On Democracy and Orchestrated Overthrows in Venezuela and Ukraine

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Common Dreams

On Democracy and Orchestrated Overthrows in Venezuela and Ukraine

On April 11, 2002, the democratically elected president of Venezuela was overthrown by a group of military officers who installed a prominent Venezuelan businessman as president. The Bush administration announced that day that it supported the coup.  Two days later, on April 13, the lead editorial in the New York Times announced that it also supported the coup, claiming that it was a victory for “Venezuelan democracy”:

With yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator. Mr. Chávez, a ruinous demagogue, stepped down after the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader, Pedro Carmona…. Rightly, [Chávez’s] removal was a purely Venezuelan affair.

Since nearly every state in Latin America, from Mexico to Chile, denounced the coup and criticized the Bush administration for supporting it, the Times’ editorial backing the coup was to the right of every official statement given by every government throughout the Western hemisphere.   

The Times’ editorial also accepted the claim made by Venezuelan military plotters and the Bush administration that Chávez had resigned. However, when Chávez returned to power on April 14 — after only three days and following mass protests and a counter-coup to reinstall the elected president — it was clear that Chávez had not resigned, and that the TimesApril 13 editorial, in addition to supporting a military coup, had misreported an important fact pertaining to the status of the elected Venezuelan president.

In a tight spot due to the quick reversal, the Times’ editorial page withdrew its support for the coup in an April 16 editorial, and reversed its claim that Chávez had resigned:

In his three years in office, Mr. Chávez has been such a divisive and demagogic leader that his forced departure last week drew applause at home and in Washington. That reaction, which we shared, overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed. Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how badly he has performed, is never something to cheer.

Thus, the Times’ changed “yesterday’s resignation of President Hugo Chávez” (the April 13 editorial) to “forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader” (the April 16 editorial), and changed “democracy is no longer threatened” thanks to the coup to “we … overlooked the undemocratic manner in which [Chávez] was removed.”

The claim in the April 13 editorial that “[Chávez’s] removal was a purely Venezuelan affair” is also of interest, given the long history of U.S. interventionism in Latin America. In fact, an April 16 front-page story by Christopher Marquis in the Times reported that “senior members of the Bush administration met several times in recent months with leaders of a coalition that ousted the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chávez, for two days last weekend, and agreed with them that he should be removed from office.”

The next day, April 17, Marquis reported that “a senior [Bush] administration official [Otto Reich] was in contact with the man [Pedro Carmona] who succeeded Mr. Chávez on the very day he took office,” and that “Mr. Carmona, who heads Venezuela’s largest business association, was one of numerous critics of Mr. Chávez to call on [Bush] administration officials in recent weeks. Officials from the White House, State Department and Pentagon, among others, were hosts to a stream of Chávez opponents, some of them seeking help in removing him from office.”

And on April 25, Marquis reported: “In the past year, the United States channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor groups whose protests led to the Venezuelan president’s brief ouster this month.”

 The assertion by the Times that Carmona was “a respected business leader” was a flattering description of someone who had just come to power without any constitutional authority as a result of a military coup that had overthrown the elected president. Moreover, the editorial page published this benign portrait of the illicitly installed president of Venezuela in its April 13 editorial; that is, after Carmona had “dissolve[ed] the National Assembly and fire[d] all members of the Supreme Court” at 5:45 p.m. the previous day, according to an account of events published by the Times.  So many Venezuelans were offended by Carmona’s behavior that “the respected business leader” was driven from power almost before the ink had dried on the TimesApril 13 editorial, and fled the country a short time later.

Furthermore, the “senior administration official” who “was in contact” with Carmona “on the very day he took office” as the new Venezuelan president, as reported on April 17 in the Times, was Otto Reich, who, in the 1980s, ran a secret propaganda operation inside the United States — the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD) — in support of the Reagan administration’s efforts to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. A government investigation declared that Reich’s domestic propaganda operation was illegal under U.S. law, and the U.S. Congress reportedly closed it down. (After his engagement in the illegal OPD campaign inside the United States, Reich became U.S. ambassador to Venezuela from 1986 to 1989.)   

Also, on April 25, two weeks after the short-lived military coup against Chávez in Venezuela, Marquis reported: “In the past year, the United States channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to American and Venezuelan groups opposed to President Hugo Chávez, including the labor groups whose protests led to the Venezuelan president’s brief ouster this month. The funds were provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit agency created and financed by Congress. As conditions deteriorated in Venezuela and Mr. Chávez clashed with various business, labor and media groups, the endowment stepped up its assistance, quadrupling its budget for Venezuela to more than $877,000.”

