Venezuela: Washington Suffers a Setback

September 25, 2007

“We have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chávez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about,” said Secretary of State Powell to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this past February 5. “And we have not been happy with some of the comments he has made with respect to the campaign against terrorism. He hasn’t been as supportive as he might have been. And he drops in some of the strangest countries to visit.... We’ve expressed our disagreement on some of his policies directly to him, and he understands that it is a serious irritant....”

Powell’s comments made front-page news in Venezuela on February 6, sharing the headlines and the talk-show news with similar remarks made by CIA director George Tenet on that very same day. The pointed comments of the U.S. Secretary of State and Director of the CIA are worth recalling in light of Washington’s murky role in the three-day overthrow of Venezuela’s elected government this past April 11-14 [See “Chavismo at the Crossroads,” p. 8, and “Coup and Countercoup, p. 2]. Indeed, the quick U.S. countenance of the military coup that briefly overthrew Hugo Chávez calls into question Washington’s understanding of “what a democratic system is all about.”

The degree to which U.S. agencies were involved in the attempted coup of April 11 remains a matter to be investigated, but it is already clear that official Washington dearly wanted it to succeed. Hugo Chávez’s friendship with (and discounted oil sales to) Fidel Castro, his criticism of the U.S. war on terror, his “dropping in” on his Middle East OPEC partners for cordial visits, his apparent sympathy for Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and his denial of Venezuelan airspace for U.S. drug war missions have all been sore points with U.S. officialdom.

A few months before the public remarks of Secretary Powell and Director Tenet, in the days of the heaviest bombing of Afghanistan, when Chávez opined that “terror should not be fought with terror,” U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela, Donna Hrinak, was temporarily recalled to Washington “for consultation.” On her return to Caracas she expressed Washington’s strong displeasure with Chávez’s remarks and showed notable sympathy for Venezuela’s opposition. When she later commented that “the changes in Venezuela should be democratic,” it was noted by a Venezuelan publisher that when the U.S. embassy calls for democratic changes, “the accent is not on democracy but on the changes.”

The critical comments of Tenet, Powell and Hrinak were not perceived in Venezuela as opinions; they were perceived as signals. The opposition felt it had the green light to remove Chávez from power, and the eventual coup leaders were, in fact, reading the signals well. A few days after the coup attempt, a Department of Defense official told the New York Times that the Department had neither encouraged nor discouraged the opposition to overthrow President Chávez. Rather, he said, “we were sending informal, subtle signals that we didn’t like this guy.”

What neither Washington nor the opposition counted on—and what proved to be one of the more remarkable aspects of this remarkable episode—was the universal rejection of the coup and of U.S. leadership by the governments of Latin America and the Caribbean. The United States was the only country in the hemisphere that welcomed the apparent overthrow of Chávez on April 11. It may, indeed, have been decisive that the leadership of every country in the Americas—excepting only the United States—quickly, unequivocally and unambiguously condemned the coup. All the Latin American heads of state—even sworn adversaries of Chávez like Peru’s Alejandro Toledo and sworn buddies of Bush like Mexico’s Vicente Fox—were vehement and explicit in their refusal to recognize the brief regime of the coup plotters. Too much was at stake for their own stability. They stood as one in support of constitutionality and democracy.

Having been rebuked, its democratic credibility at stake, Washington had no choice but to backtrack. Now Secretary Powell says the United States strongly condemns all military coups, and the State Department’s point man in Latin America, Assistant Secretary Otto Reich, plays the role of Bart Simpson: “I didn’t do it!” And Washington has a new version of events: There was no coup, just a misunderstanding, a temporary vacuum of power that needed to be filled. Washington was simply caught off-guard just like everybody else.

But Washington has suffered a blow to its hegemony in the hemisphere. If gold stars are to be awarded, they go to the Latin American leaders—not all of them model democrats by a long shot—who probably made the difference. On this occasion at least, they stood steadfast for constitutional rule and against a return to the not-so-distant past when the United States decided which democratic votes were “democratic,” and which represented the “irresponsibility” of a country’s not-so-sovereign people.

Fred Rosen is NACLA’s director


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