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Bush's Bay of Piglets: If the US was the Villain in the Venezuelan Coup, Latin America's Much-Derided Leaders Were the Heroes
24 April 2002
Viva democracia! said the slogan scrawled on the bus offloading passengers near the presidential palace in Miraflores in Caracas this week. And so far democracy seems to be surviving in Venezuela, if only barely. The overthrow of the radical Hugo Chavez in a military coup on April 11 followed by Chavez's return to power within 48 hours was spectacular even by Latin American standards.
President Bush said after Chavez's return that he hoped he had "learned the lesson", but the main lessons need to be learned further north in Washington itself. The precise part played by the US in the coup remains unclear. What is known is that in January Mr Bush appointed, against the advice of the senate foreign relations committee, a man with a shabby record of covert meddling in Latin American politics: Otto Reich. Reich, a Cuban-American who was once the US ambassador to Venezuela, is now the assistant secretary at the state department for the western hemisphere and as such calls the shots for the US - almost literally - in Latin America.
In the Pentagon, the man with responsibility for Latin America is Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, who was the aide to the head of the Contras when they were waging their US-backed war against the elected leftwing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Two of the Venezuelan military who supported the coup, General Efrain Vasquez and General Eddie Ramirez Poveda, are graduates of the US Army School of the Americas in Georgia, where many members of the Latin American military have been trained in how to deal with troublesome lefties.
The tycoon who led the media onslaught that preceded the coup and whose television station announced it, Cuban-American Gustavo Cisneros, is an old fishing pal of Bush senior.
While the US may not have been involved in the final timetable for the coup, it knew that one was imminent and clearly gave it a green light. While the world's attention was on the Middle East, the coup was greeted with speedy acceptance by the White House. One wonders if a Zapatista force had overthrown the elected Mexican President Fox whether Mr Bush would have responded by saying that he hoped Mr Fox had "learned his lesson".
It was President Fox and the often derided Latin American heads of state who behaved like statesmen. They have little love for Chavez or his policies, but they recognize a military takeover when they see one. Fox swiftly condemned it and said he would not recognize an unelected government. The secretary general of the Organization of American States, the Colombian Cesar Gaviria, did the same.
This prompt action, combined with the angry pro-Chavez crowds on the street and the ill-advised dissolution of the national assembly and the supreme court by the newly installed president-for-a-day Pedro Carmona, changed wavering minds in the military. Chavez was returned to the palace. Only then, having realized their diplomatic gaffe, did the White House alter its stance. The lessons are plain. The leaders in Latin America know only too well what can happen if coups in democracies are allowed to succeed.
Bush was warned that by allowing this old discredited crew back into power he would be undermining the delicate relations between the US and her southern neighbors. He ignored that advice under heavy pressure from the powerful Cuban lobby in Florida, where his brother, Jeb, is running for re-election this year.
By doing so, he created an atmosphere whereby plotters must think they have carte blanche from the White House. As Democrat Senator Christopher Dodd said drily this week, those responsible for Latin America within the administration need more "adult supervision". Even the deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, who wrote to the Guardian in defense of Reich last year, admitted that the "formulation of the US statement wasn't what it should have been". This has been President Bush's Bay of Piglets.
It would be wrong to suggest that the coup was all got up by the United States. Chavez, who himself tried to seize power in a coup in 1992, has made many mistakes and many enemies. But he still enjoys a hard core of support of at least a third of the country, in particular the dispossessed who voted for him. He appears now to be trying, maybe too late, to repair some broken bridges.
On May Day, Chavez faces another test when a rally organized by the country's largest confederation of workers will be held in the capital. The good news is that the Latin American nations upheld the democratic position and recognized that it is still a chilling sight to see on television a bunch of burly men in uniform talking a little too closely into the microphones and announcing to the people that their president has "resigned".
Viva democracia! has to be more than a slogan on a bus. Perhaps a translation should be sent to the Latin American section of the US state department for them to stick above their desks: "It's the democracy, stupid!"