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Is Venezuela Next?


Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization.

“I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.

Democracy in Latin America might also prove nice if the United States would allow it to occur. Traditionally, when Latin Americans elect governments that show even vague intentions of redistributing the lopsided national wealth toward the poor, US officials get their knickers in a twist and force new elections: the pro-US candidate then emerges. But Washington’s rhetorically concealed fusion between popular elections and imperial appointments hardly assures Latin American stability.

Indeed, since 1999, seven Hemispheric heads of state have left office before finishing their terms. In October, four months before US and French officials dispatched Haiti’s elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, pro US President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozado fled Bolivia to Miami. Massive popular protests erupted against his pro-American economic policies. Similarly, Paraguay’s Raul Cubas had to quit when faced with heavy opposition, some of it turbulent. Ecuador’s pro free trade president, Jamil Mahuad, also got 86’d. Peruvians sort of elected the fascistic Alberto Fujimori, currently exiled in Japan and facing criminal charges in Peru — and also hoping to return to Peru to grab the presidency again. President Alejandro Toledo, who replaced the disgraced Fujimori, followed US dictates on free trade that has created deep unrest. In December 2001, Argentina’s economy collapsed and Fernando De la Rua resigned in the face of popular revolts against neo-liberal policies. Pro-US economic (free trade) policies caused the undoing of these regimes.

“Pro-US,” however, hardly describes Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, the current target for covert destabilizing. In 1998, the 49 year old former paratrooper won massive electoral support for president. Chavez was elected again in 2000 for a six year term.

Opposition leaders claim that Chavez wanted to convert Venezuela into a Cuba-style system. Having botched a 2002 coup attempt, Washington-Caracas plotters launched a recall referendum to force a new vote. But the Venezuelan election council announced on March 9 that only 1,830,000 of the 3 plus million signatures passed muster; 2.4 million would force a recall election. On March 15, Venezuela’s Supreme Court overruled the Council.

The Electoral Council appealed to another branch of the Supreme Court, which ordered the Council to hand over all material relevant to the case. The Council maintains that constitutionally is alone is qualified to decide on recall procedures. Chavez says he will abide by the decision of the Court.

Paradoxically, members of the Bush administration who helped rig the 2000 Florida election charged Chavez with electoral hanky panky. Bush officials call Chavez “Castro’s little buddy,” and mock his verbal assaults on US imperialism, which they see as a sign of disobedience.

The wealthy, their politicians, media owners and top executives and former managers at the state oil company, along with their labor leader partners from the elite oil workers union, all tried and failed to dispatch Chavez in the April 2002 coup. These former coup makers and their Washington backers have the chutzpah to claim that Chavez — not they — has undermined democracy. Imagine US officials daring to charge others with undermining democracy as they keep their contaminated hands in Haiti following their overthrow of Aristide.

In recent speeches, Chavez quoted from documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act that show US agencies funded the efforts of former coup makers. Chavez demanded that the US “get its hands off Venezuela.”

The documents he cited show that “Sumate,” a group that directs the signature collection for Chavez’ recall, received $53,400 from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose mandate is to fund causes that strengthen democracy.

The recall campaign organizers have also fomented vehement street rallies that have cost at least eight lives. Members of the elite bang pots and pans in their own neighborhoods–only servants use them in their homes — but some of Venezuela’s massive poor get paid by US-backed operatives to do more violent protesting.

These tactics resonate with memories of tested CIA formulas, like the one used to foment revolt against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile 1970-3.

“It’s done in the name of democracy,” said Jeremy Bigwood, the journalist who obtained the documents proving US complicity, “but it’s rather hypocritical. Venezuela does have a democratically elected President who won the popular vote which is not the case with the US” (Andrew Buncombe, 13 March 2004 Independent).

NED targets foreign leaders who believe insufficiently in free trade and privatization or who want the government to play an active role in the economy.

For example, NED targeted Aristide for his refusal to comply 100% with the demands of the privatizers, like the IMF and the US government. It sent money to his opponents while the US government itself cut off loans, credit and aid to the Haitian government.

