Ever since 9/11 President Bush has attracted incredible polling numbers, but none as one-sided as the results reported on Thursday by Andres Oppenheimer, the Miami Herald's excellent Americas columnist. Unfortunately, in this case they all worked against Bush. Clarin, Argentina's largest-circulation daily, asked readers about the Bush administration's role in the recent failed coup against Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez: 86% replied the U.S. had acted "in complicity with the coup; only 5% said the U.S. had acted "in support of democracy."
One could see the potential for talk of this sort in the first reports from Caracas last weekend, when for a day or two it appeared that Chavez had indeed been overthrown. Deep in the Washington Post's long Saturday entry, for example, was this ominous note: "Members of the country's diverse opposition had been visiting the U.S. Embassy here in recent weeks, hoping to enlist U.S. help in toppling Chavez." A little later came this: "At the same time, opposition legislators have been brought to Washington in recent months, including at least one delegation sponsored by the International Republican Institute....Its past president, Lorne Craner, is the Bush administration's assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor."
Craner hasn't been mentioned since, but increasingly this week the administration found itself under increasing attack and pressure to explain just what it knew about the pending coup and why it reacted with evident approval to Chavez's seeming ouster. Much of the coverage, at least in the U.S., has been sympathetic enough to the administration's position vis-à-vis Chavez, whose increasingly anti-American demagogy and Castro-style (and Castro-dependent) rule weren't winning him sympathy with anyone who mattered.
At the same time, there was concern that the Bush administration may have not been expressed sufficient unhappiness that a democratically elected figure had been unconstitutionally removed -- in clear violation of the Organization of American States' Democracy Charter, which the U.S. backed and signed last year precisely in an effort to outlaw coups in Latin America.
Given that the actual coup plotters proved as inept and feckless as anyone since Aleksandr Kerensky, it was easy for the left to take it from there and write, as Paul Krugman did, that "there we were, reminding everyone of the bad old days when any would-be right-wing dictator could count on U.S. backing." With next to nothing to go on, and knowing next to nothing about Hugo Chavez, the left was unleashed to go after Bush as if he were Nixon attempting to overthrow Allende or Ronald Reagan's National Security Council setting Iran-contra in motion. As if made to order, the figure of Otto Reich, a Cuban-born anti-Communist who became undersecretary of state for Latin America as a recess appointment after his nomination was blocked by anti-Communist loathing Sen. Christopher Dodd, now stands as the symbol of what the Bush haters think is their target. Everyone from the loonies at Media Whores Online to Joshua Marshall to Paul Begala smells a rat and the next scandal that this time could bring the administration down.
No doubt it will survive this brouhaha, and maybe even chalk it up to business as usual. But in fact it could have spared itself considerable grief had it not been so busy in the Middle East muddying signals about what its commitments in the War on Terrorism amount to. What seems to have escaped notice is that Hugo Chavez's survival and the huge embarrassment it has caused the administration mark an important setback in this war, particularly to U.S. credibility in dividing the post-9/11 world into those who choose to be with us, and those who risk annihilation if they choose not to be.
Colin Powell himself sent Hugo Chavez a stern message last February. In response to a question about Chavez's alleged ties to Colombia's FARC narco-terrorists, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "We have been concerned with some of the actions of Venezuelan President Chavez and his understanding of what a democratic system is all about.'' Last fall, the U.S. recalled our ambassador to Venezuela after Chavez denounced the U.S. war in Afghanistan as "fighting terrorism with terrorism." His vice-president told a U.N. forum that there is "terrorism of the oppressed because there is also terrorism of the oppressors."
In August 2000 Chavez defied the U.S. by becoming the first head of state to visit Saddam Hussein since the Kuwait war. "He's going to arrive, whether it be on a skateboard or on a camel," the Venezuelan foreign minister declared. Said Chavez upon arrival: "We are very happy to be in Baghdad, to smell the scent of history and to walk on the bank of the Tigris River." He extended "my deep gratitude to [Saddam] for the warm welcome he gave us." After dining with Saddam, he told reporters, "Imagine, he took me on a ride of Baghdad while he was driving the car."
Writing in the Los Angeles Times last December 2, David Paulin, a journalist formally based in Venezuela, reported that "Chavez recently visited Paris, where he expressed concern about the well-being of Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, who is being held in a French jail." In the past, writes Paulin, the two have exchanged "friendly letters." The same Carlos, Paulin adds, "expressed 'relief' at the Sept. 11 attacks."
A story in yesterday's New York Times fell back on familiar U.S. themes, as if in search of some reason to defend Chavez, who it admits "has aggravated" his country's "social divisions."
"Mr. Chávez, with his tan skin and curly dark hair, embodies the racial mixture of Venezuela. Some 67 percent of the people here are mestizos, a mixed race of the whites, blacks and Indians who are the nation's minorities. Economic and political power, however, remains concentrated in the hands of whites."
Anti-elite resentments might explain the support Chavez rode back into power. But Chavez will do nothing to improve the lot of the country's poor. According to Andres Oppenheimer, more than $16 billion in capital has fled Venezuela in the last two years alone -- most of it to the hated U.S. Much as he disdains America, Chavez can't afford to stop selling it oil -- the only use the U.S. has for him, in any case. But as David Paulin reported, Chavez is more than happy to hurt the poor in other ways, whether by turning back U.S. military engineers sent to help rebuild after the mudslides two years that killed thousands and left tens of thousands homeless, or sympathizing with "Colombia's murderous Marxist narco-guerrillas -- and their frequent massacres of unarmed peasants."
So long as the likes of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Yassir Arafat survive, the re-emergence of Hugo Chavez was the last thing the U.S. needed.
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