Should Washington Try to Improve Relations With Venezuela?

June 24, 2003

Mark Weisbrot
Newport News Times (VA), June 24, 2003

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services – June 19, 2003
Florida Times-Union
– June 25, 2003
Garden City Telegram
(Garden City, KS) – Aug. 6, 2003

The United States has always had a bad reputation for the way it treats its neighbors south of the border, but Washington’s treatment of Venezuela has been an embarrassment even by the low standards of diplomacy that it maintains for the region.

The Bush Administration endorsed a military coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez last year. That’s about as bad as you can get, although it may have been worse: There were numerous meetings between Bush administration officials and coup leaders in the months preceding the coup. Opposition groups also received increased funding — some of it still unaccounted for — from the U.S. government prior to the coup.

The major media in the U.S. have mostly joined our government in its hostility to Venezuela. In an editorial that was as scandalous as the exploits of reporter Jayson Blair, the New York Times also endorsed the military coup. The editorial board issued a half-hearted retraction a few days later. But there were few American journalists who bothered to ask how the most influential newspaper in the world’s most influential democracy could have made the mistake of endorsing a military coup against a democratically elected government.

Chavez’s major crime seems to be that he was elected mainly by Venezuela’s poor, who previously had little voice in the corrupt political system that had ruled the country for four decades. It appears that our government, as well as most of our foreign policy establishment, respects democracy only when “the right people” win elections.

We have gone down this road before. Our government spent billions of dollars and financed the killing of thousands of people — mostly innocents — trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. That government was democratically elected in 1984, but it made no difference to Washington. The result of American efforts is a still devastated country — 13 years after the war ended — with most Nicaraguans actually worse off than they were 40 years ago. The impact on our own democracy was harmful as well, as it led to the Iran-Contra scandal.

Unfortunately some of the same people who were implicated in that scandal are determining U.S. policy in Venezuela today, viewing their mission through the same distorted ideological lens. Chief among them is Otto Reich, who is currently serving as White House special envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, and expresses unrelenting antagonism toward Venezuela. Last month Washington cut off credits from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to Venezuela, for reasons that appear to be political rather than economic.

Venezuela is a constitutional democracy, with complete freedom of the press, speech, assembly and association. The major media are controlled by the opposition, and their TV news broadcasts are so partisan that most people here would not recognize them as journalism. The opposition also has about 48 percent of the seats in the national congress, and controls most of the country’s wealth.

If the reader has the impression that Venezuela is not a democracy, it is mainly because our own media regularly repeat opposition charges — that the government is “authoritarian” or “Castro-communist” — often without rebuttal. But as any visitor to Venezuela can see, it is one of the least repressive societies in the region.

Venezuela is our third largest trading partner in Latin America, and has continued to be a reliable energy supplier — except during the past winter when the opposition led an oil and business strike, in another attempt to topple the government.

There is no legitimate reason for Washington’s unfriendliness, as both Americans and Venezuelans have much to benefit from better relations between the two countries. 

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