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 business leader."

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 warning:

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?

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