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Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Is Restored

April 15, 2002

White House big loser
Bush "democratization" campaign is form without substance
Issue of any U.S. complicity in coup should be investigated
Chavez would be well advised to display a generosity of spirit to his political foes

Without question the big loser, in every respect, to the extraordinary sequence of events in Venezuela, is the Bush White House, its National Security advisor and press secretary. Lurking behind these figures is Otto Reich, who, as the chief Latin Americanist in the administrator, has the ultimate responsibility for Latin America policymaking. At the present time, whether there is evidence or not, there is not a political person in Latin America who doesn't believe that the CIA played some kind of role in the short-lived ouster of Venezuela's President Chavez. This assumption was strengthened by the National Security Advisor and White House Press Secretary's comments that Chavez brought the coup on himself and which in no way condemned the extra-constitutional termination of a democratically-elected president. So much for the White House's drive on promoting democracy in the region. Today, in every Latin American capital, editorials are being written ridiculing the U.S. position and mocking the loss of face that Washington has had to endure over the U.S.-backed coup in Venezuela.

The failed forced removal of President Hugo Chavez from power late Thursday by units of the Venezuela's military, at the behest of some of its powerful senior commanders, highly placed bureaucrats, and local business and labor groups, tested the political will of the population and basic institutions of that nation, as well as ours. The short-lived ascent of powerful business leader Pedro Carmona as interim president indicated both the weaknesses and strengths of democracy in Venezuela, as well as throughout the rest of Latin America. The restoration of the Chavez administration on Sunday in part demonstrated the sense of despair among millions of the urban and rural poor who provided the base for Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution. It also showed the miscalculation made by the country's military over the resolve of most Venezuelans to maintain their country's constitutional rule, however imperfect it might be.

Now it is up to Chavez to display a generosity of spirit by not acting in revenge against those members of members of the military and civilian leaders who acted on the conviction that Venezuela's democratic system was being threatened. Chavez and his senior colleagues take proceedings only against those who actively participated in his extra-constitutional overthrow for self-serving purposes or sinister reasons. Even so, Chavez must seek justice while strictly adhering to the legal procedures, or he risks undermining the constitutional guarantees for which he fought so hard. Chavez's reconciliation might begin by acknowledging that he may have had something to do with last week's upheaval by helping to polarize the nation with inflammatory rhetoric, rather than concentrating on sound public administration. In fact, he apparently is already speaking in a more reflective manner of his responsibility for what went wrong in his country.

The Former "Interim-President"

Pedro Carmona, who headed Fedecamaras, the nation's most influential business organization and briefly assumed the "interim-presidency" after the golpe that ousted Chavez, despite the entirely unconstitutional nature of his succession, typified the bankruptcy of the country's old guard. If successful, Carmona's ascension would have only exacerbated the gravity of Venezuela's social and economic problems, which brought Chavez to power in 1998 with 56 percent of the vote and contributed to his massive following, which crested close to 90% of all adults in the country. In the vast rural and urban slums across the country where most Venezuelans are forced by circumstances to live and where Chavez was looked upon as a hero, Carmona's administration would have faced an implacable opposition, and could have been maintained only by daily acts of military repression. The incontestable lesson which the nation's old oligarchy now must learn is that it was the impoverished millions who were prepared to render the nation ungovernable and who ultimately convinced Carmona to resign, genuinely believing that Chavez, for all his wants, was essential to their salvation.

In recent months, Chavez's popular support had precipitously declined, in part because of his personal shortcomings, but also due to lower oil prices as well as a splenetic opposition, which was closely tied to the Bush White House. Chavez's sagging public opinion poll figures may have been was more due to his confrontational style and rambunctious personality than an inherent catastrophic flaw in his political and economic game plan. If successful, Chavez's removal at the hands of the military and the country's discredited political forces and business and labor interests, would have indicated the vulnerability of the region's civilian governments to military subversion, rekindling the bitter memories of Latin America's lost decade. The willingness of part of the armed forces to overthrow the democratically-elected Chavez administration would have provided an incalculably menacing precedent for possible copycat actions in Guatemala, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, all of which face a comparable mix of problematic political and economic circumstances, including weakened central governments, restless militaries, increasing disparities between the rich and the poor, together creating a poisonous climate favorable to the alienation of the population's from political participation. Hemispheric Actions on Attempted Overthrow

The details behind the coup that temporarily ousted Chavez are still in dispute. Particularly the authorship of the killings at the anti-Chavez protests on Thursday, which resulted in a dozen deaths and spurred Chavez's removal. The Chavez administration firmly rejects claims that the snipers were acting under presidential directives asserting that such claims were used to discredit the government in the eyes of Venezuelans and the international community.

The overthrow of Chavez would have been a particular challenge for the already rudderless Organization of American States, whose Declaration of Santiago, insists that any regime coming to power by extra-constitutional means would be treated as a pariah and severely sanctioned. If the coup had achieved success, it would have been assumed by its critics that the U.S.-dominated body would have limited itself to mouthing melodious epithets that would mask the regional entity's continued ineffectiveness and its unfulfilled promise of being the guarantor of democratic rule and a true proponent of Latin America's vision for the hemisphere, rather than Washington's. The prospects that this nearly dysfunctional body ultimately would have played a forthright role in defense of constitutional rule or authentic sovereignty, was remote. Yet, just as Chavez was being overthrown, the 19-member Rio group of Latin American nations fortuitously was meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica, from where it issued a rebuke against his removal and announced that the inter-American community would forcefully address his ouster. Even the U.S., which at first had expressed its gratification over the event, eventually had to vote in favor of condemning the extra-constitutional overthrow of the Venezuelan leader.

