supporters cheered from below.
Finally, on that swampy spring afternoon, Vecchio had arrived as Venezuela’s “ambassador” to the United States. Or had he?
Vecchio’s quest to illegally seize and occupy Venezuela’s US embassy had been a far more arduous battle than he likely imagined. A group of anti-war activists had managed to prevent his entry for over a month by establishing a presence inside the building at the invitation of Venezuela’s elected president, Nicolas Maduro. Their goal was to block Vecchio and his cohorts from taking over the premises until a diplomatic resolution regarding the mission’s status could be reached.
For 31 days in April and May, the activists managed to stymie Vecchio’s entry, mounting a standoff which transformed DC’s affluent Georgetown neighborhood, the site of the embassy, into a frontline in the diplomatic assault against the UN-recognized Maduro government.
Viva Venezuela libre desde nuestra Embajada. Se acerca el final de la dictadura. El cambio ya llegó . pic.twitter.com/OG5zKB9ITb
— CARLOS VECCHIO (@carlosvecchio) May 24, 2019
Vecchio’s moment of glory finally arrived on May 16, thanks to three dozen federal US agents clad in night vision goggles, helmets, and flak vests, which looked as though they were gearing up for a Waco-style raid. When they barged into the embassy, arresting the four remaining activists inside, Vecchio and his team could finally lay claim to the premises. It was a symbolic victory, to be sure, but one that kept the momentum going.
Though the Western media’s cameras have focused on self-declared “interim president” Juan Guaido, Vecchio was instrumental in laying the foundation for what would become the Trump administration’s coup.
After going into exile in 2014, Vecchio became the brains behind Venezuela’s opposition in the United States. And well before Trump took office, the smooth-talking lawyer was schmoozing with US officials and hashing out plans to achieve regime change in Caracas.
“We all know who he is already,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said of Vecchio, once the coup plot was set into motion this year.
In interviews with US media, Vecchio brands himself as a natural politician who was forced into exile due to the brutality of Venezuela’s government. This narrative not only erased his hand in promoting opposition violence, but expunged key aspects of his resume which shed new light on the forces that propelled his rise to “ambassador” of a US-appointed coup regime.
Vecchio’s career did not start in the rough and tumble of Venezuela’s political scene, but instead with a promising career in the oil industry. Indeed, Vecchio entered the political arena in 2007 only after Hugo Chavez successfully drove out ExxonMobil, his employer at the time. For years, Vecchio had been leading Exxon’s legal fight against the Chavez government.
This revealing detail has been curiously omitted in his interviews with sympathetic US outlets, and was mentioned only briefly in his autobiography. Yet it is critical to understanding Vecchio’s emerging role, especially as Guaido flounders back home.
This June, Guaido was hit with a massive embezzlement and corruption scandal relating to his humanitarian aid stunt in February in Colombia.
Meanwhile, the Venezuelan government has accused Vecchio of stealing $70 million from Citgo, the US-based sister company of PDVSA that was placed under his control when the Trump administration launched its coup attempt this January. It is unclear who is paying the salary of the US-appointed “ambassador” and his growing cavalcade of professional opposition activists, but the dispute over Citgo’s assets offer a hint.
Vecchio has treated the uncomfortable episodes as background noise, focusing instead on his June 18 press conference on the US Navy ship USNS Comfort. Once on deck, Vecchio will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Vice President Mike Pence and the head of US Southern Command. Then the hospital ship will set sail toward South America in another provocative stunt aimed at undermining the country’s sovereignty.
The coup might have lost course in Caracas, but Vecchio’s lobbying for intervention from DC is going full steam ahead.
In the years leading up to this pivotal moment, Vecchio has passed through a pipeline of elite east coast institutions, smoothed by scholarships and grants signed off on by the US government. Considering his trajectory, it’s no surprise then that Vecchio’s journey would eventually lead him straight to Washington DC.
“I realized that I need to be a part of the change that I wanted to see,” Vecchio told The Yale Globalist.
A central character in Trump’s coup, with longstanding ties to one of the oil companies behind the regime-change push, Vecchio is playing his part with precision. Told on the pages of an autobiography, in interviews with glossy Ivy League magazines, and through USAID financial filings, his story distills the essence of Venezuela’s opposition.