Washington can’t very well try these tactics with Venezuela without fear of a retaliatory oil policy by Chavez. But it did enlist its old Cold War ally, the foreign policy wing of the AFL-CIO union, the American Centre for International Labor Solidarity. The AFL-CIO, losing membership at home, nevertheless spent workers’ money to train and advise opposition anti-Chavez forces. The US government acts as a loose organizer to bring together the anti Chavez unions and discredited political parties like Democratic Action and Copei, whose past governments have looted their nation’s treasury over some four decades.

Chris Sabatini, NED’s Latin America director, claims his agency only wants to “build political space” (Independent, March 13). Such statements seem laughable. But ridicule alone cannot combat this democracy posture. Indeed, US concern about democracy shows only when that ancient Greek form begins to function for the poor. In Chile in the early 1970s and in Venezuela today, the wealthy chant “democracy” only when tax policies designed to help the poor threaten their fortunes.

The media, owned by the rich, don’t report facts about how past “democratic” governments routinely looted Venezuela’s treasury. But they have spread panic about Chavez’ budget, which prioritizes public health and education–areas the rich don’t use–and hope the US intervenes more forcefully.

US troops routinely intervened throughout the region in the 19th and 20th Centuries. After 20 years of occupying Haiti (1914-34) marines handed over the reins of government to militarized lackeys who repressed their own people, but pledged loyalty to Washington. After World War II, as democracy became an exportable national value–even racial integration by the 1960s — the CIA redefined the word to coincide with US policy interests around the world.

The world’s greatest democracy overthrew elected governments in Iran (1953) for their intention to nationalize oil and in Guatemala (1954) for distributing some of United Fruit Company’s uncultivated acreage–after compensating the Company according to its declared tax value — to landless peasants. Traditionally, the US removes “undesirable” candidates who win elections, and substitute a more obedient candidate.

In the 1960s, US covert operations helped depose reformist President Joao Goulart in Brazil (1964) and poured money into the coffers of its candidates throughout Latin America. In response to the Cuban Revolution, US-backed counterinsurgency campaigns strengthened the most undemocratic elements of Latin America while, simultaneously, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson extolled the virtues of the Alliance for Progress to build democracy. The Alliance received far less funding than the military in Latin America.

Nixon authorized the overthrow of the elected socialist coalition of Salvador Allende in Chile–accomplished by bloody coup in 1973–and the formation of what Reagan’s UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick distinguished as only “authoritarian” governments, as opposed to the truly evil “totalitarian” ones.

Authoritarian regimes could change, she opined, while totalitarian remained immutable. She didn’t say that US-backed authoritarian governments in much of South and Central America also murdered their opponents. The totalitarian ones at least offered services and, as it turned out, they also changed–collapsed.

Kirkpatrick maintained that “Central America is the most important place in the world.” Picture her saying this at a sanity hearing! However ideologically bizarre, Kirkpatrick and her ilk proved coldly calculating in backing covert wars to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (1979-90) and supporting military coups (authoritarian) against elected governments in the 1970s and 80s.

In the 21st Century, Washington shows its evolution by ousting Aristide, and cites his antipathy to democracy as the reason. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice explained: “We believe that President Aristide forfeited his ability to lead his people because he did not govern democratically.” (March 14, 2004 NBC’s “Meet the Press”) She offered no evidence.

The Chavistas watched the Haitian drama with the understanding that they are next on the Bush hit list. Otto Reich, Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere, and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, have barely disguised their aggressive intent.

As hysteria mounts, Chavez followers–mostly among the 80% of Venezuelans who are poor — gain greater understanding of both their enemies and their own roles in changing their history. They elected their president, and democracy demands that their will, the majority, prevail. The day George W. Bush believes in such a simple formulation grass will grow on my palm. So stay alert, Companero Hugo and members of the Bolivarian Circles!

SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University. For Landau’s writing in Spanish visit: His new book, PRE-EMPTIVE EMPIRE: A GUIDE TO BUSH S KINGDOM, has just been published by Pluto Press. His new film is Syria: Between Iraq and a Hard Place, now available from the Cinema Guild. He can be reached at:


SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.

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