A U.S. Role?

Already memorandums are circulating that Washington's intelligence operatives played some kind of role in advancing the coup against Chavez. This is not surprising given the U.S.'s near perfect score for staging or participating in coups or helping to orchestrate tainted elections throughout Latin America's modern history. As the economic and then security situation deteriorated in Venezuela in recent weeks, the possibility, if not inevitability, mounted that the U.S. would be tempted to take advantage of the mounting chaos to attempt to unite the opposition forces and provide them with the planning and intelligence resources in order to convert the original work stoppage into a movement to oust Chavez, who was widely prophesized, even if this meant facilitating the extra-constitutional overthrow of a democratically-elected government.

If the Bush administration was indeed complicit in playing a role in carrying out the coup, it would add yet another lamentable scar to Washington's reputation for a lack of probity when it comes to conducting its inter-American diplomacy. 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, could have served as an effective model for a strategy of single-mindedly generating chaos in order to topple the Chavez government through undermining the country's 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 artificial prolongation of what on the surface appeared as a work stoppage, which in reality was a plot to further weaken the Allende government and reduce its popularity through impeding the delivery of food and other essentials, could have been the precise template that was followed last week in Venezuela. The scenario that followed would have had CIA operatives acting in liaison with elements of the Venezuelan military and intelligence units, as well as with opposition business and labor leaders to coordinate the conversion of what had been promoted as a brief work stoppage protesting the genuine grievances over the appointment of several pro-Chavez individuals to the board of directors of the state petroleum company (PDVSA), to trying to bring the government down. At this point it became clear that the strike's mission was to contribute to an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, thereby further isolating Chavez and his backers. This game plan would have to focus on the country's all-important petroleum industry. If Kissinger was correct in once insisting that any outside threat to Saudi Arabia's oil deposits would be a casus belli for the U.S., the same could be argued 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, far more than the Saudis.

Of course, the difference between Saudi Arabia and Venezuela is that the latter was witnessing an internal not an external threat to its production-the strike-and that the uproar in the South America nation was because Chavez had used his legal authority to replace a number PDVSA directors with whom he had lost confidence. This is not to deny that the Venezuelan president had committed a series of imprudent acts (in distinction to "unjust" acts) while in office and had, in retrospect, staged perhaps too many extraneous confrontations with key institutions and figures in Venezuelan public life-such as the church, the media, the business community and important trade union officials. But it is equally important to note what Chavez did not do. Unlike so many Latin American regimes that enjoyed close White House ties in recent administrations, he never sanctioned political assassinations or torture, or even minor human rights violations. Chavez may have been volatile, brusque, eccentric or maybe even bizarre at times, but he was never cruel, insolent, sinister or corrupt; Compared to Fujimori of Peru, Banzer of Bolivia or Rios Montt of Guatemala-all well regarded by the White House in their time-Chavez was a veritable angel, if a somewhat flawed one. It could be credibly argued that the Venezuelan president was a person of much greater stature than most of those who tried to bring him down.

Nor should one overlook the possible role played by Otto Reich-who was the ambassador to Venezuela during the first Bush administration-in this hypothetical orchestration of dirty tricks to undermine the Chavez regime. Reich's selection as the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs was wholeheartedly backed by his fellow Miami-based Cuban-American extremists as a reward for getting Florida's vote out during the last presidential election. Although never formally confirmed by the Senate, Reich was the beneficiary of a White House recess appointment last January, after which he officially began to work on Latin American issues, although on a de facto basis, he had been assigned a State Department desk months before and already was helping to make hemispheric policy. Given his background and the intensity of his hatred of Chavez's role model, Castro, it is inconceivable that Reich, whose legendary penchant for skullduggery was firmly established while heading the contra-era Office of Public Diplomacy, was not an advocate of a plot to oust Chavez.

A Man who has Served his Country

Under Chavez, the atmosphere in Caracas may have been stridently polemical, but it never posed a significant threat to U.S. national security, if only because of the almost 14,000 Citgo gas stations throughout this country operated as a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned petroleum corporation, were ample hostages for his good faith. Moreover, where else would he sell his 2 million barrels of petroleum a day, even if he was intent on staging a boycott of the U.S?

If 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 by adhering much closer to the democratic rules of the game than his political predecessors and would-be successors, who talked a good line, but misused the decades in which they ruled Venezuela. During his presidency, Chavez acted as the people's tribune, challenging the vested interests in a society notorious for its insidious corruption at every plateau of public life, in which he has never been tainted. His ascent to the peak of his country's governance was due to the populace's angry repudiation of the corruption that had been fathered by the country's two dominant political parties, Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats. In the end, Chavez's adherence to the rules of democracy almost cost him his presidency and his country, and its democratic legitimacy. His martyrdom in the eyes of Latin America's poor, could have led to uncontrollable violence and instability. His political resurrection is a testament to the will of the Venezuelan people and sign that they still insist upon the sweeping economic and political reforms promised during his 1998 democratic election, but possibly without Chavez's sneering rhetoric and combat readiness, this time to be replaced by a less abrasive style, for the betterment of his program and his nation's future.

Ends

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."

Ends

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