IT'S A sad day for American democracy when the leaders of countries whose
human rights records and democratic practices are as deeply flawed as those of
Paraguay and Peru show more respect for democratic institutions and the rule of
law than the U.S. government demonstrates. But that's what happened last weekend,
after elements of Venezuela's military led a coup that briefly ousted the
country's elected president, Hugo Chavez.
Mr. Chavez's return to office is a triumph for his country's embattled
democratic institutions and for the popularly elected leaders who stood behind
his government. But the affair was a black eye for the Bush administration, which
strained U.S. ties to allies in the region by backing the coup and will now have
little credibility as an advocate for democracy in the Americas.
After strikes and unrest forced Mr. Chavez out of office April 11, a so-called
interim government headed by businessman Pedro Carmona imprisoned the elected
president, arrested other top government officials, dismissed the National Constituent
Assembly and supreme court and suspended the constitution that the nation's
voters had endorsed just two years ago. The unrest apparently was organized by
factions of the country's military and financial elites determined to oust
Countries throughout the hemisphere quickly condemned the coup, with the sharpest
denunciations from nations such as Paraguay, Argentina and Peru, which have endured
great brutality under military dictatorships. The Organization of American States
denounced "the alteration of the constitutional order in Venezuela"
and refused to recognize the regime.
But the tone was very different in Washington.
The Bush administration refused to call a coup a coup. White House spokesman
Ari Fleischer referred instead to "a combustible situation in which Chavez
resigned." The administration expressed support for Mr. Carmona as it unsuccessfully
lobbied the OAS to tone down its criticism of his regime.
Indeed, a report by The New York Times that leaders of the coup recently met
with senior Bush administration officials, who backed the Venezuelans' belief
that Mr. Chavez should be removed, will fuel rampant suspicions in Latin America
that the Colossus of the North was behind the overthrow.
With its class-conscious rhetoric of social revolution and friendly relationships
with Cuba and OPEC colleagues such as Iran and Iraq, the Chavez government long
has been a thorn in President Bush's side.
Mr. Chavez's sometimes strident rhetoric and egotistical style have sharpened
some of his nation's divisions. And as Venezuela's economy weakened over
the last year under the weight of falling oil prices and questionable economic
policies, Mr. Chavez's once-overwhelming popularity has waned, and unrest
increased, in a country that is the third-largest exporter of oil to the United
While all of this is cause for concern, the intensity of the Bush administration's
hostility to Mr. Chavez is unwarranted.
Although he's chummy with Fidel Castro, Mr. Chavez is no socialist. He's
an economic nationalist whose economic policies are much more reminiscent of Juan
Peron's Argentina than Mr. Castro's Cuba.
And Mr. Chavez didn't introduce class divisions to Venezuela. In fact,
he was elected to address them. Despite the country's tremendous oil resources,
more than 80 percent of Venezuelans are considered poor and many eke out marginal
lives in the sprawling slums that surround the nation's cities.
Large majorities twice elected Mr. Chavez president, giving him a strong mandate
to help the nation's poor and break the stranglehold of the two corrupt political
parties that have dominated Venezuelan politics for decades. Despite his mistakes,
Mr. Chavez remains a powerful symbol of hope for many of his nation's poor.
And the democratic institutions the coup threatened are deeply valued, even by
many in Venezuela and throughout Latin America who oppose Mr. Chavez's policies.
Peru's President Alejandro Toledo, who is no friend of Mr. Chavez's,
explained his country's opposition to the coup like this: "We are not
defending the democratic characteristics of a particular government, we are defending
the principle of the rule of law."
Most Americans might have thought the leaders of a country proud of its more
than 200-year tradition of constitutional rule and eager to see itself as a beacon
for democracy would respect such basic democratic principles.
But in the case of the Bush administration's policy on Venezuela, as in
so many other cases in the blood-dimmed history of U.S.-Latin American relations,
they would be sadly mistaken.
Franz Schneiderman edits The Sun's letters page.
Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun