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Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill’s trip to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay has brought some needed attention to the financial and economic crises there. But there is one country where the US is playing an enormous — and thoroughly destructive — role that has been left out of the picture: Venezuela.
Last April the Bush Administration sent a powerful message not only to Venezuelans but to all of our Southern neighbors: if we don’t like the presidents you elect, we will use our muscle to get rid of them. By any means necessary. That is what was understood when the Administration endorsed the attempted military coup on April 11 against the elected president of Venezuela. (The White House later justified its response by saying it thought that President Hugo Chavez had “resigned;” but nobody south of the Rio Grande was fooled).
Now we will see whether the Democratic-led US Senate will object to this 1950s-style foreign policy.
On May 3, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee requested an investigation from the US State Department, to find out what it did wrong in Venezuela. What he got was a complete whitewash — which was turned over to the Senate last week.
The State’s Department’s supposedly independent Office of the Inspector General didn’t even interview a single Venezuelan, but relied on US embassy officials and others who had a direct career interest in covering up what happened. This is comparable to investigating Enron by talking to Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow.
Significant parts of the report remain classified — most tellingly, a section entitled “Miscellaneous Issues Raised by the News Media in Venezuela or the United States.” Just what issues raised by the Venezuelan and U.S. news media are our State Department trying to keep away from the public discussion?
Of course they can’t hide what the press has already printed. The Washington Post and New York Times cited numerous meetings between top US officials and the people who led the military coup on April 11. The European press was even more explicit about these meetings: “The coup was discussed in some detail, right down to its timing and chances of success, which were deemed to be excellent,” reported the Observer of London, citing sources at the Organization of the American States.
There were dozens of such leads in the press that the State Department could have investigated. But they chose not to do so; or if they did, they have apparently withheld the results from the public.
Some of the report’s admissions are even more damning than the omissions. Listing the reasons for US hostility to President Chavez, the report notes “his involvement in the affairs of the Venezuelan oil company, and the potential impact of that on oil prices.” There you have it: the number one reason for the US State Department supporting a military coup against a democratically elected president. He had the nerve to get involved in deciding how much oil Venezuela should produce, instead of leaving these decisions to Washington! And people wonder why anti-US sentiment is rising in Latin America.
Even more importantly, the report admits that US officials did little or nothing to warn the coup leaders that the United States would impose sanctions on a government that was installed by military force. This means that all the admonishments from the US embassy about not supporting a coup — while Washington was funneling millions of dollars to pro-coup organizations — were a mere formality. The real message was a big green light.
The anti-democratic Venezuelan opposition will continue to understand that message, until there is an explicit statement from the Bush Administration that a coup would result in a cut-off of economic and diplomatic relations with the United States.
The Senate should demand exactly such a statement, and conduct a real investigation in place of the State Department’s cover-up. Anything less would tell the world that our Congress — not just the Bush Administration — has little respect for democracy in Latin America.