THE BLOG
10/13/2006 10:13 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Correct the Facts on US-Venezuela Relations: Remember the Attempted Coup?

One of the nice things about a blog is that you can provide a few details that don't fit in columns or op-eds that the mainstream press runs. Below is a column I wrote that ran during the past week in a number of US newspapers. It provides some background, missing from almost all press coverage, about why President Hugo Chavez might see George W. Bush as "the Devil:" namely, the Bush administration's involvement in the 2002 military
coup that briefly overthrew Venezuela's democratic government, and the administration's continued intervention inside Venezuela, to this day.

Why is this so important? To readers of this blog it is obvious that this should be the starting point and the number one piece of background information in every news article about the sorry state of U.S.-Venezuelan relations. It is hard to imagine any more important set of facts that would explain this problem. Yet these basic facts are almost never mentioned. The Economist's description in its September 30 issue is typical of most reporting on this issue:

"Though Mr. Chavez blames the United States for a failed coup against him in 2002, the evidence suggests that the administration merely failed to condemn it."

Below the column I have pasted a letter that was sent to The Economist explaining and documenting why this statement is wrong and misleading.

One of the things that happens when there is a systematic distortion of this type in the media (as opposed to day-to-day errors) is that it becomes increasingly difficult over time to reverse it, as journalists feel they have to write what everyone else is writing. I have written the facts about this issue in dozens of U.S. newspapers, stated them on national TV (e.g. CNN) and radio, and I often have had to argue with editors who think that it can't be true since hardly anyone else is saying it (although the New York Times did have a good article about it, cited below; and sometimes good reporters try to write about it but are blocked by their editors).

This dynamic holds true for many issues that I have written about (mostly economic issues) over the last decade. It is especially challenging with regard to economic issues, where reporters and editors often do not feel confident enough in their own knowledge of the subject matter to challenge systematic distortions, even where the data accepted by the economics profession is enough to clarify the issue. (For a daily and highly informative and educational review of these distortions, see my colleague Dean Baker's blog "Beat the Press".)

I think it is a good thing for readers to write to reporters, editors, and even publishers to correct important errors and omissions whenever they can. After all, if the press had simply done its job in the lead-up to the Iraq war, it might never have happened.

__________________________________________________________________________________

This column ran in the Kansas City Star (MO), Monterey County Herald (CA), Charlotte Observer (NC), and Augusta Chronicle (GA) on October 8 and 9.

Bush Administration Has Done Much to Provoke Hostility at UN

By Mark Weisbrot

Hugo Chavez's speech at the United Nations in New York two weeks ago ignited a firestorm of indignation from politicians, TV pundits, and editorial writers that has yet to be extinguished. The president of Venezuela referred to President Bush as "the Devil" and warned the world about the threat of the "American empire."

It's too bad that these same people who were outraged by Chavez's speech were not so offended by the Bush administration's support for a military coup against Chavez's democratically elected government in 2002. Although Chavez's language was undiplomatic, a military coup that abolishes another country's constitution, Supreme Court and elected Congress is considerably less diplomatic. But almost all of the voices loudly denouncing Chavez were silent - or worse, supportive - when democracy was temporarily overthrown in Venezuela.

The U.S. State Department has stated that "U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government." The CIA has released documents showing that the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of the coup; but the White House and State Department lied about the events, claiming it was not a coup at all, in an effort to help it succeed.

The Bush Administration claims that it is not currently funding efforts to topple Venezuela's government, but it is pouring millions of dollars into organizations within the country and won't divulge where this money is going.

So Chavez can hardly be blamed for seeing President Bush as a threat to democracy and the sovereignty of nations. So, too, does most of the world, as was evidenced by the hearty and sustained applause that his speech received from the UN delegates. More powerful evidence will be seen on October 16: despite intense lobbying, threats, and bribing from the Bush Administration, the majority of countries will vote to have Venezuela represent Latin America on the UN Security Council. The United States is backing Guatemala, a country with a long history of horrific human rights abuses.

And yet Chavez is not anti-American, as the media describe him. While in New York he announced that Venezuelan-owned Citgo would more than double the number of US low-income households - already in the hundreds of thousands last winter - that would receive heating oil at discounts of up to 40 percent this year.

"Citgo Petroleum and Venezuela have stepped up to the plate to help people worried about freezing in their own
homes this winter," said Brian O'Connor of Citizens' Energy Corp. in Boston.

It was not the United States or Americans that Chavez railed against in his speech, but "the empire," and he was careful to make that distinction. "What kind of democracy do you impose with marines and bombs?" he asked.

Many millions of Americans are asking the same question: they do not think that the United States should invade other countries or try to rule the world. And we are paying a high price for such efforts, especially in Iraq, where more than 2,700 US soldiers have been killed and more than $380 billion wasted.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton responded to Chavez's speech by lamenting that the Venezuelan president didn't give the "same freedom of speech" that he had just exercised to Venezuelans. Conservative TV talk show host John McLaughlin made fun of Bolton's ignorance: "Well, Ambassador Bolton, maybe they already have freedom of speech." Indeed they do, with the most anti-government media in the hemisphere.

