Imagine the scandal if a foreign government had for years funneled millions of dollars to political groups in the United States in an attempt to affect the outcome of a U.S. election. Even worse, what if some of the groups that received money had been involved in a failed coup attempt against a democratically elected U.S. president? Would the U.S. public not have a right to be outraged at the attempt to manipulate our political process?
Of course we would -- which is why the people of Venezuela have a right to be outraged at the U.S. government's ongoing attempts to meddle in the electoral process in Venezuela.
On Sunday (Aug. 15), Venezuelans will go to the polls for a referendum on the recall of President Hugo Chavez. Polls show Chavez running 8 to 31 percentage points ahead. But whatever the result, Bush administration actions in Venezuela should alert the U.S. public that the commitment to "expanding democracy" we hear so much about is largely rhetorical cover for the typical U.S. interference in the politics of nations in Latin America -- and around the world.
The vehicle for this meddling in Venezuela is the National Endowment for Democracy, which calls itself "a private, nonprofit organization" but is funded by U.S. taxpayers. Its self-described mission is "to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts."
In the case of Venezuela, "strengthening democratic institutions" has meant financing groups that helped carry out the failed coup attempt against Chavez in April 2002. Coup leaders representing the traditional oligarchy in Venezuela, and their supporters in the U.S. government, saw a "problem": Chavez is genuinely interested in a fairer distribution of wealth and refuses to subordinate his country to U.S. policy. Their "solution" was a coup that lasted for 48 hours, during which an illegal decree installed a businessman as president and dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. The United States quickly backed the coup, until loyal officers and civilian groups restored Chavez to office.
In the continued quest to promote "democracy," the NED kept funding some of those same opposition figures as they shifted to a strategy of work stoppages and lockouts aimed at crippling the country's vital oil industry. When that failed to dislodge Chavez, they finally took up a legal route, the recall election. (Documents regarding NED funding obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are available online at: www.venezuelafoia.info)
Whatever objections U.S. officials might have to the Venezuelan president's policies, it is clear the attempts to push Chavez from power have nothing to do with the charge that he is an authoritarian president (or "quasi-authoritarian," as one U.S. newspaper described him in an editorial, or perhaps a "quasi-editorial"). Since his 1998 election, Chavez's real "crimes" have been not just consistently speaking out against the unjust distribution of resources in his country but taking tangible steps to help the poor, such as literacy programs and community-based health clinics.
Unlike so many U.S.-backed leaders in Latin America in over the years, Chavez has respected freedom of speech and an open political process. Most of the private media outlets, in fact, are rabidly anti-Chavez, representing the interests of the Venezuelan elite. Those television stations remain on the air. Chavez has consistently stated he would abide by the results of the referendum, which the opposition leadership refuses to do. The fact is that Chavez has acted in a less repressive manner than any prior Venezuelan president.
And for all this, Chavez has been demonized by the Bush administration, a strategy that John Kerry seems determined to mimic. This suggests that the current fashionable rhetoric among U.S. policymakers about supporting democracy around the world is -- as it was during the Cold War -- empty rhetoric. If democratic elections put into power leaders willing to back U.S. policy, then all is well. If people around the world reject U.S.-backed "leaders," then those people are likely to get some timely instruction in democracy -- Washington style.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at [email protected].