WASHINGTON -- If you want to hear the true story of impoverished, starving Venezuela -- and what is behind the dramatic and hopeful events of the last week -- come along with me.
It is 1992. In the lush mountains outside Caracas, the distinguished defense minister, Gen. Fernando Ochoa, is telling me soberly how the Venezuelan military misread the recent attempted coup by a small group of dissident officers led by an odd guy nobody had heard of.
"They had no clear organization; they had no plan of government," the general said that day. Yet he also admitted, "Either Venezuela changes in peace, or it changes in violence."
Now it is 1998. It is the day of new presidential elections, and I find myself in the beautiful apartment of that same "odd guy," the flashy comandante Hugo Chavez, who by then had become a pop celebrity, with his smart red beret and jaunty bearing.
Chavez and I talked for several hours before he went off to become president. Strangely, he seemed to have nothing special to do. Who was he? "I am not a communist, not a fascist," he said at one point, emphatically. "I am a democrat. We don't copy other models; we invent them!"
At that time -- given what we knew of him -- I guessed he would rule as a man of the far democratic left. But when I saw him again, five years later at a press conference he gave in New York, Chavez seemed a different man, almost a raging godfather!
The press was now his enemy. He was the victim of a "psychological war." The man who had previously denied any religious conviction, believing only in his singular hero, the "liberator" of Latin America, Simon Bolivar, suddenly took a small silver cross out of his pocket and began to sing in a strange voice, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."
Here is what had happened in those crucial five years.
Since its much-heralded revolution against the military dictatorship in 1958, Venezuela had been ruled by two parties that called their system "democracy," but used the word fraudulently, as they robbed the country blind and stole Venezuela's vast oil wealth (fifth-largest in the world).
Even by 1992, as Arturo Uslar Pietri, the nation's most respected intellectual, told me in Caracas, Venezuela had become a "miracle in reverse."
Without a serious moral democratic model, that "odd guy," now President Chavez, emigrated intellectually to Cuba and to ITS model. Hugo and Fidel: They were the odd couple who were pictured giving hugs and kisses, singing "Happy Birthdays" to each other and much more.
Soon, Cuban intelligence agents were all over Venezuela (the Organization of American States estimates about 15,000 of them). For all intents and purposes, Venezuela became a socialist country run by Cubans from the shadows. Fair-minded analysts began to call it a Cuban-inspired "criminal empire." By the time Chavez died in 2013 and the thuggish Nicolas Maduro came to power, it didn't even have food to feed its people.
This week, the young head of the National Assembly, 35-year-old Juan Guaido, emerged to challenge Maduro's socialist "paradise" -- constitutionally, legally and legitimately, using a clear part of the constitution. Twenty nations of the world backed Guaido, while Maduro's weary backers -- Russia, China and Iran -- hesitantly stood behind him.
Here's what's interesting. First, the truculent Maduro did not immediately take any of his usual violent actions. Second, forces in Washington and Miami, it turned out, had been quietly working on a plan to back Guaido for some time. Third, China had given some $65 billion in energy-related loans to Venezuela, only to come to realize the country was unable to produce the hard currency, which it can get only from the U.S., to service these loans; China said little last week.
What's even more revealing are the details of the plan to back Guaido. Led by Florida's Sen. Marco Rubio and National Security Adviser John Bolton, the Trump administration has been working with other nations of the hemisphere on a diplomatic plan, primarily non-military and non-traditionally interventionist, to change the regime in Venezuela from within. They are using the power of millions of dollars of blocked Venezuelan funds in U.S. banks, plus American oil investments in Venezuela, making them available to Guaido, while European nations were doing the same. Twenty million dollars in food and medical aid was immediately promised to Guaido.
Finally, this week the U.S. imposed sanctions against Venezuela's state-owned oil company, an act that could cut off the country's main source of cash, since the U.S. is the only creditor that pays in cash.
Will this work? Can it work? At this point, these are promising and diplomatically fascinating steps, and the Trump administration will deserve credit for them if they can bring Venezuela back to itself. Only time will tell.