Undoing Chavez

The recent coup in Venezuela shows that, in many ways, it’s only a secondary matter whether the CIA was informed_or whether it was behind it (Newsweek.com, April 15). Most Americans understand the subversive nature of the CIA’s agenda, as they recognize the existence of other secret agencies linked to the government or sectors thereof. What seems more important is that the W. Bush administration has now split with the ‘democracy’ principle. A typical adjunct is how the American press and media establishment follow suit by simply not giving a damn.

In a remarkable twist of fate, deposed Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez returned to power early Sunday morning, April 14. The turnabout occurred at the expense of over 40 lives in Saturday’s anti-coup protest riots in Caracas. These events led the military leaders to force the resignation of interim president, Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of Venezuela’s most important business association. He is virtually the CEO of CEOs.

Carmona lost favor not only with the population, but with his fellow junta partners as he dissolved the (unicameral) National Assembly and Supreme Tribunal of Justice, acts akin to assuming dictatorial powers. Consequently, Chavez was reinstated and sworn in once again as Venezuela’s legitimately elected civilian president. The turnabout was so sudden that in his return address he complained about not having had time enough to reflect on events and write some poetry.

No matter what one’s personal opinion of Chavez is he remains the democratically elected president of Venezuela, a full-fledged member of the Organization of American States. Moreover, Venezuela is a member-state of OPEC, over which one of its ministers, Ali Rodrigues, currently presides. But judging by what Latin America analysts from the New York Times and Washington Post have to say, the democratic legitimacy to his rule might just as well be irrelevant.

We’ve justifiably come to expect newspapers, especially articles penned by pundits, to be a forum for the free expression of opinion. Face it, we love to hate reading the fabrications and misrepresentations of our journalist and analyst counterparts when what they issue can’t be distinguished from doublespeak. What has always been far less acceptable is when the State Department is shaped into a pulpit of propaganda and disinformation. Consider the State Department’s initial reaction to the coup. As reported by the Washington Post, Ari Fleischer spoke of the events that led to Chavez’s imprisonment and the dissolving of the legislative assembly merely as a case of him ‘losing his job’. Fleischer is also reported to have said that Chavez’s undoing was something he brought himself as he tried to suppress peaceful demonstrations, ordered its supporters to fire on unarmed protesters and blocked media broadcasts of the events_all of which have been contested.

Were the Bush government to appeal their misevaluation to flaws in its information supply, an alert public would then be entitled to ask why, with all the money spent on intelligence gathering, does it continue to be so ill-informed. Far less patient with official excuses, skeptics spot direct government complicity with the way the events unfolded. As eyewitnesses claim, there was shooting from a number of different sources on the day of the coup. But those shown on images broadcast the world over of men firing at the crowd from an advantageous position on an upper-level terrace happen not to be Chavez supporters. Just another flaw in the picture-medium we all know to be incapable of lies.

As the demonstration turned violent, the media had by then reportedly come under the control of the anti-Chavez clan. Which makes Mr. Fleischer’s claims not only absurd, but completely misleading. Chavez’s tolerance and abidance by the principles of free speech have been a constant until, that is, different seditious groups began calling for the government to be toppled. Any radio or television station in the world is forced to comply by law with the illegal nature of broadcasting sedition. When Chavez interfered with the media days before the demonstration, it was already too late. Who was controlling them on the day Chavez was brought down is not Fleisher’s concern. Nor is it worth it for him to subsequently specify, as regards Chavez’s alleged human rights violations, that there were at least twice as many deaths committed on Saturday by security forces answering to the interim ‘president’ and his military backers than there were during Friday’s demonstrations by Chavez forces.

What appears to have happened is the following. In Chavez’s most spectacular move in his policy of reshuffling the country’s economic controllers, he replaced the administrative heads of the Venezuelan national oil company. Venezuela is the third oil supplier to the US, surpassed only by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. His controversial decision provoked the ire of oil industry managers and professionals, who are among the most privileged group in the population. A large protest was set for the end of last week and ended by halting exports of oil, if only momentarily, to the US. Given that supplier number-four, Iraq, had just decided to stop exporting oil a week earlier as protest of American support for Israel in their war against the Palestinians, Chavez’s decision can only seem ill-timed, if not a misguided provocation.

The ease and discipline with which the interim junta was brought to power should indicate that the coup had been planned for a considerable amount of time. As Chavez has criticized the US in spectacular fashion, and has defiantly befriended its most dreaded enemies, it’s little wonder that the US Embassy in Caracas was aware of the conspiracy. As for the conspirators, they knew very well that neighboring Latin American countries would unequivocally reject any grounds for a coup. Not only does the world have to deal with the unilateralist track record of the current American government on everything dealing from protecting the environment to economic protectionism, now we get the painfully clear recurrence of America’s arbitrary position on international democracy. Iraq may have been presented as an exception. Now, it seems, it’s time for the rule.

