A Foreign Policy Debacle

Foreign policy experts are calling the White House handling of the attempted coup in Venezuela a diplomatic debacle.

Its enthusiastic response to the ouster of Hugo Chavez destroyed, in one fell swoop, years of painstaking effort aimed at restoring the United States' image as a champion of democracy in Latin America.

"This badly damaged U.S. credibility on democracy questions and revealed that the U.S. had completely isolated itself on this issue," said Michael Shifter, vice president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "The Latins will see in this traditional U.S. double standards on democratic governments."

Regional experts blame Iran-Contra veterans Elliott Abrams at the NSC and Otto Reich, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, for one of the worst fiascos in U.S. Latin American policy in recent years. They say the U.S. government is returning to its "bad old ways."

That scathing assessment was echoed by a number of specialists in the aftermath of the attempted coup, which began last Thursday night and collapsed less than 48 hours later. Since his landslide election in 1998, Chavez has not been popular with Washington. The Bush administration's long list of complaints include: Chavez's early criticism of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan; his close ties to Fidel; and his sympathy and alleged support for left-wing guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. All reasons why the White House greeted his ouster with undisguised enthusiasm, steadfastly declining to call it a "coup."

The administration instead parroted the "facts" put out by those who mounted the coup:
-- Chavez supporters fired on tens of thousands of peaceful anti-government demonstrators around the presidential palace.
-- the military refused orders to disperse the crowd.
-- Chavez dismissed the vice president and cabinet before resigning, opening the way to Carmona's investiture.
But this account soon appeared self-serving at best and possibly deliberately misleading by end of the tumultuous weekend.

The administration now claims that its initial and highly partisan account was based "on the best information available at that time" and was not intended to encourage the coup's success. But analysts point out that not a single senior U.S. official has yet publicly denounced the attempted takeover.

In contrast to the administration's eager response, Latin American leaders -- 19 of whom were meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica at the time -- immediately condemned Chavez's ouster. They also called for an urgent meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS), whose Inter-American Democracy Charter requires member-states to impose far-reaching diplomatic and economic sanctions against any government that seizes power by unconstitutional means.

By the time the OAS permanent council convened here Saturday night, the coup, which had apparently been taken over by an extreme right-wing faction, was rapidly unraveling. Hundreds of thousands of Chavez supporters were demonstrating in Caracas for the return of their leader. After complaining about Chavez's undemocratic excesses, U.S. Ambassador Roger Noriega finally joined in a resolution condemning "the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela" under the Charter and authorizing the OAS to send a fact-finding mission to Caracas.

"I am extremely disappointed that, rather than leading the effort to reaffirm the region's commitment to democratic principles outlined in the OAS Charter, only belatedly did the United States join with other OAS members to respond to the Venezuelan crisis," said Christopher Dodd, the chairman of the Senate Western Hemisphere Subcommittee. Dodd called the administration's reaction to Chavez's ouster "deeply troubling" and likely to "have profound implications for hemispheric democracy."

Washington's credibility was further undermined by disclosures this week that senior U.S. officials had met with coup leaders over the past several months. Last December, a senior Pentagon official discussed the possibility of an overthrow with the coup's chief military sponsor, Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon. Carlos Ortega, the leader of the oil workers' union whose strike helped precipitate last week's crisis, was also a frequent visitor to Washington in recent months. Moreover, U.S. "observers" attended planning meetings in Caracas for the big April 11 demonstrations that triggered the coup, according to Jack Sweeney, a well-connected former Latin America analyst for the right-wing Heritage Foundation and currently with Strategic Forecasting LLC. Even as Carmona was moving to dissolve Congress and the Supreme Court, U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro met with him at the presidential palace.

Administration officials say that U.S. officials made clear that Washington would oppose any coup d'etat in every one of the above meetings. But few are buying the White House line. "The signals were obviously mixed at best," said Bill Spencer, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. "And you don't send mixed signals to people who are talking about overthrowing a democratically elected government and then embrace them when they do it."

Critics note that Shapiro's meeting with Carmona -- which a senior State Department official insisted Wednesday was aimed at dissuading the interim president from dissolving Congress and the Court -- was particularly curious. "Here we have a senior U.S. ambassador telling a coup-plotter, who has just overthrown an elected president, not to go too far," said retired Amb. Robert White of the Council on International Policy (CIP). "The role of the State Department is not to counsel coup plotters not to go too far. Its role is to take all possible measures to preserve the constitutional order," said White, who served most of his foreign service career in Latin America.

"My suspicions are that there is more here than meets the eye," he went on, adding that, even if the U.S. did not actively participate or encourage the coup, "we have confirmed the suspicions of many that the United States is not interested in democracy and the rule of law except when the votes go our way."

To Spencer, the administration's response confirms a trend already evident in last year's presidential election campaign in Nicaragua in which senior U.S. officials aggressively attacked Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega -- openly suggesting that Washington would be hostile towards any Sandinista-led regime.

"After years of trying to be more even-handed in the internal affairs of Latin American countries, the U.S. seems suddenly to have become much more partisan and interventionist," he said. "What will this mean for elections coming up in Colombia, or El Salvador, or Brazil? I think this marks a real setback," Spencer said.

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