Venezuela and lessons in democracy
by Marc Becker
On April 12, the Venezuelan military with the support of wealthy right-wing business sectors overthrew Hugo Chávez, the country's democratically elected president. Chamber of Commerce leader Pedro Carmona declared himself president, dissolved the National Assembly, dismissed the Supreme Court, and abrogated a series of laws. Two days later, riding a wave of popular support, Chávez returned to power. Once again, Venezuela has functioning democratic structures.
The coup resulted from conservative reactions to Chávez' economic policies. Venezuela is Latin America's largest producer of oil and the third largest source of oil imports to the United States. Chávez, a nationalist leftist-populist who has significantly reshaped Venezuela society in his three years in power, has become a leader of OPEC. He has successfully raised oil prices in order to fund social development programs in Venezuela. Higher gas prices at the pump in the U.S. translates into less poverty in Venezuela.
While other Latin American countries condemned the coup, the Bush administration, far from protesting this break in democratic governance, welcomed Chávez' overthrow. In embracing the coup, the U.S. violated its commitment to the Organization of American States' Democracy Charter which requires strong action against military coups. When Washington's glee turned to dismay as their coup collapsed, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice incredibly cautioned Chávez to "respect constitutional processes."
Without a doubt, the U.S. was a major force behind this coup. From criticizing Bush's terrorist war against Afghanistan, to being very friendly with Cuba's president Fidel Castro, to refusing to cooperate with Washington's war on guerrillas in neighboring Colombia, to opposing U.S. economic domination of the world, Chávez has unquestionably alienated the United States government. The main military leaders of the coup had trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas which has graduated many of Latin America's dictators and has been implicated in extensive human rights violations throughout the Americas.
The U.S. desperately needs a lesson in democracy. The U.S. may not like Hugo Chávez or his policies that benefit poor people in Venezuela, but he is the president that Venezuelans openly, freely, fairly, and constitutionally elected (which, incidently, is more than George W. Bush can say about himself). Chávez also still enjoys a good deal of support in his country. It is not the role of the U.S. to go around the world and select leaders for other countries.
Many people have pointed to the strong parallels between Chávez and Salvador Allende in Chile. On September 11, 1973, the U.S. helped engineer a coup that overthrew Allende, the democratically elected president, ending a long tradition of civilian constitutional rule in Chile and implemented one of the bloodiest military dictatorships in Latin America. As in Venezuela, U.S. economic interests trumped its commitment to democratic values and institutions.
The United States government's opposition to democracy and civilian rule in Venezuela clearly reveals that it is not a force for democracy or justice in the world. Rather, it is held captive by a group of oil barons who freely and openly violate constitutional systems in order to advance their own economic agenda. The result is that the U.S. has become a destabilizing force in the Americas.