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Venezuelan Democracy Under Siege

Twelve years ago a populist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide became President of Haiti, in the country’s first democratic elections. A businessman summed up the attitude of Haiti’s small but stubborn elite: “Everybody who is anybody is against Aristide — except for the people!”

The upper classes of Venezuela have adopted a similar attitude as they seek to overthrow their own populist president — Hugo Chavez. They refuse to respect the results of democratic elections, and have little regard for the majority of their (mostly poor) compatriots. On Monday the nation’s largest business federation, joined by some leaders of organized labor, will once again attempt a general strike with the stated purpose of ousting the president.

The similarities do not end there: Aristide was overthrown in a military coup led by officers who were later discovered to be on the payroll of the CIA.

Chavez survived a similar challenge six months ago, when a military coup removed his government for two days. His presidency — and Venezuelan democracy — was rescued not only by a rebellion within the armed forces, but by the thousands of people who risked their lives and took to the streets to defend their government.

Venezuela is now edging closer to civil war, and once again Washington is part of the problem. The Bush Administration welcomed the April 11 coup at first, then backed off in the face of international embarrassment when the coup was reversed. A good deal of circumstantial evidence — including numerous meetings between administration officials and the coup leaders — indicates that our government’s support for the coup was more than just a nod and a wink.

What has the Bush Administration learned in the six months since the failed coup in Venezuela? Not very much, it appears. The US State Department investigated itself and not surprisingly, found no evidence of wrongdoing — although the investigation concluded that our diplomats were not sufficiently clear in communicating that they were against a coup.

In the build-up to this next attempt at toppling the government, Washington has been strangely silent. Venezuelan opposition leaders certainly have no reason to believe that a coup government would suffer any rupture in diplomatic or commercial relations with the United States.

Although not as openly prejudiced as the Venezuelan press, the US media has also presented a distorted view of the situation in Venezuela. Chavez is often portrayed as some sort of dictator, when in fact his government is one of the least repressive in Latin America. No one has even been arrested for attempting to overthrow the government, a crime that in most countries would carry a long prison term, and in the United States, the death penalty.

The press here often repeats the opposition charge that Chavez is installing “Cuban-style socialism.” This does not even pass the laugh test. Venezuela is as capitalist a country as it has ever been, and there have been no moves toward state ownership or control of the economy since Chavez was elected in 1998.

The Venezuelan economy is currently in a deep recession, worsened by billions of dollars of capital flight and reduced investment due to political uncertainty. It also suffers from a long-term economic decline considerably worse than that of Latin America as a whole. Venezuela’s income per person has actually shrunk by more than 18 percent since 1980.

Although the Chavez government has registered some significant gains for the poor in terms of school enrollment and access to health care, it still faces both the short-term hurdle of economic recovery and the problem of arresting the country’s long decline. But Venezuela is not alone in this regard: income per person has hardly grown at all in Latin America over the last 20 years, and it is projected to shrink this year.

The rise of populist and progressive governments, such as Brazil’s Workers Party — whose candidate Lula Da Silva is poised to win the presidency in a couple of weeks — will therefore continue. It is a logical response to the failed economic experiment — commonly known as the “Washington Consensus” — conducted at Latin America’s expense over the last 20 years. This trend will not be halted, as it has so many times in the past with Washington’s support, by means of coups, violence, or economic pressures. Our government — like Venezuela’s elite — might just have to learn to accept the idea of democracy, where the government and even some of its economic policies are decided in elections, by a popular vote.

MARK WEISBROT is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington D.C. and the co-author of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.

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Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of  Failed: What the “Experts” Got Wrong About the Global Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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