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VENEZUELA
Signs of new effort against Chavez
Is the U.S. getting ready for a coup?

By Chuck Stemke | July 9, 2004 | Page 6

IS THE U.S. trying to mobilize its allies in the right-wing Colombian government to aid in the overthrow of President Hugo Chávez in neighboring Venezuela? The Chávez government arrested a group of about 100 people--most of them members of right-wing Colombian paramilitary organizations, which are closely linked with the Colombian state--outside of the capital city of Caracas in May. The group is alleged to have planned an assassination attempt against Chávez, and now faces trial before a military court.

Chávez and his left-wing populism are a longstanding target of the Venezuelan elite--backed up by the U.S. Chávez was actually arrested and flown into exile during an April 2002 coup--only to return to Venezuela in triumph after a massive mobilization of the poor forced the coup makers to back down.

Chávez's opponents--within Venezuela and in Washington--have kept up the pressure, finally forcing the president to agree to a national referendum on his rule, set for August. Chávez opponents claim that the arrests in the assassination plot are a ruse designed to win support for the referendum.

But there are reasons to believe that the threat is real. On April 13, the Colombian Senate passed a resolution calling on the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) to use the Interamerican Democratic Charter against Chávez's "dictatorial regime"--effectively, a sanction for military action.

The original version of the resolution was written in poor Spanish and is widely believed to have been written by officials of the U.S. State Department. More ominous is the fact that the U.S. brokered a deal with Spain to sell Colombia 46 AMX-30 tanks, supposedly to fight its civil war against rebel groups.

But Colombia's civil war is fought out in jungle terrain where tanks would be ineffective. In fact, the tanks are being committed to the Venezuelan border--where they would be much better suited to military operations in support of another coup attempt.

The U.S. government has long wanted to deal with Chávez--a former military officer who has used left-wing rhetoric about helping the country's poor and opposing U.S. imperialist control over Latin America--and bring Venezuela, an important source of oil imports, back into line.

Washington was deeply involved in the April 2002 coup attempt. The coup failed when the poor--Chávez's main base of support and half of the population--flooded the streets and took over the national television facility and other important government buildings. This led to a split in the military, and the coup makers were forced to step down and return Chávez to power. Before their defeat, the coup makers were recognized by only a handful of countries--the U.S. among them.

The elite opposition in Venezuela regularly denounces Chávez as an authoritarian. Yet during their brief reign, they suspended Venezuela's constitution, dissolved the National Assembly and fired the Supreme Court.

The "democratic opposition" openly showed itself to be a dictatorship in waiting. This--along with the practical handover of the country's economic and foreign policies to the U.S.--discredited the opposition in the eyes of ordinary Venezuelans.

The elite tried again to topple Chávez with a bosses' strike that crippled the country's crucial oil industry, beginning in December 2002. That also failed. But the bosses have used their control over industry and much of the media to continue efforts against Chávez, finally winning their long-sought referendum.

Polls now show Chávez at a disadvantage because the country's economic crisis has chipped away at his support among the poor. Even if he wins the referendum, however, that won't stop the opposition--and its U.S. backers--from preparing to subvert democracy by any means necessary, including intervention from nearby Colombia.

Chávez is at a crossroads. He survived because of his populist rhetoric and willingness to voice opposition to imperialism and neoliberalism. But while he has carried through some reforms, they are not nearly enough to meet the needs of Venezuela's poor.

Either he will champion this kind of agenda to give his supporters some reason to defend his rule--or they will have to act over Chávez's head to defend their country from the coup makers.

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