Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs
While the dizzying events of April 11-14 in Venezuela were seen as a plus for democracy in Latin America, they were also an indictment of the US and the media. The US reaction to the failed coup against President Hugo Chavez brought criticism from around the world of the US's ambivalent commitment to democracy. And critics questioned the role of the Venezuela press in the coup and decried biased coverage in both the Venezuelan and US press. With Chavez back in power, the US must now try to rebuild some kind of relationship with him and repair the damage to its credibility as a champion of democracy, especially among Latin American nations.
The reaction of US officials to the news that Chavez had been removed in a distinctly undemocratic fashion was undisguised relief. On April 12, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer discarded usual cautious diplomatic language to say that what had happened in Venezuela was a "change in government" and that Chavez got what he deserved.
Writing on events in Venezuela, New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner asked, "When is a coup not a coup? When the United States says so, it seems--especially if the fallen leader is no friend to American interests."
Weiner named several reasons US President George W. Bush might have wanted Chavez out, most notably the politics of oil. The US, Weiner wrote, has long "supported authoritarian regimes...in defense of its economic and political interests."
On April 14, a White House statement said of Chavez's return, "The Chavez administration has an opportunity to respond to this message [from the people] by correcting its course and governing in a fully democratic manner."
"We do hope that Chavez...takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship, which has been moving, frankly, in the wrong direction for quite a long time," said Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, on Meet the Press April 14. She said Chavez "needs to respect constitutional processes."
"Hers was an especially regrettable tutelary presentation," said retired US ambassador Robert White of the Center for International Policy.
Rice's admonition to Chavez seemed incredible given the silence by any administration official for Carmona's abolishing the Constitution.
At a daily briefing, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker was asked why the administration did not condemn the coup given US insistence on democratic rule around the world.
Reeker said Washington believed reports that Chavez had resigned. He said Washington believes firmly in democratic rule and sees no discrepancy between that position and its earlier acceptance of Chavez's ouster. "I don't think it's undermined anybody's credibility," he said.
Asked whether the administration now recognizes Chavez as Venezuela's legitimate president, one administration official replied, "He was democratically elected," then added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however."
The BBC said that Chavez's comeback has left Washington "looking rather stupid."
Damage to US image
The administration's stance has severely hurt Bush's credibility in Latin America, which could have fallout in his desire to craft the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
The first time elected governance was interrupted under Bush's watch, his administration punted, said Washington Post Latin American correspondent Karen D. Young.
"The US handled it badly, as is its wont," said a former Mexican official. US policy, he said, is "multilateralism a la carte and democracy a la carte."
Arturo Valenzuela, the Latin America national security aide in the Clinton administration, said, "Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not seem to understand what was at stake in Venezuela." He said the Bush administration had trampled more than a decade of treaties and agreements for the collective defense of democracy. …