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Lessons from Venezuela

Michael Borucke

Doesn’t it figure?

Just when the U.S. thinks it’s got itself a fair and honest coup in South America, the ignorant masses have to return their democratically elected leader to power. I suppose the days of overt U.S. manipulation of foreign leadership in Latin America is over -- for now, anyway.

Quick to blame Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez for shooting deaths at a demonstration in Caracas (the Venezuelan capital), and eager to work with the new government, headed by Venezuelan business leader Pedro Estanga Carmona, the U.S. government probably expected clear sailing for its client regime a la 1953 Guatemala or 1967 Chile. But it would appear we crapped out this time.

Looking at the April 16 New York Times article “Bush Officials Met With Venezuelans Who Ousted Leader,” one tends to get the impression that the U.S. knew something about the attempted coup beforehand. It would seem U.S. officials urged anti-Chavez people to use constitutional means, rather than to overthrow the Venezuelan president. They didn’t want to be too rough, too over-the-top in bringing this guy down, but U.S. officials plainly admit, “we don’t like this guy,” so, almost by definition, he should be removed from office.

To the question of why the U.S. doesn’t like Chavez, and really to the question of why the U.S. likes or dislikes most any nation’s leader, the answer, to put it bluntly, is U.S. interests. What then are the U.S. interests in Venezuela? Oil, or more properly, the U.S. desire to control it -- and Chavez’s unwillingness to let this happen. The U.S. imports 1.5 million barrels a day from Venezuela. If Venezuela were to increase production it would precipitate a drop in prices, and I don’t think our government would mind that so much. Unfortunately, Chavez adhered to production quotas for too long. Time to get someone else in the hot seat.

Like every other aspect of foreign policy, supposed concerns about democracy and human rights mask the U.S.’s true motivations, albeit not very well. Administration officials speak of undemocratic actions on the part of the Venezuelan president and point to Chavez’s firing executives of the state-run oil monopoly, Petroleos de Venezuela. One official from said corporation asserted that the output of oil should be set according to market conditions and not OPEC quotas.

Unfortunately for the oil importers of the world, Chavez doesn’t agree; he has kept to production quotas.

With Chavez back in the presidency, Venezuela will most likely continue adhering to OPEC quotas on oil production, forcing prices to return to pre-coup levels. A look at the oil section of the Times shows that prices of oil are already above $25 per barrel. In addition, Chavez will almost certainly continue sending oil to Cuba. Doesn’t he realize the threat Cuba represents to the world? To top it off, as head of Venezuela, Chavez continues to oppose a war on Afghanistan. Terrorista.

U.S. officials also showed concern at the shooting deaths caused by pro-Chavez supporters during an anti-government protest, although who started the gunfire is still rather questionable.

Despite all his faults, it appears that Washington is going to let Chavez have another chance, but not without veiled threats. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said that the White House hopes “[h]e takes advantage of this opportunity to right his own ship which has been moving, frankly, in the wrong direction for quite a long time.” I assume here she is speaking metaphorically, as Chavez is a former paratrooper, not a sailor. Another U.S. official was asked if the U.S. finally recognized the Chavez as the legitimate president of Venezuela. The official responded, “He was democratically elected ... Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however.” Lucky for George W. Bush.

There are a few lessons the U.S. can take from this debacle for the next time the opportunity to depose a democratically-elected leader comes around.

Propaganda: If U.S. mainstream media and the White House are going to float the line that Chavez supporters shot and killed peaceful anti-government protesters, then photographs of murdered National Guardsmen -- Chavez supporters -- aren’t going to help the cause.

Double-checking: Make sure the client you favor is going to listen to you. It doesn’t look good when you embrace a “democratic” government whose first act in power is to dissolve the National Assembly, the Constitution, and the Supreme Court, against your wishes no less.

Strategic positioning: Make sure all of the key military people are on board with the plan. Too many Chavez supporters in key military installations were able to stop the coup.

Support: It’s obvious that the people had too much voice in determining who their leader would be. Future U.S. attention to Venezuela might be focused on neutralizing that element. Providing funds to opposition forces, and outright threatening the populace into compliance, has worked before.

Whatever the response, U.S. involvement in Venezuelan politics is far from over. Chavez may have Caracas, but the U.S. has got the World Bank, the IMF, and potentially the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Chavez might stick to OPEC quotas, but improving the lot of the majority of Venezuelans -- 85 percent of whom are in poverty -- without aid from the international financial institutions will be an uphill climb, no doubt. The U.S. may choose to apply still harsher measures. For any given country, the U.S. can still “make their economy scream”; for if the treaties don’t work, the U.S. can always slap sanctions on Venezuela. Just look at Iraq and Cuba.