The U.S. Response to Bolivia and Venezuela

The U.S. government has a long track record of defending democratically elected leaders only when it serves their interests. Its response to recent events in Bolivia and Venezuela reveals cynical and transparent contradictions

Hoping for consistency from the Bush administration is something like playing the lottery: You play the game, but deep down, you know you’re going to lose. But even for this administration, the U.S. response to recent events in Bolivia and Venezuela reveals cynical and transparent contradictions.

Last year on April 11, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was overthrown in a short-lived coup. In less than two days he was returned to power due to the overwhelming support of Venezuelans, who had voted him into office by a landslide. President Chávez was, and still is, a democratically elected president.

Last week in Bolivia, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to demand the resignation of an unpopular president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. They won that resignation. President Sánchez de Lozada was a democratically elected president.

When it became clear that Bolivia’s leader was in political trouble, the U.S. made strong statements in support of him and of Bolivia’s democracy.

Just 18 months earlier, when Venezuela’s Chávez was removed from office, the U.S. government did not protest. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer did not mention the importance of democracy or the Venezuelan constitution, and did not seem to mind if they had both been violated. He refused to recognize the events as a coup, telling reporters “…the Chávez government provoked this crisis…. a transitional government has been installed.” Various independent reports around the world suggested the U.S. had in fact encouraged the coup.

Why the difference? Why uphold democracy for one country and not another?

That said, the U.S. government isn’t the only apparent hypocrite here. What about the response of progressives all across the world? The White House supported the removal of Venezuela’s president and condemned the removal of Bolivia’s. Conversely, lefties around the world wanted the opposite. They protested the removal of Chávez and seemed to support the downfall of Bolivia’s Lozada.

Last week a sign-on letter made the rounds of progressive organizations. It criticized the U.S. government for making the following announcement: “The American people and their government support Bolivia’s democratically elected president… The international community and the United States will not tolerate any interruption of constitutional order and will not support any regime that results from undemocratic means.”

Don’t we all support that? Those are the exact words we wanted from the Bush administration during the Venezuela coup. Is there something wrong with Bolivia’s constitution?

You have to scratch the surface of these apparent hypocrisies to find some answers.

First, the U.S. government’s response: The Bush administration did not support Chávez when he was down because Chávez had long been a thorn in their side. He often disagreed with doing things the Washington way—he wouldn’t blindly take part in the U.S. drug war, he wouldn’t blindly follow U.S. economic policy, he wouldn’t blindly support a military response to terrorism, and so on. His populist philosophies didn’t mix well with the military and corporate-led plans the U.S. pushes on the world, and he seemed to relish saying so. It’s probably also worth noting that Venezuela controls one of the largest known oil deposits in the world. So with Chávez gone, the Bush administration must have been gleeful, albeit briefly. At that time, concern for democracy slipped off their radar.

As you might guess, the opposite was true of Bolivia. President Sánchez de Lozada followed U.S. policy line. He was Harvard educated and spoke Spanish with an American accent. He was a big fan of neoliberal economics and privatization. He followed the conditions of the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund, which prescribed “austerity” for Bolivia via cutting social programs and government pensions. And in a controversial move that helped spell out his demise, he attempted to sell Bolivia’s gas reserves to California. It’s not clear who would’ve benefited the most from that plan, but you can bet the U.S. wouldn’t enter into a deal that gives itself the short end of the stick.

So there you have it. The president who abided by Washington’s rules, and who was willing to work with corporate investors, won the support of the White House. The other didn’t. “Democracy” never actually entered the picture.

On the flip side, progressives around the world supported Chávez for all the reasons the Bush administration doesn’t. He was elected by a clear majority, he’s constantly battling an elite opposition that produces inflammatory propaganda about him and then promotes it on Venezuelan media, most of which it owns. When Chávez was removed from the palace by armed guards last year, and when the opposition who took over immediately dissolved the Congress and the judiciary, lots of people cried foul. Chávez was brought back by popular demand—because hundreds of thousands of his supporters demanded it, and, bolstered by that support, much of the military did too.

And that’s why Bolivia is different. In Bolivia, Sánchez de Lozada had won the presidency by less than one percentage point. In office he supported economic policies that were opposed by much of the population. Studies show the gap between rich and poor increased severely under those policies, and they knew it. When the president tried to broker a deal to sell off their gas, they figured the profits would yet again end up in the pockets of a moneyed elite and foreign corporations. So they took to the streets to demand a more equitable system.

The other difference is the method of the downfall. Chávez in Venezuela was literally forced out—led out by armed guards and flown to an undisclosed location. That didn’t happen in Bolivia. In Bolivia, hundreds of thousands of people used their voices and their right to dissent, and they used it to demand the resignation of an unpopular president. Once the protests began, president Lozada’s regime responded with violence. The military and the police fired on and killed dozens of demonstrators, which the White House did not condemn. But in the end, the demand of the protesters was met. And there’s nothing unconstitutional about a resignation.

The U.S. government has a long track record of defending democratically elected leaders only when it serves their interests. This time, they could take a lesson in democracy from both Bolivia and Venezuela, where the will of the people prevailed. Perhaps that’s what the Bush administration fears most.

Dannah Baynton is the editor of AMERICAS.ORG
Contact her at webeditoramericas.org
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