The Curious Events in Venezuela

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The establishment and maintenance of democracy in Latin America has been a long uphill struggle. Even so, there are today more functioning democracies in the hemisphere than ever before. One of the more curious and unusual episodes in this struggle occurred last week in Venezuela when the country’s democratically elected president, Hugo Ch¿vez, was thrown out of office by the Venezuelan military.

The military leaders of the coup immediately installed a so-called “interim government” which, in turn, set out to try to dissolve both the country’s legislature and its supreme court. And then, at 3 a.m. last Sunday morning, in a genuinely bizarre turn of events, Ch¿vez reclaimed the presidential palace. He arrested those who had thrown him out a couple of days before. It is unclear just what will happen next but it seems highly probable that Ch¿vez is back in office for the foreseeable future.

The Bush administration did not cover itself with glory in all of this. They seem to have forgotten that a cardinal tenet of U.S. foreign policy is that we are against military coups that overthrow democratically elected governments. The White House was strangely silent. When they did finally speak, it was something to the effect that Ch¿vez had brought it upon himself. In the meantime, a host of other democratically-elected governments in the region immediately condemned the military takeover and it would appear that their condemnation played a significant role in the about-face on the part of the Venezuelan military.

It is a sad fact that Latin America has been, for far too long, near the bottom of the American foreign policy totem pole. The White House and the State Department have tended to focus on the region, or specific countries in the region, only in times of crisis. For the whole of the decades of the Cold War, the primary aim of U.S. policy in the region was to keep communism out. It was a legitimate goal. During the 1960’s Moscow was pouring money, agents and material liberally into the region; Castro was young and aggressive and Che Guevara’s insurrectional movements were making steady progress in their attempts to undermine and bring about the downfall of one government after another.

During that time the United States government surely spent far more on covert military and intelligence operations than it did on conventional aid. But the happy truth is that democracy has made dramatic progress in the region in recent years, leaving Cuba’s Castro as something of an aging anachronism. Some of the credit for this democratic ascendancy can be claimed by Washington¿not a lot, but definitely some.

And so the Bush administration’s lapse in Venezuela at this critical moment is more than a curiosity; it is a serious misstep. President Bush and his colleagues clearly don’t care for Hugo Ch¿vez. They don’t like the fact that he has cozied up to Castro and has ties with other unsavory governments. But that, whether they like him or not, isn’t the issue. The issue is that progress toward democracy in the region has been long, slow and difficult. This has had clear and unwavering support of both Republican and Democratic administrations. It is the right position for the United States government to take and it needs to be consistent about it.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is President of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria. Audio versions of Olin’s commentaries are online at Salzburg Seminar.

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