It was a good
week for democracy in Latin America, and not
such a good week for democracy in Washington and New York.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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: email@example.com.