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COHA Opinion Piece On Venezuela

Last Thursday's failed effort to remove President Hugo Chavez from power at the behest of Venezuela's powerful business and several labor groups (undoubtedly with the knowledge and eager acquiescence of U.S. officials), tested the political will of that nation, as it should ours. In an amazing turn, Sunday saw Chavez's restoration to power as a result of his die-hard supporters' resolve to maintain constitutional rule and prevent the return of the country's discredited elite.

The opéra bouffe illegal selection of Pedro Carmona, who headed Fedecamaras, the country's influential business organization, as Chavez's replacement only exacerbated the gravity of the country's longstanding political and economic malaise, which had fueled Chavez's decisive electoral victory in 1998 and contributed to the subsequent growth of his massive 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 fact is that the country's poor were not prepared to surrender authority to an illegitimate leader who was selected by military elements and represented the very suspect circles the citizenry had democratically dislodged in 1998.

While Chavez 's firebrand polemics deserved to be deplored for damaging his country's democratic prospects through contributing to a divisive political atmosphere, he also merits commendation for his persistent adherence to 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. His election was directly due to an angry repudiation of the venality fathered by the country's two dominant political parties, Democratic Action and the Christian Democrats, and which had permeated almost every other public and private institution in the country.

The frustration voiced by the people was mirrored by Chavez's confrontational style and personality, which although it did not necessarily translate into unsound policy, it further baited the middle class' consuming hatred of this "Jacobin". The stakes were tremendous. A successful coup would have increased the vulnerability of civilian governments to military subversion throughout the region, rekindling memories of Latin America's "lost decade" by providing a sinister precedent for copycat actions wherever comparable political and economic circumstances created a climate favorable for extra-constitutional complots.

The Bush administration was the failed coup's primary loser, underscoring its bankrupt hemispheric policy. The White House Press Secretary issued a banal statement accusing Chavez of "provoking" his own downfall, and the National Security Advisor's subsequent remarks combined arrogance with patronization, with neither statement remotely 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 been ambassador to Venezuela, despises Chavez for his close ties to Fidel Castro. The result? Rightly or not, few Latin Americanists doubt that the White House and CIA were involved in the cabal to remove Chavez, given Venezuela's huge oil deposits, the prematurely celebratory comments made by senior U.S. officials, and Washington's near perfect record for staging coups in Latin America since the advent of the Cold War. If true, this adds another ugly scar to Washington's sorry reputation for undermining democratic governments out of self-serving economic or ideological obsessions.

The CIA's role in the 1971 Chilean strike could have served as the working model for generating economic and social instability in order to topple Chavez's legal but unacceptable rule. In the trucker's strike of that year, the agency secretly orchestrated and financed the artificial prolongation of a contrived work stoppage in order to economically asphyxiate the Allende government. This scenario would have had CIA operatives acting in liaison with Venezuelan military elements, as well as with opposition business and labor leaders, to convert a relatively minor afternoon-long work stoppage by senior management aimed at protesting the appointment of several pro-Chavez individuals to the state petroleum company's board of directors, into a nearly successful coup de gráce.

For the time being, the military has reverted to the will of the nation and spared it a bloody civil strife, though it could still happen given the arched hostilities on both sides. By trivializing Venezuela's political struggle Washington has jeopardized the reconciliation that Venezuela badly needs while being a faithless steward of democratic primacy. As for Chavez, perhaps a more gentle persona would be in order.

Larry Birns is the Director and Alex Volberding is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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