The Bush administration seeks to de-legitimize Venezuela, both to weaken Chavez's criticism and to justify its intervention there. The media often contribute to this effort. But Venezuela remains a democracy, even if Washington doesn't like what its elected president has to say.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Letter recently written to the Economist:

Dear Louise,

I am writing to request a correction to an article in the latest issue of the Economist (dated September 30). In the article "The world according to Chavez; Venezuela and the United States," the author wrote:

"Though Mr. Chavez blames the United States for a failed coup against him in 2002, the evidence suggests that the administration merely failed to condemn it."

This is not correct, and merits a correction.

First, according to the U.S. State Department's Office of Inspector General,

"it is clear that NED [the National Endowment for Democracy], Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. assistance programs provided training, institution building, and other support to individuals and organizations understood to be actively involved in the brief ouster of the Chavez government." [1]

Second, and even more importantly, the Bush Administration had advance knowledge of the coup but then lied about it when it occurred, claiming that it was not a coup at all, in an attempt to make it succeed. This is a form of involvement. To take an analogy: imagine that someone tells me that they are going to kill someone, and then does so. He then claims self-defense. If I then go to the police, with full knowledge that the crime was planned, and say that it was self-defense, I am participating in the crime. In that sense, then, Washington was a participant in the attempted coup.

During the April 16, 2002 White House press briefing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer stated that the U.S. government had no prior knowledge of a pending coup in Venezuela: "events were combustible, events were fluid. Those events were not anticipated."[2]

 

However, an April 6, 2002 CIA Senior Intelligence Brief lays out that "[d]issident military factions, including some disgruntled senior officers and a group of radical junior officers, are stepping up efforts to organize a coup against President Chavez, possibly as early as this month To provoke military action, plotters may try to exploit unrest stemming from opposition demonstrations slated for later this month or ongoing strikes at the state-owned oil company PDVSA." [3]   Intelligence briefs such as this one are typically read by as many as 200 officials in the Bush Administration.

 

Earlier, a March 11, 2002 CIA Senior Intelligence Brief had warned: "If the situation further deteriorates and demonstrations become more violent or if Chavez attempts an unconstitutional move to add to his powers, the military may move to overthrow him."[4]

 

It is thus clear that U.S. officials were briefed at the highest level about an anticipated and likely military coup against the Chavez government. Yet when the coup occurred, White House and State Department officials attempted to convince the public that it was not a coup but rather a popular uprising. (See below).

 

Third, the White House supported the coup government in other ways:

White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said on April 12, one day after the attempted coup:

 

We know that the action encouraged by the Chavez government provoked this crisis.    According to the best information available, the Chavez government suppressed peaceful demonstrations The results of these events are now that President Chavez has resigned the presidency.  Before resigning, he dismissed the vice president and the cabinet, and a transitional civilian government has been installed[5]

The U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Philip Reeker followed the White House line stating that  undemocratic actions committed or encouraged by the Chavez administration provoked yesterdays crisis in Venezuela.[6]

 

Jorge Castaneda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico revealed that Effectively, there was a proposition made by the United States and Spain, to issue a declaration with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and France recognizing the government of [coup leader] Pedro Carmona.[7]  Similar allegations were made by Castaeda in a New York Times article that after the coup Mexico and Chile countered a coordinated effort by the U.S., Colombia, El Salvador and Spain to cobble together diplomatic support for the interim coup government.[8]

Your statement that "the evidence suggests that the administration merely failed to condemn it [the coup]," is therefore misleading and merits a correction.

We look forward to your response.

____________________________________________

[1] A review of U.S. Policy Toward Venezuela: November 2001 April 2002, Report 02-OIG-003, July 2002, www.oig.state.gov/documents/organization/13682.pdf

[2] White House Press Briefing, April 16, 2002. Available online at: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020416-5.html

[3] Full document available at: www.venezuelafoia.info/ciac4.html

[4] Full document available at: www.venezuelafoia.info/seib11-02preCouprumors.pdf

[5] White House press briefing, April 12, 2002. Available online at: www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/04/20020412-1.html

[6]Venezuela: Change of Government, Press Statement by Philip T. Reeker, Deputy Spokesman, U.S. Department of State, April 12, 2002.  Available online at:
www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2002/9316.htm

[7] Jorge Castaeda, former Foreign Minister of Mexico, in Colombia, Espaa, El Salvador y EE UU Apoyaron el Golpe, by Nancy Fara, Agence France-Presse,
November 28, 2004

[8] Documents Show C.I.A. Knew of Coup Plot in Venezuela, by Juan Forero, New
York Times
, December 3, 2004.