During the two-day opera buffa that was the on-again, off-again military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice played a brief but memorable role. Throughout the long day and night that the democratically elected Chávez was sequestered and the military’s handpicked provisional president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions–the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office and the national electoral commission–Rice and the rest of the Administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say in effect that it was Chávez’s own fault. Only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office did Rice take to the boards to scoldingly tell Chávez that he, not the coup-makers, should “respect constitutional processes.”
Although the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless US lecturing on democracy. As Senator Christopher Dodd has noted, “To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy.”
The leading US papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that the New York Times had to apologize. By midweek, Chávez back in power, the Times recanted: “Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer.”
There can be little doubt the Bushies were crestfallen that Chávez didn’t get the permanent hook. Venezuela supplies the United States with nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia. And Chávez has gleefully thumbed his nose at Americans by befriending Castro, warming to Qaddafi and Saddam and playing footsie with the Colombian guerrillas. Indeed, Chávez–a former army paratrooper–rode to power as the embodiment of open challenge to the so-called Washington Consensus of hemispheric free-market economics in 1998. And he has gone out of his way ever since to enrage both the Venezuelan economic oligarchs and the US State Department with regular blasts of red-hot populist rhetoric.
That Washington wanted to get rid of Chávez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup US officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chávez; and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela’s military high command in December. Later, during Carmona’s brief reign, according to a State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona–ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly. The Organization of American States panel now investigating in Caracas should probe the precise scope of any US role in the failed coup.
Whoever masterminded the ousting of Chávez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal and forced Chávez’s return to power. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup–the upper and middle classes supported by the trade union movement–was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent leader of the business class, to run the provisional government, labor–literally overnight–withdrew its support. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.
That said, no one should confuse Hugo Chávez with Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Chilean president overthrown thirty years ago by a similar US-supported alliance of the economic upper class and the military. Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised. He showed little of the respect that Allende did for authentic democratic institutions. Unlike Allende, whose public support increased before his overthrow, Chávez has seen his original 80 percent support drop to just over 30 percent. And Allende never turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters as Chávez did, provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen.
Allende spoke to his nation as a professor; Chávez, who staged his own failed coup in 1992, often as a thug. Chávez’s undeniable charisma flirts with megalomania, his denunciations of all opposition borders on the paranoiac and his antidote to the hollower forms of democracy is often ham-fisted demagogy. Corruption within his regime, an increasingly autocratic style and an inability to make much of a dent in poverty have swollen Chávez’s opposition far beyond the ranks of the pro-American economic elite.
After winning by a landslide in 1998, Chávez moved aggressively to dismantle the old system. The two traditional parties were pushed to the margins, the discredited congress was replaced by a unicameral house, corruption was exposed and punished. Vowing to lift up the two-thirds of the population earning less than $2 a day, and infuriating the economic oligarchy, Chávez issued a series of decrees increasing state intervention in the economy and beginning much-needed land reform. But Chávez’s authoritarian ways and his failure to make good on deep reform suggest that consensus-winning alternatives championing social justice and authentic democracy are still works in progress.
Chávez presides over a fractured and volatile Venezuela. The military split is perilous. The class divide has been ripped wide open. Now is the time for Chávez to talk a whole lot less and do a whole lot more. When Gabriel García Márquez met with Chávez earlier in his tenure, the Colombian writer was “overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country; the other, an illusionist who could pass into the history books as just another despot.” And just as it seemed Chávez was succumbing to the latter fate, almost magically he has been granted another chance to achieve the former.