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U.S. Is the Primary Loser in Failed Venezuelan Coup

by Larry Birns and Alex Volberding, Newsday, 21 April 2002


THE RECENT FAILED coup against President Hugo Chavez launched at the behest of Venezuela's powerful business and labor groups -- and with the knowledge, if not eager acquiescence, of U.S. officials -- tested the political will of that nation, as it should ours.

In an amazing turn, Chavez was restored to power as a result of the resolve of his diehard supporters to maintain constitutional rule and prevent the return of the country's discredited elite. Chavez's election in 1998 had been directly due to the angry repudiation of the venality fathered by the country's two dominant political parties, Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats, which had permeated its other public and private institutions.

The opéra bouffe selection, as Chavez's brief replacement, of Pedro Carmona, who headed the country's influential business organization, Fedecamaras, only exacerbated the gravity of the country's long-standing political malaise. This had fueled Chavez's decisive 1998 electoral victory and contributed to the subsequent growth of his enormous following. In the vast rural and urban slums where most Venezuelans live and where Chavez was regarded as a hero, a Carmona administration would have faced an implacable foe. The incontestable reality that the elite and its military allies had to face was that the country's poor would not supinely surrender authority to an illegitimate leader who was selected by the very narrow and suspect circles that the citizenry had democratically dislodged.

While Chavez's firebrand polemics and snarling rhetoric deserve no small blame in contributing to the country's divisive political atmosphere, he also merits great praise for his persistent adherence to humane goals and democratic governance, which his would-be successors conveniently ignored. During his presidency, Chavez acted as the people's tribune, challenging a society notorious for its insidious corruption and greed. He also admirably committed himself to increasing literacy, elementary school education and public health availability, but fell down on job creation due to a lack of resources.

Although it did not necessarily translate into unsound policy, Chavez's confrontational style and personality further baited the middle class' consuming hatred of this "Jacobin." The stakes were tremendous. A successful coup would again expose the vulnerability of Latin American civilian governments to military subversion by providing a sinister precedent for copycat extra-constitutional plots wherever comparable circumstances existed.

George W. Bush's administration was the failed coup's primary loser, underscoring its bankrupt hemispheric policy. Now it is slowly filtering out that in recent months White House officials met with key coup figures, including Carmona. Although the administration insists that it explicitly objected to any extra-constitutional action to remove Chavez, comments by senior U.S. officials did little to convey this.

White House officials apparently did not terminate any meeting when extra-constitutional intentions were first mentioned by the visiting plotters. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer later issued a banal statement accusing Chavez of "provoking" his own downfall. And National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice's subsequent remarks combined arrogance with patronization, hardly reflecting authentic U.S. regional interests.

The State Department's controversial chief Latin America policymaker, Otto Reich, who ran the ill-reputed Contra-era's Office of Public Diplomacy and formerly had served as ambassador to Venezuela, despises Chavez for his close ties to Fidel Castro. The result: Rightly or not, few Latin American specialists doubt that the White House and CIA were involved in the cabal to remove Chavez, given Venezuela's huge oil deposits, the revelation that in recent months U.S. officials met with key coup plotters, the prematurely celebratory comments made by senior U.S. officials and Washington's near-perfect Cold-War record for staging regional coups. If true, this adds another ugly scar to Washington's sorry reputation for undermining democratic governments out of self-serving ideological obsessions.

The CIA's role in a 1971 Chilean strike could have served as the working model for generating economic and social instability in order to topple Chavez. In the truckers' strike of that year, the agency secretly orchestrated and financed the artificial prolongation of a contrived work stoppage in order to economically asphyxiate the leftist Salvador Allende government.

This scenario would have had CIA operatives acting in liaison with the Venezuelan military, as well as with opposition business and labor leaders, to convert a relatively minor afternoon-long work stoppage by senior management into a nearly successful coup de gráce.

For the time being, the military and political elite have bowed to the will of the nation and spared it a bloody civil strife, although it could still happen, given the arched hostilities on both sides. By trivializing the real issues involved in Venezuela's political struggle and by encouraging coup plotting, Washington has jeopardized the reconciliation that Venezuela badly needs, while proving a faithless steward of democratic primacy. As for Chavez, a more gentle persona could help facilitate the transforming of his Bolivarian Revolution from vision to reality.

Larry Birns is the director and Alex Volberding is a research associate at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."

Copyright © 2002 Newsday
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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