What we in the North should notice is the tone of the OAS’s denunciation, lest we become complicit again to criminal behavior on our governments’ part. A coup d’Etat is a betrayal of democracy, and suspending its institutions is a crime against our political morality, no matter who the leader should be. Furthermore, if the American administration favors the act of toppling leaders it perceives as distasteful, then its implications ought to apply at home. According to such criteria, the democratic grounds by which George W. Bush won the recent elections stand open to doubt again, and the principles according to which his cabinet pleads for secrecy in its internal affairs casts suspicion fully and rightfully over it.

Brazil’s president Fernando Henrique Cardoso has stood out among leaders in his immediate condemnation of the coup. On Friday, he issued a strong-worded declaration to the press stating that there could be no justification to undermining the institutions of a democracy. In fact, Latin American leaders have been so swift in their collective denunciation of the coup, it has taken Washington aback. It could still be heard in the voice of National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, as she refused to name it as such on Sunday’s ‘Meet the Press’.

On Saturday, as Larry Rohter the NY Times Americas analyst, was casting doubt on the real commitment to democracy by Latin American leaders, the OAS had negotiators already dispatched to Caracas (“A Vicious Circle: Failures and Instability”, April 13, 2002). Through a sleight-of-hand that can only be called disinformation, Mr. Rohter places the Venezuelan coup on the same level as the dramatic changes coming about in Argentina, Equator and Peru. Little of the failed Venezuelan coup can be placed on the same level as the popular revolt in Argentina that toppled president De la Rua. As the Argentine peso edged toward devaluation, any observer with the slightest sense for spotting difference, could see the revolt was in favor of MORE democracy, and not toward the dictatorial powers assumed by the Venezuelan junta.

The Argentine popular revolt sought reparation for the siphoning of national wealth from State coffers. Whereas the revolt against Chavez aimed, by diverted means, at securing the nation’s wealth for the corporate elite. As for deposed Peruvian president, Alberto Fugimori, who is wanted by Peruvian justice on an extradition charge related to corruption, he may have been “forced” from office, in Rohter’s words, though the fact remains he refused to concede defeat to president-elect Toledo. And Colombia, despite how well its democratic institutions are functioning via US military aid_the country being the third largest taker after Israel and Egypt_has been at war for 35 years. Hardly part of a recent trend, then.

What’s more, the picture drawn by Rohter completely elides Brazil. Its democratic institutions have been working with increased efficiency since the late 1980s, following 25 years of military dictatorship. Presidential elections are set for this fall. For once, corruption scandals are being exposed during the election campaign, instead of letting the population pay for them after instatement.

Rohter’s commentary the day after the coup stuns the mind even more: “Fear of Loss of Democracy Led Neighbors to Aid Return” (NY Times, April 14). In a newspaper awarded Pulitzer Prizes for its coverage of 9/11, to whose “accuracy” distinguished Oxford/Stanford Professor Timothy Garton Ash recently endowed laurels, here we have a journalist intimating that there’s something wrong in upholding the virtues of democracy. There’s nothing surprising in how the OAS has defended the democratic institutions of Venezuela and the man elected by the people to preside over them. Even less that this support comes from countries having crossed years of terror, with loss of life counted in the tens of thousands. The historical awareness inherited by their democratic leaders is that of the loss of an entire generation of politically active opposition critics. Their courage ran head first into the refusal by the ruling business and landowning oligarchies, often with US support and aid, to develop the education, health and industrial infrastructure in countries such as Argentina, Chile, Brazil_and Venezuela.

These countries, and among them Venezuela, have risen to show that their opposition powers are far from wiped out. When the population summons for the respect of democratic principles, it has little to do with a game, in respect of which Ms. Rice has tried to credit Hugo Chavez with merely being a lucky player.

Still, despite the renewal of America’s claims over Latin America politics, Hugo Chavez’s position has to be carefully appraised. As does the jeopardy in which his explosive confrontational style places the young thriving democracies of the Southern American Hemisphere.

In light of this, it’s still pertinent to ask who the man posing in front of a Simon Bolivar “The Liberator” portrait really is. By now, it should be known that he’s the former military commander who, after orchestrating a failed coup in 1992, was elected president in 1998 on a populist reformist platform, dubbed the “Bolivar Revolution”. He was reelected in 2000, as part of referendum on the new constitution passed by the legislature in December 1999, which he was instrumental in promoting. His current term was supposed to give him executive and legislative leeway until 2006. His aim has been to answer calls for the reform of Venezuela’s economic structure and provide increased opportunity for this country that lives essentially on revenues from the petroleum sector.

These revenues are enormous, for Venezuela is the second producer of crude oil in the world. Nonetheless it is estimated that half of its population of 24m lives well below the poverty line, while an additional one-third lives from the ‘informal’ economy. Its formal economy is controlled by scores of powerful families, whose interests the conspiring president, Carmona, stood up to serve. More than a quarter of the population is without work, and, worse, without prospect, as Venezuela’s enormous crude oil wealth is invested anywhere but in the country’s industrial infrastructure. Once again, in agreement with Washington’s beliefs, one need not move outside of one’s own country to condemn globalization. We can do it in Brazil, France, Canada or in the US itself. However, when a country may want to turn complaint into counter-policy, Washington hammers in to show why it’s not worth putting it into practice.

