[ One of the themes in the commentary below is that the question, “is the United States more concerned with its interests in the region than maintaining the continuity of democratic rule?” emerges time and time again as the U.S. backs coups in Latin America. –doclalor ]
The military appear to have come to Chavez’s aid
Sunday, 14 April, 2002, 16:45 GMT 17:45 UK; BBC News
By the BBC’s Tom Gibb
There will be relief in most of Latin America that President Hugo Chávez is back in power in Venezuela, with many seeing this as important for the development of democratic constitutional rule on the continent.
The populist Venezuelan leader was thrown out of office and taken prisoner by top military officers on Friday, after a general strike and mass protests by his opponents left at least 13 dead and more than 100 injured.
But he has now been restored to power after the lower ranks of the army apparently came to his rescue and crowds of supporters took to the streets.
Regional leaders feared the ousting would set a precedent
After his overthrow on Friday, Latin American governments were quick to express concern at his removal from office and condemn the “interruption of constitutional order in Venezuela”.
They said they would not recognize the transition government until new elections could be held.
Some went so far as to call Venezuela’s new interim government, led by businessman Pedro Carmona, illegitimate.
Argentina’s President Eduardo Duhalde, who himself came to power after mass street protests in December, said that there had been a coup in Venezuela.
This reaction did not reflect support for Mr Chavez himself.
A former paratrooper and coup plotter, he is regarded by many as a populist maverick.
However, the way he was overthrown – by top army officers after a dispute over who should control the country’s oil industry – brought back too many memories for most of decades of US-backed coups in Latin America.
The reaction of Latin American leaders sharply contrasted with that of Washington.
Since his election, President Chavez has been a thorn in the side of the United States – which gets much of its oil from Venezuela.
In particular, US officials were angered because Mr Chavez was selling cheap oil to Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Mr Chavez also condemned US bombing of civilians in Afghanistan.
President Chavez was overthrown after a general strike called to support striking oil workers.
The country’s oil industry leaders complained that Mr Chavez was trying to gain control of the industry by placing loyalists in top management positions.
The US was angered by Chavez’s friendship with Castro.
Chavez supporters say that the industry needs change because the huge majority of Venezuelans still live in poverty, despite the country’s oil wealth.
Venezuela is the fourth largest producer in the world.
In the days before the overthrow of President Chavez, the US State department was urging caution, saying Washington would not support a military coup or the unconstitutional overthrow of the Venezuelan leader.
But after his removal, the White House reaction appeared remarkably different – with officials clearly pleased at the result.
Far from condemning the ouster of a democratically-elected president, US officials blamed the crisis on President Chavez himself – accusing him of ordering supporters to open fire on anti-government demonstrators.
They called for new elections and even congratulated the Venezuelan military for restraint, saying Mr Chavez’s overthrow did not constitute a coup because he had resigned.
It seems that Washington jumped the gun. Now back in power, President Chavez says he never resigned – despite pressure from his captors.
Certainly in past decades his ousting would have been described by most as a classic pro-US military coup, even if it did not involve tanks rumbling through the streets.
If it had succeeded, it would have set an extremely dangerous precedent for Latin American democracy – hence the alarm of other Latin American leaders.
The return of the Venezuelan leader to power has left a lot of people looking very stupid.
Chavez has promised not to seek revenge
Venezuela’s top military brass forgot perhaps the first rule of Latin American coup-making from past decades – that it is the junior officers rather than the generals who control the loyalty of the troops on the ground and can usually carry the day.
President Chavez, still popular at some levels of the army from his paratrooper days, was returned to power by troops who remained loyal to him as well as by crowds of supporters.
He has promised not to seek revenge against those who overthrew him – saying that both sides made mistakes.
Certainly there is now likely to be a great deal of pressure on him from other Latin American leaders to modify his self-styled democratic revolution.
Venezuela remains deeply divided, and without compromise further trouble may be inevitable.
However, President Chavez’s comeback has also left Washington looking rather stupid.
Many in Latin America are likely to ask whether the United States is more concerned with its interests in the region than maintaining the continuity of democratic rule.