The education of Niño Carlos
Nestled in a lush valley sprawling amidst the mountainous northeastern state of Monagas, the farming municipality of Caripe was the backdrop for Carlos Vecchio’s childhood. Home to one of Venezuela’s landmark national parks, the Guácharo Caves, Caripe is a sleepy township filled with coffee plantations and other mild temperature crops like potatoes and berries. By the time Carlos was born in the Monagas state capital of Maturin in 1969, the Vecchio clan had been living in Caripe for a little less than a century.
According to Vecchio’s 2018 autobiography, “Free: The Birth of a New Venezuela,” his great grandfather, Rafaelle, arrived from Italy to eastern Venezuela around 1889. Vecchio’s father, Rafael, was a politician, serving three terms as a local councilman. In memoirs and interviews, Carlos painted his father as a committed man of the people. Tasked with settling disputes and overseeing the local land registry, Rafael was charged with overseeing Caripe’s landowning class as a member of the center-right Copei party.
En mi Pueblo natal , Caripe, Estado Monagas, nuestra gente se expresó de manera clara por un cambio el día de hoy. Viva Caripe pic.twitter.com/A2WgRGJKm5
— CARLOS VECCHIO (@carlosvecchio) February 2, 2019
“My father was a politician, so it is in my blood,” Vecchio reflected during an interview with the unironically named Yale Globalist.
Over the years, Copei faithfully represented the interests of the church hierarchy, landowners and Venezuelan oligarchy within government halls. Rafael Vecchio not only served Copei as a councilman and candidate for Caripe mayor, but as the party’s Regional Secretary as well.
“Even though I was just a child, I had participated in many political rallies, particularly in the municipalities of [Caripe], following my father around,” recalled Vecchio during a conversation with The Politic.
“I felt that it was my responsibility to go into politics after watching my father’s efforts.”
When the time came for Vecchio to relocate to Venezuela’s capital for work, like many politically ambitious youngsters, he opted to study law. In 1992, the same year Hugo Chavez was catapulted into the national spotlight following his failed effort to lead a military uprising, Vecchio received his law degree from the Central University of Venezuela.
After law school, according to the Washington Diplomat, the budding politician “went on to win a Fulbright scholarship that enabled him to study at Georgetown, and later at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he earned a master’s in public administration and eventually returned to Venezuela to teach in public schools and gradually immerse himself in opposition politics.”
Though Vecchio graduated from law school in 1992, he did not arrive at Harvard until 1998. This abbreviated tale, spun out again and again in English language media, overlooks a few crucial years in his life.
A full scholarship, courtesy of the US government
After graduation, law students must determine where to employ their freshly endowed talents. Carlos Vecchio decided he was best suited for the drab yet profitable field of tax law. In 1994, he began work as legal council for the national oil company, Petroleum of Venezuela (PDVSA). At the time, PDVSA was still controlled by the country’s oligarchy and managerial elite, and would stay that way until Chavez moved to socialize the company.
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.”
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”.
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.
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.”
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.
In 2007, Chavez successfully forced Exxon and other foreign companies to turn over vital oil projects to the government. It was then that Vecchio emerged as a de facto spokesman for the opposition within in the oil industry, complaining in US media about “discrimination” at the hands of Chavez.
“I will be fired,” Vecchio lamented in an interview with Marketplace, “because the government will discriminate against me.”
According to Marketplace, by that time Vecchio had been “mount[ing] a fruitless legal challenge” to Chavez’s restructuring of Venezuela’s oil industry “for years.”
As Exxon packed up its offices, Vecchio says he was offered a position with the company in Qatar. He rejected the consolation job, instead thrusting himself into the fight against Chavismo. “My decision [will be] staying in Venezuela to be part of change,” he wrote. “I can’t ask for my country to change if we aren’t capable of being part of that change.”
When Carlos met Leopoldo: the makings of a political bromance
Though he had thrived in the corporate world, when it came to politics, Vecchio always seemed to come in second place. In his first bid for office, he ran in 2007 as an “independent citizen” for mayor of the wealthy, eastern-Caracas Chacao neighborhood. The district was home to Caracas high-society, offering Vecchio the perfect place to test out his Harvard Kennedy School chops.
