Venezuela’s Election Provides Opportunity for Washington to Change Course

President Hugo Chavez's landslide victory in Sunday's election provides an opportunity to open a new chapter of US-Venezuelan relations.

President Hugo Chavez’s landslide victory in Sunday’s election provides an opportunity to open a new chapter of US-Venezuelan relations. It was one of the most internationally monitored elections in recent memory, with observers from the Organization of American States and the European Union once again approving the results and the process. This is the fourth time that Chavez has stood for election and won, if we include the recall referendum of August 2004, which he won by a similar margin. As the famous Brazilian sociologist Helio Jaguaribi recently remarked, Chavez is “the most elected president in the hemisphere.”

This would be a good time for President Bush to call and congratulate President Chavez, and bury the hatchet with our fourth largest oil supplier. To those who object that Chavez called President Bush “the devil” just last September at the United Nations, it is worth noting that on Thursday President Bush called to congratulate left economist Rafael Correa, the newly elected president of Ecuador. When asked about Chavez’ UN speech last September, Correa had commented that it was an “insult to the devil,” and added a couple of choice remarks of his own about President Bush which do not need to be repeated here.

Correa responded graciously to President Bush’s overture and praised him as “noble” for calling. The day after our own Congressional elections, a reporter reminded President Bush that the new House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi had recently called him a liar, incompetent, and dangerous, and asked how he could work with her. He replied that “if you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done.”

Well said. Now why not apply that philosophy to Venezuela? The Congressionally appointed Iraq Study Group is calling for dialogue with Iran and Syria. Here is a democracy just a few hours flight from Miami, which has never done anything to injure the United States and has always been a reliable energy supplier. Why not have engagement in this hemisphere as well?

The Bush Administration’s strategy of trying to isolate Venezuela from its neighbors has clearly failed. Two weeks ago President Lula da Silva of Brazil took his first foreign trip, after re-election, to Venezuela, where he presided with Chavez over the inauguration of a $1.2 billion bridge financed by the Brazilian government, praising Chavez and pretty much endorsing him publicly as he headed for re-election. Most of Latin America supported Venezuela’s unsuccessful bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, despite warnings and pleadings from the Bush Administration. It seems that Washington has succeeded more in isolating itself in the hemisphere, rather than Venezuela.

It is likely that Chavez would respond positively to an olive branch, although his grudges against the Bush Administration go beyond the exchange of unpleasantries – such as Donald Rumsfeld comparing him to Hitler. The Administration openly supported the military coup against his democratically elected government in 2002, and according to the US State Department, gave financial and other support “to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.” It is this and other support for Venezuela’s political opposition that have done the most to poison the relationship between the two governments.*

But the hard-liners who saw Venezuela as “another Cuba” and regime change as the preferred strategy – people like Otto Reich and Roger Noriega – are now gone from the Bush Administration, and many career diplomats at the State Department would welcome a new policy of engagement, especially since Chavez is going to be president of Venezuela for another six years.

Chavez is well-known for his undiplomatic outbursts, but he also has a pragmatic side: he has very good relations with his ideological opposite, President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, despite the problems of guerilla and paramilitary violence along their 2,000 kilometer border that have led to serious friction between previous governments.

The rest of the region would also like to see this dispute put to rest. Most countries clearly reject the new “Cold War” framework on which it is based, and do not want to choose sides. And we who live in the United States really don’t need more enemies in the world.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

*Note to the editors: since these facts are well-documented but not well known in the United States, I am attaching the following explanation and documentation of the Bush Administration’s support for the coup. It is also worth noting that the Administration stepped up financial support to opposition groups after the coup, including people involved in the economically devastating oil strike of 2002-2003, and USAID continues to fund organizations in Venezuela with millions of dollars but refuses to disclose the recipients.

First, according to the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General,

    “it is clear that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government.” [1]

Second, and even more importantly, the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of the coup but then denied that knowledge when it occurred, claiming that it was not a coup at all, in an attempt to make it succeed. This is a form of involvement. To take an analogy: imagine that someone tells me that they are going to kill someone, and then does so. He then claim’s self-defense. If I then go to the police, with full knowledge that the crime was planned, and say that it was self-defense, I am participating in the crime. In that sense, then, Washington was involved in the coup.

During the April 16, 2002 White House press briefing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stated that the U.S. government had no prior knowledge of a pending coup in Venezuela: “events were combustible, events were fluid. Those events were not anticipated.” [2]

However, an April 6, 2002 CIA Senior Intelligence Brief (several days before the coup) states that “[d]issident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month To provoke military action, plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA.” [3]  Intelligence briefs such as this one are typically read by as many as 200 officials in the Bush Administration.

Earlier, a March 11, 2002 CIA Senior Intelligence Brief had warned: “If the situation further deteriorates and demonstrations become more violent or if Chavez attempts an unconstitutional move to add to his powers, the military may move to overthrow him.” [4]

It is thus clear that U.S. officials were briefed at the highest level about an anticipated and likely military coup against the Chavez government. Yet when the coup occurred, White House and State Department officials attempted to convince the public that it was not a coup but rather a popular uprising. (See below).

Third, the White House supported the coup government in other ways:

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said on April 12, one day after the attempted coup:

     “We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis. According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations. The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency. Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a
transitional civilian government has been installed. [5]” 

The U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Philip Reeker followed the White House line stating that “undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterday’s crisis in Venezuela.” [6]

Jorge Castaneda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico stated that “Effectively, there was a proposition made by the United States and Spain, to issue a declaration with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and France recognizing the government of [coup leader] Pedro Carmona.” [7] 

Similar allegations were made by Castaneda in a New York Times article that after the coup Mexico and Chile countered a coordinated effort by the U.S., Colombia, El Salvador and Spain to cobble together diplomatic support for the interim coup government. [8]

[1]  A review of U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela: November 2001 April 2002, Report 02-OIG-003, July 2002, www.oig.state.gov/documents/organization/13682.pdf
[2] White House Press Briefing, April 16, 2002. Available online at: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020416-5.html
[3] Full document available at: www.venezuelafoia.info/ciac4.html
[4] Full document available at: www.venezuelafoia.info/seib11-02preCouprumors.pdf
[5] White House press briefing, April 12, 2002. Available online at: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020412-1.html
[6] Venezuela: Change of Government, Press Statement by Philip T. Reeker, Deputy Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, April 12, 2002. Available online at: www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2002/9316.htm
[7] Jorge Castaneda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico, in “Colombia, Espana, El Salvador y EE.UU. Apoyaron el Golpe,” by Nancy Fara, Agence France-Presse, November 28, 2004
[8] Documents Show C.I.A. Knew of Coup Plot in Venezuela, by Juan Forero, New York Times, December 3, 2004.

Source: Common Dreams