Exports from Venezuela’s petroleum sector dominates the economy, accounting roughly for a third of its $146 billion GDP, and more than half of government operating revenues. Growth of the economy has been estimated at 3.2% in 2000. In view of such satisfactory results, the fact that recession was still afflicting the domestic economy while the world’s was thriving overall suggests that capital flight is a serious problem, without even pointing to the country’s extremely weak nonoil sector. Recall also that Venezuela suffered terrible hardship subsequent to massive flooding and landslides in December 1999, which caused an estimated $15 to $20 billion in damage.

When considering change the question is what type of leaders can skillfully bring them about. Within Washington itself, few of them abound. If they exist in Latin America, the best among them are doing their work and keeping a low profile. No one benefits from the Bonapartist-style charismatic leader: not the country, not the disenfranchised, not the aspiring and educated middle classes utterly frustrated with changeless decades enforced by military and economic crackdowns, aided by the North whenever reform is seriously on the agenda. The risk at which Chavez puts his neighbors can lead even the most diplomatic of leaders, such as Brazil’s Cardoso, to publicly question his good sense.

Since the return of democracy to Latin America, leaders elected on reformist platforms have chosen the subtle non-confrontational approach. No matter what perceptions are of the actions undertaken by the US on the continent throughout the 20th century, and how reticent they are to being locked into ‘free’ trade agreements, many leaders understand that it does not pay to criticize the US publicly. Chavez may be playing up his strengths vis-a-vis the Venezuelan population by holding diplomatic ties with Saddam Hussein and Mohamar Khadaffi. Through his friendships, he takes on their tyrannical, dictatorial air.

In the end, they do the region, not to mention his own country, a great disservice. As learned from the deposition and murder of Salvador Allende, Chile’s former democratically elected president, support from progressive thinkers, writers, and states, is not enough when trying to fend off on-coming terror. To make matters more complicated, Chavez’s political moves represent some of the deviations of the diehard Latin American Marxist Left, caught between violent exclusion and economic opportunism.

In the eyes of the Western media, Chavez’s moment of glory came from a front-page elegy in the French monthly, Le Monde diplomatique in October 1999. Though skeptical regarding the international acceptance of Chavez’s projects, Ignatio Ramonet profusely cited the Venezuelan leader, hailing him for “taking a distance from the neoliberal (economic) model and resisting globalization.” Still, Ramonet described him in uncertain terms, already highlighting his unpredictable nature and charismatic eccentricities.

With the passing of the new constitution in December 1999, and the series of laws on land reform, Chavez may have been inching toward solid reforms. However, Emir Sader argues in the Jornal do Brasil (April 15, 2002) that the tide had begun to turn for Chavez. With recession in the North American economy bringing crude prices down, matched with the breakdown in cooperation with the country’s business elite, Chavez was confronted with unregulated flight of capital and factory lockouts.

As outside observers, our policy position can only be one of caution. The junta who held power for little over a day has strong backing from the oil sector, as well as some divisions in the military. Their action must be condemned as a crime against democracy on the same scale as was the coup attempted against Mikhail Gorbachev in the USSR in 1991. The coup ought to be seen in the perspective of the desire by the business elite to privatize the national oil company, which would ultimately seal the fate of reform hopes well into Venezuela’s future.

This is why, contrary to what the US is demanding, the conspirators ought to be brought to justice, and information must be gathered as to how the junta was organized and what led to the coup. The trial should be observed by international NGOs, open as well to representatives of the US government. Afterward, and afterward only, a full presidential pardon should be given. For Chavez needs to seek reconciliation with the conspirators. Despite initial appearances, due to Carmona’s subsequent decision to assume dictatorial powers, there was little unity in the junta. Chavez will seize upon this fact to build on the dissentions so as to avoid the irreversible consequences another coup would involve.

These steps seem to be cautious ones, aimed at upholding justice and seeking conciliation with the business community. No one ought to give sway to dreaming profusely here. Whenever economic reform in Latin American states was successfully undertaken in fighting poverty and corruption, creating new industries and jobs, and, foremost, distributing wealth into improved education and health programs through broader and more efficient taxation schemes, the reaction of successive US governments and its multilateral financial arms, the IMF and World Bank, has been far from laudatory. These infrastuctural strategies are among the most pressing challenges to improving its struggling economies, though Latin America has only met them with mitigated success. The frustration ensued from running into these obstacles, which can be felt in the flare-up of uncontrollable urban violence, has indeed brought Latin America into the greatest political fragility it has seen in thirty years.

Canadian philosopher and political analyst, Norman Madarasz lives in Rio de Janeiro. He has edited and translated Alain Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, available at SUNY Press. He welcomes comments at: n_madarasz@hotmail.com .