In 2004, President Bush tried to impress likely voters who frowned on his long vacations by insisting that he was "working hard." Since then, it has become perfectly obvious that his work ethic has fallen short on key issues from relief after Hurricane Katrina and producing desired results in the "war on terror," to putting forward viable solutions to the US health care crisis or boosting the stagnating economy.
There has been one issue, however, on which the Bush administration has worked diligently: a long and expensive effort to unseat democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. As the December 3rd Venezuelan national elections approach, in which President Chávez is standing for reelection, the Bush administration, in violation of US and Venezuelan law, is providing financial, diplomatic, and strategic support for Chávez’s opponents.
Bush’s timeworn hostility for President Chávez is well known. Top secret US government documents released through Freedom of Information Act requests show that the administration’s anti-Chávez operations may even pre-date the September 11th terrorist attacks and the launch of the "war on terror." According to human rights and international law expert writer Eva Golinger, leaders of the infamous April 2002 coup met with top Bush administration officials at least six months prior.
Golinger, who spoke with Political Affairs from Caracas by telephone, authored the 2005 book The Chávez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela. Translated into several languages and sold all over the world, The Chávez Code comprehensively revealed the role of the US government, through its military entities, diplomatic channels, and through funding agencies such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), in helping to plan and execute the coup. Through its role in meeting with coup leader Pedro Carmona, provision of military equipment, and diplomatic pressure on regional governments to accept the coup as legitimate, the Bush administration played a decisive, multifaceted role in those illegal activities.
Documents Golinger unearthed during the investigation for her book showed that the CIA knew the exact details of the coup plan: stage a mass demonstration of political opponents of the administration, use sections of the Caracas police loyal to the opposition to provoke violence by shooting at the crowds, blame President Chávez for the violence, have military detachments with ties to the US military kidnap him, and then claim he had resigned. US government documents show, Golinger points out, that "part of the conspiracy was convincing the public, the media, and other governments that Chávez was responsible and therefore the coup was justified."
Once this plan was implemented, Carmona seized dictatorial power and by decree dissolved all of Venezuela’s democratic institutions.
Immediately, Venezuelans rejected Carmona and demanded the release of President Chávez. His supporters organized huge demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people. Chavistas in the military found where he was being held and rescued him. In the days following the coup there was an enormous outpouring of support for Chávez that is impossible to imagine for any US politican.
Once the coup failed and Carmona was turned out, opposition political parties and groups, flush with US funds, planned and carried out an "economic sabotage," as Golinger describes it, that nearly crippled Venezuela’s oil industry. In the Venezuelan and US press, they claimed that workers were protesting President Chávez by refusing to go to work. Venezuela’s right-wing opposition, with the support of US taxpayer money, Bush strategists, and a little-known corporation with strong ties to the Pentagon, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), ironically labeled their action a "strike."
In truth, the managers who ran Venezuela’s oil industry closed down the plants and refineries, locked the workers out, and even destroyed or damaged vital equipment. SAIC technicians, who, according to Golinger, provided and operated the information technology used by Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, aided the sabotage by shutting down computer systems that operated the plants or changing the code to disable them.
"That was actually the area the sabotage took place," Golinger reports. "It was a US company which forms part of the military industrial complex – anyone can look it up – they were the ones leading the sabotage efforts."
The sabotage failed as ordinary workers stood up for the government they had chosen and forced the plants to re-open. In both cases – the coup and the sabotage – the main leaders were only in rare cases held to account for their crimes. Many fled the country, some to the US where they were welcomed by their patrons in the Bush administration.
After the lockout and sabotage failed in January of 2003, the opposition and the US government turned to even more insidious and dangerous capers, Golinger states. In 2003, Venezuelan authorities uncovered a plot to assassinate President Chávez "involving paramilitaries coming over from Colombia" who had ties "to US Special Forces working in Colombia under Plan Colombia," Golinger says.
Under the pretense of controlling drug trafficking, US military personnel "had been using Colombian paramilitaries to conduct command and control operations for some time." According to Golinger’s evidence, Colombian armed groups infiltrated all the way to "the metropolitan area of Caracas, not just the border." In all, some 100 Colombian paramilitaries were detained, many of whom were simply deported back to Colombia, while others were tried and imprisoned for their roles in the plot. Golinger points out that "high-level functionaries in the Colombian government, including President Uribe" admitted to this plot stating that "the paramilitaries and unfortunately some members of Colombia’s intelligence" had been involved.
When these and other terrorist attacks failed to achieve the desired result, opposition groups turned their efforts to a legal mechanism for recalling a president. Ironically, this provision of the Venezuelan Constitution had been authored by a Constituent Assembly called by President Chávez. After a series of illegal attempts to force Chávez out of office, the US-backed political opposition sought to remove him through a procedure adopted by the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans.
For this, the opposition parties again sought and received massive financial and technical aid from the Bush administration and forced a referendum on Chávez’s presidency in the summer of 2004. Despite the gobs of cash supposedly provided to "pro-democracy" groups, which in the case of Venezuela always happened to be linked with or supportive of the opposition, the recall campaign failed. Chávez received the highest number of votes any Venezuelan presidential candidate has ever received in an election judged to be fair and free by a consensus of international observers, including a team headed by former US President Jimmy Carter.
