Show Notes: Hugo Chavez, the Mini-coup and Cancer

Ben Bowlin

Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

In our recent series on Hugo Chávez, Matt and I covered the short-lived 2002 coup d'état and Chávez's untimely passing.

Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998. He'd first gained fame with a failed coup in 1992, when he turned his televised 'surrender' into a rallying cry for Venezuela's impoverished. Like most politicians, he promised big changes and, again, like most politicians, his reign was far from perfect.

There's little doubt that Hugo Chávez will remain a controversial figure in Venezuelan history. It's true that poverty statistics improved under his administration, but it's also true that the currency was dramatically devalued and his administration had few qualms about circumventing the rule of law. He packed the courts with his political supporters, and the economy became increasingly dependent on oil. In our series, we don't attempt to defend or to demonize Hugo Chávez. Instead, we explore two lingering accusations. Was the United States was behind the coup of 2002? Did someone purposefully give Chávez cancer?

Both questions have some intriguing angles. For example, it's true that the United States had advance knowledge of the coup: members of the Bush administration met and spoke with the coup plotters, though they did not support "any extraconstitutional means" of overthrowing the Venezuelan regime. In our episode, we note that knowing about a coup and participating in a coup are two separate things, but, honestly, how would this look if the players were different?

What if France knew of a looming coup in the United States, for example, and just decided not to tell the President? Would that count as participating?

It's no secret that Chávez and the United States often had an antagonistic relationship, so the idea that the United States might tacitly approve of a coup isn't entirely crazy. If you want to go for something a little more outré, you'll need to ask Chávez's former Vice-president, Nicolás Maduro.

You see, Maduro -- along with Evo Morales and a surprising number of other people -- are convinced that someone gave Chávez cancer. Chávez himself floated the idea in 2011, with an "I'm just sayin'" air that was echoed by both Morales and Fidel Castro.

In our Friday video we note some additional details regarding Chávez's claim, and the claims of his supporters. First, it's true that several South American leaders have been diagnosed with cancer -- but cancer is not a single disease, and these leaders have different forms of cancer. Second, 'assassination by cancer' sounds like a pretty roundabout way to kill someone.

Of course, the United States is no stranger to bizarre assassination schemes and unethical experiments. Some of the old plans to kill Castro sound like the strategies of a comic book supervillain, and the U.S. admittedly experimented on unknowing Guatemalans from 1946-1948. And, to add to the uncertainty, Congress has been in the dark about C.I.A. spy technology before.

The United States isn't the only world power with skeletons in its spy closet. After all, most experts seem to believe that Russian intelligence was responsible for the death of Alexander Litvinenko, and former President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko certainly didn't dose himself with dioxin. At this point, however, there's no accepted proof that the United States (or anyone else) has successfully weaponized cancer in this way.

To many the western world, the idea of assassination via cancer is little more than a "tin-foiled tale," but the Venezuelan government is currently investigating the claims. So what do you think? Is Maduro just spouting rhetoric to garner votes? Is the idea of killing someone via weaponized cancer loony, or is there more to the story?

Let us know by befriending us on Facebook, dropping us a line on Twitter, or sending us an email at As always, thanks for reading.

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