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By Bruce Tompkins (aka Sean Bennett)
In a world at the mercy of the CIA and Uncle Sam, democracies come, and democracies go. It’s no "big thing". For the last 50 years, America has been propping up mass murderers, thieves, and psychopaths to protect the people of foreign countries from their own "irresponsibility", as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once put it. Usually America gets it’s way, encountering little or no resistance. But not this time. On April 12, 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was deposed from office in a highly suspicious military coup, only to return to power days later, in a triumphant countercoup that shocked the world. Although elected in 1998 by a decisive margin, Chavez began losing popularity about two years ago, when Venezuela’s economy started to decline.
Conservative elements in the armed forces known as Golpistas, opposed to Chavez, sensed that the time for regime-change was at hand. On April 12, talk of ousting Chavez came to an end. A well-orchestrated coup, wrested power from Chavez, and installed a new government. Yet, before Chavez could pack his bags, the tables turned and he was president again.
As the real movers and shakers of the coup, The Bush administration, try to pass this off as just some internal squabble for power, the rest of the world appropriately sees this for the sleazy, slimy underhanded act of U.S. imperialism it is. Naturally the US denies playing any role in the affair. However, the coup served as a painful reminder of the many left-leaning Latin American leaders that have been knocked off by Uncle Sam, and the populations that have been brutally repressed under their replacements.
Although Chavez is seen as a champion of the common people, his actions as President do not reflect bristling class hatred, or a desire to redistribute wealth on any major level. In fact, in many instances Chavez upheld existing capitalist policies. Nonetheless, Chavez steadily amassed a collection of enemies, as he put forth his meager reforms benefiting Venezuela’s working poor. Chavez’s enemies also point out his ties to communists in the region, criticizing him for his relationship with Fidel Castro, and Columbia’s FARC guerrillas. Chavez was certainly not trusted by the oil companies in Venezuela, which has one of the most profitable petroleum industries in the Western Hemisphere. Thus Chavez’s regime began to unravel well before the April 12 coup.
A week before the coup, an unlikely alliance between the Fedecameras, a business association, and the CTV, a trade union federation, had produced a wave of protests and general strikes throughout Caracas. These protests would soon turn violent. On April 11, an anti-Chavez march headed toward the Presidential palace, where they faced off with a group of Chavez supporters. It was then that a group of snipers perched atop nearby buildings opened fire on the crowd. The melee left a number of people dead, both pro and anti Chavez. Unfortunately, little is known about the gunmen, though it is probable that they were planted by the opposition as agents provocateurs, to give the military the pretext it needed for overthrowing Chavez.
Sure enough, the military claimed that Chavez was responsible for the violence, and had him placed under arrest. Chavez was then forcibly removed from the capitol and placed within the custody of the armed forces. By next morning, the military named a replacement. The new president was Pedro Carmona Estanga, head of the Fedecameras -the group that was responsible for the violent demonstrations that lead to Chavez’s ouster. Later that night, members of the new government initiated a brutal campaign to eliminate opposition. Both the National Assembly, and the Supreme Court were dissolved, several state governors were suspended, and the national constitution was disregarded. It was a regular reign of terror designed to eradicate the last of Chavez’s supporters.
The next day, April 13th, it appeared that the transition was not going as smoothly as planned. ProChavez demonstrators flooded the streets to protest the usurpers. They came out in droves. Storming the capitol, banging pots and pans, they demanded Chavez be released from custody and returned to power. They also called on the media to "tell the truth" about what was happening. The national media of course, had been distorting the facts and cheering on the coup from the beginning. In fact, during the first couple of hours after Chavez was arrested, they sought to perpetuate the rumor that Chavez had resigned, rather than been arrested. Fortunately for Chavez, much of the armed forces were still supporting him. Many of whom come from working class backgrounds, where support for Chavez is strongest. The leaders of the coup, on the other hand, represented only a small, fringe faction of Venezuela’s armed forces, in bed with the country’s elite. This fringe faction did not have the ability to quell unrest among Chavez-supporting members of the army. This dissension, combined with the massive street protests, proved to be the death knell for the new regime. Shortly after the coup began to crack apart, Chavez was released from prison, and his presidential authority was restored. Reluctantly, the Bush administration began accepting defeat. Like a parent scolding an insubordinate child,
National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said she hoped Chavez learned his lesson. But this is a lesson that the people of Latin America have been learning for decades.
Although there has been no overt pronouncement of support for the coup by the US government, few doubt that it was the US pulling the levers from behind the curtain. Even the mainstream press can’t deny that something was up. Newsweek reported that Venezuelan military officers informed US officials of their plans for a coup, as early as February. Otto Reich, a senior official in the State Department met with antiChavez forces on several occasions, and even met in Washington with Pedro Carmona Estanga, where they lamented about Chavez.
Otto Reich, who worked as a PR man for Ronald Reagan, helping to defend the illegal support of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, is now one of the State Departments leading policymakers for Latin America. A slough of other Contra-gate war criminals have also found their way into the new Bush administration, including John Negroponte and Eliot Abrams being among the most notable. In an administration such as this, word of a coup, must have been music to their ears. However, if the United States is as committed to democracy and the rule of law as it claims to be, US officials should have done everything in their power to discourage discontented Venezuelans from disregarding the will of the people and seizing power. But the US has a long history of showing contempt for the will of Latin American people. For instance, in 1954 the CIA overthrew Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz for trying to institute land reforms against the wishes of the United Fruit Company. In 1961, in the famously botched Bay of Pigs invasion President Kennedy tried to knock off Fidel Castro. In 1964, Brazilian President Joao Goulert was overthrown in a CIA-orchestrated coup on behalf of foreign creditors. In 1973, the CIA orchestrated a coup against popular left-leaning Chilean President Salvador Allende. Summing up the sense of urgency in the Nixon White House, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people." Throughout the 80s, the US backed a number of brutal regimes, juntas, and death squads, in order to foil leftist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador. These criminal invasions left thousands of people dead and mutilated and did violence to the dream of democracy in many countries. Hugo Chavez would have been just one more dream demolished by America’s imperialist desire for a monopoly on democracy. But the Venezuelans wouldn’t have it.
The fact that Venezuelans were able to thwart this thinly veiled imperialist power grab should inspire all those who at one point or another have had their sovereignty usurped by the junta that run the United States. If democracy can triumph in a small, often neglected country such as Venezuela, with all the odds towering against it, what it is to stop it from doing the same elsewhere? Indeed if anyone is to learn a lesson from this, it is Americans. A lesson Americans might bear in mind the next time they try to elect a president.