After a string of failures dating back to at least late 2001, it became clear that, in Golinger’s words, "the US government underestimated the popularity the Chávez government has but also the strength of the Venezuelan people to resist these types of sabotage and destabilization efforts."
But habitual failure does not seem to deter the Bush administration. In this case, failure has only caused it to sharpen its open hostility towards Venezuela. Again, the money is flowing through the NED and USAID to Chávez’s opponents. According to Golinger, who is about to publish a second book called Bush v. Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, which documents US interference since 2005, the Bush administration is "increasing that interference by providing funding, training, guidance, and other contacts, and other strategically important ways to support the opposition’s presidential campaign here."
This time Chávez’s opponent is Manuel Rosales, who unabashedly signed the Carmona decree in April 2002 dissolving the very democratic institutions he now wants to govern. Rosales’s shady credentials, however, are more insidious than just ties to Carmona and the coup. According to Golinger, vice presidential candidate Julio Borges is meeting with administration officials later this month in Washington and will be speaking at a forum titled "Can Venezuela Be Saved?" held at the ultra-right American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
According to AEI’s website, the event will be hosted by Roger Noriega, a fellow at AEI and former State Department official, whose deep dislike for Venezuela’s popular president is unmistakably personal. Noriega happens to have been the one who deliberately lied to the US media about Chávez’s phony resignation during the 2002 coup. (Noriega’s media ploy, though subsequent White House press statements backed him up, reportedly angered then Secretary of State Colin Powell because Powell himself didn’t believe that Chávez had resigned.) Noriega is also tied to organizations like USAID and the International Republican Institute which have funneled millions of US taxpayer dollars – in an era of record budget deficits – to political parties that oppose President Chávez. Presumably, Borges will be collecting a fat campaign check signed by the US taxpayer.
Aside from tens of millions of US taxpayer dollars financing Chávez’s opponents, Golinger also points out that this time around the US role in the campaign amounts to "psychological warfare within Venezuela, but also in the international arena, and in the United States." The goal is "to make people think that Venezuela is a failed or failing state with a dictator, which is how the US government refers to him."
In addition to numerous personal attacks on President Chávez, the Bush administration has intensified its diplomatic maneuvers against Venezuela. One recent example is Bush’s claim that Venezuela has failed to participate adequately in US-led anti-trafficking-in-persons efforts. As a result Bush unilaterally imposed economic sanctions on Venezuela. Golinger describes Bush’s charges as "complete fantasy and fiction, because Venezuela has actually improved their trafficking in persons efforts."
In a related matter not raised by Golinger in this interview, the White House also has accused Venezuela of failing to combat the illegal drug trade and pointed to Venezuela’s expulsion of Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) personnel in 2005 as evidence. This claim, however, was contradicted by State Department findings quietly released almost simultaneously that show Venezuela’s own anti-drug operations have produced better results without assistance from the DEA. The Venezuelan government says that it sent the DEA officials home under suspicion of abusing their privileged status.
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also recently accused Venezuela of launching an arms race by purchasing new military equipment. According to Golinger, "just because Venezuela is finally buying some equipment and rifles to replace ones that are more than four decades old, does not imply they are starting an arms race." The administration’s charges are belied by the fact that "Venezuela is not even on the list of the top five countries in this hemisphere in military budgets." With close to $500 billion spent annually on the military, the US is first, followed by "Brazil with about $13 billion, then Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and Argentina," Golinger asserts.
"Yet, Rumsfeld continues to make such declarations to international media, and it gets into the papers in the United States and other countries. The idea, of course, is to provide a perception that Venezuela is a danger," she adds. It is part of the Bush administration’s "ongoing campaign to discredit and to isolate Venezuela from other nations in the region but also around the world."
Though diplomatically this campaign has failed, Golinger regards it as another level of interference in Venezuela’s election. Bush and Rumsfeld’s accusations, as unmerited as they may be, are repeated throughout the US and Venezuelan media. The point of the Bush administration’s accusations is not to prove necessarily that Venezuela poses a real danger, says Golinger, but to convince portions of the Venezuelan population that maybe they would be better off with a president that does not provoke such responses from the US government. Indeed, statements from the US government have been carefully coordinated with opposition political campaigns, which have consistently played on fears of the people Venezuela about these issues.
Despite this level of interference, President Chávez maintains a wide lead in public opinion polls (+/- 25 points) and his supporters expect to turn out voters in record numbers again.
It is time for US taxpayers to call for an end to wasting money on these schemes. People who are honest about supporting real democracy should insist on building bridges and friendship with Venezuela rather than provoking hostility and prolonging ill will.
Let’s face it, telling the truth about other governments and building democracy are among the Bush administration’s weakest points. The US government should respect the choices of the Venezuelan people and their right to determine their own destiny – just as we expect other countries to respect ours. Can you imagine the uproar if another government chose to influence the US elections by secretly pumping millions of dollars to one of the parties or candidates? Imagine how angry you might feel if that government then had the nerve to turn around and claim they were "promoting democracy."
Let’s tell our leaders to set aside political differences and personal grudges and work together with Venezuela for peace and friendship.Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs magazine