The Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane was not the only one caught out by Hugo Chavez's return to power in Venezuela on Sunday, but he was certainly one of the most embarrassed. Mr MacShane committed the undiplomatic error of describing Chavez as a "ranting demagogue". Of course, when he let slip those unfortunate comments, Mr MacShane thought that Hugo Chavez was a leftwing ex-president of a country with important mineral reserves in which the US takes a strong interest. Unfortunately for Mr MacShane, the ranting demagogue in question was restored to his job by a combination of people power and constitutionally minded army officers. Odd, though, that Friday's coup, a procedure not normally considered an aid to democratic practice, did not attract the condemnation it deserved. Chavez, after all, has twice been elected president by the largest margins in Venezuela's history.
In Washington, where the administration blamed Chavez himself for the coup that briefly removed him from office, the reaction to his restoration was even stranger. Far from welcoming the triumph of democracy, the US administration reprimanded Chavez - expressing the menacing hope that he would be more careful in future, presumably in case he overthrew himself again.
Given that the protection of democracy has so often been invoked in the past as an excuse for US military intervention in the third world, surely Washington should have been rebuking Pedro Carmona Estanga, the businessman in charge of the coup - or even preparing a military expedition to restore President Chavez to power.
The attempt to overthrow Chavez did not really come as a surprise. The only question was what took them so long. Nearly a year ago, a visiting Venezuelan, now living in the US, confidently informed me that a coup was in preparation, with the full support of senior figures in Washington. Chavez had been elected on a promise of radical social reform in a direct challenge to Venezuela's oligarchy. It was unlikely that they would let it pass.
As for the US interest, it hardly needs rehearsing. Every Latin American reformer, from Guatemala's Jacobo Arbenz to Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, has been perceived in Washington as a threat to US interests. When the reformer has control of the world's fourth largest oil production and makes a point of cultivating the friendship of Fidel Castro and visiting Saddam Hussein, he almost writes the script on Washington's behalf.
The coup-maker's handbook maps out the standard procedure: organise the discontent that reform has aroused, reduce the place to chaos and provoke some violent clashes. At that point the forces of reason can intervene to restore order and proclaim new elections - which will not be held until the capacity of the defeated forces to fight them has been destroyed.
So what went wrong this time? Perhaps it is a little more difficult, in the absence of the "communist menace", to portray such a coup as a blow for democracy. In Venezuela's case, this was even more tricky since the two traditional oligarchic political parties that shared the country's power for nearly 50 years are completely discredited.
The oligarchy has been forced back on substitute organisations - the Catholic Church, the main business organisation Fedecamaras and some trade unions - to challenge the elected government. In their brief moment of triumph, though, the depth of the coup-mongers' anti-democratic agenda became clear. They suspended congress, took control of the supreme court and were holding Chavez a prisoner.
Far from being perceived as an enemy of democracy, Chavez has emerged as a popular hero. He is supported not only by the poor - the 80% of Venezuelans who had seen little benefit from their country's riches until Chavez launched a large-scale public works and welfare programme - but also by most of the armed forces in a country where the army has long been a force for constitutional government.
Whatever Chavez's failings, the radical realignment of Venezuelan politics that he represents remains legitimate in the eyes of most Venezuelans. There is opposition, of course, but it is up to the opposition to fight that battle constitutionally. It is only those who lack democratic support who fall back on the tired formula of overthrowing democracy in the name of democracy.
Chavez returned to power at the weekend in an apparently magnanimous state. For the sake of Venezuela, he should try to maintain that magnanimity. But given the weekend's events, it is not Chavez who needs lectures on how to behave. No doubt he has his demagogic moments, but it would be perverse to call him paranoid. They were out to get him; they still are. Where will Mr MacShane line up on the next attempt?
Copyright © The Guardian 2002. Reprinted for fair use only
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