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One Wild Weekend in Venezuela
April 20, 2002
By Richard Prasad

On Friday, April 12, 2002, a Venezuelan businessman led a coup against the democratically elected leader of that country, Hugo Chavez. The question now is, did the US meet with the leaders of that coup, and encourage them to overthrow a democratically elected government? And if the US didn't encourage the coup, did it give tacit approval of the action by its denouncement of Chavez and his policies?

The man who took over Venezuela, amid violent protests that left twelve people dead, was a man by the name of Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of the country's largest business organization, and an economist, according to an April 12th CNN.com article. Estanga would lead a military junta until new elections were called. Estanga had led an economic revolt since becoming head of Fredecameras, against Chavez' state run economic policies. One of the fist actions the interim president took was to reinstate several military leaders fired by Chavez. Estanga thought that would cement his reign for at least a little while. He was mistaken.

In the two days that they held power the military did some troubling and undemocratic things. They abolished Congress and the Supreme Court, The military leaders promised congressional elections by this December, and a Presidential election in a year, according to an April 13th Washington Post article. The history of military juntas in Latin America suggests that democratic elections would have probably never taken place.

The military coup was short lived, however, because by Sunday, April 14th, 2002 Hugo Chavez was back in power and sounding somewhat conciliatory. According to an April 15th Washington Post article, Chavez said he was ready to have round table discussions with opposition leaders, this is a far cry from the Chavez who called those opposition leaders "subversives who should move to Miami." He also reached out to the Catholic church saying that his government could be accepting of any differences he had with the church and could work together with the church. In the past, Chavez had called church leaders "devils in vestments"

What was the US reaction toward this three day rollercoaster? The Bush Administration's line was clear. A terse statement released by the state department on the day of coup, blamed the Chavez government for the coup. "Undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez government provoked the crisis in Venezuela." The State Department statement actually went on to thank the Venezuelan military for showing restraint and not firing into the crowds of demonstrators. The US was clearly taking sides here and they were siding with the people who pulled off the coup, and not with the democratically elected leader of Venezuela.

The US went further, not even referring to the coup as a coup, but as a "change in government," according to an April 13th Washington Post article. How's that for a euphemism ladies and gentlemen? White House spokesman Ari Fleisher stated quite untruthfully, "Chavez lost his job because of a message sent by his people." Wrong, Ari. True the people were demonstrating against Chavez, as is allowed in democratic nations, but Chavez lost his job because he was removed by a military coup.

George W. Bush's personal disdain for Chavez was evidenced as early as last month, when he met with four of Venezuela's neighbors but refused to meet with Chavez himself. The administration said that last month's meetings with Andean leaders discussed trade, and therefore did not need to include Venezuela.

Not only were the members of the Bush administration cheering the coup from the sidelines, it is now clear that Bush Administration officials actually met with coup leaders. According to an April 16th New York Times article, several members of the Bush Administration met with the coalition who were plotting the coup over the last few months. There are conflicting accounts of what the US told opposition leaders at that meeting. One US official said, "We were very clear: There is a Constitutional process, we didn't even wink at anyone." But a Defense Department official says the message was not as clear. "We were not discouraging people." That clearly meant: Do what you want and the US will look the other way. And that is exactly what happened. It doesn't really matter if the Bush administration actively sought a coup or not, the administration's indifference to the coup spoke volumes about their intentions.

Why is there such disrespect for Hugo Chavez from the Bush Administration? Part of it is undoubtedly ideological, Chavez tried to mix Marxist-Lenninist economic ideas with populism, and this appealed to the four out of five Venezuelans living below the poverty line right now in Venezuela. According to an April 13th Washington Post article, Chavez sought to weaken the power of institutions in Venezuela, increase his own power and that of the military, by rewriting the Constitution, and tried to seize private property. This caused many of his early supporters to doubt his sincerity about trying to help the poor. The fact that Chavez picked fights with popular institutions like labor unions, the Catholic Church and the media didn't help his cause either. His alliance with leaders like Fidel Casto has perhaps hurt him most in Venezuela, a country yearning for freedom and democracy. Chavez' legacy is hardly a positive one, his tenure has been marked by corruption and class warfare. Chavez also criticized the Bush administration's war on terror as "fighting terror with terror" and further alienated the Bush Administration by meeting with Muammar Khadafi. Having said all that, Chavez was still democratically elected and should have been democratically removed.

The second reason for the Bush Administration's antagonistic relationship with Hugo Chavez is more clear. It is oil. Venezuela is the world's fourth leading exporter of oil, and is the second leading exporter of oil to the US. Chavez believes in sticking to OPEC restrictions in oil supply. His opposition believes in market forces controlling the price of oil. With Iraq shutting down oil production, and Iran threatening to do the same, the Bush administration clearly saw saying nothing while the coup was taking place as an economic advantage for the US. As increasing gas prices hurt the American economy, getting in good with Estenga, a free market economist, would definitely mean more oil and cheaper gas for the US. It didn't matter that Estenga was backed by the miitary. Tacit approval of Estenga's regime had a lot to do with the economics and politics of petroleum.

How did Latin America see the coup attempt? They did not like it. The Organization of American States Secretary General said in an April 16th article in CNN.com, as he met with Chavez. Venezuelans must find a way to express dissent Constitutionally." "Polarization must give way to reconciliation and understanding." The OAS universally condemned the coup, and the military's attempt to overthrow the democratically elected government. The vacillation of Bush policy in this instance, alternating from silence to seeming to side with the coup leaders has done nothing to enhance the Bush Administration's reputation as a force for democracy in Latin America.

Ironically, Bush hailed Friday, April 12th as Pan American day and hailed the Democratic Charter signed by the OAS in 1991. But in his first chance to use the charter as an example, George W. waffled.

There has been much talk about the so-called "Bush doctrine" in the war on terror and its so-called moral clarity. The US will not deal with terrorists or those countries who harbor terrorists. There is a corollary to the Bush doctrine, that very few people like to talk about. The neo-conservatives blithely refer to the corollary as regime change. The Bush administration currently controlled by neo cons like Paul Wolfowitz sees nothing wrong with undemocratic, militarily induced changing of regimes. They did it, quite rightly in Afghanistan, getting rid of some of the Taliban and Al-Queda, but currently the neo cons are pushing regime change in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. The so-called axis of evil. This is where the Bushites have gone too far.

The problem with regime change, is that the leaders of these regime changes, if they are favorable to the US, are soon seen as puppets of the US by the rest of the world, and that is why the US lacks credibility in the world. The US installed the Shah, and years later Islamic fundamentalism swept over Iran as a reaction to the Shah being perceived as a US puppet. The bottom line is, for the most part, the regime that takes over is hardly any better than the one it replaced.

It is the mindset of regime change that stopped the Bush administration from forcefully denouncing the regime change in Venezuela. As long as it benefits the US, in some way, it doesn't matter how the regime is changed. Or so the thinking goes. But where is the moral clarity in that policy? The morally clear position in this instance would have been to clearly and forcefully denounce the coup, and stand up for democracy.

Yet another failure for the morally clear Bush foreign policy.

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