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Hugo Chavez for President

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
05.01.2002 | POLITICS

When Slobodan Milosevic was threatened by massive opposition demonstrations in September 2000, he told loyal state television directors to play American movies to keep people home. The leaders of the abortive coup in Venezuela this past April reportedly tried the same tactic to lower turnout at pro-Chavez rallies.

The repeated failure of this gambit is baffling. I mean, if my family was part of the 80% of Venezuelans living in chronic poverty, and my leftist government had just been overthrown by a cabal of businessmen, there's nothing I'd want more than to kick back and watch Pretty Woman.

But I guess Venezuelans have already seen Pretty Woman. Because a couple hundred thousand of them marched out to demand the return of their elected President, Hugo, who is really not liked in Washington. US officials say he has unlawfully changed the constitution, is in league with baddies like Fidel and Saddam and Momar, and has certain populist/authoritarian tendencies which pose a real threat to "Democracy in Latin America."

I've read enough history to know what Washington can mean when it talks about Democracy in Latin America, and I cheered like a Caracas candy vendor when Chavez rolled back up to the Palace in one piece. He's no angel, even some strong labor unions oppose him, his rule now looks shakier than ever--sure, fine, all that and more--but sometimes you should just put complexities aside and enjoy the show. However fleeting, I was determined to savor the spectacle like a blocked volleyball spike in slow motion. US-backed anti-Chavez forces move to the net...up and...DE-NIED. The Bushies acted like giddy teenie-boppers when news of the coup broke, but 48 hours later the putsch had been reversed, and there was W. schoolmarmishly saying he hoped Chavez had "learned his lesson." As if the Bush administration hadn't just gotten its butt handed to it on a platter with a wilted garnish of international disgust for color, including rare condemnation from conservative US allies in the Organization of American States. Even the Economist editorial page was aghast at the United States' cavalier attitude.

Of course no one can prove American involvement in the coup. But sweaty fingerprints needn't always show up in the dust. Not only did Washington conspicuously fail to condemn the extra-legal removal of a legally elected leader (who, unlike Mr. Bush, won a clear majority from his electorate), but the coup-players had all recently met with State Department officials. What's more, king-for-a-day Pedro Carmona was visited by the US Ambassador to Venezuela within hours of his very undemocratic dissolution of the National Assembly. One doubts US Ambassador Shapiro was wringing his hands as he popped open the champagne. According to Larry Birns, who directs the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, "[Every] political person in Latin America believes that the CIA was involved." And they should know.

But, we gasp, the CIA doesn't do things like that anymore. The Agency is out heroically netting al-Qaida sleeper cells and rescuing kittens from trees, right?

Subversion, together with espionage, is what the Agency is designed for. It's what it's always been best at, and the agency has been the black Chinese box in the basement of American democracy since its founding in 1947. It has assisted in more clandestine murder and mayhem than we will ever know about, although the known record is still enough to send several regular contributors to Foreign Affairs magazine to the dock. Likely US involvement in recent events in Venezuela reminds us that US-interests--and the means employed to "further" them--haven't changed much since the end of the Cold War. Even without Marxism-fanged Socialistas closing in on the neck of innocent Texas, America still reserves the right to decide which national leaders will appoint the boards of state oil companies in South America.

As the US seeks to convince the world to follow its civilizational leadership in its amorphous and unilaterally declared War on Terror, its contempt for fragile democracy in Venezuela should ring loudly. During the Cold War, such contempt was justified in the name of fighting back the global communist threat. The War on Terror offers no comparable cover for meddling in a thoroughly Catholic, non-Jihad-supporting country like Venezuela.

But who needs a cover when you're the United States of America in 2002? A decade before the Cold War, Franklin Roosevelt famously called Latin America "our little region down there." In 70 years nothing has changed except "our little region" has now been stretched to include the whole map. The most powerful people in Washington didn't apologize to anyone for approving a coup in Venezuela, and don't expect apologies when US bombers destroy what's left of civilian infrastructure in Baghdad next year.

As the missiles cruise, Radio Free Europe will be busy convincing Iraqis that they are in fact hiding from the bombs of freedom. The Voice of America will have the unenviable task of convincing an impoverished people that those massive, ear-splitting explosions are really the music of self-improvement.

And if that doesn't work, we can always dub Pretty Woman into Arabic.

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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