South of the Border, Democracy Works
          by Joe Conason

          It was a good week for democracy in Latin America, and not
          such a good week for democracy in Washington and New York.

          Beyond those immediate observations, we know far less at the
          moment than we need to know about the events leading up
          to the coup and countercoup in Venezuela. Who was killed in
          the violent street demonstrations of April 11? Who did the
          shooting? When did the State Department learn that a coup
          was imminent? What did our diplomats (and military attachés)
          say to the plotters? Why did the White House and the
          National Security Council ignore our treaty obligations to
          oppose the unlawful overthrow of an elected President?

          These are not rhetorical questions. The establishment of
          democratic institutions, civil society and human rights in the
          nations of Central and South America is by no means assured.
          Continuing conflict over the region’s extreme disparities of wealth—and the
          reluctance of powerful interests to surrender their political privileges—continue to
          threaten the development of freedom and constitutional order. In theory, at least,
          U.S. policy seeks to encourage that development, and to discourage the
          recrudescence of dictatorship and despotism.

          Yet the wind from Caracas carried a pungent, unwholesome aroma of earlier
          military interventions against elected governments—and the traditional complicity of
          the United States and the mainstream media in those criminal conspiracies. That
          smell intensified with the release of comments from the Bush White House, where
          press secretary Ari Fleischer seemed to welcome the forcible removal of the
          twice-elected Hugo Chávez and the installation of a "transitional civilian
          government" which "has promised early elections."

          As Mr. Fleischer uttered those words, Pedro Carmona, the oilman anointed as
          "dictator for a day," was attempting to dismiss the National Assembly and the
          Supreme Court so that he could rule by decree. Only a sudden mass uprising by
          Chávez supporters and the turnabout of the military rank-and-file frustrated the

          There was something surreal about the official U.S. response to this chaotic
          situation, coming as it did from an administration that had actually lost the popular
          vote in the last election here and only attained power by judicial intervention. Of
          course, no one is supposed to dwell on the 2000 election and its disputed aftermath
          anymore, irresistible as such comparisons may be.

          Anyway, there were plenty of other ironies in the American response to the coup
          attempt. Among the most notable was Mr. Bush’s proclamation of "Pan-American
          Day" and "Pan-American Week" on April 12—the very same day that his
          administration was failing so miserably in its responsibilities to its southern neighbors.

          His proclamation was intended to honor the growing hemispheric commitment to
          those shared values, and so on. In glowing terms, it describes the strong response of
          the Latin democracies to the terrorist assault on the Twin Towers last September.

          Coincidentally, on Sept. 11, 2001, all those liberty-loving friends of the United
          States were in Lima, Peru, with Secretary of State Colin Powell for an important
          ceremony. They were there to approve the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a
          document meant to strengthen the multilateral commitment to protecting
          constitutional democracy in the hemisphere.

          Last week, on the very first occasion that the new charter was invoked, the U.S.
          was not merely unsupportive but actively obstructive, according to an excellent
          account by Karen DeYoung in The Washington Post on April 16. The nations that
          rallied behind us when we were attacked are disgusted, to put it very mildly. That
          they helped to undo the coup in Venezuela without Washington’s assistance only
          emphasizes the poor performance of the Bush administration.

          Once again, the supposed masters of foreign policy serving Mr. Bush have
          displayed their own arrogance and incompetence. In this episode, they proved that
          they believe in multilateral diplomacy only when it serves the interests of the United
          States, and that they honor constitutional processes only so long as those processes
          produce the desired result. A single day’s duplicity has revived every ugly memory
          of the U.S. role in Latin America during the Cold War.

          Those memories encompass the conduct of the mainstream press during that era,
          when newspapers often behaved as propaganda adjuncts of the Central Intelligence
          Agency. When The New York Times published an editorial endorsing the
          Venezuelan coup on April 13, the paper of record sounded weirdly anachronistic. It
          was as if the editors had forgotten everything they ought to have learned in the last
          four or five decades. The Times grudgingly acknowledged its error on April 16, in
          an editorial that denounced Mr. Chávez as "autocractic." The editors confessed that
          in their enthusiasm, they had "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he
          was removed."

          North Americans often regard themselves as paternal teachers of democratic values
          to the underdeveloped countries. But evidently it is our elites who have much to
          learn about liberty from the people of Latin America.

          You may reach Joe Conason via email at:

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