Uncle Santa Diddles Dems from Ukraine to Venezuela
How Uncle Santa Diddles Dems from Ukraine to Venezuela
By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
Friday 24 December 2004
Author's Note: In last week's "Uncle Santa and Ukraine's Orange-Colored Elves" I tried to show how both Russia and the United States were interfering in Ukrainian political life. The column ended by asking: "Should we support the meddling we like? Or do we need to oppose and expose it all?" Reader response continues to overwhelm me and my feeble effort to reply personally. The vast majority who took the time to write clearly oppose and want to expose all foreign intervention. But many impassioned emails came from those who desperately want the United States to meddle - though only on behalf of democracy. Especially for those readers, I offer this cautionary tale.
The coup came on April 11, 2002, when Venezuelan military forces overthrew the democratically elected president, Hugo Chavez. As many as 100 people died in the clash, which included mysterious sniper attacks on individual civilians.
The brass arrested Chavez, a former paratrooper, and installed in the Presidential Palace the well-established Pedro Carmona, a wealthy oil executive and head of Fedecámaras, the national Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Quickly disbanding parliament, the Supreme Court and other government bodies, Carmona revoked dozens of his predecessor's reforms, including a law that redistributed unused farmland to poor, landless peasants.
Carmona also broke ranks with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and set out to increase Venezuela's oil production for export to the United States.
He was in charge, Carmona told the world. Chavez had "resigned."
This was neither the first lie about the coup, nor the last.
With telltale haste, the Bush Administration welcomed the coup as a "return to democracy" and announced official support for Carmona's new government. Otto Reich, the Cuban-born Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs, immediately summoned ambassadors from Caribbean and Latin American nations to his office and repeated the official line. Since Hugo Chavez had resigned, he explained, Washington saw absolutely no threat to democracy.
Bush Administration officials had never liked the charismatic Chavez, and never hid how they felt - or why. Sitting on the largest known oil reserves this side of Baghdad, Chavez led the effort to rebuild OPEC, limiting output in order keep crude oil prices from rapidly fluctuating up or down. His goal, he said, was to maintain a relatively stable price between $22 and $28 a barrel, a range the Clinton Administration had come to accept. Team Bush did not.
Chavez also directly threatened the profits of two American oil giants - ExxonMobil and PhillipsConoco. For 60 years the oil companies never paid Venezuela more than 16% in royalties; Chavez was demanding 30%. He wanted to use the country's oil wealth to provide literacy, basic schooling, minimal health care, and subsidized food to the vast majority of Venezuelans, who were for the most part historically disadvantaged blacks and Indios and too often lived in rural hell-holes and cardboard shanty-towns.
More New Deal reformer than radical revolutionary, Chavez nonetheless terrified Venezuela's generally lighter-skinned elite and new middle class, who were Uncle Sam's local allies and the voices to whom Washington and most American media listened. These were also the Venezuelans who owned their country's major newspapers and TV stations, which tirelessly savaged Chavez as a crazy fascist tyrant with a homosexual lust for Cuba's Fidel Castro.
In fact, Chavez did befriend Castro, providing him with 160,000 barrels of oil a day and help with his fledgling oil industry. In return, Venezuela got Cuban sports expertise and some 10,000 doctors and other health care workers to jumpstart Chavez's effort to reduce infant mortality and the occurrence of easily treated diseases.
Equally galling to Team Bush, Chavez also refused to cut ties with Libya and Iraq, blasted the post 9/11 bombing of Afghanistan as "fighting terrorism with terrorism," pulled Venezuelan military forces out of joint naval exercises in the Caribbean, and denied U.S. planes free access to Venezuelan airspace, which Washington claimed hampered its efforts to fight both guerrillas and drug-smugglers in neighboring Colombia.
This was not at all the way the colossus del Norte had come to expect our southern neighbors to behave. No matter that Chavez had won landslide victories in two national elections that outside observers found far more honest and democratic than our own.
In response, Team Bush put the pieces in place to provoke a coup, drawing on classic CIA destabilization campaigns that had toppled, among others, Iran's Mohammed Mossadegh (1953), Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz (1954), Guyana's Chedi Jagan (1963), Brazil's Joao Goulart (1964), and Chile's Salvador Allende (1973). The Venezuelan operation used many of the same groups now meddling in Ukraine. And, with the same straight face, they told themselves and the world that they were just helping to build democracy.
According to internal documents released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) began working with Chavez's fiercest opponents. These included the media, extremely partisan "human rights" groups, and Pedro Carmona's Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Directly and through its usual intermediaries, NED provided money, advice, coordination, and the unmistakable message to recipients that Washington backed their efforts to overthrow Chavez.
Among the key groups to receive U.S. help were the oil workers, long the aristocrats of Venezuelan labor, and the generally pro-employer Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV). NED channeled money to them through the AFL-CIO's American Center for International Labor Solidarity, which replaced the American Institute for Free Labor Development and other regional bodies that had worked with the CIA in earlier destabilization campaigns.
The Solidarity Center provided "training" to the anti-Chavez unionists, and brought their leader Carlos Ortega to Washington to meet with American government officials.
Working closely with Carmona and his businessmen's group, Ortega organized the work stoppages and strikes that mobilized the mass demonstrations against Chavez. These, in turn, created the chaos and violence to which the Venezuelan coup leaders said they were responding. Needless to say, other elements of the American government were working directly with the military conspirators, and likely with some violent provocateurs as well.
What's important here is that the coup quickly failed. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets to oppose it, preventing the kind of vicious crackdown that followed similar coups in Brazil and Chile. Remarkably, these Venezuelans stood up for themselves without needing Uncle Santa's money or training in democracy.
Pro-Chavez military units also stood against the coup, and one added element swung the balance. As the BBC's Greg Palast reported, Chavez had received warning that the coup was coming, and quietly hid loyal paratroopers in the basement of the Presidential Palace. So, while the plotters held him captive, his troops had Carmona, who wisely decided to walk away in only three days. Other than the present disaster in Iraq, the Venezuelan coup that collapsed was probably the Bush Administration's greatest overseas SNAFU.
Never ones to admit a mistake, Team Bush continued to use NED and other groups to support the Venezuelan opposition in an effort to oust Chavez through a recall referendum, which he won with a 58% majority. Friends in the Ukraine might recall how American-funded exit polls in the recall election loudly proclaimed that Chavez had lost.
So, should we support the meddling we like? Or do we need to oppose and expose it all?
To me, the answer is obvious. If we permit the United States or any other outsiders to go unopposed in making variously colored revolutions in the former Soviet Union, we make it that much easier for them to intervene in the name of democracy wherever they want, whether in Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, or Iraq.
A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New
Left monthly Ramparts, Steve
Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a
magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and
works in France, where he writes for t r u t h o u