Dictatorship or Democracy
by Joel Bleifuss
In These Times magazine, May 27, 2002
Prior to the putsch, the coup leaders visited the White House,
State Department and Pentagon
When on April 12, a cabal of business leaders and military
officers deposed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and dissolved
the country's National Assembly and Supreme Court, the Bush administration
blamed the victim. White House spokesman Ari Fleisher said, "The
actions encouraged by the Chavez government provoked a crisis."
Major dailies adopted the language of Big Brother. A New York
Times editorial heralded the coup: "Venezuelan democracy
is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator ... [Chavez] stepped
down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected
The Chicago Tribune commented with a straight face: "It
is not every day that a democracy benefits from the military's
intervention to force out an elected president." (Stephen
Chapman, the conservative columnist who authored that editorial
also noted that Chavez had been "praising Osama bin Laden,"
a statement with no basis in fact.)
Forty-eight hours later, however, Chavez was back in power,
thanks to a popular uprising that was bolstered by diplomatic
pressure from the Organization of American States.
As many had suspected, evidence soon emerged that the United
States appeared to be behind the overthrow of yet another democratically
elected government in Latin America. Prior to the putsch, military
and civilian coup leaders had visited the White House, State Department
and Pentagon. Venezuelan Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon, for example,
met with Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, a former high-ranking Contra official
who is now the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America.
Undersecretary of State for Latin America Otto Reich denies
that the administration had any knowledge of or involvement in
the coup. Lies are Reich's stock in trade. As head of the Office
of Public Diplomacy in the mid-'80s, Reich, an anti-Castro Cuban,
conducted an illegal propaganda campaign to garner public support
for the CIA-Contra war against the Nicaraguan government. This
covert operation, staffed by psychological operations specialists
from the U.S. Army, intimidated journalists and news executives
and dispersed spurious news items.
Is it a coincidence that in Venezuela a coordinated propaganda
operation appears to have stoked rebellion using anti-Chavez private
media outlets? Two days before the coup, the Venezuelan Program
for Education, Action and Human Rights, a group that previously
had been critical of Chavez's authoritarian impulses, issued this
The media have played a fundamental role in encouraging the
climate of instability by circulating rumors of the suspension
of guaranteed rights and announcing an alleged program of government
repression. ... In a clearly provocative and illegal action, television
channels have decided to exercise control over Chavez's national
presidential broadcasts, the only communication tool that the
government possesses to respond to the open media conspiracy against
it. Calls for a golpe de esatado, the criminalization of left
movements and proclamations against the supposed "Cubanization"
of the country have all been redoubled in these day of permanent
coverage in favor of the strike and the departure of Chavez.
Indeed, on the day of the coup, private media stations promoted
the demonstrations continuously, characterizing the anti-Chavez
demonstrators as "civil society" and labeling Chavez's
supporters "mobs" and "hordes."
Many Venezuelans, particularly wealthier citizens, are unhappy
with Chavez. In November, he decreed, and the National Assembly
passed, 49 economic reforms. One of these laws requires banks
to provide 15 percent of their loan portfolio to farmers, up from
8 percent. Another distributes idle land to landless peasants.
The end result of these measures will result in a redistribution
of wealth from the oligarchy to the more than 80 percent of Venezuelans
who live in dire poverty. In essence, a charismatic Chavez, carrying
on where he says Simon Bolivar left off, has mobilized the disposed
majority to demand compensation for centuries of blood, sweat
and tears. His supporters have described this "Bolivarian"
revolution as "an antibody" to the "disease of
globalization." The Bush administration, the New York Times
and the Chicago Tribune, perceiving a threat to the established
order, worry that this popular, movement might be contagious.
After all, once it gets started, where will it stop?