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The Coup Last Time

Venezuela and the Imperial Script, 2004 Edition

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

This essay was written during the ill-fated 2004 campaign to recall Hugo Chavez.

You can set your watch by it. The minute some halfway decent government in Latin America begins to reverse the order of things and give the have-nots a break from the grind of poverty and wretchedness, the usual suspects in El Norte rouse themselves from the slumber of indifference and start barking furiously about democratic norms. It happened in 1973 in Chile; we saw it again in Nicaragua in the 1980s; and here’s the same show on summer rerun in Venezuela, pending the August 15 recall referendum of President Hugo Chávez.

Chávez is the best thing that has happened to Venezuela’s poor in a very long time. His government has actually delivered on some of its promises, with improved literacy rates and more students getting school meals. Public spending has quadrupled on education and tripled on healthcare, and infant mortality has declined. The government is promoting one of the most ambitious land-reform programs seen in Latin America in decades.

Most of this has been done under conditions of economic sabotage. Oil strikes, a coup attempt and capital flight have resulted in about a 4 percent decline in GDP for the five years that Chávez has been in office. But the economy is growing at close to 12 percent this year, and with world oil prices near $40 a barrel, the government has extra billions that it’s using for social programs. So naturally the United States wants him out, just as the rich in Venezuela do. Chávez was re-elected in 2000 for a six-year term. A US-backed coup against him was badly botched in 2002.

The imperial script calls for a human rights organization to start braying about irregularities by their intended victim. And yes, here’s José Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch. We last met him in CounterPunch helping to ease a $1.7 billion US aid package for Colombia’s military apparatus. This time he’s holding a press conference in Caracas, hollering about the brazen way Chávez is trying to expand membership of Venezuela’s Supreme Court, the same way FDR did, and for the same reason: that the Venezuelan court has been effectively packed the other way for decades, with judicial flunkies of the rich. We don’t recall Vivanco holding too many press conferences to protest that perennial iniquity.

The “international observers” recruited to save the rich traditionally include the Organization of American States and the Carter Center; in the case of the Venezuelan recall they have mustered dead on schedule. On behalf of the opposition, they exerted enormous pressure on the country’s independent National Electoral Council during the signature-gathering and verification process. Eventually the head of the OAS mission had to be replaced by the OAS secretary general because of his unacceptable public statements.

The Carter Center’s team is headed by Jennifer McCoy, whose forthcoming book, The Unraveling of Representative Democracy in Venezuela, leans heavily against the government. One of its contributors is José Antonio Gil of the Datanalysis Polling Firm, most often cited for US media analysis. The Los Angeles Times quoted Gil on what to do: “And he can see only one way out of the political crisis surrounding President Hugo Chávez. ‘He has to be killed,’ he said, using his finger to stab the table in his office far above this capital’s filthy streets. ‘He has to be killed.’”

Media manipulation is an essential part of the script, and here, right on cue, comes Bill Clinton’s erstwhile pollster, Stan Greenberg, still a leading Democratic Party strategist. Greenberg is under contract to RCTV, one of the right-wing media companies leading the Venezuelan opposition and recall effort. It’s a pollster’s dream job. Not only does he have enormous resources against an old-fashioned, politically unsophisticated poor people’s movement, but his firm has something comrades back home can only fantasize about: control over the Venezuelan media. Imagine if the right wing controlled almost the entire media during Clinton’s impeachment.

That’s the situation in Venezuela. Just think what Greenberg’s associate, Mark Feierstein-a veteran of similar NED efforts in ousting the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections-can do with this kind of totalitarian media control. NED? That’s the National Endowment for Democracy, praised not so long ago by John Kerry, who, like Bush, publicly craves the ouster of Chávez.

The NED is coming over the hill arm in arm with the CIA and CIA-backed institutions in the AFL-CIO, where John Sweeney’s team has dismally failed to clean house. The NED has helped fund the opposition to Chávez to the tune of more than $1 million a year. Among the recipients are organizations whose leaders actually supported the April 2002 coup-they signed the decree that overthrew the elected president and vice president and abolished the country’s democratic institutions, including the Constitution, Supreme Court and National Assembly. The coup was thwarted only because millions of Venezuelans rallied for Chávez.

Left out of the coup government, despite his support for it, was Carlos Ortega, head of the CTV (Central Labor Federation). The AFL’s Solidarity Center, successor to the CIA-linked AIFLD, gets more than 80 percent of its funding from the NED and USAID and has funneled NED money to Ortega and his collaborators. The Solidarity Center has been up to its ears in opposition plotting, a reprise of the Allende years, when the AFL helped destroy Chilean democracy. The AFL has denied any role, but Rob Collier, an excellent San Francisco Chronicle reporter, recently gave a detailed refutation of AFL apologetics in an exchange in the current New Labor Forum. “In Venezuela,” he writes, “the AFL-CIO has blindly supported a reactionary union establishment as it tried repeatedly to overthrow President Hugo Chávez-and, in the process, wrecked the country’s economy.

The CTV worked in lockstep with FEDECAMARAS, the nation’s business association, to carry out the three general strikes/lockouts” of 2001, 2002 and 2003. The CTV, Collier says, was directly involved in coup organizing, and its leader was scheduled to be part of the new junta.

The end of this particular drama has yet to be written. The left here in the United States could make a difference if it got off its haunches and threw itself into the fray.

This essay is adapted from a piece that appeared in the June 2004 print issue of CounterPunch.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.