The Chacao mayoral elections that year turned into a civil war between primary candidates competing to assume the legacy of Leopoldo Lopez. The rising star of the opposition whose claim to fame included his participation in the kidnapping of a government minister during the botched coup five years before, Lopez was barred from running for office over allegations he’d leveraged his position at PDVSA in the late 1990s in order to illegally fund the foundation of his Justice First party.
Vecchio quickly tapped out of the race, blaming his failure on an oversaturation of competition in the district. His gesture did not go unnoticed, however, as López personally thanked him for the decision to quit.
In his autobiography, Vecchio writes that he and López became “political brothers” through this episode. It was the beginning of a relationship that transformed Venezuela’s opposition. Vecchio had never won an election for national office and never would, but thanks to his bond with Lopez, he wouldn’t need to hold a seat in parliament to achieve the influence he yearned for.
Breeding a party in the US regime change test tube
By late 2007, Venezuela’s economy was roaring, Chavez and his allies were proving unbeatable and progressives were scoring victories in countries across Latin America. The US was desperate for any measure to roll back the Pink Tide sweeping the continent. Into the breach stepped Generation 2007, a collection of US-trained youth operatives that provided the perfect vehicle for Vecchio and Lopez to radicalize the country’s opposition.
In November, thousands of middle and upper class students poured into the streets to protest the government’s decision not to renew the broadcast license of Radio Caracas Television, an opposition channel that took credit for the coup that momentarily ousted Chavez years before.
The demonstrations quickly morphed into a revolt against an upcoming constitutional referendum centering around a proposal to declare Venezuela a “socialist” nation. As Max Blumenthal and Dan Cohen reported for The Grayzone, the movement was led a group of activists trained by the NED and CIA-funded Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS. It was the inception of “Generation 2007.”
The leaders of “Generation 2007” were directly sponsored by USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives. As one contractor familiar with their projects explained to academics Tim Gill and Rebecca Hansen in The Nation, “the US had a very daring movement and brought a lot of money to the students through OTI, and it grew a lot as a result.”
“I’m proud. It’s like you see your son and daughter grow up,“ the contractor continued. “I knew them when they grew up…the potential leaders when [or] if there is a change of government, and we were the ones who showed them the first steps.”
Before this mobilization, Venezuela’s opposition was demoralized, suffering blow after another at the voting booth. But thanks to Generation 2007, they managed to deal Chavez a rare defeat, stymying his referendum to institute “21st Century Socialism.” Its success brought fresh faces into the fold of US-backed NGOs, including the future coup leader, Juan Guaido, whose only mention in Vecchio’s book appears in a section reflecting on Generation 2007’s emergence. The stage was set for a political regrouping that would leverage the astroturfed movement’s enthusiasm into real power.
In 2009, Lopez and Vecchio founded Popular Will, a party that reflected the interests of Venezuela’s business class and the radical, no-compromise sensibility of its youthful leadership.
“We started visualizing a political organization instead of a movement,” Vecchio writes in his autobiography.
Vecchio was primed for this task during his time at Harvard. In a 2013 interview with The Politic, Vecchio reflected, “While at the Kennedy School I learned a lot about the best political practices and how I could implement them in my country.”
And as with nearly all of Vecchio’s endeavors, the hidden hand of the US government eased the way.
“Since USAID/OTI could not directly fund political parties,” reported Gill and Hansen, “they worked with party leaders, including those from Voluntad Popular [Popular Will], to help opposition activists set up” anti-government community groups.
“We even developed new NGOs that were looking very neutral in the eyes of the government,” an OTI source confessed to the two academics. “So we gave them money…They were pulling people away from Chávez in a subtle manner.”
In establishing Popular Will, Vecchio effectively merged the burgeoning leaders of “Generation 2007” with the networks established by US-backed NGOs around the country, uniting them under the umbrella leadership of Lopez, a man widely viewed as the opposition’s most charismatic national candidate.
Unlike other opposition parties, Popular Will carefully branded itself in a manner which did not alienate those who recognize the social gains made by Chavismo. In 2014, it was admitted into the Socialist International, a status which enabled the party to cast itself as progressive not only to Venezuelans, but to left-wingers across the West. (The notoriously militaristic Israeli Labor Party is also a member of the Socialist International).
When pressed to describe the party’s platform, Vecchio struggled to offer anything beyond boilerplate commitments to “democracy” and “freedom.”
