On Native Ground
HOW DEMOCRACY SURVIVED IN VENEZUELA
by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- You may have missed it, considering all the attention given to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but an amazing thinghappened in Venezuela a few days ago.
Aided by a handful of brave online journalists and the power of a population who had no desire to return to a military dictatorship, the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chavez managed to survive both a coup attempt and the failure of the world's elite news media to accurately report what was happening in Venezuela.
That a coup took place wasn't a surprise to those who have been watching Chavez. If you judge a man by his enemies, Chavez had plenty of them. The oligarchs who have long controlled Venezuela hate Chavez for trying to use the nation's oil riches to provide land and better health care and education for the 80 percent of Venezuelans living in poverty. Venezuela's media, owned by the oligarchs, is almost unanimously anti-Chavez. Chavez isn't well-liked by the Bush administration either. He denounced the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan as responding to "terror with terror." He opposes Plan Colombia - the U.S. blueprint for deeper involvement in that nation's civil war - and has built up a strong friendship with Cuba's Fidel Castro. He is vocal in his opposition to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund's insistence on cutbacks in public spending and privatization of government-run entities in exchange for loans.
But perhaps the biggest reason why the U.S. hates Chavez is that he managed to get almost all the nations of OPEC to agree to uniform production limits to insure a stable price for oil. Venezuela, not Saudi Arabia, is the leading source of imported oil for the U.S.
Left-wing populists rarely get a fair shake in the U.S. news media, so Chavez has been frequently portrayed as an authoritarian demagogue that is out of step with the popular will. This, despite a pair of free and fair elections that approved a new constitution by a wide margin in 1999 and elected Chavez president in 1998 and 2000. In 2000, Human Rights Watch cited Venezuela as the only country in Latin America where human rights have improved.
Between Chavez' enemies and the steady drumbeat of criticism by the Venezuelan and U.S. news media, a coup attempt was inevitable. The catalyst came when Chavez fired the head of the state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, and appointed a new board of directors. Although Chavez had the legal power to do this, Petroleos managers and workers responded by going on strike and cutting back oil production.
This was enough to give Chavez' opponents - the oligarchs, the Catholic Church, the media and the right-wingers in the military - an opening to create an uprising. Business groups and anti-Chavez politicians apparently donated money to organize protests in Caracas on April 11. Fighting soon broke out and shots were fired into the crowd. Thirteen people died and more than 100 were wounded, but the names of those killed and wounded weren't released in the Venezuelan press.
Many believe this silence was because most of the dead were Chavez supporters and most of the shooting was done by snipers belonging to a right-wing extremist group known as the "Bandera Roja" (Red Flag).
But the Associated Press, Reuters, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC and CNN all reported on April 12 that it was Chavez' forces that did the shooting and that Chavez was "arrested" and forced to"resign" as president as a result of the violence.
When I heard this, it didn't sound right. One protest would bring down Chavez, especially when one considers how much support he has with the people and how determined he was to stay in office until at least the next scheduled election in 2006. As it turned out, the story did not pass the smell test.
The "new" president was Chamber of Commerce and Industry chairman Pedro Carmona. His first acts included suspending the 1999 constitution and disbanding the elected National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office, the national election commission and the state governorships. Carmona's new "democratic unity" cabinet was made up of onlythe far right and the new government would rule by decree until new elections were held in 2003.
In Washington, the Bush administration hailed Carmona's actions as a "return to democracy." The rest of Latin America didn't see it that way. No other country in the Americas recognized the Carmona government. Eventually, neither did the Venezuelan people.
Despite a total media blackout in Venezuela and disinformation in the U.S. news media, somehow the truth got out about what was happening - that Chavez never resigned and that Venezuelan democracy had been hijacked by right-wing extremists. Al Giordano's Narco News Website (http://www.narconews.com) - an excellent source of information on Central and South America - along with the Independent Media Center (http://www.indymedia.org) helped to break the media blockade.
