THE FAILED attempt to oust Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and the amateurish role of the United States in the developments leading to it have put US policy on Latin American into a tailspin.
Equally disappointing is the fact that, with few exceptions, the rest of the hemisphere reacted with blase indifference and registered little discomfort with the coup. The result is that the United States and the majority of our hemispheric neighbors have now created a whole new political life form: the benevolent coup d'etat, by which it becomes acceptable to topple distasteful but democratic governments in the Americas. This is a dangerous road to travel.
On April 12, White House spokesman Ari Fleisher asserted that ''the Chavez administration provoked the crisis in Venezuela,'' that Chavez ''resigned,'' and that before doing so, Chavez ''dismissed the vice president and the Cabinet.'' Besides explicitly blaming Chavez for his own downfall and self-imposed dismissal of his government, the spokesman refused to define Chavez's downfall as a coup d'etat. The White House's version of events is the political equivalent of the ''tumble' cycle - the coup gets blamed on the victim instead of the perpetrator.
Meanwhile, Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemispheric affairs, and John Maisto, the National Security Council's senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs - both of whom are former US ambassadors to Venezuela - and Roger Noriega, the US ambassador to the Organization of American States, kept remarkably silent.
The joint US-Spanish statement on Venezuela issued the same day expressed both governments' hope that the ''exceptional situation'' in Venezuela could be normalized as soon as possible. Consequently there was no official US censure of the coup d'etat.
Similarly, the heads of state of the Rio Group, the largest and most important Latin American mechanism for political cooperation, met in Costa Rica. On April 13, the group issued its final declaration of 38 points without mentioning Venezuela. In a separate communication it condemned the interruption of the constitutional order in Venezuela, adding that the rupture ''was generated by a process of growing polarization.'' Consequently, the Rio Group - in line with United States - opted to imply a sort of justification for the coup.
Latin America's preeminent international organization - the Organization of American States - was also unable to put forward a principled argument against the coup and in favor of democracy. The Permanent Council of the OAS condemned ''the alteration of the constitutional order'' in Venezuela and approved a mission to Caracas on April 14 by Secretary General Cesar Gaviria, just when Chavez was returning to power. Unable to act diligently and categorically in defense of democracy, the OAS lost itself in a sterile silence in order to avoid contradicting Washington and its position of not recognizing the fact that a coup d'etat had happened in Venezuela.
Hugo Chavez deserved all the criticism in the world. But he was the head of a democratic government. The reaction of the United States and some governments of the hemisphere resembles the mind-set of the darkest hours of the Cold War, when short-term political stability trumped democracy. The attitude of the White House, mimicked by the rest of the hemisphere, is opening a Pandora's box of unknown consequences.
There are several Latin American countries in a ''high risk'' list of fragile democracies like Haiti, Ecuador, and Paraguay, among others. Hard-liners around the hemisphere, from Central American to the Andean ridge, from Guatemala to Argentina, can draw the wrong lesson and believe that they have a free hand to pursue military adventures against still unconsolidated democracies.
The United States should reverse its position immediately. A strong signal in favor of democracy should be manifested by high US government officials. The resignation of middle-level personnel linked directly to the unfortunate ''Chavez affair'' is a must: the United States must be seen to be in the democracy construction - not destruction - business.
Unless things change, many in the hemisphere will see their hopes that George W. Bush's government would be the US administration that finally focuses and cares about Latin America mutate into despair. Indeed many may ask themselves if Bush's presidency is itself becoming a security problem for Latin America's still fragile democracies.
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is dean of political science and international relations at the Universidad de San Andres in Argentina.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company