However, one position above all has been clearly articulated: “We want oil to be a normal commodity in the international arena,” the former Exxon, Mobil, and PDVSA employee told The Politic. So much for Popular Will’s supposed commitment to “socialism.”
Since Popular Will’s inception in 2009, it garnered underwhelming support at the ballot box, most recently coming in third during parliamentary elections in 2015. Despite struggling to win actual votes, Lopez and Vecchio demonstrated an uncanny ability to whip up chaos and even lethal violence in Venezuela’s streets during times of crisis.
“We must create chaos in the streets”
Following the untimely death of Hugo Chavez in 2013, Venezuela’s opposition realized that it had bet badly on the Bolivarian Revolution dying with its leader. After losing the presidential election to Nicolas Maduro in April and suffering another shellacking in municipal elections seven months later, opposition leaders fell into a panic. When Maduro invited them to engage in a national dialogue, Popular Will turned instead to the streets.
On January 23rd, 2014, Lopez joined with a notoriously extreme opposition leader also backed by the US, Maria Corina Machado, to launch the “La Salida” or “The Exit” campaign, calling for massive demonstrations to force Maduro’s resignation.
“We must create chaos in the streets through responsible civic struggle,” Machado thundered.
Lopez’s effort to foment unrest peaked on February 12. Flanked by Vecchio and Guaidó, the sandy haired firebrand stood in Caracas’ Plaza Venezuela and demanded that protestors march to the Attorney General’s office. Shortly after the Popular Will leaders left the stage, anti-government demonstrators heeded Lopez’s call and attempted to burn the government building to the ground.
The violence led to an arrest warrant for both Lopez and Vecchio on charges of public incitement, property damage, arson, and conspiracy. Lopez was arrested on February 18th, but the street violence of “La Salida” continued until mid-May.
By the end of La Salida, the opposition’s campaign of chaos had contributed to the deaths of 49 people, over 800 wounded, and nearly 10 billion dollars in damage.
“La Salida’s proposal had a long term vision,” Vecchio reflected in his book. “It was a progressive blueprint.”
Following Lopez’s arrest, Vecchio disappeared for 108 days before resurfacing in the likeliest of places.
From Yale to top dog in Popular Will
In the months leading up to the “La Salida” campaign, Vecchio took a brief sojourn from organizing with Popular Will to attend courses at yet another exclusive East Coast US institution.
This time he was a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale University, joining a program named after the former CEO of the investment mega-bank AIG and Honorary Vice Chair of the Council on Foreign Relations. Just years before, fellow “La Salida” instigator Maria Corina Machado had enjoyed the same fellowship. It was funded by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros, the USAID and NATO-backed German Marshall Fund, and the Rockefeller-founded Asia Society, among others.
In comments made to The Politic, Vecchio said he traveled to New Haven “to see what I can learn… and see how I can apply it to Venezuela, particularly in social innovations, international relations and the role of oil in the international community.”
He clearly saw Yale as another step on the way to regime change, remarking, “It also helps to tell people what is going on in my country, and to prepare for the next big steps that need to be taken.”
While Vecchio did not elaborate on those so-called “steps,” within months of his return to Caracas in December of 2013, Venezuela had descended into political turmoil, Lopez was in prison, and he had decided to go underground. His disappearance sent his former teachers and classmates in New Haven into a state of elevated anxiety.
“Just two months ago, Carlos Vecchio was attending classes and becoming friends with the faculty and students on Yale University’s campus,” reported Yale’s undergraduate paper The Politic on February 20th, 2014. “Now, the former Yale World Fellow finds himself as the target of an arrest warrant in Venezuela.”
“We are deeply concerned for Carlos Vecchio’s safety: he is currently in hiding in Venezuela with limited access to communication,” Yale World Fellows director Michael Cappello fretted.
“This has been primarily a peaceful movement that has tried to work for reform through participation in the political system,” added Cappello, a professor of pediatrics and member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I think it deserves to be celebrated.”
In early June 2014, Vecchio resurfaced in New York City. There, he explained in his first interview since leaving Venezuela that Lopez and his peers decided he could best serve the party from abroad.
“They considered that I am most useful in this moment denouncing the abuses which continue to exist against human rights in Venezuela at the international level,” he told CNN Español, “So we’re going to do it.”
With Lopez under house arrest and unable to maneuver internationally, Vecchio’s days as “number two” were finally over. From that moment, he began to behave as the leader of Venezuela’s opposition in the US, embarking on a concerted effort to convince top US officials that support for Popular Will was their best bet at achieving regime change.
Vecchio wrote about the lobbying blitz in his book: “I had to meet in the US Congress, the White House, the State Department, with professors in US universities, different ambassadors, [and] influential civil organizations in the states.”
Courting Almagro, turning the OAS against Venezuela
In March of 2015, the Obama Administration issued an executive order declaring Venezuela to be a “national security threat.” Offering no evidence of the danger the country posed to the US public, the order criticized “the erosion of human rights guarantees [and the] persecution of political opponents” – a clear reference to Lopez’s arrest. The sanctions were subsequently spun out by the Obama and Trump administrations into an escalating series of unilateral coercive measures targeting the heart of Venezuela’s economy.
While Vecchio lobbied US officials on regime change efforts, he paid special attention to Luis Almagro, the Uruguayan Foreign Minister who had assumed office as Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) in May 2015. He wrote about having “a long conversation” with Almagro on Venezuela, “to take the opportunity to tell him who we are in Popular Will, that we believe in democracy, in an economy that isn’t completely in the hands of the state, [and] that we believe in private incentives.”
Vecchio said he and Almagro “began to prepare a report so that the OAS would at least highlight the topic of Venezuela and could start considering the possibility of applying the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
One year later, Almagro presented a 114 page report on the situation in Venezuela and called for a referendum on Maduro’s leadership, declaring “the situation facing Venezuela today is the direct result of the actions of those currently in power.” Just as Vecchio hoped, Almagro invoked Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, reserved for instances when the government of a member state “seriously impairs the democratic order”.
Almagro’s hostile obsession with Venezuela led the country to withdraw from the OAS at the end of April, 2017. Venezuela’s then-Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez blasted the Secretary General as a “traitor of everything that represents the dignity of a Latin American diplomat.”
But Vecchio referred to Almagro in glowing terms. “The Venezuelan people will never be able to thank him for his fight to restore democracy,” he said of Almagro in his memoirs, “That’s why I always tell him he’s the most Venezuelan Uruguayan of all.”
In the prologue to Vecchio’s autobiography, Almagro credited the Venezuelan lawyer as an inspiration. “Carlos Vecchio was the first Venezuelan political leader that approached me about the subject of Venezuela after I assumed office as General Secretary of the OAS,” he recalled.
Three years later, when the Trump Administration initiated a coup in Venezuela, Almagro ensured that the OAS recognized Guaido as the interim president of Venezuela and accepted his appointed representative to the group, Gustavo Tarre, in explicit violation of the organization’s own charter.
Through Almagro, Vecchio had marched through an international institution and laid new groundwork for the US to intensify its pursuit of regime change in Caracas.
From regime change activist to US “ambassador”
In January 2019, Vecchio’s Popular Will party received the mandate it had been seeking to lead Venezuela.
The victory his party had achieved did not come through any popular vote, but thanks instead to the Trump Administration’s unilateral recognition of Juan Guaido, the head of Venezuela’s legally defunct National Assembly, as president of the country. Within days of the US formally recognizing Guaido on January 23rd, the White House welcomed Vecchio as Venezuela’s new “ambassador” to Washington.
When Trump delivered his State of the Union Address address in early February and trumpeted his administration’s decision to recognize Guaido, Vecchio was seated in the Capitol chamber as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s guest of honor.
“Carlos Vecchio leads Venezuela’s government from the US,” a Miami Herald headline announced at the time.
The reliably anti-Maduro paper reported: “For the past four years, Carlos Vecchio was a fixture at Venezuelan restaurants in Doral, standing beside lawmakers and community leaders as they railed against” Maduro. The Herald noted that Vecchio opted to spend his time in “the city with the highest percentage of Venezuelans in the entire country,” rather than in New York or DC.
“I’ve known Carlos Vecchio a long time,” remarked Florida Senator Rick Scott. His counterpart, Rubio, said of Vecchio, “We all know who he is already.”
Guillermo Zubillaga, senior director of Public Policy Programs and Corporate Relations at the Council of the Americas, could hardly contain his excitement when discussing Vecchio with the Herald.
