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President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela Overthrown

Council on Hemispheric Affairs

For Immediate Release April 12, 2002 02:09

· Bitter legacy of the Chavez overthrow could afflict rest of hemisphere · Extra-constitutional ouster of Venezuelan President sends wrong message to other Latin American nations with controversial leaders · Given the recent history of the Latin American military, it is a tragic error to permit the region's armed forces to subordinate civilian governance · Organization of American States continues its dysfunctional role · Who selected the un-elected Pedro Carmona, head of the powerful business organization, Fedecemaras, to lead the transitional government? · White House less than stricken by Venezuelan tragedy

Yesterday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was removed from power by a military coup supported by business and labor interests. A group of military officials assumed control of the embattled nation and detained President Chavez late on the third day of massive protests against the country's leader. Pedro Carmona, the president of the powerful business organization, Fedecamaras, announced that he would lead the transitional government, even though he was not remotely connected to the constitutional succession chain. The problem here is that the reason why Chavez was able to mobilize a massive following after he won office in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote, which was later increased to 85%, was that the average Venezuelan looked upon the entrenched political parties and business groups and figures such Carmona, as among those responsible for bleeding the nation dry. In recent months Chavez' popular support has precipitously declined. But his forced resignation, which was in large extent due to his own exaggerated personal style rather than any outrageous nature of his programs, has not advanced democracy, either within Venezuela or throughout the rest of the hemisphere. Rather, it has potentially resurrected the role of the military, which committed so much havoc and whose beastly behavior cost so many lives in the 1970s and 80s in such nations as Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. Chavez's overthrow by the military could also provide a dangerous precedent for similar actions in Guatemala, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, all of which face some combination of comparable political and economic circumstances, including weakened central governments, restless militaries, increasing disparities between the rich and the poor, political climates favorable to political alienation, as well as a lack of basic social justice. The overthrow of Chavez also poses a challenge for the Organization of American States (OAS), which from its Declaration of Santiago onward, has insisted that extra-constitutional governments will be severely sanctioned. It is obvious that the U.S.-dominated body's role will be limited to mouthing empty epithets which mask this regional entity's continued ineffectiveness and unfulfilled promise. The prospects that this nearly dysfunctional body will play a forthright role, aside from uttering hypocrisy-driven speeches, is remote.

The U.S. Role

As the situation deteriorated in Venezuela in recent weeks, the possibility, if not inevitability, that the U.S. would be tempted to acquiesce, if not facilitate, the extra-constitutional overthrow of the democratically-elected government of Hugo Chavez grew. If the Bush administration were unwise enough to have participated in such an undemocratic action, it would add another lamentable scar to Washington's reputation for the lack of probity when it comes to conducting its inter-American strategy. But if the past is any guide, such events as the CIA's role in Chile in 1973 and in Grenada in the early months of the Reagan administration, indicate that the goal of U.S. involvement may have been to topple the government by subverting its economic stability. The CIA's behind-the-scene operations in the Chilean trucker's strike in 1971, at which time the organization secretly orchestrated and helped to finance the promulgation of the work stoppage in order to economically weaken the Allende government, could have been the model followed this week in Venezuela. The scenario used would have had CIA operatives acting in unison with the Venezuelan military, as well as with business and labor leaders to coordinate the work stoppage, creating an atmosphere of fear throughout the country and giving the appearance of destabilizing the Venezuelan economy, including the functioning of its all-important petroleum industry. If Kissinger was correct in once maintaining that any outside threat to the Saudi oil deposits would be a casus belli for the U.S., the same would be true for any interruption of Venezuelan oil shipments to the U.S. since Caracas is the third largest exporter of oil to this nation, currently supplying 15% of its total foreign imports.

Of course, the difference between the Saudi Arabian example and that of Venezuela is that the latter situation involved an internal not an external threat to its production, and that the turmoil in the South America nation ostensibly occurred because Chavez had used his legal authority to oust those members of the state petroleum company (PDVSA) with whom he had lost confidence. This is not to deny that the Venezuelan president committed an array of imprudent acts while in office and had, in retrospect, staged too many unnecessary confrontations with key institutions and figures in Venezuelan public life, such as the church, the media, the business community and important trade union officials-all in the name of the average Venezuelan. But it is equally important to note what Chavez did not do. Unlike so many regimes that have been close to the White House in recent years, he did not endorse torture, or even much milder human rights violations, or the use of the military to harass the political opposition. Chavez may have been volatile and brusque, but he has not been cruel or insolent, nor has he been sinister or corrupt. Compared to Fujimori of Peru, Banzer of Bolivia or Rios Montt of Guatemala-all well regarded in their time by the White House-Chavez was a veritable angel.

Nor should one overlook the probable role of Otto Reich, the controversial Cuban-American militant who was awarded the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs as a reward for his past actions. Although not approved by the Senate, Reich remains at work in the State Department deciding key administration policies on hemispheric issues. As U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela during the first Bush administration, it is inconceivable that Reich was not involved in the plot to oust Chavez, particularly because of the latter's intimate relationship with Reich's arch-nemesis, Castro.

Under Chavez, the situation in Caracas may have been unpleasant, but it was never dangerous. It posed no real threat to the U.S. because the 14,000 Citgo gas stations throughout this country vending Venezuelan-owned petroleum were ample hostages for Chavez's good faith and where else would Venezuela go to sell its oil, even if Chavez had decided to try to boycott the U.S?

If former President Chavez had done damage to his country by contributing to a divisive political atmosphere he must be condemned for it. But it also must be recognized that he made a substantial contribution to his country. He acted as the people's ombudsman, challenging all the vested interests in a society notorious for its corruption. His ascent to the peak of his country's political life was due to the corruption that embroiled the country's two dominant political parties, Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats. In the end, Chavez's trust largely contributed to his downfall as the popular appeal established by his thesis of participatory democracy faded in the face of economic downturn and his military comrades-in-arm turned on him.

For decades Venezuela had been under the control of a tiny self-serving elite who were not in the least troubled by the fact that 85% of the population lived below the poverty line in one of the richest nations in all of Latin America. Chavez tried to change this and failed.

This analysis was prepared by Alex Volberding and Larry Birns, COHA research group.

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 policymakers

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