"They hate what America stands for. They despise freedom. They now know we love freedom, and we will defend our freedom with all our might." — George W. Bush, March 28 You didn't have to blink to miss it. Let the record show that President George W. Bush, reconstituted Cold Warrior and self-proclaimed defender of democracy, has suffered his first Bay of Pigs. Whether this experience will chasten him as much as it did JFK remains to be seen.

In a stunning reminder that Bush's 76 percent approval rating stops at the Rio Grande, an American-backed coup against Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez went from fait accompli to farcical footnote in a matter of hours.

It all began at three o'clock on the morning of April 12, when flamboyant populist Chávez was arrested by mutinous army officers (trained, not coincidentally, at the School of the Americas) and unceremoniously replaced by "interim president" Pedro Carmona Estanga. Carmona, chief of a national businessmen's association, immediately reverted to the right-wing strongman's play book. He suspended scheduled elections, tossed out laws regulating big business and promised "a pluralistic vision, democratic, civil, and ensuring the implementation of the law." Following that declaration of devotion to democracy, he dissolved both the National Assembly and the Supreme Court.

It comes as little surprise that the Bush Administration, itself the beneficiary of a coup, would endorse similar subversion elsewhere. But the American media also proved astonishingly sanguine at the replacement of a legally-elected leader by a '70s-style junta composed of right-wing army officers and corrupt businessmen. "We know that the Chávez government provoked this crisis," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer in a statement welcoming news of the unfolding coup d'état. Describing Carmona as "a respected business leader" in a glowing puff piece, The New York Times slammed Chávez as "a ruinous demagogue."

Ruinous, perhaps. Demagogue, maybe. Nonetheless, Chávez was the legally-elected president of Venezuela. What had Chávez done, in the minds of the American establishment, to justify overthrow, exile, and the subversion of democracy?

"According to the best information we have, the government suppressed what was a peaceful demonstration of the people," said Fleischer, in reference to an April 11 incident in which armed men wearing clothes indicating loyalty to Chávez shot 13 anti-government strikers to death and wounded more than 100. Was Fleischer suggesting that the Kent State shootings in 1970 should have precipitated a coup to remove President Richard Nixon?

Chávez' real crime was refusing to suck up to the U.S. or to its powerful corporate interests. A maverick elected with the overwhelming support of Venezuela's poor in 1998, he referred to his nation's upper classes as "squealing pigs" and "rancid oligarchs." He had a point, too: Venezuela's tiny elite has hogged its immense oil revenues for itself while millions starved.

Unfortunately for the downtrodden masses whose votes propelled Chávez into office, Venezuela produces 15 percent of America's oil. This makes the nation of particular economic and geopolitical interest to Washington. In February, Chávez, acting on a campaign promise to distribute his country's oil revenues more evenly throughout its impoverished population, replaced Brigadier General Guaicaipuro Lameda with a politically progressive ally as head of the state-owned Petróleos de Venezuela.

The business community howled in fearful anticipation of further reform. Company officers, fearing that decades-old systemic corruption was drawing to a close, ordered work slowdowns, company-mandated strikes and street demonstrations against their own government in the hope of crippling the economy and destabilizing Chávez' rule.

The Times summed up the case against Chávez succinctly: "He courted Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, battled the media and alienated virtually every constituency from middle-class professionals, academics and business leaders to union members and the Roman Catholic Church." He visited nations hated by the U.S., including Libya and Iran, and criticized the "war on terror." And he dedicated his rule to forcing business to share profits with ordinary citizens. In short, Chávez remained loyal to his leftist principles and to the desperate constituency who had elected him.

But it didn't matter whether or not the Venezuelan people liked him or approved of him. Chávez had to go.

It's too soon to know for certain whether the CIA tried to engineer an Allende-style operation in Venezuela, but anyone who's read ex-spy Philip Agee's seminal Inside the Company recognizes classic signs emanating from New York and Washington: Official statements of encouragement are laced with just enough ambiguity to provide plausible deniability; blithe dismissals of democratic principles in friendly media are followed by rapid reversals when things start to go wrong. Don't be too surprised if those gun-toting "Chávez supporters" who opened fire on the April 11 ultimately turn out to be CIA-employed provocateurs.

It gets better: Chávez, while being held on the Venezuelan Caribbean island of La Orchila, noticed an American jet on the runway, and presumed it was waiting to take him into exile. "I saw the plane. It bore the markings of a private plane from the United States, not an official plane ... What was it doing there?" Chávez asked, noting that the American Ambassador to Venezuela recognized the plane.

Days passed without a Bush Administration denial of involvement in the coup. Finally, on April 16, Ari Fleischer acknowledged that State Department Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich called coup leader Carmona hours after the ouster of Chávez. In that call, according to Fleischer, Reich asked Carmona not to dismiss the National Assembly in order to avoid offending world opinion.

Operation Caracas went wrong nearly the second it started. A fervent U.S. ally, Mexican President Vincente Fox, joined Fidel Castro in condemning the coup and refusing to acknowledge the new regime. Soon every government in the Western Hemisphere except our own had condemned the coup. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets demanding Chávez's return. By April 13, Carmona had replaced Chávez in the pokey and the U.S. State Department was calling for the "return of democracy."

Asked whether the U.S. knew about the coup in advance, Fleischer waffled. True, numerous anti-Chávez activists had visited the White House in recent weeks to request U.S. help in deposing the president. "We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup," he said. He wouldn't say, however, whether or not the U.S. ultimately green-lighted a covert action.

The moral high ground has eroded from under the U.S. in the months following September 11. First our bombing campaign killed 10,000 innocent Afghan civilians as we sought vengeance for the murder of 3,000 Americans. (This after the Taliban had offered to negotiate the release of the target, Osama Bin Laden, into U.S. custody) Then we supported Ariel Sharon's murderous rampage in the West Bank. Now we're back in the business of creating — or trying to create — banana republics in South America. Not only are we reinforcing the worldwide perception that Americans are pompous hypocrites; we're setting the stage for the kind of instability that followed U.S. coups in Iran.

"I haven't said that this conspiracy (against me) has its roots in the United States," President Chávez said April 15. He didn't need to. l

Ted Rall's new book, a graphic travelogue about his recent coverage of the Afghan war titled To Afghanistan and Back is currently in stores.


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