“I’m sure Carlos is perfectly suited to be a diplomat,” he gushed, “You can ask any opposition figure from many parties and they will tell you they don’t have anything against Carlos.”
Zubillaga celebrated Vecchio’s ability to charm members of both major US parties, noting the pro-coup positions of Democrats like Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz as “evidence of [his] work.”
According to Zubillaga, Vecchio “has something few people in Washington have: bipartisan support for his cause.”
But as coup dragged on and Maduro remained firmly entrenched, Vecchio’s cheerleaders would learn that bipartisan support in the US did not guarantee popular support where they needed it most.
The battle for embassy in DC
On May 1st, the day following Juan Guaido’s flubbed military putsch in Caracas, a determined Vecchio marched down 30th street in Washington DC’s upscale Georgetown neighborhood preparing for a coup of his own. For over 24 hours, dozens of Guaido supporters had encircled Venezuela’s US embassy, and word among members of the anti-war activists stationed inside was that Vecchio would attempt to enter the building that day.
In the moments before Vecchio’s arrival, a mob of coup sympathizers guarded by US Secret Service swarmed the embassy, harassing peace activists outside and hectoring those in the building. Many of the opposition members resorted to racist, sexist and homophobic taunts, threatened the peace activists with violence, and even vandalized the embassy. Their ugly displays stood at odds with the dapper image Vecchio had affected, but they would have been familiar to anyone who had witnessed the chaos stoked by his Popular Will party over the years in Venezuela.
When representatives of the coup government began trickling in for Vecchio’s press conference in the late afternoon, they were met by the thunderous chants of the Embassy Protection Collective amplified by speakers blaring down from windows on the third floor.
“How many coups does it take? Vecchio is a fake!”
The cries from above drowned out Vecchio’s address when he arrived on the scene. He was forced to flee the scene of what was supposed to be his victory lap without even an attempt to enter his own supposed embassy. It would be twenty three long days before he was able to set foot inside the building.
The co-author of this piece, Anya Parampil, was an embedded journalist inside the embassy throughout the standoff. She attempted to question Vecchio multiple times, but was either roughed up by his supporters as she approached him or ignored. Vecchio did not respond to interview requests and questions sent in advance of this article’s publication.
In the midst of his battle for the embassy, Vecchio’s powerful allies threw him a consolation prize. On the evening of May 14th, Florida Sen. Rick Scott presented the wannabe diplomat with the International Republican Institute’s Freedom Award. The ExxonMobil and National Endowment for Democracy-funded organization had dedicated its prize established “to honor individuals who have worked to advance freedom and democracy in their countries” to “the Venezuelan people.”
“Thank you Elliot,” Vecchio exclaimed during his acceptance speech, motioning towards Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and convicted Iran-Contra felon Elliot Abrams. “Thank you for becoming a friend in this fight.”
Following the ceremony, Vecchio was ferried to the Venezuelan embassy, where he gifted the award to a large crowd of pro-coup activists still rallying outside. As during his previous appearance on embassy grounds, activists bellowed mocking chants from their loudspeaker inside the embassy.
Vecchio mingled with the crowd, un-phased by the relentless scorn. Several days later, once US agents had raided the embassy and arrested the activists inside, Vecchio returned once again to rile up his supporters and address the media.
“We have a liberated embassy!” Vecchio announced, flanked by a raucous crowd of emigres.
He might have been unable to provide consular services like visa renewals due to the failure of the coup, but Vecchio was ready to declare a major triumph.
“I am grateful for the patience of the Venezuelan people,” he continued. “But I also want to thank the Government of the United States: many thanks! And thank you to President Trump, also. Thank you to the Department of State. Thank you to the security services that were an incredible help… The Secret Service, to all of the security bodies, the local police… many thanks!”
With his long list of shout outs, the former Exxon lawyer revealed the true forces behind the political movement he represented. In between Washington and Miami, among the Venezuelan diaspora and US political elite, Carlos Vecchio had found a constituency without winning a single vote.
Diego Sequera is a journalist, writer, translator, editor and political analyst based in Caracas. He is a founding member of Misión Verdad, where he currently writes about geopolitics, global conflict, and Latinamerican and Venezuelan history and politics.