In a report issued by the State Department’s inspector general (as requested by Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd), Clark Kent Irvin, the department’s IG at the time, found that the National Endowment for Democracy, through the American Center for International Labor Solidarity — one of four core NED grantees — awarded $150,000 to a group called the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers to “promote democratic reforms at all levels of government.” In his April 25 piece, Marquis reported: “The Confederation of Venezuelan Workers led the work stoppages that galvanized the opposition to Mr. Chávez. The union’s leader, Carlos Ortega, worked closely with Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman who briefly took over from Mr. Chávez, in challenging the government.”

Irvin also reported that the NED had awarded $340,000 to the International Republican Institute (IRI) — another core grantee — to “encourage[e] the development of democratic structures and practices” in Venezuela, and “to develop … civil society groups and individual citizens that demonstrate a willingness to interact with political parties in planned activities.”

On April 12, 2002, the day after what seemed at that moment to be a successful coup in Venezuela, the head of the IRI, George Folsom, issued a public statement supporting the coup: “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.... The [International Republican] Institute has served as a bridge between the nation’s political parties and all civil society groups to help forge a new democratic future, based on accountability, rule of law and sound democratic institutions. We stand ready to continue our partnership with the courageous Venezuelan people.”

On April 25, the Times reported that “in an interview, Mr. Folsom said discussions at the Institute on Venezuela involved finding ways to remove Mr. Chávez by constitutional means only.” This claim that NED-funded groups sought to remove Chávez from power — but only “by constitutional means” and “legal means” — was prominently featured in Irvin’s IG report without challenge, despite substantial evidence gathered by Irvin himself in the very same report of a U.S.-engineered coup. 

Pursuant to this brief case study, subtract Venezuela, add Ukraine, and the coup in Kiev of February 2014 — from the perspective of NED-financed groups in Ukraine – looks pretty much like the coup in Caracas of 2002. For example, according to an NED document, the NED awarded $3.3 million in grants to a number of organizations in Ukraine for 2012. This included $380,000 to the International Republican Institute, the same NED core grantee that was involved in “finding ways to remove Mr. Chávez [from power] by constitutional means only.” 

Furthermore, the chairman of the board today of the International Republican Institute is Senator John McCain. In a visit to Ukraine in February (last month), McCain gave a speech in Kiev, during which he said: “We have to side with the protesters and the power has to be dispersed from the hands of (Ukrainian president Viktor) Yanukovych.” What was that supposed to mean, if not a call of support, issued on Ukrainian soil, from the chairman of the International Republican Institute for the overthrow of the elected president of Ukraine? Imagine a high-ranking official from another country, in a speech in Washington, D.C., calling for the overthrow of an elected American president? And if McCain was willing to issue such statements in public, what was he willing to say privately in any discussions with the IRI?

In a truly mad encore on March 14, courtesy of the op-ed page of the New York Times, McCain advocated “sanctioning Russian officials, isolating Russia internationally, and increasing NATO’s military presence and exercises on its eastern frontier,” in addition to “boycotting the Group of 8 summit meeting in Sochi and convening the Group of 7 elsewhere.” The Times’ opinion-page assisted McCain’s belligerence by adding the subtitle: “John McCain on Responding to Russia’s Aggression.”

Neither the Times nor McCain mentioned that the senator from Arizona, who a month earlier appeared to call for the ouster of Ukraine’s president, is chair of the NED-funded Republican International Institute, which admitted in 2002 that it was involved in the overthrow of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and which is currently the recipient of hundreds of thousands of dollars of NED funds for its operations in Ukraine, whatever those might be.    

In short, the essence of the NED enterprise itself almost certainly violates the customary international law norm of non-intervention, given its overall interventionist orientation, which features the neo-liberalization of foreign countries and the destabilization and overthrow of foreign governments.

Finally, who in the United States oversees the NED? Not President Obama, who shows no intention of checking even the publicly known outrages of the NSA and CIA, let alone the mostly unknown ones of the NED. Not the Democrats or Republicans in Congress, who in 1983 created the NED “to promote democracy” abroad. Not the federal judiciary, needless to say. And not the press; surely not the New York Times, which, without Christopher Marquis, who died of AIDS in 2005, hasn’t employed anyone since who has shown an interest in shedding any light on the activities of the NED, certainly not in Venezuela and Ukraine today.

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