Giordano credits Roy Carson, editor of the Vheadline.com online newspaper (and a former American Reporter Correspondent), as the real media hero during the coup. The day before the coup occurred, his Website was down for maintenance and Carson was recovering from eye surgery. Despite this double whammy of bad luck, Carson and his staff began filing email alerts to NarcoNews and the IMC and provided a running account of what really was happening.
Another link to what was going was Gregory Wilpert, a former Fulbright Scholar living in Caracas. His eyewitness report of the coup filed on April 12 appeared on Websites such as Narco News, Z Magazine and Common Dreams NewsCenter and gave many in the U.S. the first inkling that what was being reported in the elite press wasn't true.
On April 13, the lead editorial in The New York Times praised Chavez' ouster, reflecting the view of the Bush administration.
"Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator," the editorial said, because "the military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader."
But the tide was already turning that day in Venezuela. The poor, Chavez' greatest allies, came down from their shantytowns in the hills to protest.
The pro-Chavez elements in the military decided to break ranks with Carmona. And, as Gregory Wilpert later wrote in a postmortem on the coup, Carmona miscalculated by believing that Chavez had no popular support. When more than 100,000 people gathered in front of the presidential palace to back Chavez and the bulk of the military refused to go along with the new government, Carmona had little choice but to resign after one day in power. Chavez' return to power in the early morning hours of April 14 proved to be a triumph for democracy and honest journalism and an embarrassment for the Bush administration and the elite press.
It took a few days, but the rest of the story started dribbling out. It turned out that several of the coup plotters had met with Bush administration officials a few months before. Although there were plenty of denials that there was no direct U.S. involvement, one can't help but think otherwise given the long and sordid history of Latin American governmentstoppled by the U.S.
One thing was certain, though. The Bush team looked like fools after it was over. Seven months earlier, the U.S. endorsed the Inter-American Democratic Charter, a document signed by 34 Latin American nations in support of constitutional democracy and hemispheric unity. This charter was immediately ignored by the Bush administration when Chavez was ousted.
"Some people are talking about this (U.S.) faux pas in Venezuela as a sort of Bay of Pigs without weapons," Luis Guillermo Solis, a political analyst at the University of Costa Rica, told the Chicago Tribune. "It's not necessarily a question of hypocrisy, but a question of consistency, and there's not been a lot of consistency."
Actually, there has been consistency from the Bush administration. They have been consistently against democracy. The parallels between Florida in November 2000 and Venezuela in April 2002 are hard to ignore. The only difference was that nobody got killed in Florida.
Now, thanks to the bungled handling of the Venezuelan crisis, the Bush administration has little chance of getting its way on free trade or in getting more support for Plan Colombia. U.S. credibility in Latin America is back to zero once again.
The elite press also looks as foolish and lacking in credibility as the Bush administration. The New York Times had to do some backtracking in a follow-up editorial on April 16 that admitted the paper was so enthusiastic about Chavez' removal, it had "overlooked the undemocratic manner in which he was removed."
And some people think the Times is a liberal paper!
Giordano quotes Mexican newspaper publisher and editor Mario Menendez Rodriguez as saying that "you will know the true character of a journalist by how he behaves during a crisis." People like Wilpert, Carson and Giordano showed the power of what Rodriquez calls "authentic journalism" - journalism that serves the cause of truth, rather than the cause of the powerful. Because of their work, the truth came out and a democratically elected leader kept his office.
And give all the credit in the world to the Venezuelan people who rejected the clumsy attempt to put the oligarchs back in power. In the process, they struck a blow against the 21st Century imperialism known as globalization. Control of the oil wealth was a key part of the coup, and Chavez' return shows that the average Venezuelan wants to see the moneyused to build up a more equitable and just society instead of continuing to fill the pockets of the oligarchs.
The U.S. has long lectured the rest of the world about democracy. In the span of three days, the people of Venezuela gave the U.S. a lesson in democratic values that perhaps the Bush administration might learn from.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).