Venezuelan Democracy Survives, In Spite of Washington

April 16, 2002

Mark Weisbrot    
Houston Chronicle, April 16, 2002

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services, April 15, 2002
San Diego Union-Tribune,
April 17, 2002
Pioneer Press
(St. Paul), April 17, 2002
The Kansas City Star
(Kansas City, MO), April 22, 2002
Sunday Gazette Mail
(Charleston, WV), April 22, 2002

En Español

A joke that was once popular in Latin America has become relevant again: Why has there never been a military coup in the United States? Answer: because there’s no U.S. embassy here. 

Latin Americans would not be surprised to read that the military coup which ousted President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela for nearly two days was well-orchestrated and planned for at least six months, according to the Washington Post. And that the plotters visited the US embassy in Caracas, seeking support. 

Washington denies having anything to do with the coup, and we probably won’t know for some time what role, if any, was played by the US government. It took a couple of years and a Congressional investigation to declassify the details of the United States’ massive involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s elected government in 1973. 

But the Bush Administration’s support for the Venezuelan coup was unqualified—in fact it tried to deny that this was a military coup at all. This was a ridiculous position: the country’s elected President was arrested and replaced by the military, and his replacement dissolved the elected National Assembly and Supreme Court. If that is not a military coup, then there is no such thing. 

So the Bush Administration must bear some responsibility for supporting the failed coup, regardless of its level of involvement in the events leading up to it. The Administration has sent a clear and ugly message to the world: you can play by the rules, but for us, there are no rules. Theirs is the ethic of the terrorist, driven not by the desperation of the poor and powerless, but by the desire of the richest and most powerful state on Earth to rule over others. 

Fortunately for the hemisphere, there were other governments—Mexico, Argentina, Peru, to name a few—that showed more respect for democracy than our own.  They refused to recognize the new government. The Organization of American States condemned “the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela.” And then there were Venezuela’s poor, who after nearly two decades of Washington-sponsored “economic reform,” now comprise the vast majority of the population. They took to the streets to demand the return of their democratically elected government. 

This international and domestic resistance, combined with Chavez’s residual support within the military, was enough to reverse the coup by Sunday. But the Bush Administration’s hostility to Chavez will probably continue. Venezuela is OPEC’s third largest oil producer, and Chavez, unlike his predecessor, has adhered strictly to OPEC quotas (oil prices jumped 3.9 percent upon his return to the presidential palace, after falling 6.1 percent during the coup). He has refused to support Washington’s escalation of the war in Colombia, where civilians are indiscriminately murdered by death squads allied with the Colombian armed forces. And then there is his close relationship with Fidel Castro. 

One of the most shameful occurrences during last few days was the support of America’s leading newspapers for the Venezuelan coup. The New York Times and the Washington Post both resoundingly endorsed the military coup in their Saturday editorials. The editorial boards of these newspapers ought to engage in some serious soul-searching as to how they could so easily abandon the most fundamental principles of democracy. 

Cynics would say that the United States has a long and sordid history of supporting military coups and dictatorships over democracy, whenever our government feared or did not like the outcome of democratic elections. This is certainly true, but in most cases they have had what the CIA calls “plausible denial.” 

In El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1970s and 80s, when the United States supported governments and militaries that slaughtered civilians by the tens of thousands, our leaders maintained the fiction that the governments were not responsible for the killings. When Washington tried to overthrow the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s, it pretended that this government was not legitimate. When military officers who were paid by the CIA overthrew Haiti’s first democratically elected government in 1991, the Bush (senior) Administration said that it was against the coup. 

But today no one denies that Hugo Chavez is the democratically elected president of Venezuela, yet our government and foreign policy establishment—including the press—considers it legitimate to overthrow his government by force. 

Chavez has been conciliatory upon his return, offering concessions to the state oil company employees who led the protests that culminated in the attempted coup. The Bush Administration has been unrepentant, with National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice warning Chavez to “respect constitutional processes.” If only Washington would learn to do the same.

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