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Alleged Venezuela coup leaders land in South Florida

Alleged coup leaders land in South Florida
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 24, 2002

MIAMI -- In the aftermath of this month's failed coup in Venezuela, the United States faces potential further embarrassment after the discovery that several of the alleged coup leaders are now living in South Florida.
They include Isaac Perez Recao, 32, a reputed arms dealer and heir to a Venezuelan oil fortune, who is described in Venezuelan business circles as a headstrong young man with an interest in guns and security issues.

Together with a group of heavily armed bodyguards, Perez Recao played a highly visible role during the April 12-13 coup, according to detailed reports in the Venezuelan press. As the coup unraveled he reportedly boarded a private helicopter and flew to the Caribbean island of Aruba before flying on to Miami.

Perez Recao's family owns several homes in Key Biscayne, a wealthy island community connected to Miami by a seven-mile causeway, including a $2.4-million beachfront penthouse where he lives with his wife. He did not return several messages left with his sister, Odette Perez Recao.

The presence of Perez Recao in the United States is a delicate matter for Washington. The Bush administration came in for widespread criticism after it pointedly declined to condemn the coup, which briefly ousted Hugo Chavez, the country's democratically elected president.

Chavez, a leftist former paratroop commander, has upset Washington by championing the cause of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as well as forming close ties with Iraq, Libya and Iran.

U.S. officials say they are looking into allegations that Isaac Perez Recao was involved in the coup, as well as reviewing his immigration status. Under U.S. law Perez Recao could lose his right to remain in the United States if his participation in the coup is confirmed.

The secretary of state has the power to deny entry visas, or revoke their issuance, to people deemed to present "potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States."

This power has been used recently against a number of Haitian military officers and civilians alleged to have been involved in coup plotting.

Ironically, it was also applied to Chavez after he led an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1992 when he was still an army officer.

The Venezuelan government has asked the United States for clarification of its response to the failed coup, which Washington at first appeared to welcome. So far it has made no official comment about the presence of Perez Recao on U.S. soil.

But close advisers to the president have called on the United States to take swift action. "They should be taking the same position with these people as they did with Chavez," said Lt. Col. Wilmer Castro, a former air force officer who helped restore Chavez to power. "Or do they (the Bush administration) only believe in democracy when it suits them?"

The revoking of visas has been used only sparingly as a foreign policy tool, said Dennis Jett, a former ambassador who is dean of international studies at the University of Florida.

"Usually it's done to punish people or make an example of them," he said. "But in this case the U.S. didn't appear to be particularly upset with what was attempted."

Unless Venezuela chose to seek Perez Recao's extradition, Jett predicted the matter would be allowed to drop. "For the U.S. to go after this guy only brings back the issue of what position the State Department took (during the coup); of whether it was winking or not winking," he said.

The Venezuelan government has so far appeared reluctant to pick a fight with Washington over its reaction to the coup. "I have to start out with good faith," Chavez said in an interview this week. "I prefer to look at things very prudently, very calmly, based on the principle that we don't want our relationship to deteriorate, to fall to pieces."

U.S. officials have denied any involvement in the coup, though they admit meeting a number of Venezuelans who sought support for a coup. Officials say all such requests were rebuffed.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto J. Reich prides himself as being a pro-democracy advocate in the region. A Cuban-American, Reich is a hard-line critic of Castro.

In a recent speech he also announced a more aggressive use of the visa weapon as a tool to punish corruption in Latin America. "We don't want corrupt people here," he said. "They're not going to retire in Key Biscayne. They're not going to go to Disney World, and their spouses are not going to shop on Fifth Avenue. And if they are sick they are not going to go to Houston to have their hearts examined."

While there are no allegations of corruption against Perez Recao, evidence of his involvement in the coup seems overwhelming. Venezuelan press reports have described a number of meetings in his house in Caracas where conspirators allegedly met. During the coup, he and his heavily armed bodyguards were reportedly seen directing events at Venezuelan military headquarters.

However, some analysts doubt Perez Recao was the intellectual author of the coup. "There were other actors behind all this," said Alberto Garrido, a leading Venezuelan political consultant. "(Perez Recao) was clearly a part of the operation, but he doesn't have the stature to have led it."

Perez Recao's father, who died about five years ago, amassed an oil fortune. His uncle, Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, was the founder of the OPEC oil cartel.

The family also owns two shopping malls in North Carolina, according to Antonio Yip, their Miami lawyer.

- News Researcher Kathy Wos contributed to this story.