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A creative way to define democracy

By Lance Selfa | April 26, 2001 | Page 9

PEOPLE ALL over Latin America had to let out a hearty laugh when they heard National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice lecture Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez about his post-coup need to "uphold constitutional principles."

Only a few days earlier, U.S. officials had recognized as the legitimate government plotters whose first action was to suspend the Venezuelan constitution and dissolve the National Assembly.

Fortunately, the Venezuelan people showed a greater commitment to democracy. They restored Chávez, the constitutionally elected president--elected with overwhelming popular support in 1998 and in 2000--to power.

In the aftermath of the coup, U.S. efforts to cover its tracks had the appearance of a Keystone Kops routine. White House and Defense and State Department hacks have been salting the press with stories admitting the U.S. met with coup leaders, but that they urged them not to overthrow Chávez. Those stories are as credible as an Enron annual report.

Even the Wall Street Journal called the Bush administration on it. "When democratically elected President Hugo Chávez seemed to have been deposed by the military, the White House expressed quick satisfaction. This put the U.S. at odds with every Latin leader, but especially with 20 years of American lectures on the uses of democracy…This makes the Bush administration look bumbling, if not cynical. It won't help Mr. Bush preach the virtues of democracy in, say, Iraq."

"Democracy" has always been a flexible term in the hands of U.S. officials, especially when they use it to pursue U.S. imperial aims.

Ordinary Americans--and most people around the world--think democracy is a good thing. When the U.S. was trying to win Third World "hearts and minds" in the Cold War against the USSR, it didn't say it was fighting for "free-market capitalism" or "free trade." It stood for "democracy" against "totalitarianism."

Yet the last thing the U.S. wanted was popularly elected governments whose leaders carried out the wishes of their people instead of the whims of U.S. business. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, in justifying the 1973 U.S.-backed overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, the U.S. wouldn't allow a government to "go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people."

So when popularly elected leader Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran nationalized the oil industry in 1952, and when Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala declared land reform, the CIA engineered coups. In the 1980s in Latin America, the U.S. intervened in Nicaragua and El Salvador to defeat leftist movements that threatened the U.S. hold on Central America. This time, however, the U.S. used "democracy" as a weapon against the left.

In El Salvador, the U.S. and its allies organized 1982 "demonstration elections" to produce a toothless civilian government that fronted for the U.S.-allied death squads who murdered thousands of trade unionists, peasants and guerrillas. The U.S. plan in Colombia today seems to be following the Salvadoran script.

There's no doubt that the Bush gang views "democracy" as a virtue to be preached rather than a principle to be upheld. One of its chief allies in the "war on terrorism" is, after all, a military dictator in Pakistan. And it's sponsoring the reinstatement of a king in Afghanistan.

But the U.S. government isn't all that interested in democracy at home either. A U.S. official, justifying support for the Venezuelan coup, conceded to the New York Times that Chávez was "democratically elected," but added, "Legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters, however."

That's a convenient alibi for an administration that lost an election but won the White House through a Supreme Court "velvet coup." Chávez can say he won the support of the majority of voters. George W. Bush can't.

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